For the United States and United Nations, two heads are better than one

Is an ambassador’s constant presence really all that essential either in Washington or at the UN?

The empty seat of Israel is pictured during a session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, 2019 (photo credit: DENIS BALIBOUSE/REUTERS)
The empty seat of Israel is pictured during a session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, 2019
If Israel could afford only two ambassador postings anywhere in the world, they would have to be Washington and the United Nations, in that order. Nowhere else comes close.
On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan will hold both these vital and distinct jobs at the same time, beginning with the UN and adding Washington in November.
For a parliamentary democracy like Israel, there’s nothing unusual in assembling a governing coalition, rewarding allies and placating rivals. But short of being prime minister or defense minister, there’s probably no position with more influence, prestige or responsibility than ambassador to the United States or permanent representative to the UN. Either one should suffice.
Is an ambassador’s constant presence really all that essential either in Washington or at the UN? Israel is known for the high caliber of its career diplomats, including those serving as deputy chief of mission in Washington or as deputy permanent representative in New York.
And there’s no reason they can’t fill in at the White House or in the Security Council Chamber when an ambassador is unavoidably absent. But that’s never been by choice.
No deputy can replace a prime minister’s handpicked envoy, to know in real time every nuance and confidence, or to project full resolve to friends and enemies alike.
The cultures and responsibilities of these two postings are so different and demanding, that no one can be expected to succeed in either while attempting both.
Yes, the late Abba Eban simultaneously served in both roles in the 1950s, before Israel was even a nuclear power, long before it was the leading recipient of US foreign aid and…, well, he was Abba Eban.
Israel is relevant to the UN, and not only as a target for condemnation. However much they publicly dismiss the UN’s importance, Israeli leaders have always seen the world body as a prime forum and vehicle for defending and advancing Israel’s interests.
However much Israeli politicians may denigrate it, the UN was instrumental in the country’s founding and remains integral to its international legitimacy. Netanyahu’s address to the UN General Assembly each autumn is a highlight of his public agenda.
Critical deliberations and decisions affecting Israel’s interests still emanate from its various bodies, possibly more – and with more Israeli influence – than when Netanyahu was the UN ambassador in the 1980s. In fact, his achievements at the UN consisted mostly of speeches and TV interviews, understandable for that era of pitched battle between the West and the Communist and nonaligned blocs, and the implacable stranglehold of the Arab and Islamic states.
Since Netanyahu left his UN post, the end of the Cold War and Oslo process broke down much – though by no means all – of Israel’s isolation. The repeal of the infamous 1975 “Zionism is Racism” resolution was a reflection of new realities, and in the past 15 years Israel’s diplomats have achieved measurable progress: Israelis appointed as experts to UN bodies and as regular employees, the adoption of Israeli-sponsored resolutions and the reduction in the number of anti-Israel resolutions, and an annual high-level Holocaust commemoration backed by a permanent office for Holocaust education and commemoration, and a General Assembly resolution condemning Holocaust denial in Iran.
This doesn’t mean the UN has become an easy arena for Israeli interests. For all the progress since the 1980s, Israel still won’t win any popularity contests within the corridors of the UN, and these days neither would the US.
With President Donald Trump openly hostile to multilateralism and to the UN and its agencies, the US delegation carries much less influence and “soft power” than it did under Barack Obama or even in the Reagan years. There is no longer an effective backstop for Israel at the UN.
It’s precisely the persistent hostility and resistance within various pockets of the UN that demand maximum and credible Israeli diplomatic effort, full-time leadership and dedication by whoever has the prime minister’s trust and an open line to his mobile phone. With the Security Council convening literally at a moment’s notice to deal with crises often involving the Middle East, Israel’s ambassador is always on call to attend and to carry on informal conversations with friendly diplomats.
The contrast between newspapers and magazines sold in the UN Secretariat lobby and at Washington’s Union Station is stark. Ambassadors who served in Washington before transferring to the UN have stressed to me the culture shock they experienced, and they don’t face the animosity awaiting an Israeli representative.
In Washington, the agenda is set by the White House, and all policy debates and outreach are premised upon US national interest and American partisan politics. Even the calendar is timed to American election cycles, the State of the Union address each January, the congressional budget process, and the cultural assumptions of the red, white and blue.
Rightly or wrongly, many ambassadors at the UN see the US – and especially Trump – as more of a problem and a nuisance than Russian President Vladimir Putin or Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro. Their agenda and priorities don’t emanate from “Inside the Beltway,” and there’s little any US ambassador can accomplish there without having counterparts from other countries on board.
IN MANY parts of the world, the US may have lost its luster as “the indispensable nation,” but for Israel it remains the sine qua non.
Israel today is an outsize, high-profile player in Washington, and that’s not by accident. All the hasbara (public diplomacy) notwithstanding, there is nothing “natural” about the US-Israel strategic partnership. It’s taken hard work and sacrifice on both sides of the Atlantic, and it remains a 24/7 task for whoever serves as Israel’s ambassador. It requires 100% focus on what Americans want and need to hear, whether in a cigar bar on F Street, CNN’s Situation Room or a state fair in Kansas.
Given Erdan’s covert and confrontational efforts to defame, intimidate and deny entry to American critics of Israel, he would have his hands full just learning how bridges get built in Washington – without also running the war room for a 192-nation diplomatic campaign in New York.
If Democrats win the White House and the Senate in November, this will mean significant turnover of officials and staff as well as some recalibrating of US Middle East policy. Not that Democrats are less friendly than Republicans, but Washington would at least return to the consistent, well-worn path stretching back at least to the Nixon era. Israel will again be expected to explain its actions and policies, and Washington’s decision-makers and influencers will expect a full-fledged ambassador to be doing the explaining – and not just three days a week.
Regardless of who wins the presidency, US politics and American Jewry are more divided and demoralized today than at any time in the past century. In many ways, so is the entire world. The American scene and the world stage will each require maximum attention from a top Israeli envoy.
Erdan may be the right candidate for either task, but in these times even Abba Eban couldn’t manage both. Is now the time for Israel to throttle back?
The writer, a partner with Gotham Government Relations, formerly served as executive director of the World Jewish Congress American Section and as WJC’s director of international organizations.