exclusive interview

Israel’s new double-duty envoy: ‘Best defense is a good diplomatic offense’


A few days after the last elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister Gilad Erdan met privately and Erdan said he told the prime minister, “You know, I’ve stood by your side for half of my life, very close to you.”

Erdan recounts that Netanyanhu asked, “What, really?” and then they were both silent for a few moments.

“Listen, it’s a big part of my life,” Erdan told Israel Hayom. “In 1996 I started working as an aide to Netanyahu and director of the Public Affairs Department in the Prime Minister’s Office. It’s been almost 25 years since then, and I’m almost 50. Half of my life was spent in this circle.”

Last week, Erdan and his family traveled to New York, ahead of his new posting as Israel’s ambassador to the UN, replacing Danny Danon. In another four months he will also replace Ron Dermer as ambassador in Washington.

“On a personal level, it felt right to make a change. I was a minister in important offices, I legislated dozens of laws, I was on many committees, I’m proud of the many reforms and processes that I led. Now it’s time to go on to something different, something new.”

This interview was edited for space.

Israel Hayom: Will you run to lead the Likud after Netanyahu?

It’s legitimate and obvious that I have ambitions to reach the top, but if I declare that a day will come and I’ll run for prime minister, that’s not what will get me there, only my achievements will. I’m building my public service career that way, so if I decide to run — and I don’t have a final decision on this — I will have all the tools and the experience to know I am capable. Representing Israel in the international arena and working with the US administration are very significant when it comes to the experience one can get.

Erdan was offered to serve as UN ambassador a few times since he entered parliament in 2002.

Silvan Shalom offered me the job when he was Foreign Minister in 2005, but I was just a legislator for two years then, it was too early. Lieberman offered me the job in 2011 when he was Foreign Minister, but I was deep in reforms and environmental struggles as Minister of the Environment.

Q: Environment took precedence over the UN?

Absolutely. The Ministry of Environment was my first [portfolio] in government, in 2009, and the portfolio I liked the most. There you fight for the whole public, for its health, and all the public is with you. If it’s a campaign against building on the Palmachim beach or the law to prevent smoking in public spaces, there’s no Left and Right, you fight for everyone with no exception.

Q: What made you take the job this time?

We were much more ready now, as a family. My wife Shlomit had to be on board with us taking our four children to a completely new reality.

Q: What role would have kept you in the country?

I don’t know if there was one, and anyway, not the portfolios the Likud held. Education interested me, but when I met with the Prime Minister we didn’t know if the Likud would have it. Except for Education, the Foreign and Defense portfolios interested me, of course, but the Likud doesn’t have them.

The prime minister called me in [and] told me, “If you seriously consider the UN, I’m willing to offer you something we haven’t seen for 60 years, since the days of Abba Eban. Both the UN and Washington.”

I felt it was time to make my dreams in the international diplomacy arena come true.

Q: It’s a dream?

Absolutely. From childhood, I wished to fight for Israel in the world. As a boy, I dreamed of “being in politics,” but never thought I had a chance. The plan was to work as a lawyer, to make some money, and then try to get into politics.

Q: Was the dream politics or diplomacy?

As a boy, I didn’t dream to become environmental protection minister. I dreamed of a heroic struggle for Israel in the international arena.

Erdan will live with his family in New York, in a flat used by all of Israel’s ambassadors to the UN since Chaim Herzog did so in the 1970s. When he arrives he will be tested for the coronavirus, and if the result is negative, he will be allowed to enter the office building used by the Mission to the UN and Israel’s Consulate in New York.

A few days after I arrive in New York I will present my credentials to the Secretary General of the UN, and from that moment I will begin my job in the UN. Unfortunately, it may happen on Zoom.

On Jan. 20, after the elections in the US, Erdan will replace Ron Dermer as the Israeli ambassador in Washington. As of now, his appointment is for one year only.

After one year, Benny Gantz is supposed to become prime minister, and he can decide if I continue or not, it’s his right to put someone else there. Assuming he actually will be prime minister.

Q: Assuming? Meaning, there’s a chance he won’t be prime minister?

My agreement with Netanyahu is that as long as he is prime minister, I will fill both roles, in the UN and Washington. I think and believe that Netanyahu will continue to serve as prime minister beyond next year.

Q: How will you combine both roles?

With a lot of hard work. I’m used to doing a few jobs at once. In 2009 I was the Minister for Environmental Protection and the Minister in charge of coordinating between the Government and the Knesset. In 2013, the Minister of Communications and Minister of Home Front Defense, and in 2015, Minister of Public Security, Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy.

There are other countries who appointed one ambassador for both roles, there’s logic to it. Technically, the distance between New York and Washington is not great. Four hours’ drive, that’s all. If I leave Manhattan at 6 am I’ll be in Washington by 10. On the way, I can work on my phone and computer. That’s something Abba Eban could not do in the 1950s.

There will be nights where I stay to sleep in Washington, and won’t get back to my family in New York. That’s another reason the decision had to be made at the family level. Shlomit is on board with this, and without her it would not be possible.

Q: What will be the main issues you focus on?

I presume the pandemic will continue to top the list, on both fronts, but simultaneously there are issues with existential repercussions for Israel.

The Iran issue is nearing a critical point. The weapons embargo on Iran, as part of the deal they signed with Obama, is about to end on Oct. 18. If that happens, Iran will be able to purchase advanced planes and submarines. The US is trying to extend the embargo, but it’s hitting a wall in the Security Council. The Russians are considering vetoing the extension, so there may be some very significant disagreements up ahead.

For me, as the UN ambassador of a country threatened by Iran, I will have a lot of important work to explain to the world the need to impose sanctions, to stop the strengthening of Iran and its constant race towards a nuclear weapon.

Q: Did you get instructions from the prime minister to advance sovereignty in Judea and Samaria?

Not yet, but the prime minister is committed to this issue. The pandemic and US elections have delayed the process, but not removed it from the agenda.

I have been an enthusiastic supporter of applying sovereignty for many years now. I agreed with the prime minister that things need to be done in coordination and agreement with the US.

Q: How does that sit with your declared objection to a Palestinian state?

I have always objected to a Palestinian state, in the conventional meaning of a state, and I still object. The Trump plan does not create such a state. It actually accepts all our demands and only determines that afterward we’ll discuss the type of Palestinian entity that will exist.

Prime Minister Netanyahu was right to support the “deal of the century” since first of all the Palestinians must give up the Right of Return, end the incitement, disarm Hamas and other steps, which only after those will we be able to argue if it’s autonomy, a state-minus and so on.

When you soberly evaluate the plan and the recalcitrant attitude of the Palestinians, with cooperation from some of the Israeli Arabs, it’s obvious that the only part that will probably be implemented is the application of sovereignty, which we’ve dreamt of for years. The parts that have to do with the Palestinians are not expected to happen. Unless they turn into the Swiss.

Q: What’s your model for being an ambassador?

I can’t say I have a formula, and it would be arrogant on my part to draw up a model before I began the job. But I hold the view that is relevant to all my political life — to be on the offense and not the defense. To be statesmanlike, to respectfully represent the country and the government, to avoid being on the defense. I always prefer to be on the offense.

That was also my credo as Minister of Strategic Affairs. All the boycotts against Israel and the BDS activity are hypocrisy and lies. We published reports that reveal terrorist organizations behind the alleged civilian BDS activity, and statements of BDS leaders that revealed classic anti-Semitism.

When AirBNB wanted to boycott Judea and Samaria, we worked with Jewish and pro-Israel organizations and US governors, who announced they would boycott the company, and it retracted that bizarre decision. Those are just a few examples.

In this spirit I intend to push an ongoing campaign in the UN, whose objective is to bring about the dismantling of UNRWA. This is one of the major obstacles to calming the region, which is abusing its role and is a disaster for peace.

I don’t oppose helping Palestinian refugees. The treatment should be similar to that of all the refugees around the world: a promise they are absorbed appropriately in the countries they live in. President Trump stopped funding to UNRWA, and justifiably so.

Q: The Jewish vote in the US is mostly Democratic, and like the Democratic party, is critical of Israel.

Only small parts of the Democratic party are critical of Israel. Its mainstream supports Israel, and just recently they again approved military aid to Israel, at a difficult time. During the recent discussions on the party’s platform some radical initiatives came up, like cutting aid to Israel if annexation happens, and they were all voted down by large majorities.

I will know how to work with the same efficacy and dedication with both parties. With the Democrats I have a deep and significant shared concern — protecting the environment.