Behind the Scenes of the Conversation That Catapulted the Israeli Minister to the Beijing Embassy

Weeks ago, between bites of burekas pastries and slices of cucumber and carrots, Home Front Defense Minister Matan Vilnai and Avigdor Lieberman joked about the former's next career move. Now, it's actually happening.

A light conversation in the sitting area outside the government meeting room was all it took to bring about the appointment of the Minister for Home Front Defense Matan Vilnai to the position of Israel’s ambassador to China. Vilnai appeared Tuesday in front of the Civil Service Commission’s senior appointments committee. The appointment will be brought for government approval on Sunday. By the summer, Vilnai will be enjoying himself in Beijing.

Several weeks ago, Vilnai sat with Minister of Industry, Trade and Labour and Minister of Minorities Shalom Simhom and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in the coffee area outside the government meeting room. Between bites of burekas pastries and slices of cucumber and carrots, the three joked about how Vilnai’s next career move should be Israel’s ambassador to China.

 Minister Matan Vilnai
David Bachar

Vilnai did not believe the conversation was anything more than a joke. However, one day after the meeting, he received a phone call from Lieberman. “I was completely serious regarding China,” said Lieberman to Vilnai. Several hours later, the Home Front Defense minister received a similar phone call from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who urged him to take the position. Netanyahu told Vilnai that China is a huge challenge for the State of Israel, especially in regard to the widening Israeli exports to the Chinese market.

According to sources close to Vilnai, the suggestion came at a perfect time. Despite the fact that Vilnai has been serving as Home Front Defense for a year, he has no actual budget nor workers, and his ability to freely act as a minister is extremely limited. “He planned something big, but the Finance Ministry prevented it from being realized,” said the source.

One minister from the Atzmaut Party said that party leader Ehud Barak was barely involved in the appointment of Vilnai. “We are not talking about a political deal between Atzmaut and Yisrael Beiteinu,” said the minister. According to him, Vilnai spoke with Barak and asked to be allowed to be released from his current position in order to serve in his new one. Barak responded positively.

Vilnai is slated to replace Amos Nadai, a professional appointment of the Foreign Ministry, who served as ambassador to China in recent years. Vilnai will most likely arrive in Beijing during the months of May-June. “[Matan] really wants this,” said one of Vilnai’s close associates. “In recent weeks he has met with many experts on China. He is taking the matter seriously and is learning the subject.”

On Monday, Vilnai successfully passed a hearing in the Civil Service Commission’s senior appointments committee, and on Sunday his appointment will be brought forth for government approval. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Monday that “China is an important country that we are interested in strengthening ties with. Thus it is fitting that the Israeli representation will be of the highest caliber. I am convinced that Matan Vilnai, who served as a minister in the Israeli government and as a major-general in the Israel Defense Forces, will fill the role in the best way possible that will put an emphasis on the significance of the relationship between the countries.

Vilnai was neither the first ex-Labor Party member nor the first minister to be appointed to the position of Israeli ambassador to China. In 1996, Ora Namir, who served as Minister of Social Affairs as well as Minister of the Environment in the Rabin and Peres governments, was appointed to the position. Namir served as ambassador for four years during which she became a well-known figure in China.

Read this article in Hebrew