Ask Meron Reuben, Israel’s new interim United Nations envoy, what position he represents in a government whose top foreign policy voices take diametrically opposed stands on the timeline for reaching peace with the Palestinians and, like a diplomat, he avoids answering directly.
“There is a tendency … to wend your way between the different views,” he said. “There are divergences that one, as a diplomat, has to learn how to skirt.”
It’s a skill Reuben will need, given the contradictory public stands taken by the foreign minister who chose him and the prime minister who has, so far, refused to sign off on his appointment. The foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, announced from the podium of the U.N. General Assembly in September that due to the psychological gaps and distrust separating Israelis and Palestinians, a peace agreement could take “a few decades.” Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in line with U.S. policy, declares that a peace agreement is possible within one year — if the two sides can just get together for direct negotiations.
Pressed on which of these is Israel’s official position, Reuben finally said, carefully, “We are definitely trying to reach a basic peace agreement within the year. The process is meant to be one year. That’s what it is.”
Reuben’s situation is a difficult one. As the end of U.N. ambassador Gabriela Shalev’s term neared in July, Israel had no replacement for her. Lieberman and Netanyahu could not agree on a candidate. In July, Lieberman bypassed Netanyahu, who would ordinarily approve such an appointment, by plucking Reuben, then Israel’s ambassador to Colombia, out of relative obscurity and appointing him on an interim basis to the U.N. post. Because of this, Reuben is largely seen, despite his qualifications, as a Lieberman pawn who still needs Netanyahu’s signoff to keep what he has called his “dream job” for the long term.
The rollout for Reuben began in earnest last week, as his office arranged interviews with several news organizations, including the Forward.
Reuben speaks fluent English with clipped syllables that reflect his birth in South Africa and education in England. The career diplomat rose through the ranks of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, working as ambassador to Chile before being appointed to head the embassy in Bogata. It was in that last post that he first met Lieberman, the man responsible for his appointment.
The U.N. position is key, as Reuben tries to quell resolutions that damage Israel or its reputation — what Reuben called, in one of many metaphors, “dousing out magic candles” — while bolstering Israel’s public profile in areas unrelated to the conflict, such as science.
“The biggest challenge for any Israeli ambassador now will be to provide Israel with a clear message to the international community at a time when it’s going to be under a great deal of international criticism as the peace process continues to be stalled,” said David Halperin, assistant director of Israel Policy Forum and a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.
In Israel, Reuben is seen as a respected diplomat — according to the Jerusalem Post, his former colleagues from the Foreign Ministry lauded the appointment. But in the United States, he is a relatively unknown commodity with a cloud hanging over his appointment.
“Lieberman was trying to stick it up Bibi’s office because Bibi had offended him by meeting with a foreign minister from Turkey without telling him. Netanyahu probably doesn’t even know who he is,” said Douglas Bloomfield, a former legislative director with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Washington pro-Israel lobby. “If the story is that he got the job because the foreign minister wanted to stick it to the prime minister … it’s much harder to be taken seriously at a forum like the U.N. The name of the game is power. It’s no reflection on him, but just the atmospherics of being a political pawn for a foreign minister who is widely disliked.”
Meir Rosenne, who worked as Israel’s ambassador to the U. S. from 1983 to 1987, views the appointment differently. “Part of the job of the ambassador is to be able to represent Israel’s policy to public opinion,” he said. “Therefore, if he’s a good ambassador, what people like or don’t like or dislike, the foreign minister is not relevant.”
During his visit to the Forward’s offices, Reuben stressed one thing several times: that he is a career foreign service professional, not a political appointee. “The learning curve … is much less than for somebody coming off the streets,” he said. In this, Reuben differs from most former Israeli U.N. ambassadors, who have largely been political appointees without related experience.
This much, he said, is clear: “The two-state solution is where we are headed. We are looking for a way to find peace without pre-conditions,” which, he claimed, was going “quite well … until the Palestinians brought in preconditions.”