Meron Reuben, Israel’s new ambassador to the United Nations, moved to New York last month with only three suitcases.
Ido Aharoni, who assumed his job as Consul General of Israel in New York around the same time, came to town with two.
Welcome to the world of Israeli politics, where the ongoing stalemate on a wide range of issues between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, including the posting of key diplomats, has resulted in Reuben and Aharoni taking up their assignments under a cloud of impermanence.
It is the foreign minister who is charged with making the assignments, but since he and Netanyahu could not agree on the candidates, the two New York slots have been filled on a temporary basis since that can be done without a cabinet vote.
At least for now, Reuben will not be presenting credentials at the UN, a largely symbolic act, and will not carry the full title of permanent representative to the United Nations. And Aharoni, reluctant to call attention to the transient nature of his circumstances, has been keeping a decidedly low profile in his role, with the title of acting consul general.
That’s a shame because both men are seasoned professionals, not political appointees, and bring savvy and thoughtfulness to their new jobs.
Reuben, 49, born in South Africa and raised in England before making aliyah as a teen in 1974, has been a career diplomat for 22 years, serving in a variety of South American countries, including Mexico, Chile, Paraguay and Colombia, where he is still, technically, ambassador.
He readily agrees that his job at the UN, where Israel remains a pariah, will be difficult. But he prefers the word “challenging” to “inherently frustrating,” the phrase I suggested during our recent interview. He says he relishes the opportunity to use his personal skills to soften the barriers between himself and representatives from hostile countries, some of whom he has met informally in the halls of the world body.
Reuben feels his longtime experience as a professional diplomat will give him an advantage in dealing with the wide range of issues he’ll be facing, acknowledging that most of his time will be spent “putting out fires.”
On the upcoming agenda are such potentially incendiary topics as the Goldstone report on Israel’s incursion into Gaza, the flotilla attempt to block Israel’s blockade there, as well as Lebanon and Iran.
“If only they’d let us do more,” Reuben says of the member nations, noting that Israel pulls far more than its weight in the world body, from providing the most successful mobile hospital in Haiti after the devastating earthquake there last year to ranking 31st among the 192 UN member states in terms of paying financial dues.
Despite his pleasant demeanor and air of sophistication, Reuben insists he is “not very diplomatic.
“I have a tendency to be more Israeli than diplomatic,” he says, “like telling the brutal truth.”
He notes, for instance, the high level of international hypocrisy when it comes to Israel, with prominent Arabs quietly seeking Israeli medical services for themselves, Arab countries offering up repackaged Israeli food goods and “more and more countries acknowledging the fact that [their anti-Israel votes] are simply a case of Israel-baiting. But the world community has gotten into a rut of automatic voting” against the Zionist state, including a “Palestinian focus on every commission, with archaic resolutions.
“Sometimes ridiculous resolutions should be ridiculed,” Reuben said.
He plans to make the case that the UN should focus on improving its image in Israel because “we have so much to offer” — including talented young people to work for UN agencies — and that friends of Israel need to understand that “we put up with the UN because it’s the only game in town and we have a role to play on the world scene.
“It’s been a roller coaster ride, we’ve had our ups and downs,” Reuben said. “I’d like to make it a flat ride.”
Ido Aharoni, 48, Reuben’s new colleague in town, is familiar to many Jewish leaders here, having energetically served as consul for media and public affairs in New York from 2001 to 2005. During his previous tenure he initiated a Brand Israel campaign to emphasize the positive technological and scientific achievements of the Jewish state rather than focus on the political conflict. His most recent post was heading a similar re-branding project at the foreign ministry in Jerusalem, and he hopes to continue the effort here.
A large, outgoing man with a dynamic personality, Aharoni appears a bit constrained when we meet in the lobby of a hotel near his office. (He sometimes takes meetings there to avoid the lengthy security procedures required at the consulate.)
He seemed uncharacteristically reticent, at least on the record, perhaps so as not to call undue attention back home, where no doubt he is trying to please his feuding superiors.
But it is clear that Aharoni already has his priorities set, asserting that his primary agenda is to work with the media, the organized Jewish community and academia.
He is always on the lookout for young people outside the small circle of pro-Israel advocates who can be effective in making Israel’s case as a vibrant, democratic country to a wider audience. He mentions a gay activist willing to speak out about Israeli tolerance and a young hip-hop poet known as The Hebrew Mamita, who speaks to minority audiences about her Jewish pride.
Aharoni says the “periphery” of pro-Israel supporters is growing, and attributes much of this success to Birthright Israel, noting that for all the communal complaints about the lack of effective follow-up programs, “the follow-up is taking place through social networking” among alumni.
“It’s invisible, but it’s effective and intense,” he says, warning that the community should not think of Birthright alums as “troops in the battle for Israel advocacy.”
Just let them use their experience and speak out, he says.
The same could be said of Aharoni and his diplomatic colleague, Meron Reuben. Let’s hope their bosses are listening.