July 4, 2021

The Subtle Art of Israeli Diplomacy

Paul Tzarfati ’19, political advisor at Israel’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations.

Of the many skills and attributes Middle Eastern and Islamic studies major Paul Zarfati ’19 could bring to a position at Israel’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York, there’s one that he’s certain cinched the deal. “It was definitely the fluent Arabic I learned at Shalem,” he says, then explains, “At least once every few days, Syria will put out a letter in Arabic that makes all sorts of complaints against Israel, and the UN can take a few days to produce a translation. But with me on staff, Jerusalem knows the deal and how to respond right away.”

That’s not to say that translation is the better part of the job description for political advisor to the Mission, a position he took up last fall when it was vacated by fellow Shalem graduate Alon Naveh ’17. Responsible for monitoring resolutions related to Israel and the greater Middle East in the Security Council and for drafting summaries for the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, Paul describes his work at the UN as more analytical than anything else. “It was gratifying to realize that all those hours spent at Shalem’s Writing Center were worth it,” says Paul. “My ability to determine what’s worth mentioning and what isn’t, as well as my ability to explain clearly and succinctly what was said over the course of a really long discussion or negotiation in the Security Council, is a big piece of the value I bring to the team.”

Of course, it took Paul himself a while to get the hang of those long discussions and negotiations, which he concedes might often sound to the casual observer like nothing especially dramatic. “When I interviewed for the job, I had to listen to a bunch of UN debates and write up an analysis. I remember thinking, ‘they’re just stating the obvious.’ Now I realize that speaking in the UN—and really diplomacy in general—is a very subtle art. Every word is chosen carefully, every word carries enormous meaning. And sometimes,” he concludes, “it’s the words that aren’t used that send the most powerful message of all.”

Indeed, the outright cynicism toward the UN felt by many of his fellow Israelis—an attitude best exemplified by David Ben-Gurion’s famous expression of contempt, Um-Shmum, “the UN is meaningless”—is something Paul has come to find deeply unfortunate, albeit not entirely undeserved. While the media will almost always focus on biased resolutions and anti-Israel statements in the General Assembly, of which there are many, Paul is quick to point out that the UN is also engaged in bringing peace and stability to the Middle East and to many regions off camera. “It’s true that the UN’s army has no teeth, but when you learn about its work on behalf of refugees from Syria, Sudan, Venezuela, and dozens of other places, you can’t help but be grateful, even amazed.”

Paul also cautions Israelis not to write off the diplomatic work happening at the UN headquarters, either: When Hamas is attacking Israel’s southern region with rocket fire from Gaza, he concedes, it can be tempting to throw up ones’ hands and disregard the UN, but working constructively in a multilateral framework can indeed be important. “Both support and criticism from the international community have an impact on policy decisions made in Jerusalem in real time. We stand to gain much more from our involvement and influence within than by expressing frustration and contempt from without.”

As for whether Paul intends to stay in diplomacy after his work at the UN is done, he responds that he’d love to: “Being in an international environment is interesting, the kind of work you do is challenging and versatile, and most of all, diplomacy offers the chance to do something meaningful for Israel.” Having worked on the side as an educational tour guide during his time at Shalem, Paul adds that he’s always wanted visitors to see what makes Israel so fascinating and impressive. “In a sense, my work at the UN and my interest in diplomacy comes from that same place of wanting to represent the Israel I know, which is far from perfect, but is nonetheless a country with a truly inspiring story and so much to offer the world.”

Meanwhile, Paul is happy to enjoy his time in the States, doing “American things” like road trips (“the landscapes in Utah and Arizona were really amazing”) and eating at diners. As for when the UN will resume its in-person sessions, which remain cancelled on account of COVID-19, Paul can’t help but let out a laugh. “There are a lot of long discussions and negotiations about that right now. After all, it’s what diplomats do best.”

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