Israel's outgoing U.N. ambassador, Gabriela Shalev, calls her job "an almost impossible mission," but she's still heading home on a note of hope.
The impending resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian talks comes as a welcome change after nearly two years of having to contend with the fallout from Israel's deadly actions involving Gaza and a cooler relationship with the Obama administration.
Shalev told The Associated Press in a farewell interview that despite near-constant criticism, she believes it's important for Israel to remain an active member of the world body.
"You can keep your posture in this very hostile environment, which is the U.N., once you believe that you fight and you speak for the right cause," she said. "Once you believe in the Zionist dream, once you believe that Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people and that we have the right to live in peace and security together with our neighbors, in a two-state solution ... you can take upon yourself this very hard, almost impossible mission."
Shalev said this is what she kept telling herself and what she will tell her successor, who has not yet been named.
The 69-year-old law professor once had far more ambitious hopes.When she began her job as Israel's first woman U.N. ambassador in fall 2008, she spoke about starting a dialogue with moderate Arab countries as a first step toward normalizing relations. She pointed to a U.N. interfaith conference where Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah for the first time listened to a speech by Israel's President Shimon Peres, and private meetings between Israel's then-foreign minister and some Arab leaders at the General Assembly.
But things soon changed dramatically.Israel in December 2008 launched a massive military offensive in Gaza aimed at ending rocket attacks by the Islamic militant group Hamas. The three-week war, which killed 13 Israelis and almost 1,400 Palestinians, many of them civilians, also ended 17 years of direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
As the fighting raged, Shalev became the target of global anger, and especially of anger in the Arab world.
When Israeli commandos killed nine activists on May 31 on a Turkish aid ship trying to break Israel's blockade of Gaza, there was another international outcry and anger in a Muslim country that had had good relations with the Jewish state.
"The whole propaganda of the Arabs and the world was so anti-Israeli," she said. "I did my best" to counter it.
At the same time the regional conflict was heating up, Shalev had to deal with changes in both the Israeli and U.S. governments.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni — a moderate who appointed her — lost in her bid to become the country's prime minister to hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu in February 2009. And President George W. Bush, a staunch supporter of Israel, was replaced by Barack Obama, who has tried to woo Arab countries and experienced some friction with Netanyahu.
When the U.S. announced last week that direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians would resume on Sept. 2 at the White House — a meeting Shalev said she feels "very good about" — it came as a welcome relief.
"There were times that everything was very dark and somber," she said. "On the verge of my leaving ... this makes me feel better — that I know that there's some kind of a hope around the corner."
The U.S. aims to forge a final peace settlement within one year. Shalev recalled that when Netanyahu was in New York last month, he also said a peace deal could be reached in a year.
She added, however, that the timetable could be stretched if there is progress, but that "it shouldn't be forever."
Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian U.N. observer, said he couldn't comment on Shalev or her views since "I had no relationship with her" because there were no direct Israeli-Palestinian talks.
As Shalev prepares to leave New York on Tuesday, she has been the guest at a round of farewell dinners, including one hosted by U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, who became a close friend.
At a farewell reception last month hosted by Jewish organizations, Rice said many distinguished Israelis served as U.N. ambassador, including Abba Eban, Chaim Herzog and Netanyahu. She said Shalev was among the best.
"She has been a lioness in defense of Israel's security and its legitimacy," Rice said, but she also pushed to widen Israel's contribution.
Shalev has encouraged Israeli participation in global development efforts and peacekeeping. She noted, for example, that 15 Israeli peacekeepers are now in Haiti and that and Israeli has been elected to the body monitoring efforts to end discrimination against women.
Shalev said many Arab ambassadors have also said goodbye, though she wouldn't identify the countries.
"Many of them said that I was a different voice, and they were glad that I was here," said Shalev, who speaks Arabic and replaced combative and sharp-tongued Dan Gillerman as ambassador.
When she returns to Israel, Shalev said she will return to academia and plans to write two books in her field of contract law, "not about the U.N." She also plans to get involved "in public philanthropic affairs — not in any political party or the government."