Next week, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu steps off his special flight to New York – his first time in the US since he was elected nine months ago – he will be greeted by his ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, a veteran senior politician and Likud member appointed by the prime minister in 2020. The backdrop of this visit is the fact that US President Joe Biden hasn’t yet agreed to meet with Netanyahu because of what he sees as a problematic extreme right-wing government – promoting judicial reforms and building in Judea and Samaria.
Erdan has been serving as Israel’s ambassador to the UN since August 2020, a role he briefly held concurrently with that of ambassador to the US in 2021. This dual responsibility is a rare occurrence; Abba Eban was the last person to hold both positions simultaneously in the 1950s. Prior to his diplomatic career, Erdan had a distinguished run in Israeli politics, serving as an MK from 2003-2020 and occupying various ministerial positions.
His time at the UN has been marked by notable achievements, such as the initiation and passage of a critical resolution in the UN General Assembly aimed at combating Holocaust denial, a feat for an Israeli-led resolution at the UN. He was also elected vice president of the General Assembly in 2022.
During his five-year stint as Israel’s strategic affairs minister, Erdan played a central role in countering efforts to delegitimize and boycott Israel, exposing the antisemitic nature and terrorist connections of the BDS campaign.
As national security minister, he prioritized the safety of Israeli citizens during lone-wolf terrorist attacks through innovative strategies, including combating online radicalization and utilizing advanced technologies for threat identification. He is a married father of four, originally hailing from Ashkelon.
Erdan agreed to provide a behind-the-scenes glance at the important work of the Israeli mission to the UN; commented on the toxicity in Israeli society; and shared his personal aspirations.
Ambassador Erdan, I assume you’ve been getting ready for the big day, when the prime minister will address the UN GA.
Actually, in my years as Israel’s ambassador to the UN, it’s the first time I’ve hosted Netanyahu at the UN assembly. During my first year as ambassador, he opted for a video message because of COVID-19; the second year, then-prime minister Naftali Bennett spoke; and the third year, after two years of my service in New York, Yair Lapid, as acting prime minister, took the stage. (I was seated above him, as I coordinated the event.)
It must feel different for you when the leader of your party arrives at the UN GA – certainly Netanyahu, who is considered a world leader.
It certainly is a very different situation. The prime minister is perhaps Israel’s most effective representative when speaking at the UN. While last year’s focus was on [the war in] Ukraine, and the year before centered on the pandemic, it remains to be seen what this year’s main topic will be. I anticipate and am working towards efforts to isolate Iran, due to its ongoing nuclear ambitions, as indicated by the recent IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] report.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s antisemitic comments this week prove what we’ve been saying for years. The ongoing criticism towards Israel feels misplaced, especially when such sentiment comes from the Palestinian leadership. Our goal should be to encourage other nations to see Abbas’s departure as a necessary step. This isn’t merely about Hamas in Gaza but rather [about] recognizing the Palestinian Authority under Abbas as an adversarial entity.
All the pressure of UN countries on Israel [on the Palestinian issue] and all the talk is completely irrelevant as long as it is the leader of the Palestinians who isn’t expected to act in any sort of manner. It’s not just the fact that they transfer payments to terrorists. It seems that the man [Abbas] has lost his mind and is irrelevant. In the past, we used to have to explain to the world that the Palestinians, especially Abbas, are promoting the denial and distortion of the Holocaust.
Do you actually think that world leaders are beginning to understand this situation of hypocrisy?
It is time for Israel’s campaign to focus on removing Abbas from the arena, nonetheless.
In my opinion, that at times, because of military operations, we focus on Hamas or [Palestinian Islamic] Jihad as our enemies, but we should actually focus on the Palestinian Authority under Abbas as an enemy.
Are you suggesting that Israel try to help pick a successor?
No. Israel will never designate a preferred replacement [for a Palestinian leader] because by doing so, it will eliminate the chance of that person getting that position to leadership. It will cause the opposite result. The focus should be that Abbas is not legitimate as an interlocutor.
In Israel, people are less exposed to the Israel apartheid campaign. I’ve been experiencing it here for two years. At the UN, we can see very clearly that we don’t have a partner [for peace]. The Palestinians just want to bring an end to the idea of the Jewish state through delegitimization.
The Palestinians haven’t yet agreed to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. So, in a situation where there is a complete refusal to recognize us, and there is pure antisemitism among these leaders, decisions are promoted in UNESCO to erase the aspect of Jewish history from places like Tel Jericho [a UNESCO-nominated archaeological site in Judea and Samaria with Jewish roots]. We need to join forces, and American Jewry should also explain this to the world.
It’s not just a security issue that Hamas controls Gaza. It’s the fact that the PA behaves like an enemy authority. I hope that the American administration will also internalize this and think twice about who it pressures incorrectly and who it should be pressuring.
Given that the United Arab Emirates sometimes supports pro-Palestinian motions at the UN, how do you handle this intricate relationship?
First of all, it can be very frustrating. Many times there are countries with excellent relations with Israel but that vote against us, even though the relations are becoming better at the same time. That’s exactly what is happening with the Emirates. In their defense, I will say that many European countries are close to us and [yet] vote against us in the UN. So in Arab countries, I understand that internal politics there, and their leaders’ concerns about developments, affect a pattern of behavior.
I think we should be satisfied with regard to our international relations in the past three years, with the signing of the Abraham Accords with the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco. I was ambassador in Washington during the signing of these agreements. It is a fact that our relations with these countries continue to tighten, and embassies have been opened. We should not look at these [anti-Israel] votes as black or white.
Is there still a risk of the PA gaining recognition as a state from the UN?
This threat is present all the time, and it was raised in dialogue with Abbas and with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The Palestinians are testing their luck. On the one hand, they really want to promote this type of diplomatic pressure; but on the other hand, they understand that there will not be a majority in the Security Council.
Part of my job here in the US is to check that we maintain the majority against it, or coordinate with the American administration to identify if there is an escalation. The Palestinians have done it in the last year. They took advantage of the General Assembly to pass a decision taking the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict to The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. They operate on two legal levels: ICC, lawsuits against IDF soldiers; and [also have] separately approached the ICC in order to write a legal opinion on what attitudes UN countries should have towards Israel because they feel that what Israel is doing in Judea and Samaria is annexation de facto.
We asked states to urge the tribunal not to intervene. But if they move ahead anyway, their decisions will eliminate any chance that the next Palestinian leader will be able to be more conciliatory than what the court in The Hague [has] decided.
Let’s talk about Saudi Arabia. Are we actually seeing the relations of Israel and the Saudis as something that can become official? Within the UN corridors, how are you involved in mediating relations between the two countries?
Israel’s diplomacy, to be honest, is frequently managed discreetly, primarily by the prime minister. But once there’s an agreement in place, I [as ambassador] play a role in numerous joint events to strengthen ties – whether in Washington or now at the UN. We strive to ensure that any diplomatic activity becomes irreversible. While I often interact with ambassadors from the UAE and other nations, some ambassadors seek to enhance relations with us at the UN. Given the Abraham Accords, there’s now greater openness to engaging with me, even from countries we aren’t formally tied to. However, I won’t disclose a list of these ambassadors, to prevent any unintended repercussions.
Tell us a bit about your relations with American Jews, or more specifically, about your relationship with the American Jewish leaders as a former politician for a conservative party that is promoting judicial reform.
Every two to three weeks, I address the leaders of Jewish communities in the US. Given my role as ambassador in the US and my family’s residence here, I maintain close ties with all heads of Jewish organizations. Many of these organizations are particularly interested in the UN’s proceedings and our status within it. The primary focus of debate on Israel’s judicial reforms centers around the Jewish community and the American government. Yet, these issues rarely surface during UN meetings. Occasionally, I’m approached for clarification on topics they might have seen in international media, largely due to misunderstandings.
It’s important to note that a significant portion of UN member countries are not democracies, and as such, internal affairs of other nations are often of no concern to them. Furthermore, the UN generally refrains from intervening in a country’s domestic decisions. For instance, even in the face of gender-based violence in Iran, the issue barely made its way to the Human Rights Committee, let alone spurred a formal discussion.
Drawing from my background as a former yeshiva student, I often explain that the debate has been deeply entrenched in Jewish culture for millennia. These discussions, though intense and emotionally charged, are anchored in democratic principles. Take the US, for example: We’ve witnessed millions of Americans protesting, such as in the aftermath of George Floyd’s tragic death, with minimal instances of violence. These peaceful demonstrations [in Israel] are not marred by widespread violence, fatalities, or injuries. I challenge you to find another country that faces such unwarranted scrutiny and undue criticism as Israel does. It’s disconcerting when almost every morning, a representative of another nation stands to lecture us on democracy, despite Israel’s unwavering commitment to this sacred value. As a diplomat, however, I refrain from taking a stance on these matters.
There are reports that suggest that Netanyahu might meet President Biden at the UN. Does a meeting at the UN carry less prestige than one at the White House?
Every encounter between the Israeli prime minister and the US president holds significance for both nations. My role here, and as the former ambassador in Washington, has deepened my appreciation for the crucial relationship between Israel and the United States. This includes my interactions with Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the UN. However, the delay in this crucial meeting [between Netanyahu and Biden] hints at the influence of US internal politics. Who stands to gain from this delay? Both Israel and the US share common adversaries.
I firmly believe in the importance of these meetings, though the decision isn’t mine to make. There’s strong reason to anticipate that a meeting between the [Israeli] prime minister and the US president will occur soon, even if its timing and location in New York remain uncertain.
How would you describe your interactions with the US delegation at the UN?
Our cooperation is at an all-time high across all fronts. We conduct military exercises alongside the US and Gulf countries. [Defense Minister Yoav] Gallant visited DC recently, indicating the depth of our collaboration. While ministers might not frequently travel to Washington – and I won’t speculate on the reasons why – it’s not as if Gallant doesn’t communicate with [US Secretary of Defense] Lloyd Austin or that Strategic Affairs Minister Ron [Dermer] isn’t in touch with Jake Sullivan [National Security Advisor to the US president]. Our collaboration spans political and economic domains. The only aspect missing is the symbolic representation of these interactions. Despite this, we continue to discuss crucial topics on our shared agenda. I genuinely hope any present delays or gaps in our coordination will soon be resolved.
As someone affiliated with the Likud party, watching the events unfold in Israel from a distance must be challenging. Many of your friends are now in the coalition. How does that feel?
It’s a mix of emotions. On one side, I receive messages from old friends expressing relief that I’m not entangled in the prolonged and intense debates back home, debates that are often marred by strong emotions. Yet, having dedicated 27 years to serving the Israeli public in various capacities, I can’t help but feel a void. I yearn for the vibrancy of the public sphere and the opportunity to leverage my experience and skills to effect positive change. I foresee my return to that arena sooner rather than later.
The nation is in turmoil. Given your roots in political affairs, what’s your take on the current situation? How do you interpret today’s reality in Israel?
As an ambassador and diplomat, it’s not my place to categorize actions of elected officials as right or wrong. When I was a minister or MK, I wouldn’t have appreciated ambassadors rating the government’s performance. However, speaking as a citizen of Israel, I yearn for unity and mutual respect rather than division and animosity.
Such internal rifts not only weaken us but also offer ammunition to our adversaries. Whether it’s [Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan] Nasrallah, military operations at the border, or BDS and those who harbor anti-Israel and antisemitic sentiments, they seize these opportunities. I’ve observed some even attempting to exploit these divisions within the American Jewish community to turn sentiment against us. My sincere hope is that these discussions culminate in understanding and compromise, sooner rather than later.
Our adversaries eagerly await opportunities to further delegitimize Israel’s existence. It’s crucial that we tread carefully on the international stage, particularly when addressing US Jews, ensuring that our words are chosen wisely and thoughtfully.
Let’s delve into the personal side of things. Your family relocated to the US, and your children are now receiving a Jewish education. Can you highlight the differences in life you’ve experienced?
The first year was profoundly challenging. Our move coincided with the onset of the pandemic. People often say the first year after immigration is the toughest, but nobody could have prepared us for the challenges of relocating during a global health crisis. The grim reality of the pandemic was everywhere: trucks filled with victims, and many Jews migrating to places like the Hamptons or Florida. What was once a simple task, like setting up a play date, became an ordeal, especially during the pandemic. The challenges multiplied with our children having to learn a new language, predominantly through virtual platforms like Zoom. The vibrant atmosphere of schools was replaced with masked faces, muted voices, and the absence of direct human interaction.
They say children usually adjust by the time Hanukkah arrives; for us, it took an entire year. The cultural life we were looking forward to – Broadway, NBA games, various events – was at a standstill. But things have improved since then. Just recently, my son enlisted in the IDF.
One revelation from my time here, something I felt was lacking in Israel, is the approach to Jewish education. In Israel, we don’t emphasize enough the broader spectrum of Judaism – beyond rituals and prayers. It’s about our heritage and traditions. Here, especially in Conservative and Reform [Jewish day] schools, students graduate with a rich understanding of Jewish heritage, making informed decisions about their level of observance. This depth of understanding underscores the significance of knowing one’s roots and values. In contrast, Israel sometimes takes these for granted, resulting in a knowledge gap about Jewish values and traditions. It’s something I hope will be addressed more comprehensively in Israel’s education system in the future.
The key to preserving our heritage and countering assimilation is to encourage Jewish communities and philanthropists to support Jewish education. The more we foster this education, especially in the US, the stronger our community will be. Initiatives like Taglit-Birthright and Masa play important roles in this mission.
Netanyahu has extended your tenure, and you are scheduled to conclude your service in August 2024. Rumor has it that you aren’t planning to return to the political scene as long as Netanyahu is still around.
I have an entire year ahead of me at the UN. As for my future plans, there’s been some speculation, but I’d like to clarify a few points. Firstly, I want to dispel any rumors suggesting that I have no intention of returning to politics. While I’m not ready to make any formal announcements, I have been in conversations with individuals who share an interest in the political landscape.
(Commentary: As a staunch believer in the fact that diplomats should be apolitical, Erdan won’t speak of his future aspirations, but many senior figures in the Likud have told the Magazine that Erdan will only return to the Likud after Netanyahu steps down.
“Erdan has said to many of us [in the Likud] that he won’t repeat the mistakes of those who make statements while Prime Minister Netanyahu was still in office,” a source said. “If Erdan returns to Israel in another year and Netanyahu continues as prime minister, he will carefully consider his role in the public arena. This might entail engaging in activities beyond the Knesset or government.”
Another source added, “He wants to make it clear that he fully intends to re-enter politics. Within Likud, there’s a prevailing belief that he possesses both the potential and the desire to assume a significant role in the post-Netanyahu era.)
As we approach the new year, what are your hopes and desires?
What we need most right now is unity. I hope that in the coming year, we can focus on the strengths and virtues of collaboration rather than dwelling on our shortcomings. It has undeniably been a challenging year… My prayers are for security and unity within our nation.
I remain committed to my efforts here at the UN, providing the Israeli security system with the space it needs to address our challenges effectively. It’s crucial to recognize that the UN, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe astutely observed, can often resemble a house of falsehoods with significant distortions. Therefore, it’s of paramount importance to continue our battle here against anti-Israeli decisions that can lead to boycotts or exert undue pressure on companies.
In the words of David Ben-Gurion: “Israel should always act in accordance with its own interests, without being swayed by the distorted decisions of the UN.”
This lesson has been a guiding principle for me, and will continue to be.