Cabinet approves China appointment for Vilna’i

With economic woes in US and Europe, PM keen on increasing exports to southeast Asia.

Matan Vilnai 311 (photo credit: Yaakov Katz)
Matan Vilnai 311
(photo credit: Yaakov Katz)
The cabinet on Sunday approved the appointment of Home Front Defense Minister Matan Vilna’i (Independence) as Israel’s envoy to China, just a little over a year after the ministry was created especially for him, and amid rising concern of a possible confrontation with Iran.
No replacement for Vilna’i has yet been named to head the ministry charged with preparing Israel’s home front for missile attack. Vilna’i is not expected to leave for China for another number of weeks, during which time he will continue in his present position, even after quitting the Knesset.
“After five intensive years of working to prepare the Israeli home front, I am moving to the next task – the strengthening of strategic, defense and economic ties with China, which is one of the most important countries in the world,” Vilna’i said after the cabinet approval.
“We are at a very dramatic stage for Israel’s security, and China may be one of the foundations of our success,” he added.
Vilna’i, who officially tendered his resignation from the Knesset on Sunday night, will be replaced by former MK Shakib Shanan, who will be sworn in on Wednesday.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said at the cabinet meeting he viewed the appointment of an ambassador to China as “an issue of national importance. We want to significantly increase our trade and economic ties with the rising powers of the East, especially China. We have many interests, including – for example – infrastructure projects that we are moving forward, and would like to see these powers involved in them.”
Netanyahu said that since many of those projects were decided at the governmental level, it was important to appoint an envoy who had a “ministerial rank.” Netanyahu has said recently he believed Israel’s exports to China, which last year amounted to $2.5 billion, could double and even triple in the short term. He also believes with the economic problems besetting Europe and North America, it would be wise for Israel’s economy – small and able to adapt relatively quickly to changes – to reorient itself toward eastern Asia, specifically China.
In the background information given to the ministers before they voted to approve Vilna’i’s appointment, he was described as having the “special skills” needed for this position, even though he does not speak Chinese or have any diplomatic experience.
Nevertheless, he has filled numerous senior governmental and army positions, including deputy defense minister, minister of science, culture and sport, as well as deputy chief of staff and OC Southern Command.
“Vilna’i’s high position as a general in the army, deputy chief of staff, Knesset member and government minister is very important in a country like China where access to the branches of government is extremely important,” the ministers were told. “There is also an added value in appointing as ambassador to China someone with a military, public and political background, including his tenure as science and culture minister – areas relevant to the Israeli-Chinese relationship.”
Vilna’i is one of the 11 political appointments – meaning appointments to ambassadorial or consular positions abroad not coming from the ranks of the foreign ministry – that Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman is allowed. Liberman has now used up seven of these appointments.
Vilna’i will be the second ambassador to China coming directly from around the cabinet table. Ora Namir, who was minister of labor and social welfare, left that post to become ambassador to China in 1996.