Israel has not had an easy time at UN forums of late. But around the same time as 138 countries voted in favor of Palestinian nonmember observer state status at the United Nations in New York, with only nine opposing, the Israeli ambassador to Austria scored a minor diplomatic victory when he publicly told off a Syrian official at an international conference, to the apparent delight of the participating officials.

On November 29-30, the International Anti-Corruption Academy hosted 350 state officials and international organization representatives for an assembly in Vienna. Israel is a founding member of the UN-affiliated organization and Hebrew University law professor Mordechai Kremnitzer, who holds no official position with the Israeli government, was elected last week to the board of governors for three years — all of this to the evident chagrin of the delegate from the Syrian Arab Republic.

“The representative of Syria requested that his reservation on Israel be included in this report,” the assembly’s official report notes twice.

“The Syrian representative asked for permission to speak and said: ‘The fact that we sit here and that we agreed to the agenda does not mean that we recognize the state of Israel,’” recalled Aviv Shir-on, Israel’s ambassador in Vienna and one of three Israelis present at the conference. The board of governors might have been appointed by acclamation, the Syrian official further said, “but we have reservations because of the Israeli member. We don’t like the idea that an Israeli is a member of the board.”

Israel's ambassador to Austria Aviv Shir-on (photo credit: courtesy MFA)

Ambassador Aviv Shir-on (photo credit: courtesy Israeli embassy in Austria)

“I just asked for the right of reply,” Shir-on, 60, told The Times of israel on Tuesday. “I didn’t want to get into long political debates, because we always stress the fact that letting the Arabs politicize all kinds of professional debates in international organizations is leading all of us astray. This is exactly what they want, and I didn’t want to fall into this trap. So I just said that I’m glad that the board of governors, including the professional Israeli candidate, was elected by acclamation.”

Shir-on then mentioned the Syrian official’s remarks about not recognizing Israel and said: “On the background of what’s going in Syria, we really don’t care about the Syrian recognition.”

There were a “few shorts laughs” and some delegates — even from countries not known for their close ties with Israel — raised their thumbs to signal their approval, he said.

“This was, of course, a bit of an undiplomatic way to say this, but I think it was appreciated by everyone around,” Shir-on said. Speaking from the dais, the Israeli ambassador could not see the Syrian official’s response, but people afterwards said he was “really embarrassed,” Shir-On said.

“They usually want to get into this debate, where they can say we don’t accept Israel, the occupier, and the poor Palestinians, etcetera. So he was a bit embarrassed because he was not expecting such an answer. He just shrunk in his chair.”