Klompas: What it’s like representing Israel at the UN

Aviva Klompas takes notes in the UN General Assembly in New York.

If I ever have the chance to meet Aaron Sorkin, I will thank him profusely. His immensely popular and critically acclaimed television series, The West Wing, seems to be responsible for the fascination and admiration surrounding speechwriters. Thanks to his show, when people learn I was the speechwriter for Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, they conjure images of days spent fighting on the side of the angels, armed with witty banter and righteous certainty developed from years studying the Middle East.

That’s not my story. I grew up in Toronto, majored in zoology and spent my early career working on domestic provincial policy issues. The diplomats and staff of Israel’s delegation to the United Nations weren’t angels. Far from it. We were people with egos and eccentricities, ambitions and attitude, fears and failings. But we shared a common purpose.

In my first week of work, one of the diplomats came bounding into my office, and in the abrupt manner of an Israeli, asked me why I would leave a calm and comfortable job in Canada to work around the clock for one of the most unpopular countries in the world. She ended her question by saying, “hishtagat?” which is Hebrew for, “Are you crazy?”

Before she came in, I had been staring dejectedly at the jam-packed speech schedule and her question did nothing to raise my spirits. It was only a few days into my new position, but I could see that working with Israelis was going to be an adjustment. My new colleagues were loud, stubborn, demanding and had an unnerving habit of saying exactly what was on their minds.

Even so, it was a fair question. We were not shortlisted to win any popularity contests in the global body. Representing Israel at the United Nations is like volunteering to sell Boston Red Sox paraphernalia outside Yankee Stadium. It would have been bad enough to be silently scorned, but Israel, with just 0.1 per cent of the world’s population and 0.004 per cent of the planetary landmass, consumes an overwhelming proportion of the global body’s criticisms. My colleagues couldn’t fathom why a non-Israeli would be willing to endure the stress and struggles of representing Israel in an institution notorious for its bias against the Jewish state.

The answer is that I believe Israel is more than just a country. I see it as a living testament to a small people’s ability to overcome impossible odds through the sheer force of their commitment to knowledge, freedom and innovation. I was immensely proud to go to work each day to represent the Jewish state in one of the world’s most anti-Israel institutions.

* * *

Every month the UN Security Council holds a debate titled “The situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question.” If the content of these sessions more accurately dictated the title, it would be called: “The Palestinian Injustice! And if we have time, some other stuff happening in the region.”

Israel’s UN Ambassador Ron Prosor, left, collaborates on a speech with Aviva Klompas.

I joined the Israeli mission at the height of the Arab Spring. Protests and demonstrations crisscrossing the Middle East and North Africa had begun in late 2010, when a female Tunisian police officer confiscated the cart of a 26-year-old street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi, slapped him in the face and demanded a bribe to return the cart. The young man had previously been harassed by local officials, but this time didn’t have the money to pay the expected bribe. Without the cart, he had no means to support his widowed mother and six siblings. Humiliated at his treatment by a woman and distraught, Bouazizi stood outside the headquarters of the provincial government and lit himself on fire. Outraged by the corruption and abuse of power that had led a young man to take such desperate action, protests erupted in the rural town of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, and soon spread across the country. A month later, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country. Mohamed Bouazizi became a symbol for millions of men and women in the Arab world who longed for freedom and opportunity. The anger and frustration of ordinary people throughout the region boiled over and they took to the streets in protest.

The Middle East was in chaos. Civil war was raging in Syria, Libya was on the brink of collapse, Iraq was faltering, Yemen was in turmoil and ISIS’ power was growing. These crises should have been the focus of international attention, particularly in debates devoted to the situation in the Middle East, but the Security Council’s time was overwhelmingly spent discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Every Middle East debate begins with a briefing from the UN’s special co-ordinator for the Middle East peace process. I would listen as he itemized, in excruciating detail, a long list of Israeli infractions. He denounced settlements, expressed grave concern for raids and arrests, and voiced alarm over house demolitions.

He also had a penchant for laboriously detailing the whereabouts of Palestinian olive trees that had been uprooted or vandalized.

The special co-ordinator then moved on to addressing the Palestinians’ transgressions, but did so in a manner that was wrapped in a cautious cushion of doubt. He would report Palestinians had allegedly thrown stones at Israeli cars, or Israeli forces claimed a settlement had been infiltrated by armed terrorists, or Palestinians had supposedly caused unrest in Jerusalem by throwing firebombs at police.

We joked there were two consistent features of the Security Council’s Middle East reports – they were long, and they were wrong. Or at least egregiously one-sided.

Every third month, the Israeli and Palestinian ambassadors were invited to deliver remarks to the Security Council. These debates were covered extensively in the Israeli media and, from the point of view of the Israeli delegation, were an opportunity to try and correct the record. The diplomat at the mission primarily responsible for providing the content of these speeches was fittingly named Israel.

For the sake of clarity, I’ll call him Israel-the-diplomat to distinguish him from Israel-the-country. Tall, broad-shouldered and prematurely greying at the temples, Israel-the-diplomat was intelligent, insightful and hardworking. He was usually last to leave the office late at night, and it was most common to see him either running to a meeting or huddled behind mountains of teetering papers in his office. Israel-the-diplomat was well-respected by his colleagues at the United Nations. This was even true for diplomats who didn’t look kindly on Israel-the-country.

When I needed to get his thoughts on the content for the quarterly Middle East speech, I would jog alongside him as he rushed between meetings and scribble notes as he rattled off a list of topics, “Make sure you cover Iran, the Palestinians, incitement, Hezbollah – you must mention Hezbollah. And I want Resolution 1701 and double war crimes. Do not leave out the double war crimes.”

As the day of the Middle East speech approached, senior staff argued over which sections should be removed or reworded and what topics should get added. By this point, we had gone through 20 drafts of the speech and there was still no end in sight. When I complained it was impossible to satisfy all the conflicting opinions, Ella, chief of staff to Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, sat me down and explained, “There is only one opinion that counts, and it belongs to the guy sitting in the corner office.”

With that in mind, I went alone to Prosor with the latest draft of the speech. He read each page aloud and every now and then took his pen and scratched out entire paragraphs or put the pages down and dictated new sections. Satisfied, I went to my office and made the changes. The following day, I brought him a clean draft. I was dismayed to see him reach for his pen and once again, scratch out sections. We repeated this exercise each time. Vexingly, entire pages he had praised one day, were summarily dismissed as poorly written or no longer relevant the following day.

Two days before the speech, I had written 25 drafts. It dawned on me with considerable dismay that the remarks would not be finished until Prosor read them to the Security Council. The morning of the speech, I printed a clean draft and went to Prosor. Sitting at his desk, he read through slowly and asked for some changes. We were about a page and half from finishing when his phone rang. He picked up the phone, swivelled around in his chair and got lost in conversation. My eyes darted impatiently between the back of Prosor’s chair and my watch as the clock ticked ever closer to 10:00, when the debate was scheduled to start.

At 9:50, Prosor hung up the phone, stood up, grabbed his UN badge and strode past us saying, “Time to go.”

I watched his back retreat down the hall. I turned to a colleague and said, “Hopefully that last page didn’t require any changes.” We ran to my office to make the final edits and printed fresh copies of the speech, and together dashed to the UN building one block away. We weaved through the corridors and arrived outside the Security Council chamber. With a deep breath, I pulled open the door and walked across the room and handed Prosor the speech just as the session began.

The UN complex was being renovated at the time, and a temporary Security Council had been built to replicate the iconic chamber. Prosor sat calmly at the horseshoe-shaped wooden table. Directly behind him sat our deputy ambassador and beside him, Israel-the-diplomat. Ella and I took the two seats behind them. I had been warned that Prosor often wanted last minute changes or additions to his speech. He would slip a note back and expect his speechwriter to hand back text he could add to his speech within a minute or two. I waited tensely.

The session began with the special co-ordinator’s briefing and was followed by a 20-minute diatribe against Israel from the Palestinian ambassador, Riyad Mansour. As Mansour began his remarks, a UN official walked around the room handing out copies of his remarks. Prosor flipped through the pages of Mansour’s speech, scanned the text and homed in on a section. He grabbed a piece of paper, hastily scribbled a note and passed it back to me.

A draft of the speech I had written days earlier included a section detailing how the Palestinian Authority was abusing humanitarian funding from the Norwegian government. Oslo was sending payments to the Palestinian Authority to support the families of convicted terrorists held in Israeli prisons. However, those funds never reached the intended family members because the Palestinian government funnelled the money directly to prisoners as a reward for their terrorist acts. Palestinian ambassador Mansour’s speech included a section thanking Oslo for its support. Prosor intended to enlighten the Norwegians as to exactly how their aid dollars were being spent.

We had cut that paragraph of the speech to get the speech down to 20 minutes. Now Prosor wanted it back. Ella’s quick thinking saved the day. She searched through her emails, retrieved an old version of the speech and found the relevant section. I took a clean piece of notepaper, copied the text and passed it forward to Prosor moments before it was his turn to speak.

As Prosor began his remarks, I finally sat back and absorbed the scene. I looked at each of the ambassadors sitting around the table. Above us was a replica of the famous mural of a phoenix rising from the ashes. Off to the side, the interpreters sat in their booths alongside the official photographers and videographers, who recorded the sessions for posterity. Behind us, the gallery was filled with delegates, and behind them, members of the public. Awed by my surroundings, I turned my attention to Prosor and listened:

“Last Tuesday, the State of Israel marked 65 years as a free and independent homeland for the Jewish people. On that historic day six and a half decades ago, the leaders of the new Jewish state issued a Declaration of Independence. It affirmed (and I quote), ‘We offer peace and unity to all the neighbouring states and their peoples and invite them to co-operate with the independent Jewish nation for the common good of all.’

“Israel wants peace. Not a day has gone by in the past 65 years in which the people of Israel have not yearned for peace. Last month, during his visit to Israel, President Obama said, ‘I know Israel has taken risks for peace (and) I believe that the Israeli people do want peace.’

“Jewish tradition teaches that the world is sustained on three pillars – truth, justice and peace. Today I’d like to speak about the three pillars upon which a true and lasting peace in our region must stand. These pillars of peace are the foundation that must remain standing in the shifting sands of the Middle East.”

When Prosor finished reading his speech, Ella leaned over and instructed me to return to the office and circulate the remarks to the media. I slid out of my seat and walked to the door. Pausing, I took one last look around the room and slipped out. Later that afternoon, a colleague appeared at my door with a yellow frosted cupcake and a smile. He placed the colourful dessert on my desk and said, “You survived. It’ll get easier.”

Reprinted from Speaking for Israel: A Speechwriter Battles Anti-
Israel Opinions at the United Nations by Aviva Klompas by permission of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.