02 May 2007

02 May 2007 - Dan Gillerman, entrepreneurial diplomat

I know I promised yesterday to write about Galia Golan’s new book, but I forgot that Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Dan Gillerman, was due to speak at the Kennedy School of Government tonight. I managed to arrange a ticket and headed down to the Institute of Politics. It was an evening well spent: Gillerman is the most effective Israeli diplomat I have encountered, and he put on a master class tonight.

There were a few, perhaps inevitable, malapropisms (“Wonderful produce of the Kennedy School,” referring to Israeli consul general Nadav Tamir) as well as one or two culturally awkward jokes (no one in America knows what an LL.B. degree is, so no one gets why “Legitimacy, Leadership, Business” is a cute political formula). But on the whole, Gillerman was articulate, brilliant, and charismatic (ABC?).

Gillerman did several things that I had never seen an Israeli diplomat do before. First of all, he pulled no punches. He called Hezbollah “bloodthirsty,” and referred to Iran’s government as a “mad, lunatic, ranting regime.” He condemned hypocrisy in the Muslim world: “When Christians kill Muslims, it’s a Crusade. When Jews kill Muslims, it’s a massacre. When Muslims kill Muslims, it’s the Weather Channel.”

He moderated that rhetoric somewhat by talking about the greatness of Islamic civilization, and the need to stop the killing on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But he did so after he had made his primary, hard-hitting arguments. He made sure no one mistook his moderation for guilt. I kept expecting people to leap out of their seats, but they listened, riveted. They were convinced by his conviction.

Second, Gillerman was optimistic, and justified his optimism with concrete proposals for progress. His “Legitimacy, Leadership, Business” formula was one example: peace, he said, requires that Palestinian diplomacy should be seen as legitimate in the Arab/Muslim world, that new Palestinian leaders should emerge; and that business should get involved in assisting Palestinian nation-building.

He could not say who the new Palestinian leaders should be—perhaps Abbas can do the job, he said—but he pointed to the Saudi plan and the encouragement of non-Arab Muslim states like Pakistan as examples of growing legitimacy for the peace process. He also suggested businesses contribute to the resettlement of Palestinian refugees outside Israel, as well to investment in Gaza and the West Bank.

(I’ve made a similar suggestion in a forthcoming article in New Society, Harvard’s new student journal on the Middle East). The Palestinians, Gillerman said, were a resourceful and entrepreneurial people who could make Gaza into the “Hong Kong of the Middle East.” Business, he suggested, could help create a framework for a final settlement of the conflict: “Politicians build walls. Businessmen build bridges.”

The third thing Gillerman did that I had not seen before was that he occasionally referred to the occupied territories as such, but also slipped in a few references to “Palestine,” suggesting that the Israeli government may already have chosen to regard the two-state solution as a fait accompli, regardless of the continued violence. Perhaps, I thought, things really are closer to resolution than they seem.

Fourth, Gillerman also handled hostile questions brilliantly. A Lebanese student stood up and condemned the Israeli bombardment of her country, asking Gillerman: “Do you owe me an apology?” Without losing his cool, he replied: “I owe you a salute for your bravery. If anyone owes you an apology, it is the people who took your country hostage.” He went on to condemn Hezbollah, to great effect.

When a Palestinian student attacked Israel’s policies in the West Bank, Gillerman said: “I can imagine that being a Palestinian in the occupied territories presents hardship. I spent twelve years working on joint ventures and projects with Palestinians. I have respect for the Palestinian people. They could make their country a paradise. The tragedy is their leadership is corrupt and terror-minded.”

And when a Pakistani student protested that Muslim terrorism against other Muslims did not make Israel “uniquely innocent,” Gillerman agreed that there was right and wrong on both sides—and then went on to describe Israeli life under constant threat of attack, how Israeli soldiers were traumatized by conflict, how he believed that peace was both necessary and possible for both nations.

Finally, Gillerman even managed to encourage hope about the confrontation with Iran. The regime is not afraid of sanctions, he said, but what it does fear is international unanimity. And both Qatar and Indonesia, he noted, had joined the rest of the UN Security Council in imposing sanctions on Iran, frustrating its ambition to turn the issue into a confrontation between Islam and the West.

Furthermore, he said, while the UN is not an Israel-friendly forum, Israel had managed to achieve things there. In the four years of his tenure, he said, the UN Security Council had not condemned Israel once, but had condemned Iran and terror several times; furthermore, the UN General Assembly had discussed antisemitism and condemned Holocaust denial, partly at Israel’s urging.

Gillerman also mentioned the fact that he had been elected Vice-President of the General Assembly—the first Israeli to achieve such office at the UN—and that Israel was bidding to join the UN Security Council in 2018. Though a long way off, it was worth a try, he said. That’s what I admire about Gillerman: perhaps because he is not a career diplomat, he is willing to be audacious, open, entrepreneurial.


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