Netanyahu appoints senior Likud member as his right-hand man in US

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, appointed to be Israel’s new envoy to both the United States and the UN, is a true Likud ideologist and ardent supporter of annexation.

al-monitor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) sits next to Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan during the weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, April 10, 2016.  Photo by REUTERS/Gali Tibbon/Pool.

May 12, 2020

The surprising and exceptional decision to name Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan to be both Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations and Israel’s ambassador in Washington was made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu because of political constraints.

The prime minister found himself in a tough spot in distributing ministries for senior members of his Likud party because of the generous coalition agreement with Blue and White. According to the national-unity deal, each party gets an equal number of ministerial portfolios. This meant Netanyahu had to be creative in finding suitable solutions for those who had been serving as ministers. On May 11 he met with Erdan, a popular  Likud minister, and presented him with this enticing offer: to be his right hand in the United States, in the two most senior positions, during a period when Netanyahu intends to promote the imposition of Israeli sovereignty on West Bank lands with the Trump administration. 

Erdan, 50, known for his tendency to deliberate, came to a quick decision this time. In the past he was offered the job of ambassador to the United Nations several times, but he always refused. This time he said yes to Netanyahu after he realized that the prime minister did not intend to leave him in the Public Security Ministry. In this situation, the offer he was made, given the circumstances, was not a bad deal: serving in roles that will give him diplomatic and foreign affairs experience for his future career. Erdan hasn’t given up on his ambition to lead the Likud and serve as prime minister in the future. 

According to the agreement they reached, Erdan will continue to serve as security minister until the government authorizes his appointment as ambassador to the United Nations, and only then would he resign from the Knesset and start his term in the United Nations as Danny Danon’s replacement. In the second stage, following the presidential election in the United States in November, he would also step into Ron Dermer’s shoes as ambassador to Washington and serve in the two ambassadorial roles simultaneously. When Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz starts his term as prime minister as part of the rotation agreement with Netanyahu, Gantz could replace Erdan as ambassador to the US, with Erdan remaining in the UN post. 

Erdan, who is married with four school-age children, hasn’t yet decided whether he will live in Washington or New York. 

Although the double appointment was borne out of a political predicament for Netanyahu, this wasn’t an arbitrary decision. According to all signs, in the coming days Netanyahu intends to promote, with all his might, the imposition of Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank. To do so, he needs a trustworthy man and a person identified with right-wing ideology for diplomacy with the White House. Erdan meets those two criteria. 

Erdan and Netanyahu have known each other for nearly three decades, from the days that Erdan served as chairman of Likud youth during Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister in the 1990s. In the past decade Netanyahu appointed Erdan to senior Cabinet posts, among them as minister of interior, communications, environment and home front defense. During the past five years, Erdan has also led the government response on strategic topics such as combating the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. In these roles Erdan has served as a member of the diplomatic-security cabinet and gained much knowledge and experience. 

During his tenure as public security minister, the police investigations of Netanyahu were initiated and concluded with serious indictments. During this time, Netanyahu felt that Erdan did not use his office and authority to moderate what the prime minister saw as a police witch hunt against him. For this reason, they have grown apart, but Erdan has never publicly challenged Netanyahu, and stood by him in the last primary race to lead the Likud in December.   

Over the years Erdan has backed all of Netanyahu’s diplomatic moves, and was the first minister to thank President Donald Trump for the “deal of the century” and for the green light the American ambassador to Israel David Friedman gave to impose sovereignty over the West Bank. Erdogan said then, “The worldview of the Trump administration, as expressed by Ambassador Friedman, is the only one that could bring change and cause the Palestinians to understand that boycotting Israel and the United States and supporting terror and incitement won’t bring them any achievements and that they are the ones with the most to lose from refusing peace.” 

Thus, in this respect Netanyahu can rest easy. Erdan will serve as the prime minister's executive arm in the United States and, like the outgoing Dermer, Erdan will enjoy a relationship of trust and an open door with the Trump administration. 

As mentioned above, the appointment of one man to serve in these two roles simultaneously is unusual, and the only Israeli who previously served in these two roles at the same time was Abba Eban, who was the first Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, appointed at the creation of the state in 1948, and two years later was appointed as the Israeli ambassador to the United States. Eban is regarded as a mythological ambassador who laid the foundations for Israeli diplomacy, and later served as foreign minister. But this was in the distant past when Israel was a small, young nation with little means. 

Diplomatic observers have noted critically that there are only four nations in the world that have the same ambassador to the United Nations and to Washington: Andorra, San Marino, Djibouti and the Maldives.

Erdan is a respected figure in Israeli politics from both the right and left, and this is the reason that criticism of the double appointment was expressed only without attribution. A senior Blue and White source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “It’s surprising every time how Netanyahu destroys the whole governing order for his benefit and political needs. It’s not reasonable that one person would serve in these two important roles.” 

In media interviews over the past day Erdan has sounded like someone who is coming to the job with a clear agenda and goals. He said that he agreed with Netanyahu on adding diplomats to the delegation to the United Nations, which has suffered a human resources shortage.  In his words, Israel stands “before a historic process of annexing Judea and Samaria [the West Bank]. There could be major problems in the United Nations. There’s a legal process advancing against Israel in the International Court at the Hague [ICC], and Iran isn’t waiting, and is moving toward a nuclear bomb.”

Netanyahu, according to reports, is expected to invite Erdan to one of the meetings with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when he arrives in Israel on May 13. 

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