UNITED NATIONS — In the aristocratic world of the United Nations, where diplomats land appointments only after slowly climbing the ranks of their foreign services, Israeli ambassador Dan Gillerman is a maverick.
Gillerman is no career diplomat. He is a businessman who has agreed to forgo shares and profits for a while and instead fight over Jerusalem and Yasser Arafat in the world arena.
“I’ve never been in the foreign service or a politician, so it’s special for me and for Israel,” he told the Forward during a one-hour interview in his office at the Israeli mission. “It’s the first time the government reached out to the private sector for such a position.”
Gillerman, 59, was appointed last July after weeks of negotiations between then-foreign minister Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Sharon. He presented his credentials to Secretary General Kofi Annan in January.
As he sees it, his appointment opened the third chapter in his professional career. The first one was as a successful businessman in the fields of chemicals, high technology, agro-technology and finance.
The second one was his 17-year stint at the helm of the Israeli chamber of commerce, where he learned how essential it was for Israel to build bridges through business relations with partners who may be out of official diplomatic reach.
“I practiced business diplomacy,” he said. “We became the international trade arm of the Israeli government, opening offices in Moscow before Israel had diplomatic relations with the USSR. We did the same with Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh. And I have been working closely with Jordan, Morocco, Egypt and of course the Palestinians in recent years.”
This is why, he insists, he was in his own way prepared to become Israel’s public face at the U.N. and found it “very hard to refuse” the offer made to him by Peres.
“I thought I should practice what I was preaching all those years,” he said. “Business leaders in Israel have a far greater responsibility than business people elsewhere… [They] should take part in the affairs of the state and do ‘reserve duty’ for three or four years.”
While he still sports the elegant dark suits of a businessman, Gillerman had to put his financial holdings in a blind trust fund to avoid conflicts of interest.
He plans to use his savvy and his warm manners at the U.N., where schmoozing with his 191 counterparts is key to the job.
Gillerman has made a point to meet individually with over 60 ambassadors — including those from Jordan, Egypt and even some countries whom some would regard as hostile to Israel. He refused to elaborate.
He still has not met veteran Palestinian representative Nasser al Kidwa. “It wasn’t the right time, but it should happen pretty soon,” he explained.
“I am under no illusion that I will convince the Malaysian ambassador to vote for Israel tomorrow,” he said. “But I believe that by creating a relationship based on trust, you can create understanding and bring dividends to your country in ways that are not necessarily counted in the number of hands raised at the General Assembly.”
While acknowledging that he had a “very long and close relationship and friendship” with Peres and regards him as “one of the great statesmen of our time,” he stressed that he also enjoyed a close bond with Sharon.
To prove his point, he recounted a trip he made to Europe during the mid-1980s as chairman of the Israeli chamber of commerce. After flying to Vienna, he was whisked in the dead of night from the Austrian capital across the border into Hungary for a secret meeting with the then-Hungarian prime minister in Budapest.
The purpose, he recounted, was to arrange the visit of the Israeli trade and industry minister to Hungary despite the absence of diplomatic relations with Israel. The foray was successful and Gillerman accompanied the minister on his historic visit to Budapest a few months later. The minister, of course, was Sharon.
Gillerman praised Annan as a “very able” secretary general with whom he has met four times since presenting his credentials.
“He has 191 clients and he is trying to please them all,” he said. “But he is not an enemy of Israel.”
Still, Gillerman said that Israel had misgivings about Annan’s eagerness to see the U.N. play an active role in trying to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one of the members of the Madrid Quartet — along with the United States, European Union and Russia — and by bringing the issue back to the Security Council.
“I imagine the Americans will want to retain some control over what happens rather than relinquish it to the U.N.,” he said, adding that this was Israel’s obvious preference.
Perhaps because he is new on the job, Gillerman is hopeful he can avert the fate of most of his predecessors: spending all his time and energy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I want the mission to become a multi-task mission,” he said. “The Israeli mission has often been perceived as a one-issue mission centered on the conflict… We must be much more proactive in many areas.”
This also implies an effort to avoid relying too heavily on the American mission.
“We should spread our wings and take up contacts with as many missions as possible,” he said. “ The Americans are very much in favor of it because they feel the weight has been taken off their shoulders.”
In what Israeli diplomats hail as a watershed, David Givrin, the mission’s political adviser, was appointed as the vice chairman of a special working group on disarmament at the General Assembly. This is the first time Israel has had a delegate elected to serve on a U.N. body after being nominated by a regional group.
Israel is now trying to have a delegate appointed at the U.N. environment program.
Since 2000, Israel has been a member of the “Western European and others” group. The arrangement is meant as a temporary solution since Arab countries will not allow Israel to be a member of the Asian group.
Gillerman said he dreams of the day when an Israeli diplomat will take a seat at the Security Council table.
“Of course this sounds like a fantasy,” he said, “but this could happen several years down the road if a peace settlement is reached with the Palestinians and the Arabs.”