7 Things to Know About Gilad Erdan, Israel’s New Ambassador to the U.S.

From telling Donald Trump about a terrorist attack that was actually a road accident to waging war on indoor smoking in Israel, these are the key moments in Erdan's political career

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Gilad Erdan speaking to the Israeli press, May 7, 2020.
Gilad Erdan speaking to the Israeli press, May 7, 2020.Credit: Amit Shabi
Ben Samuels
Ben Samuels

WASHINGTON – Gilad Erdan officially began his tenure as dual Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and United Nations last week, replacing Ron Dermer following his seven-year tenure in the U.S. capital. Erdan, a former Likud minister who was appointed to the posts by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year, has been Israel’s ambassador to the UN since August.

Erdan, who was first elected to the Knesset in 2003, is the first Israeli diplomat to hold both positions simultaneously since the 1950s. The 50-year-old, who served as public security minister from 2015 and has no prior diplomatic experience, accepted Netanyahu’s offer for the dual positions and will divide his time between Washington and New York. 

Here are seven moments from Erdan’s political career that could become relevant as he tries to establish good relations with the Biden administration, members of Congress and the American-Jewish community...

1. He greeted Trump in Israel by telling him a car accident may have been a terror attack

When then-President Donald Trump landed for his first official visit to Israel in May 2017, Erdan was among the Israeli dignitaries to greet him as he deplaned at Ben-Gurion International Airport. Erdan used his 15 seconds with the president to tell him a car accident that had just occurred in Tel Aviv hours before he landed was a potential terror attack. The Israel police, however, had determined 90 minutes before Trump landed that the road accident was indeed an accident. Erdan told Trump the police was checking if it was a terror incident or not. 

Erdan claimed he did not receive the update because participants at the welcoming ceremony were required to hand in their cellphones. However, this did not stop his fellow Likud lawmaker, Oren Hazan, from taking a selfie with the U.S. president.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan meeting with traffic police commanders, January 2020.Credit: Haim Zach/GPO

2. He falsely claimed an Arab citizen killed by police was an ISIS-sympathizing terrorist

The incident with Trump was not the first occasion in which Erdan falsely labeled non-terror events as terrorism. In January 2017, in what proved to be the biggest scandal of Erdan’s career to date, an Arab Israeli citizen, Yakub Abu al-Kiyan, was shot dead by police in the southern Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran. Protesters had been demonstrating there against planned state demolitions of houses in order to clear the way for a new Jewish town. 

Erdan claimed Abu al-Kiyan, a math teacher with a doctorate in chemistry, was an ISIS-inspired terrorist attempting to ram his car at police officers and intentionally killing one of them by doing so. These allegations were debunked and the Shin Bet security service, while the Justice Ministry and independent British forensic experts later supported Abu al-Kiyan’s innocence. 

Erdan took pride – and received international media coverage – for the fact that during his time as minister in charge of the police, the number of Arab Israelis recruited to the force grew significantly. In 2019, he was criticized by Arab-Israeli lawmakers for saying that the large amount of violence and murder cases in Arab towns was due to cultural issues.

Police and Bedouin clashing in the village of Umm al-Hiran, southern Israel, January 17, 2017.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

3. He spearheaded an anti-smoking law that revolutionized Israel’s approach to cigarettes

While serving as a Likud lawmaker, Erdan sponsored legislation in 2006 aimed at boosting enforcement of anti-smoking bans in public places – rules that had existed for decades but were rarely implemented in Israel. The Erdan-led legislation increased fines for both smokers and business owners, effectively eliminating smoking from most restaurants and cafés, while creating mechanisms for local leaders to better apply the rules.

Erdan’s initiative on this issue helped Israel catch up with the rest of the world, where smoking bans were in the process of being both passed and enforced for indoor areas.

The legislation revolutionized Israel’s approach to smoking and brought Erdan to national prominence, including as a character on satirical TV show “Eretz Nehederet” (“What a Wonderful Land”), the Israeli equivalent to “Saturday Night Live.”

4. He played a key role in Israel’s campaign against the BDS movement

Erdan’s most notable work to date has been his efforts in combating the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. He has exerted diplomatic, economic and legal pressure on anyone connected with the group. He coordinated anti-BDS efforts with the Mossad, and worked to establish a database of Israeli citizens who promoted and supported the movement. 

He also urged Israelis to cooperate with the state in ridding the country of foreigners who support BDS and promoted a law that prevents proponents of boycott from entering Israel. He compared pro-boycott advocates to those supporting boycotts of Jewish-owned businesses in Nazi Germany.

Gilad Erdan talking to the media in Washington on the day of the Abraham Accords being signed, September 15, 2020. Credit: Noam Galai

5. He wants to be known as ‘the Green Ambassador’

During his first cabinet-level tenure as environmental protection minister, Erdan prioritized reducing greenhouse gases and combating climate change. He was a proponent of implementing the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference’s recommendations to reduce greenhouse gas growth. He was an outspoken critic of his own government’s planning and building reforms, which he called “a complete violation of the balance between development and the need to conserve the environment.” He also criticized water conservation campaigns for encouraging wasteful habits instead of encouraging the long-term economization of water.

He has also been a vocal conservationist, vocally opposing plans to build holiday resort villages on state beaches. The topic remains a passion for him, and one of his first public statements as ambassador was to praise U.S. President Joe Biden for rejoining the Paris Agreement. Officials familiar with his thinking say he wants to be known as “the Green Ambassador” and plans on dedicating much of his focus on collaborating with the new administration in combating climate change.

6. He wants Israel to relax its gun regulations, taking a page from U.S. gun laws

Upon assuming his position as public security minister, Erdan enthusiastically supported increasing the number of civilians in possession of privately owned legal firearms. His policy empowered more than 500,000 armed Israelis to walk the streets. He worked to ease restrictions on obtaining weapons permits, receiving widespread criticism for making weapons readily accessible as a political tool rather than a public safety mechanism.

7. He led a tough policy against asylum seekers in Israel

Erdan was known to be notoriously tough on asylum seekers during his brief tenure as interior minister from 2014-2015, proposing to eliminate the Holot detention facility in southern Israel “so that it doesn’t constitute a more comfortable alternative” and leading the efforts to begin deportation of refugees without their consent. He also recently pushed to take any relevant fines from asylum seekers who violated coronavirus regulations from their compulsory savings accounts in a bid to “bolster deterrence.”

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