Israeli Political Shuffle May Generate Diplomatic Realignment
Netanyahu calls UN ambassador for urgent discussions
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Thursday summoned Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan from New York to Jerusalem for an urgent meeting that may lead to a reshuffling of Israel’s US diplomatic representation and to the reversal of a recent cabinet decision.
Erdan, one of the most prominent lawmakers in Netanyahu’s Likud party, has served in several high-profile ministerial roles. Last spring, he was offered and eventually accepted the dual role of ambassador to the UN and ambassador to the US. After serving for the past four months in New York, he was slated to replace Ambassador Ron Dermer in Washington next month and begin serving in both positions simultaneously.
The Israeli cabinet approved the unorthodox double appointment after Erdan repeatedly turned down the single job of ambassador to the UN.
Yet according to several Jerusalem officials, Netanyahu in recent days has had a change of heart and is now looking to untangle the united role and appoint another Likud member of parliament to one of the ambassadorships.
The shift is said to have been brought about by the November US presidential election results and the prospect of working with a drastically different administration than the one Netanyahu has gotten accustomed to dealing with.
“There are ambassadors who are actually in charge of both roles, but they’re usually from smaller countries. In Israel’s case, both positions are very demanding, and require a lot of attention and energy,” former ambassador to the UN Danny Danon, who was replaced by Erdan in July, told The Media Line.
“I think it will be very challenging to do both at the same time,” Danon added.
Because the cabinet officially authorized the appointments, Erdan would have to agree to his new reduced role, something he was reluctant to accept in the past.
“I would advise my friend Erdan to focus his time and energy on the [US ambassadorship] arena, because that will be crucial for the future,” Danon said. “I’m sure the role in Washington will be critical for Israel in the next few months. Once you have a new administration you have to make the necessary connections and do it quickly.”
Israel’s iconic diplomat Abba Eban was the only other official to serve in both positions simultaneously, when Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion appointed him to be the nation’s first ambassador to Washington and to the UN after the State of Israel’s founding.
“It’s definitely possible to do both, especially with today’s technology − you have a shuttle that takes one hour between New York and Washington, or Zoom, where you can appear everywhere,” Danny Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to the US, told The Media Line.
“But obviously it’s preferable to have two unique ambassadors devoting their full time to each position, ideally,” he added, noting that of the two, the Washington job was easily the more important.
“The ambassador there is the one that actually oversees the entire relationship between Israel and the US. That includes diplomatic coordination, when to exercise American veto power [in the UN Security Council], etc. Those decisions are made in Washington, not New York,” Ayalon said.
Netanyahu has been known to appoint to diplomatic posts lawmakers he considers troublemakers or a threat to his standing in his party. The rumored about-face regarding the US roles may be linked to such political considerations no less than practical ones.
“What has changed [since the July appointment of Erdan]?” asked Ayalon. “There is just a need now of sending someone away with an attractive offer, what with all the latest political developments.”
On Tuesday, prominent Likud Knesset member Gideon Sa’ar announced his departure from the party, and the formation of a rival right-wing platform, the New Hope party, that will challenge the Likud in elections expected next year.
In a scathing speech, Sa’ar cited the Likud’s propensity to adopt a “personality cult” for its current leader as one reason for his exit. At least three other Likud MKs will reportedly join him in the coming days, and the new party has scored high in opinion polls.
The man said to be designated to replace Erdan as ambassador to the UN is National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Resources Minister Yuval Steinitz, another veteran Likud lawmaker looking for a political upgrade, and a Netanyahu loyalist.
“The talk about this being connected to the incoming Biden Administration sounds good, but no, I doubt that’s really it,” Ayalon chuckles. “This is politics.”
Yet Danon, who next week will join his erstwhile UN colleague former US ambassador Nikki Haley in hosting the DiploTech Global Summit, sees things differently.
“I don’t think there is a connection [to the Likud upheaval],” he said.
Asked if he has also considered leaving his current political lodgings due to Netanyahu’s extended reign, Danon was unequivocal.
“The Likud is my home. I regret the decision of my friend Sa’ar to leave the party. Changes have to be made from within the party, that’s what I’m doing,” Danon explained, noting that he sees himself as “part of the party’s leadership” once Netanyahu vacates the stage.
“I’m not afraid to fight for change. Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it isn’t, but that’s public life. History has taught us that once you leave the Likud, you may gain some benefits in the short term, but in the long run it doesn’t lead to a bright future,” he said.
As for whether he would accept an offer from Netanyahu to return to his UN post now that there may be an opening, Danon laughed: “I just finished unpacking my [shipping] container. I intend to stay here and to contribute from Israel.”