TEL AVIV (JTA) – An exceptional intellect paired with an unflappable exterior are traits Gabriela Shalev’s high-powered colleagues and friends say will serve her well when she leaves for New York to become Israel’s next ambassador to the United Nations.
Shalev, an internationally renowned law professor, will be the first woman to serve in the post. She was appointed to replace Dan Gillerman.
“She has a strong will and she knows what she is talking about,” said Meir Shamgar, a former chief justice of Israel’s Supreme Court.
Shamgar first encountered Shalev when she was a student in a course he taught at Hebrew University. A few years later Shalev joined Shamgar as a colleague on the university’s law faculty, where she worked until 2002.
More recently, the two served together on a panel outlining ethics guidelines for Cabinet ministers.
Shalev, 67, is an expert in contract law and a political outsider not associated with any party who has been serving as the rector of Ono Academic College near Tel Aviv.
In appointing Shalev, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni indicated that she was determined to put a highly qualified woman in the role.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reportedly had favored Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York and a Labor Party member.
Some Israeli commentators criticized Livni for picking a political outsider, but Jerusalem Post columnist Calev Ben-David said Livni’s choice may work well for the audience that perhaps matters most: international public opinion.
“Livni was justified in wanting a woman for the post for reasons beyond gender advancement: Polls show that given Israel’s militaristic image abroad, women make the best general impression as our advocates in the international media,” Ben-David wrote.
Despite some grumbling from the diplomatic corps that one of their own again was passed over for the important position in New York – Gillerman also had been a political outsider until his selection – Shalev’s supporters say she is a quick study who will compensate for any foreign policy inexperience with her talents as an orator and a team player.
Shalev declined a request by JTA to be interviewed for this story. Her office said she will not be giving interviews until she assumes her post in New York ahead of the U.N. General Assembly, which begins in September.
The daughter of German Jewish refugees in what was then British Mandate Palestine, Shalev grew up with a strong work ethic. She helped support her family while a student at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, from where she earned a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate in law.
She also did post-doctorate work at Harvard after her husband, an Israeli army officer, was killed in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Shalev raised two young children alone.
“The experiences of Israel are part of her, and she’s also paid a price,” said Orna Lin, a former student of Shalev’s and a good friend.
Lin described Shalev as a relentless worker who also knows how to find time for students and friends, and who can talk as easily about her passions for opera, classical music and art as she can about legal disputes.
This was not the first attempt to draw Shalev into government work. Shalev declined several high-profile posts, including judgeships and the office of attorney general. Nevertheless, she is no stranger to public positions.
Shalev has been a member of the Jewish Agency board of governors and was chairwoman of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.
Shalev has spent time in the United States as a visiting professor at such schools as Tulane, Temple and Boston College.
Alan Hoffman, the director-general of the Jewish Agency’s education department, called Shalev’s selection “an inspired choice.”
“She has all of the tools to be able to interpret Israel to the nations of the world,” Hoffman said. “I think she is unusual in the academic world in that she has not only been a professor but very active publicly.”
Lin says Shalev is always calm and in control.
“She can deal with any situation and never seems to be baffled by anything,” Lin said. “I think her intelligence will help prevent her from falling into the landmines that await in a place like the U.N.”
Her predecessor, Gillerman, was a former businessman who upon leaving his post this summer was lauded as a seasoned diplomat with excellent rhetorical skills. Observers said Gillerman succeeded in raising Israel’s profile at the United Nations and bolstering its image around the world.
At a farewell party last month for Gillerman, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon offered deep praise for the Israeli envoy’s tenure at the world body, noting the “special challenges” of representing Israel.
Shalev will have plenty of challenges awaiting in New York. Most notably, she must navigate the notoriously anti-Israel atmosphere at the United Nations and help push for diplomatic support for Israel’s efforts to halt Iran’s suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons.