Ayelett Shani
Haaretz (Interview)
October 19, 2012 - 12:00am

You once made a statement that stuck in my mind: “The United Nations is the place where all the hatred is concentrated.”

True, that’s exactly how it is. And at the United Nations, our great, important and true friend is the United States.

In effect it’s the only one that defends us, right? It uses its veto.

There’s also Canada, but Canada isn’t a member of the Security Council. On the other side are England and France, which are members of the council, and Germany, which is not a member, which are sick and tired of this government’s policy. These are very hard times and the fact that the [Israeli] prime minister is directing all his energy and rhetoric against the United States is simply a terrible thing, in my opinion. It’s going to boomerang, and I say that from experience.

So what are we actually doing, burning bridges?

Yes. Definitely.

As a result of a deliberate decision?

The prime minister says to [U.S. Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton, “You have no moral right to present us with red lines.” What’s “You have no moral right?” What does that mean? I know from what I’ve seen in the United Nations that without the United States we would be denounced. Isolated. They would throw us out of there. Like South Africa [during apartheid].

During the 1970s the “Zionism is racism” resolution was passed. Eventually it was overturned, but we can learn about the general mood from that.

True. As well as from the right of veto you mentioned: They [the U.S.] didn’t simply cast a veto − they did so in contradiction to their own clear position. I didn’t believe it. I know them and the views of the Obama administration so well, and I said: They won’t cast a veto. They like the Palestinians and think we’re recalcitrant. Shortly before that there was a resolution about the settlements, and there too the United States cast a veto, although the Palestinians, in their great wisdom, worded the resolution in the spirit of Hillary Clinton’s words, so that they ostensibly opposed their own positions.

Is our situation in the world, in terms of public opinion, much worse than we think, than what we’re told?

Yes, definitely. The State of Israel is a bipolar state. On the one hand we say: We’ll help ourselves, and who needs the UN, and all those mantras. On the other hand, the prime minister and the finance minister maintain that our situation has never been so good. And it’s so hard for people here. The same is true in terms of security, when they tell us that the army is strong.

We always live this dissonance. The question is whether we are systematically being presented with a false display of strength. How does Benjamin Netanyahu even dare to oppose the United States? How do you understand it?

Look, I don’t for a moment make light of the Iranian threat. I’ve heard their speeches, and during my tenure at the UN I was also exposed to intelligence information. There’s no question that it’s a very serious threat; the Americans know what we know, and they know terrible things. It’s a terrible country, whose leadership has declared that the State of Israel will be destroyed. There has never been such a thing. And Netanyahu believes that we have to deal with this threat.

Can we?

At this stage yes. And what will happen then? Nobody talks about it, and I’m even somewhat afraid to say it, but aren’t they thinking about the pilots who will be flying such a long distance? I’m not even thinking yet about the counterstrike. I assume that Netanyahu thinks that we can manage without the United States. I think that’s terrible.

Do you trust the Americans?

Definitely. We don’t have a better, more important and more loyal friend. They believe that the State of Israel is the most important democracy in the Middle East. I know that because of my personal and professional connections with the American delegation and the person who heads it. I also know how much intelligence information, plans, strategy, support and budgets are invested in this channel. Not to mention their invaluable assistance in the international arena.

The United Nations is actually an arena where we can see the balance of power and the interests and strategies. A kind of Playmobil of politics and international relations.

True. A real microcosm. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, personally pushed for the State of Israel to be included in all kinds of regional committees and groups, and has always cooperated with us. I’m sure it’s on the instructions of the White House. And that’s why I say that if we no longer had the support of the Americans, that would be terrible. I know they’re sick of it [i.e., supporting Israel]. We’ve become a burden instead of an asset.

When, in your opinion, did we cross the line?

Recently. With the refusal, the empty declarations about our desire to enter negotiations. I also know that someone in the Obama administration said that our prime minister is conducting a campaign on behalf of [Republican Party candidate Mitt] Romney.

Do we have a chance without the United States backing us?

Not in the international arena, nor in international diplomacy. And then what will happen? If we fight alone, against the recommendation of the United States, we will delay the [Iranian] nuclear program, I don’t know at what cost, and there will be missiles flying around here. There’s the cooperation you mentioned, with Hamas and Hezbollah and Al-Qaida. The Iranians will not sit by quietly. And yes, in the end we’ll win. But we won’t be able to eliminate the program, only to postpone it. And that’s why we have to let the Americans lead − they also have their own interests, and they are not only to defend the State of Israel. They’ve suffered greatly from terror.

I’m always trying to understand what we don’t know. What we really don’t understand.

Today I don’t know any more than you. In the two years since I left everything has changed. Now I’m a concerned citizen. Soon I’m going to lecture in Boston about the history of the conflict. And friends told my son, who is an academic there, that there’s terrible hostility in American academia among the students and lecturers. I already saw it during lectures I gave two years ago: Students come with keffiyehs, identify with the suffering of the Palestinian people. I think the Palestinians will not give in, I think that this time they’ll go to the UN General Assembly and achieve statehood. The question is also what will happen in the coming elections in the United States, but meanwhile their support for us is steadily eroding.

I foresee a strengthening of the delegitimization [of Israel] in the international arena. Do you know what hides behind that word − delegitimization? I’ll tell you: a failure to recognize the right of the Jewish people to exist in Zion. That the State of Israel cannot exist as an independent state here, in this small and pathetic territory that we received.

Tell me how you received the appointment as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.

I got a phone call from a good friend, Aaron Abramovich, who was the director general of the Justice Ministry at the time. He said: You must have heard that [then Foreign Minister] Tzipi Livni is looking for a woman for the post of ambassador to the UN. I thought he wanted me to sit on some kind of tender committee. And then he said, We want to hear whether you want the position. I sat down. I simply had to sit. I asked when he needed an answer and he said: Immediately. I certainly needed time to digest it, to think. I spoke to my children and to Uzi, my partner, and they said: Do what you feel.

What attracted you? The challenge?

Well, if the UN were in Uganda or in Senegal ...

... the decision might have been different? So you wanted to live in New York?

Our life was really good at that point in time, but I was 67, and I wanted to try something completely different that I had really never touched. Both diplomacy and politics − and, yes, New York too. At the time I didn’t dream that I wouldn’t have the time to enjoy it. And also, as cliched as it sounds, and I try to stay away from cliches, there was Zionism too. My love for the country where I grew up, where my children and grandchildren grew up − I wanted to give back for everything I’d received. Because I really think that what’s happening here is a wonderful thing, but they’re spoiling it for us. They’re expropriating the country from us. And that was a period of renewal; there were talks with the Palestinians and re-empowerment of the army.

I assume there were quite a few people with sharp elbows who wanted that job.

Of course. But Tzipi insisted on a woman. We’re friends, Ehud and I. It was reported in many places that he didn’t want me and it was Tzipi who pushed, but that’s not true.

Since when have you been friends?

Since 1992, when Ehud was health minister and appointed me the external legal adviser for the implementation of the health care reform. And since then we’ve been friends. But I didn’t dream of calling him and asking. But he’s a real friend. And the man knows how to be a friend. In any case, he took a few days for thinking about it, and then he called and said: “Gabi, shalom. I’m in Sharm el-Sheikh for talks; I was very surprised [you want the job] − what do you need it for? But would I take steps to oppose you?” That’s how it happened. And then I had about a month or two to walk around the Foreign Ministry, and learn.

And you’re not the type for formality and official mannerisms.

Not at all. Tzipi told me I had to start wearing makeup. I’ve never worn makeup. During one of the conversations I was told: You have to abandon the clothes of a professor from Jerusalem and stop wearing “biblical” sandals. I’ve never worn biblical sandals. I sat with some man [from the ministry] and he spoke to me about how you have to talk. I think he even worked with me on how to curtsy.

And did you curtsy?

Are you kidding? That entire atmosphere, first in the Foreign Ministry and later at the UN, all that hot air and being called “ambassador” − nu, really! All the entertaining in our home was informal. Uzi cooked. [UN secretary general] Ban Ki-moon, who doesn’t go to anyone’s home, came to ours, as did the Egyptian ambassador. Formality and official mannerisms didn’t suit me. When I left, one envoy told me: This is the first time there’s been an ambassador who insisted on being called by her first name. Or who made sure to say hello in the elevator.”

I think that world is tailor-made for anyone who’s a windbag by nature. And anyone who always maintains a tongue-in-cheek attitude can maintain an ironic distance. The rules of protocol really are pathetic.

Yes, that’s true. The rules of protocol are ridiculous. All those codes ... So when I got up to speak and I knew the cameras were directed at me, I was focused because I didn’t want to harm the State of Israel. But I really felt that all those mannerisms lack content.

Did you feel like a stranger?

I had my tongue in my cheek all the time, as you said. In general I examine everything from an anthropological point of view. And really, in the UN I was very different. First of all, I was a woman in a man’s world, and not ordinary men, but men who are full of themselves, who were sent to the UN after filling the most senior positions in their countries of origin: defense ministers, presidents. And second, they were almost all younger than I. So I was an exception because of my gender, and my age, and the world I came from − academia − and was neither a diplomat nor a politician.  Suddenly a woman is representing a country that is portrayed as belligerent and militaristic − a country that people were watching.

At least that’s how it was when I started, today I think it’s changed a lot. Then people were very interested in Israel and had respect for it, the power, the culture, the science. They were also afraid of it − the Arab and nonaligned countries. I received a lot of attention. But not too much. And of course the events of that period − Operation Cast Lead, the Goldstone Report − suddenly both at the UN and in the media I was very exposed.

Throughout the years you had very clear expertise and were able to rely on it, but here suddenly you were entering an entirely new playing field ...

Yes. [I had a] feeling that all my life everything was really decided according to some truth.

In academia it’s like that. There’s truth that can be empirically proven.

Precisely. It’s a science. And at the UN I encountered people who don’t say what they think, and who don’t think what they say. Many lies, discrepancies between reality and what is presented, between knowledge and truth, between what they tell you in private and what they say from the dais.

I remember you drew a lot of fire. That they said you weren’t aggressive enough, not forceful enough.

True. And it was terribly insulting. I was appointed by a government, and immediately afterward the government that appointed me was replaced. Operation Cast Lead began, the administration in the White House was replaced, everything changed. [Danny] Gillerman, the previous ambassador, served during the period of the disengagement, the period of Oslo, the Second Lebanon War − when we were the underdogs.

And I also think that men are different. They can make a distinction: They can sit in the morning in the UN building and hear terrible things about the occupying and militarized State of Israel, and attend the theater in the afternoon.

You found it hard to do that.

I simply couldn’t. I really think it’s related to my being a woman, and I really became aware of my feminist consciousness very late.

And do you think you really should have been more forceful? More aggressive? What did you feel?

First of all I felt insulted. Because I really think that I did a lot both then and in the two years following, with respect to ties with Arab countries, other ambassadors − and my relationship with Susan Rice, which is a wonderful thing, a real friendship with a young woman who is very close to Obama. So I read from the page? Everyone reads from the page, except for Obama,who reads from a prompter. Gillerman told me that when he traveled to New York he asked Netanyahu for advice, as a former famous ambassador to the UN. And Netanyahu said: I have three pieces of advice: communication, communication, communication.

That’s just a rip-off of the saying “location, location, location.”

I certainly didn’t think at the time that communication is an important thing. Netanyahu told me: Write your speeches by yourself. And that’s what I did. Although there are speechwriters. So my first reaction [to others’ criticism] was feeling insulted, and then I said I don’t care what they say, I do what I believe and feel in my own way. I won’t stand there waving my hands and ripping up papers.

And I won’t use all kinds of pathetic rhetorical ploys.

Exactly. So I wrote my speeches by myself. I introduced all kinds of things into them, like Shakespeare, for example. Once I used a quotation from “Macbeth.”

When you make a speech at the UN, you’re bound by the viewpoint of the government, aren’t you?

Your personal viewpoint doesn’t count. I assume that sometimes there was discord. Fortunately, the first instance of that came only two weeks after I left, when [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman came, went up to the dais at the UN and said the exact opposite of two states for two peoples. I was still in New York, Uzi woke me up and showed me the coverage on the Internet. I thought to myself: What would I have done had I been there? Got up and walked out? Never. After all, there’s the Israeli flag. And the man stood there and made a speech for Yisrael Beiteinu, the opposite of what Bibi [Netanyahu] had said and what I had echoed. But there was not even once when I had to make some kind of concession about what I felt. They didn’t really dictate messages to me.

But your ideology was certainly being tested.

It was the period of the Turkish flotilla, the Goldstone Report and Operation Cast Lead − and during all those events I had no problem representing the State of Israel.

And now?

Today I couldn’t be there. I couldn’t represent Israel now.

In retrospect, when you examine that period, how do you remember it? It sounds like quite a traumatic experience.

Traumatic. Yes, but also challenging, fascinating. I learned a lot of things about myself that I didn’t know.

What for example?

Female power. For years, really, I didn’t recognize the fact that there are women no less talented and successful than I, who because of their gender didn’t go places. At the time, Yoram Ben-Porath, who was president of the Hebrew University, put me in charge of the status of women there. I told him I wasn’t a feminist, and he said − that’s exactly why. Very talented women started to come to me and told me that both because of the harassment of men and because of the periods when they were stuck at home − after giving birth and raising young children − they couldn’t advance. And it’s true that I was a model in that sense, but like many other women of my generation, I didn’t see it. I refused to understand.

I thought women who didn’t succeed weren’t sufficiently talented. In hindsight I realized that I was simply fortunate because I worked in a flexible system and I had a lot of help. And now I know, and the tenure at the UN greatly reinforced that: the meaning of female power and female friendship. I returned from the United States more Zionist and more feminist. I really saw what it means to be a woman in a man’s world.

Did you encounter that for the first time at the UN? Academia is also a man’s world.

Those are things that I understood only in hindsight. When I was hired by the law school I was very young, and the dean at the time told me they had a very bad experience with women. Why? Because they marry and get pregnant, and then their child gets sick ...

Today, of course, a man wouldn’t permit himself to say those things outright, but clearly he would still think that way. The change is cosmetic.

True. Today I’m aware of that and I talk to young, feminist women, and I know that it’s no easier for them, perhaps even harder. Although the men share in raising the children, in all the families around me the mother is still responsible for everything, and in addition she works. But you know, the true moments of happiness and elation in my life were connected to raising my children. I couldn’t have been who I am, and to live − and I really am an optimistic person who is happy with her lot − without my children.

It’s amazing to hear such a thing from you. Your husband, the late Lt. Col. Shaul Shalev, was killed in the Yom Kippur War. You raised your children by yourself. How old were they when he was killed?

Eran was 3 and Narkis was 7. And those really were critical ages. She still bears the pain. She’s not a happy person. She, more than Eran and I, bears this pain. Today she is a rehabilitative psychologist, the director of an institute. She diagnoses and treats people with head injuries who are the age her father was − and some were actually injured in the army. And my son is a history professor, which is actually what his father was ... They are doing a kind of “reparation.” My daughter once said that the hardest year in her life was when her own daughter reached the age she was when her father died.

You were left with two children. Were you afraid? What did you tell yourself?

That I had to go on.  My husband was an officer in the professional army, he came home only on weekends, and that’s why in a way my life was already set up for doing many things alone. I said: There won’t be a single day when I won’t get up and take care of the children. And in fact, they took care of me too. And after a year I made a decision that one can criticize, but in hindsight I know that it was right: I took the children and went to Harvard. I did a post-doc. I taught. I stayed there for two years. It was a very formative period. I wanted to uproot them and myself from everything.

The days following the Yom Kippur War were  a terribly difficult, traumatic period. It was a very long war, and there was a large number of casualties and people didn’t know how to deal with it and how to help their children. People saw me and crossed the street. They didn’t know what to say. The moment I realized we were surrounded with so much sadness and bereavement, I simply got up and left. I couldn’t be both a mother and a father, but I could be a good mother. And that was possible because I was in academia. Had I been in a law firm or a bank manager − it’s not certain that I could have combined both worlds. That’s something very important that I had all my life, my freedom.

Your resume is exceptional. At the age of 32 you had a doctorate and were a tenured professor in the law faculty of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. You did a post-doctorate and taught at Harvard, wrote dozens of books and articles, received prizes, were a member of innumerable committees and boards of directors. What motivates you?

For as long as I can recall, I only wanted to satisfy my parents. Mainly my mother. They were penniless, and uprooted, because they were from Germany and felt very out of place here, in the culture of the Levant and the heat. And my father was ill. All I wanted was for my mother to be proud and happy. As a child and a young girl I was extremely successful at everything − doing exams, attending a high school that required a scholarship − because my parents didn’t have the money to send me to high school, I ended up the best in Tel Aviv. And they really were very proud and happy. And each time I thought: What will happen when this balloon bursts. I continued to feel the same way at university.

We can assume that it didn’t happen. I want to go back for a moment to your statement “They’re taking the country away from us.”

There are days when I feel like a stranger. In a strange land. The lack of solidarity, the relations between people and also, to my regret, I have to mention what’s happening around us: Ten minutes from here, to the east, is Qalqilyah. Right next to us people are living in terrible poverty and under occupation. For 40 years. I dreamed that it would be possible to separate [our people], and I believe that it will happen in the end, but after a lot of blood, pain and suffering. Today this vision is gradually receding. The insensitivity and the gaps between the leadership and the people − us, our children. I often experience alienation and pain. I hear about people who are saying, we don’t want to live here. Look how the politicians talk, how the public discourse is conducted, the behavior of our leaders. And above all, the feeling that the leadership is not concerned about us. Only about themselves. The feeling that we may embark here on a campaign or a war, with our near or distant neighbors, when protecting the country’s security is not the only consideration, is terrifying. It’s terribly complex; it’s possible that Netanyahu thinks that his survival is crucial to Israel’s security. I’m willing to give him that much credit, but the fact that something impure is involved in these considerations − and I’m sorry, it’s impure − that scares me. I think it’s terrible.

And do you think there’s hope?

We’re realistic people. I once heard [Nobel Prize laureate] Danny Kahneman say that it’s good to be pessimistic.

That’s clear. Because either you’re right or you’re pleasantly surprised.

Exactly. And I’m a naive person and an incorrigible optimist too. I believe that it has to be good here, but in recent days I’ve begun to understand that this good will be achieved − and I don’t want to use harsh words − only after a bloodbath. And that’s terrible. I’m not even thinking about Iran, I’m thinking about the Palestinians. In the end this anger will not be directed at the United States, or at [Palestinian Authority Prime Minister] Salam Fayyad or [Palestinian Authority President] Abu Mazen, who are the people with whom it’s most correct to continue to conduct negotiations. The anger will be directed at us.

I don’t see how it’s possible to neutralize the major mine fields of the settlements. How is it possible to solve them without another intifada, another bloody struggle? In the end, I want to believe, and I do believe, that we’ll win. We won such difficult wars, wars of survival. We also won the Yom Kippur War.

But don’t you think we were different then?

We were different. There was solidarity and there was spirit. And today there are no longer any sacred values. Look what’s happening with our elected officials. This leadership is a leadership that’s hard to trust. I say this very cautiously, because I still have the legacy, the belief that there is one country and we have to unite.


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