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Israel’s New Face at United Nations Hopes to Capitalize on Business Skill

February 26, 2003
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When the U.N. Security Council erupted in debate last week over whether to back a U.S. war on Iraq, Israel’s new ambassador to the U.N. was conspicuously absent.

It wasn’t by accident: Israel wants to keep a low profile on Iraq because of the Arab argument that a United States attack on Baghdad would be for Israel’s benefit.

“We are following the developments very closely,” said Dan Gillerman, who assumed Israel’s U.N. ambassadorship in January.

Indeed, two Israeli representatives attended the Security Council meeting. But Israel is trying to be “low- key,” Gillerman said. “We’re not part of it.”

Gillerman, the former chairman of the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce, director of Bank Leumi and the Bank of Israel and CEO of chemical and agricultural technology companies, is Israel’s first U.N. ambassador to come from the business world.

His appointment comes as the United Nations faces a momentous debate on whether to back a U.S.-led war on Iraq, which could prompt an Iraqi attack on the Jewish state and upset the fragile dynamics of the Middle East.

And though Israel recently won its first chairmanship of a U.N. body in 42 years, the Arab-dominated United Nations — in which Libya heads the human rights commission and Syria sits on the Security Council — has been hostile ground for the Jewish state.

According to Dina Siegel Vann, U.N. and Latin American affairs director for B’nai B’rith International, Gillerman’s success in the corporate “world of sharks” has prepared him well for the hostile U.N. environment.

Gillerman has positioned himself as an outsider — for example, after launching an Israeli-Palestinian business dialogue at the 2001 World Economic Forum in New York, he joked that “we live in a world where politicians build walls and businessman build bridges.” Yet he now finds himself inside one of the most labyrinthine political organs around.

The challenge is natural for him, Gillerman says.

“The things I did up until now have really been a preparation for this point,” Gillerman told JTA in an interview last week.

“I always believed in personal diplomacy,” says Gillerman, who — with his smoothed hair, impeccable clothes, resonant voice and air of authority — is the picture of polish.

In fact, Gillerman has used his business and political connections to advance Israel’s interests in the past, often running ahead of the political echelon.

He led an Israeli delegation to China to discuss trade a year and a half before the two countries established diplomatic ties, and brokered underground relations with Eastern European countries before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

He also snuck into Communist Hungary to meet the country’s prime minister, and arranged a meeting for the Hungarian politician with Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s minister of industry and trade.

Gillerman said leaders in business and diplomacy might apply Dr. Ruth’s description of safe sex: an act that satisfies both partners and hurts neither.

Gillerman hopes to use his U.N. position to promote peace, wipe out terrorism and boost Israel’s image.

“Israel is ready and Prime Minister Sharon is ready” to make “very far-reaching and even painful concessions for peace,” he said. “But in order to do that, he must have a partner.”

Gillerman said he has found great understanding at the United Nations for some of Israel’s positions.

The time is close when Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat will either be forced from office or will appoint a prime minister to run Palestinian affairs, Gillerman said.

Last week, Sharon met with Salam Fayed, the P.A. finance minister, who is overseeing P.A. financial reforms that the international community has demanded.

In fighting Palestinian terrorism, Israel is “fighting the world’s war,” Gillerman said.

On Feb. 20, in his first speech before the 15-member Security Council, the only U.N. body with binding authority, Gillerman reiterated that message

“I call on the Security Council to implement a policy of zero tolerance for terrorism,” Gillerman told the body’s Counter Terrorism Committee, asking the group to pressure and shame states that support terror. The time has come to stop talking, and start acting.”

Gillerman wants to transform Israel’s U.N. presence from a “one-issue mission” consumed with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a “multi-issue mission” that shares Israeli expertise in technology, medicine and social welfare.

Such a program would cost “a small amount of money” — under $10 million, Gillerman estimated — but would help Israel’s image.

Israel enjoys strong bilateral ties with many U.N. member countries, but those friendships typically don’t prevent those states from bowing to Arab pressure to vote for pro-Palestinian resolutions at all types of U.N. meetings.

Israel’s selection as one of the three vice chairs for the U.N.’s working group on disarmament does not represent a significant shift in the Jewish state’s position at the world body, Gillerman said.

But it proves “you should never give up,” he said. “I hope it’s a precedent which we will be able to emulate again in the future.”

For now, Israel is fending off a Palestinian-drafted resolution on terrorism at the annual meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement, an unofficial group of 135 U.N. member states that is meeting in Malaysia.

Gillerman noted the absurdity of Palestinians drafting a resolution on terrorism, but joked that no group is better equipped to write about the subject.

He anticipates that he’ll return to business after his diplomatic stint. In the meantime, his business background will shape Israel’s diplomacy.

The new ambassador has instituted morning staff meetings — a practice he learned from former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani — and a spirit of entrepeneurship and initiative, he says.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, calls Gillerman a charming figure.

“A lot more people are going to know who Dan Gillerman is” than his predecessor, Yehuda Lancry, whom Foxman praised as an effective, low-key diplomat.

Foxman said Gillerman will complement Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon, and its consul general in New York, Alon Pinkas, giving the Jewish state a more articulate lineup than it has had in years.

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