AnalysisJust like Andorra, San Marino, Djibouti and the Maldives...

In NY and DC at the same time? Netanyahu gives ambassador Erdan double challenge

Why did the PM choose Gilad Erdan to fill both hugely important roles of envoy to the US and UN, and can the minister, with no diplomatic experience, rise to the task?

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Gilad Erdan at an event for incoming police commissioner Roni Alsheikh, not pictured, in Jerusalem, on December 3, 2015. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Gilad Erdan at an event for incoming police commissioner Roni Alsheikh, not pictured, in Jerusalem, on December 3, 2015. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Exactly 71 years after Israel was officially admitted to the United Nations — on May 11, 1949 — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he had appointed Public Security and Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan as the Jewish state’s next ambassador to the world body.

So far, so expected. Netanyahu — who in the 1980s served in the prestigious post himself — had repeatedly offered Erdan the job, in a bid to vacate a ministerial portfolio needed for another senior member of his Likud party.

Erdan’s appointment to Turtle Bay is an act of political expediency, similar to Netanyahu’s appointment to the same post five years ago of Danny Danon, who was an equally ambitious up and coming Likud minister whom the prime minister wanted to shunt across the Atlantic.

What was odd, however, about Monday’s news was that Netanyahu also tapped Erdan to be Israel’s ambassador to the US, a posting that is arguably even more sensitive and important than the one in New York.

The double posting raises a number of questions, from why Netanyahu has decided to leave two of Israel’s most critical diplomatic jobs in the hands of one person, to how Erdan, with no formal experience in the field, will handle the challenge.

Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban at London Airport in 1972. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images via JTA)

The 49-year-old Ashkelon native won’t be the first to hold both roles, but doing so is exceedingly rare.  In the 1950s, legendary diplomat Abba Eban  was ambassador to both the US and the UN. Erdan is not known for lack of self-confidence, but these are big shoes to fill.

At the time, critical reporters wondering how Eban would be able to do both jobs were told that other countries, too, have only one ambassador accredited to both the UN and to the US. Today, there are four countries that do so, according to Channel 13 diplomatic reporter Barak Ravid: Andorra, San Marino, Djibouti and the Maldives. Combined, their GDP reaches to just about 1/37th of Israel’s.

Erdan will start serving in New York as soon as the government approves his appointment, but will assume the ambassadorship in Washington only after the US presidential elections in November, when he will take over from the US-born Ron Dermer.

The quirks of the coalition agreement between Netanyahu’s Likud and incoming alternative prime minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White will mean that Erdan will remain UN ambassador for the life of the government, but his posting in Washington will end in 18 months when the prime ministerial rotation kicks in, since each premier gets to choose his US envoy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks with Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan (left) in the Knesset on September 7, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Eighteen months after that, Erdan might just find himself back in Washington for another six-month stint, when a second round of rotations at Balfour street begins for the last year of the government, should it last that long and should Netanyahu and Gantz agree to extend its lifespan for a fourth year.

Erdan on Monday evening said he would indeed return to the DC embassy after the 18-months hiatus required by the rotation deal.

Some asked whether playing musical chairs with a posting to Israel’s most important ally was good policy. Since Netanyahu took power in 2009, only two people have held the role, Michael Oren and Dermer.

“The wandering ambassador,” former Zionist Union MK and foreign policy analyst Ksenia Svetlova called Erdan in a tweet Monday evening.

Israel’s relations with the US are being “reduced to a political party game,” lamented Shalom Lipner, a former adviser to Israeli prime ministers and today a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Still, Erdan’s appointment was welcomed by fellow politicians — including by incoming opposition leader Yair Lapid — and the pro-Israel community in the US.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, for instance, hailed Erdan’s “deep connections to the American Jewish community,” adding that his “most recent postings provide him with extraordinary credentials” to present Israel both at the UN and at the US.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan speaks at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, at the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem, February 19, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The effusive praise was somewhat surprising for someone whose political career has focused on domestic policy. Since entering the Knesset in 2003, Erdan has headed the Environmental Protection, Communications, Home Front Protection and Interior ministries.

The only significant diplomatic experience he gathered was in his current job as strategic affairs minister, where he oversees Israel’s fight against the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. That role has been marked by entry restrictions on Israel critics that have been derided as ham-handed, and attempts to fight anti-Israel efforts on US college campuses that have met middling success.

But then again, diplomatic experience has rarely been a prerequisite for either ambassadorship. Danon also had no foreign policy background when Netanyahu sent him to Turtle Bay in 2015, and both Dermer and Oren had expertise in other areas before being tapped for the jobs.

Practically speaking, the double-barreled appointment raises a host of questions: How can can Erdan be in two different places at the same time? Where will he live with his wife and four children, and how often will he commute from Washington to New York and back? Will he focus his efforts on fending off hostilities at the UN, or trying to win the hearts and minds of the American people and government?

Israeli Deputy Ambassador to the UN Noa Furman addresses the General Assembly, September 27, 2017. (Cia Pak/UN)

There is no doubt that a lot of work awaits him at the UN, which is always busy with issues of crucial importance to Israel, regarding Iran, Syria and the Palestinians. Israel’s deputy ambassador to the UN, Noa Furman, will likely see her role there expand without a full-time ambassador to back up.

Unlike some of his predecessors, Netanyahu views the UN as an important venue. He routinely turns his annual addresses to the GA into veritable spectacles — remember the Iran cartoon bomb? — and has invested much energy into chiseling away at the notorious automatic majority against Israel by cozying up to Eastern European and African member states.

Why he agreed to appoint a part-time ambassador to this important post remains his secret (though critics are convinced it has to do with political needs, as Erdan was apparently unwilling to settle for less).

US Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen with Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan at the US embassy in Jerusalem, June 11, 2018 (Courtesy Public Security Ministry)

What challenges will greet the new ambassador to Washington will of course depend to a large extent on who wins the presidential elections. If Democrat Joe Biden enters the Oval Office, Erdan will likely have to deal with a return to the two-state paradigm (Erdan is staunchly opposed to Palestinian statehood), a resumption of US-Palestinian relations and a possible renegotiation of the Iran nuclear deal.

Trump may not pose the same policy challenges to Netanyahu’s agenda, but dealing with a White House not known for sticking to norms and a president with a history of spurning allies over minor slights may also test Erdan in his quest to be the next Eban.

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