Interview with His Excellency Mr Itzhak Levanon, Permanent Mission of Israel to the United Nations Office and Specialized Institutions in Geneva

Itzhak LevanonHe is a busy man, the Ambassador of Israel to the United Nations in Geneva. Not only is he the permanent representative to the UN, WTO and all the international organizations, but he also has to divide his time with an active and vibrant Jewish community that also likes to have « their share of Mr Ambassador ». Needless to say, he is extremely hard working, but despite all this he has kept his sense of humour and friendly attitude …
Mr Ambassador is not a newcomer to diplomacy. For more than twenty years he has been posted to almost every continent. And he has made the effort to learn the language of every country where he is posted — so Mr Ambassador is not only a fine diplomat but also an excellent linguist with five languages to his credit.
Q : Mr Ambassador, what is your back ground ?
I started my diplomatic career in the United Nations in New York. After that, I spent some years in South America — Venezuela and Colombia ; then Paris where I spent five years ; then Canada five years ; then US — Boston — where I stayed five years ; and now it’s Geneva. So, it’s an interesting career path judged by the standards of the Israeli Foreign Service.
Of course, between these different missions I spent some time working back in Israel having different jobs and missions within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. If I look back, I am familiar with four out of the five continents, and I also speak the languages of these continents — English, French, Spanish, Arabic and Hebrew.
Q : Reviewing your long and impressive diplomatic career, which posting do you judge as being the most challenging ? Here in Geneva or elsewhere ?
It is very difficult to measure this, because in my personal opinion the function of an ambassador depends 100 % upon himself. Let me explain myself. It’s true that he receives instructions, but an Ambassador is not limited in his work (the scope of his work)— if he wants to promote an idea or a projet, he can do so. In Geneva, it’s very demanding though.
You have numerous meetings ; you have numerous international organizations. I cover all the organizations here in Geneva. For instance, in the morning I can be at WHO dealing with health issues and then on to WTO talking about trade, and from there go to the Conference on Disarma-ment to deliver a speech on nuclear proliferation, and in the evening discussing human rights. So Geneva is particular in this sense. However, for an ambassador only the sky is the limit, as he has to take the initiative.

Q : You do not have an easy job defending the Israeli position in international forums.
Everybody knows the truth. People blame Israel for the problems we have in the Middle East, and yet everybody knows the truth about Darfur. Everybody knows that when it comes to Israel, it’s a political problem, while in Darfur nobody does anything. They point the finger at Israel, but the majority of the States present here know the reality. This is the reason why Israel enjoys a high status in the international organizations.
Everybody knows about the high level of respect for human rights in Israel. Every year, a report is published by Freedom House which classifies the different countries according to their level of respect for human rights. Israel is ranked at the same level as Switzerland.
Everywhere we enjoy a lot of respect— in WTO, and in the Conference on Disarmament. It’s true that there are speeches criticizing Israel, but everybody knows that we hide nothing, and that is our moral strength. This gives us the strength to respond, and this is something people understand and accept.
It is not easy because there are always lots of things happening. The way things are presented is not always exact — there are allegations. However, we cannot run to the press at every moment and explain. Sometimes you have to react ; at other times it’s better to remain quiet. When the distortions go beyond certain limits, I’m there to respond.
Q : In general, we only hear about your country when there is a problem. I wonder if you could tell us some general things about your country.
From a geographical and territorial point of view, we are a small country of 20,000 square kilometres — the size of New Jersey in the United States. Economically, on the other hand, Israel is not small at all with a per capita GDP of US$26,200. We have, for instance, an agricultural industry that is very well known throughout the world. Normally, you cannot harvest certain fruits all year round, but this is now possible in Israel. We have overcome the seasonal system. For instance, strawberries normally grow on the ground. But in our country, they are grown above ground level as we have found that they grow better that way.
Irrigation is another domain where we have excelled. Thanks to new irrigation technologies, everything is chronometered. We do not waste water, as water is a scare resource. We share all this know-how with other countries. So the agriculture sector is highly developed, and it’s an area where we collaborate with other countries. We share our know-how and expertise.
Today Israel has also be-come the harbour for high-technology with biotechnology, medical technology and computers and thousands of start ups. We are among the world leaders in these fields.
The economy is booming with an annual growth rate of 5 %, and we hope to go beyond 6% this year. In comparison, China is over 7%, which means that Israel is a very prosperous country from an economic point of view. It is vigorous in all fields.
In addition, we have built a democracy which is considered as exemplary. There are certain institutions in Israel that do not exist in other democratic countries. This affects all the residents of Israel, not only the nationals but the Palestinians and the Arabs — as well.

If you are judged by a tribunal and you consider that the court sentence is not correct, you as an individual can appeal directly to the High Court of Justice. The High Court will then decide upon your case. To my knowledge, this does not exist elsewhere — not in the US, not in the United Kingdom. It is not like being judged at the local level, then the regional level, going from one court to another as exists in other countries. In this case, you go directly to the High Court judges, who will decide. So we have created a democracy which, in our opinion, is an example, but which also sometimes gives us a head-ache because it’s too free. However, all matters are transparent.
We have constructed a country that is very rigorous, and we try to lead an ordinary life. I have not talked about education, the enrolment rates — here too, we belong to the superior levels.

Our only problems are political problems with our neighbours — not all our neighbours, things are already better than before. We already have peace agreements with Arab countries. Perhaps it is not always at an official level, but nevertheless we are holding discussions together. It’s a slow, discrete and gentle process.
Q : What about the tourism ? Some people do not visit your country because they read about violence in the press.
You should not always believe the press — and you should go there yourself ! I think that we have had the highest number of tourist ever in 2006. Israel is a tourist destination, because we host the holy sites. We have a long civilization going back more than 5,000 years. You have everything in Israel : the biblical places, the historic places, the sea, the seaside resorts, the mountains. We even have snow ! You have the night life of Tel Aviv with some of the most exquisite restaurants and discotheques in the world and you have the celestial Jerusalem. I really recommend you to go there, because it’s a tourist country with all you need. There’s a lot to discover.
Q : On the international scene what do you consider as the main achievements of Israel ?
I will give you two examples which are relatively recent — one in New York and the other one in Geneva.
In New York there was a unanimous decision by the United Nations General Assembly to recognize 27 January as the International Day for the Commemoration of the Holocaust. The main aim of this day is that one should study the Holocaust. This is very important from a historical point of view and for an understanding of the Holocaust, especially today when the negation-ists are raising their voice for those who reject its existence. On 27 January this year, for instance, we organized a big event in the Assembly Hall in the Palais des Nations for more than 1,000 persons.
As far as Geneva is concerned, Israel’s Magen David Adom, the equivalent of the Red Cross, was admitted to the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. For more than sixty years we have been fighting for this, but it was only last year that we succeeded in achieving it. It’s a historical success.
Q : I just wonder if it is based upon the same values as the Red Cross.
Exactly ! There is no difference. It’s recognized and protected by the convention of Geneva and can participate all over the world like the Red Crescent and the Red Cross societies.
Q : How long did it take to negotiate this agreement ?
We worked on this issue for more than a year. It was very complicated with pressures from everywhere. Several times people were about to give up on the discussions, but I insisted and we kept on going. We spent several « nuit blanches ». In fact, we spent four days and three nights negotiating — and the decisions were made at 2h15 in the morning. Then, I had to sign the adhesion papers and went to sleep !
Q : It must have been quite satisfying at a personal level ?
It was a tremendous joy and satisfaction. The adrenaline is flowing in your body giving you a lot of strength — it’s true that when I arrived home I was in a euphoric state. When you work so hard and you know that it’s a historical event. Finally, there was a vote and an absolute majority. It was exhausting, though !
Q : After all these efforts, did you go away on holiday and get some rest ?
No, not at all ! Just the weekend, but normally there are lots of things to do during the weekends too. You should not forget that we have a huge Jewish community here in Geneva and there are many events going on. Generally, these take place in the weekends. Often I have to make speeches — so there is always something to do. I will have real vacations when I go back home !
© Photos : WHIB