Israel’s U.N. Envoy Has a Message for the World: Laugh With Me
As the annual General Assembly opens this week, Ron Prosor deploys wit as a stealth diplomatic weapon
Needless to say, this is not a traditional approach. “U.N. speeches are written by people who don’t write English and read by people who don’t speak it. They’re endlessly boring,” said Nate Miller, who served as the Israeli mission’s chief speechwriter from 2010 to mid 2013. “Ron was very clear that we were never going to be boring.” The unofficial credo of the speech-writing team became “What would Togo think?” That is, would the representative of a country like Togo, unfamiliar with Israel’s situation, leave the speech with a greater appreciation for the challenges faced by the Jewish state? Or would they find the rhetoric convoluted and stultifying, filled with legalese and diplomatic digressions?
Prosor’s style certainly makes his words stand out. Before he arrived at the U.N., he served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, where he was dubbed the “king of the diplomatic quip,” and his one-liners peppered the local papers. In one memorable instance, Prosor responded to a proposed boycott of Israeli dates during Ramadan. “Israel will continue to successfully export dates, whilst others choose to export hate,” he told the Guardian. “We encourage Muslim shoppers to ignore this nonsense, and instead double the quantity they usually purchase, to help bring about a two-date solution.”
Prosor isn’t the first Israeli ambassador to the U.N. to use humor as a diplomatic weapon. In 1976, after Israel’s daring hostage rescue operation at Entebbe, Chaim Herzog cracked up the Security Council when he pointed out the blatant hypocrisy of the Soviet Union accusing Israel of violating another country’s sovereignty. “On these subjects, I defer to [them], having regard to the Soviet Union’s very considerable record in these respects in Hungary, in Czechoslovakia, and in other countries in Eastern Europe,” he said, eliciting laughter from the assembled delegates. But while Prosor’s predecessors have occasionally resorted to mockery as messaging, he is the first to make it a defining feature of his diplomacy. “I believe personally that you can’t win without playing offense,” he told me.
Of course, there’s a reason most ambassadors favor discretion and understatement over straight-talk and sarcasm. The latter may make Israel feel better in the short run, but it runs the risk of impeding genuine diplomatic progress by alienating potential partners. But Prosor, says Arthur Lenk, Israel’s ambassador to South Africa, is a special case. “It’s a personality,” he explained. “If you can’t do it lightly, and with some humanity, and you just come across as sarcastic and angry, it’s going to blow up in your face.” The trick is to use humor not simply to ridicule others—though that can have its place—but to playfully prod them into understanding your own perspective. Lenk is no stranger to fraught affairs of state, having served from 2005 to 2009 as his country’s representative to Azerbaijan, one of Israel’s only Muslim allies. “Ron’s style works,” he said. “Humor’s a good tool if you do it right. And Ron Prosor is one of the best diplomats the state of Israel has.”
If anything, Prosor’s willingness to speak his mind has gotten him into more trouble with his own government than with the U.N. At a December 2012 conference in Jerusalem for Israel’s ambassadors, Prosor questioned the timing of the government’s recent announcement that it would build in the controversial E1 corridor in the West Bank. The move, taken in response to the Palestinian declaration of statehood at the U.N., had evoked broad international condemnation, and Prosor inquired as to the strategy behind it. His question was reportedly greeted with “a torrent of applause from the assembled ambassadors,” but it received a stern rebuke from Netanyahu’s national security adviser, Yaakov Amidror. “Gentlemen, do not be confused. You are representatives of the government. If it’s inconvenient for you, go into politics or resign.” (Prosor maintained to me that he was seeking a messaging strategy, not challenging the policy, which he has vigorously defended at the U.N.)
Of course, Israel has a tough time at the U.N. even when it doesn’t have a controversial policy to uphold. But despite the many challenges the Jewish state faces in the international arena, Prosor is confident he can make progress at the U.N. “I’m very optimistic in who we are and what we are,” he said. “All I need is for the world to look at us with open eyes, and not through fun-house mirrors that distort our image.”
This is why humor is so critical to Prosor’s diplomatic enterprise: Deployed correctly, it can shift perspectives. More than making people laugh, Prosor hopes to make them reconsider Israel’s precarious place in the community of nations. But does he ever worry that he’ll run out of jokes and snappy metaphors to encapsulate the U.N.’s dysfunction and hypocritical stance toward Israel? “No,” he laughed. “Believe me, we come up with new ones all the time.”
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