As Trump leaves office, Ambassador Erdan heads to Washington

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: Tips for Israel’s new ambassador to a much-changed American capital.

GILAD ERDAN, Israel’s ambassador-designate to Washington, faces challenging times. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
GILAD ERDAN, Israel’s ambassador-designate to Washington, faces challenging times.
Last Wednesday’s mob storming of the US Capitol just made the job of Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador-designate to Washington, that much more difficult.
Not because Israel had anything at all to do with that astonishing turn of events. Rather, because as a result of what happened last Wednesday, and US President Donald Trump’s role in inciting the mob, for many Americans anything Trump touched is now tainted.
And Trump touched Israel, in a big way. The job for Erdan, who is already serving as ambassador to the UN, and will soon formally become its ambassador to Washington as well, will be to make sure that Israel is not somehow deemed guilty by association.
And that obviously is not going to be easy. While in America there is currently a move to remove Trump’s name from some of the properties he owns, Erdan will be representing a country where, as a result of the president’s support, he was very popular, and a community in the Golan Heights was named after him: Ramat Trump.
Erdan, according to former ambassador to the US Danny Ayalon, is going to have to “reach out, reach out, and then reach out some more. His main advantage is that he is new, did not work with the Trump administration, and has a clear slate.”
Ayalon, who was appointed by Ariel Sharon in 2002 and served until 2006 during the George W. Bush administration, said that the most important thing Erdan should keep in mind is to be “honest to the core.
“He knows the intimate relationship that existed between Israel and Trump and his people, and he should explain that this is legitimate, that it was done in the service of Israel’s national interest, and that it in no way reflects on domestic issues or American politics,” Ayalon said.
While Ayalon worked with an administration that had a good relationship with the Israeli prime minister at the time, Michael Oren was Israel’s ambassador to Washington during the first four rocky years of the Obama administration, when relations between Jerusalem and Washington were often very contentious. He, too, had the same advice – that Erdan simply has to meet everyone.
“All you can do is reach out to everyone,” Oren said. “It’s not only reaching out to Democratic members of Congress and to the new administration, but to various communities – to liberal American Jewish communities, to church groups, to African-Americans, to Latino groups. And he has to do media, as much media as possible.”
And what should his message be?
“He should say that, yes, we had a very close relationship with the Trump administration, that he did some very important things for us. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t appreciate our friends in the Democratic Party or value bipartisan support.”
At the same time, Oren added, Erdan needs to “stick up for our positions, whether on diplomatic issues, or on the strategic issue of the Iranian nuclear deal. I am not saying that he should in any way disassemble or sugarcoat our positions.”
Despite the events of the last week, Oren said, “the fact of the matter is that the Trump administration did extraordinary things for us, historical things. I think it is a mistake to not express gratitude, because that sends a message to our friends around the world that we don’t appreciate friendship.
“Having said that, we have to now reach out to Democrats and people who are against Trump, even anti-Trump Republicans. Our stock isn’t high right now.”
To increase the value of Israel’s stock, Ayalon advised, Erdan will need to hit the ground running.
“In the next 100 days he should meet everybody – now, and even more than once. He should meet the White House people, officials in the State Department, Pentagon and Congress, especially with the Democrats.”
Erdan should go from one congressperson and senator to the next, enlisting the aid of the good contacts Israel still has with the Democrats, such as with soon-to-be Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer and House majority leader Steny Hoyer, Ayalon said.
Ayalon even offered some technical advice: “He could have a small event with Hoyer as the guest of honor, and he could bring two or three other Democrats who are not that familiar with the Israeli-American connection. There is a lot of that type of diplomatic work to be done. There is no one silver bullet; it will take a lot of legwork.”
In meeting the Democrats, Ayalon said, Erdan should also meet with the progressives, though there he would differentiate between those with a progressive agenda who harbor no animus toward Israel, and those progressives who are simply anti-Israel, such as Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar.
“There is no sense talking to them,” he said. “Don’t attack them – they are American representatives; just ignore them, don’t do anything with them, because it will be to no avail. Quite the contrary, it will be used against us.”
Ayalon did not put New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the same category as Tlaib and Omar, saying she should be engaged by Erdan because she “doesn’t have a grudge or a history” against Israel.
Other practical advice Ayalon had for Erdan was to reestablish the biannual strategic dialogue between Jerusalem and Washington that brings together top officials from many different agencies to develop and work on a joint agenda, and – once COVID-19 recedes – to get as many congressional visits to Israel, and MKs to Washington, as possible, in order to inject “new blood and momentum” into the relationship, since for four years it has essentially been a relationship run between the Prime Minister’s Office and the Oval Office.
One thing that Erdan should not do, Ayalon maintained, is to apologize.
“In diplomacy and foreign affairs there are no constant friends, only constant interests,” Ayalon said. “If you get benefits that help you and your strategic situation, of course you are not going to turn them down and say ‘no.’ This should not be a matter of Israel disassociating itself from Trump.”
Erdan, Ayalon said, should be “very positive, not look back, not ignore what has happened, but certainly not be apologetic.”
He said Erdan should also leverage the Abraham Accords – which are popular in Washington – to Israel’s advantage. One way to do this is to give briefings frequently about the progress in the development of ties with the Arab states, as well as to initiate trilateral initiatives – for instance, between Israel, the UAE and the US.
AYALON ALSO said that Erdan should make the setting up of a White House summit between Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu, or whoever is prime minister after March 23, a priority.
Those meetings, said Ayalon, who served in various capacities under three prime ministers, are important for establishing working relationships. For that reason Sharon met Bush in June 2001, just some five months after Bush took office; Netanyahu met Barack Obama in May 2009, only four months after Obama was sworn in; and Netanyahu met Trump in the White House in February 2017, less than a month after Trump became president.
Though there is almost no chance that Biden would meet Netanyahu before the March elections – a move that would be an electoral gift to Netanyahu – Ayalon said that a meeting should be set up as soon as possible after a government is established.
If Netanyahu wins, the meeting is important – even though he and Biden know each other very well – so that they can get everything out into the open one-on-one.
And if someone defeats Netanyahu and becomes prime minister, it will be important to introduce that person – Gideon Sa’ar, Naftali Bennett, Yair Lapid– to Biden, since he probably is not that familiar with them.
Oren, for his part, does not believe that a change of prime ministers in Jerusalem would necessarily make the life of Israel’s ambassador in Washington any easier.
Netanyahu, the former ambassador said, “is a very powerful figure with influence both in the United States and the world. I’m not sure it’s necessarily great to have a prime minister nobody knows. Sure, you get rid of some of the baggage. But I also don’t think that Sa’ar’s or Bennett’s position on the Iranian issue is going to be any different. And on the Palestinian issue, they actually may be further to the Right.”
Oren said that in addition to forging personal relationships within the administration “so that there will be channels and back channels,” it is also critically important for Erdan to be “candid with the prime minister and other high-ranking officials in Israel about the nature of the situation right now.”
He added that this candid, unvarnished reporting is actually one of an ambassador’s hardest jobs.
“Things you see from there you don’t necessarily see from here,” Oren said. “And all political leaders, especially those who have been in office for a long time, tend to surround themselves with people who sort of reaffirm their positions. So you have to go in there and say ‘no, that’s not the situation,” or “no, that may not be the best course of action given our current relationship with the United States.”