WASHINGTON – The announcement by Israel’s U.S. and UN ambassador, Gilad Erdan, that he will be leaving his job in the capital was seen as inevitable due to his ties with opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and to his own past role as a Likud lawmaker.
Now the question is who will represent the Bennett-Lapid government in D.C. – Erdan will stay on at the United Nations in New York – and will that person establish a stronger foothold there than the outgoing envoy did.
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Despite his best intentions to endear himself to Democrats – including outreach to the Black community and an effort to focus on climate change – Erdan will not be able to say when he leaves his post that he improved Israel’s bipartisan standing. However, he also didn’t make waves diplomatically during his six-month tenure in D.C.
That stands in stark contrast with his predecessor, Ron Dermer, who was universally seen as a direct extension of Netanyahu during his seven-year term in Washington, and is widely thought to have turned Israel into a political wedge issue in America.
Although Erdan was appointed without any prior background in diplomacy, he had a breadth of political and ministerial experience and sought to establish good relations with the Biden administration, members of Congress and the American-Jewish community while trying to remain in tune with Netanyahu – essentially a nonstarter in many ways as long as Netanyahu was prime minister.
Bennett also apparently wants an envoy who will be in line with his priorities – either politically, falling somewhere right-of-center on the political spectrum, or someone with a security background.
Names that have emerged for the post include former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot; Defense Ministry Director General Amir Eshel; former consul general in New York Dani Dayan; and former Israel Air Force Commander Eliezer Shkedy (although he has reportedly turned down the idea).
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All the candidates mooted so far are very familiar with America, whether due to their professional careers or their personal lives.
Experts believe Israel’s next ambassador will be tasked with helping to foster closer ties between the Biden administration and the Bennett-Lapid government, while endeavoring to renew bipartisan support for Israel in Washington and healing rifts between Israel and the American-Jewish community.
Aaron David Miller, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the next envoy should be “someone above the political fray, who both Bennett and Lapid trust and respect so that (the person isn’t) perceived to be just delivering mail (an obvious necessity), and who’s committed to restoring trust and restoring badly frayed bipartisanship in U.S.-Israeli relations.”
Miller adds that it’s important for the next ambassador to have “terrific English, great media skills, a sense of humor, and the emotional intelligence to understand just how much damage was done to the U.S.-Israeli relationship by Israel in the last four years.”
For his part, Michael Koplow, policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, told Haaretz that “whomever is appointed to succeed Erdan should prioritize ensuring that (Secretary of State Antony) Blinken and (Israeli Foreign Minister Yair) Lapid’s ‘no surprises’ commitment is kept.” Netanyahu has attempted to weaponize the commitment to the United States of “no surprises” on matters relating to Iran’s nuclear program – against the Bennett-Lapid coalition.
Officials and former diplomats, however, believe that the former prime minister is deliberately attempting to harm the U.S.-Israel strategic relationship, and that the commitment to transparency has always been a tenet of the two countries’ diplomatic relations.
Koplow added that the new ambassador should expend extra effort to explain Israel’s positions to Democrats in Congress and also listen to their concerns. Criticism of Israel among progressive Democrats reached an unprecedented level in May following Israel’s recent war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the unrest in East Jerusalem.
While several of those lawmakers have expressed cautious optimism with the new government assuming power in Jerusalem, its next envoy in Washington will likely need to address the current friction head-on – without attempting to divert attention to other issues of interest among progressives.
“It will also be important for the next ambassador to spend time with varied groups throughout the American Jewish community to give American Jews a sense that Israel is committed to Jewish peoplehood irrespective of policy disagreements or differences in worldview,” Koplow noted.
While Erdan opted not to wade into that particular debate, Dermer argued that Israel should spend its energy reaching out to American evangelicals, whom he described as “the backbone of Israel’s support in the United States,” instead of American Jews who are “disproportionately among our critics.”
Erdan is slated to conclude his stint in the capital by November, as per the prior government’s coalition agreement.