First female Israel ambassador to U.N. shows humor, optimism

Gabriela Shalev is a self-declared optimist, which is a useful personality trait if you are Israel’s recently appointed ambassador to the United Nations.

Since the United Nation’s default position is to condemn Israel, while warmly applauding the appearance of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former Hebrew University law professor might be forgiven a touch of wariness instead.

Indeed, Shalev, who assumed her new post two months ago, described her first impression of the world body as “Orwellian,” marked by double-speak and double-think.

Addressing some 300 friendly UCLA students on Nov. 14, under the auspices of the university’s Israel Studies Program, Shalev lightened her professorial demeanor with flashes of humor and a strong feminist consciousness.

Asked by a student if there was a downside to being Israel’s first female U.N. ambassador, she answered that, on the contrary, it “felt great” to be a woman among the predominantly male diplomats.

“I’m treated with particular respect by the Arab delegates, because I am a woman,” the 67-year-old ambassador said. “Or maybe it’s my gray hair.”

She recounted that she felt some trepidation when she was asked to meet with the president of the U.N. General Assembly, Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann of Nicaragua. He had previously hugged Ahmadinejad and was publicly described as an “Israel hater” by Shalev.

Instead, when Shalev entered his office, Brockmann rose “and kissed me on both cheeks,” she related with the glee of a teenager describing her first date. “I was so surprised; he was so nice.”

It also seems to be a good time to be a woman in Israel, Shalev said. Currently, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Speaker of the Knesset, foreign minister and potential prime minister are all women.

Of course, it’s not all kisses and cocktails at the United Nations, Shalev warned.

There is the existential threat of Iran’s nuclear program, continuing attacks by terrorist groups, and the “heartbreaking” — for both sides — situation on the border with Gaza.

But the optimist returned.

“I’m very hopeful that in the next four years, we will achieve, if not peace, an agreement by Israel and a Palestinian state to live next to each other,” she said.

“We have a traditional belief in the birth pangs of the Messiah, that the redemption of the world will come after a time of great pain.”

Shalev spoke on Nov, 16 on a non-political aspect of Israel-U.N. relations while addressing a research symposium hosted by supporters of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU).

Through the U.N.’s health, agricultural and scientific agencies, Israel is playing a large role in spreading the country’s know-how to developing nations and showing that there is more to Israel than the conflict with the Arabs.

Pointing especially to BGU’s research in desert agriculture and habitation, Shalev said that “much of what we are to share with the world begins in the classrooms, laboratories and fields of Ben-Gurion University. It is a fact of which we should all be very proud.”