Vilnai Anxious to Start as Envoy to China, but Incumbent Won't Budge

Tug-of-war reportedly over who will greet Netanyahu in Beijing in June.

In mid-February, when the government voted unanimously to appoint Home Front Defense Minister Matan Vilnai as Israel's next ambassador to China, Vilnai was sure he'd be on his way to Beijing within weeks, maybe even just after Pesach. However, as Vilnai is now realizing, reality is complex, frustrating, and filled with gray areas.

Sources at the Foreign Ministry noted that Vilnai wanted to be in Beijing by early May. He hurriedly quit his position in the Knesset immediately after being appointed. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman also wanted to see him take on the position as soon as possible. However, they all forgot one important detail: Israel already has an ambassador serving in China, Amos Nadai, and he is in no hurry to give up his seat.

Matan Vilnai
Ariel Hermoni / Defense Ministry

Nadai had served for four years in the position when Lieberman took the unusual step last summer of extending his assignment for an additional year, until August 2012. After the government approved Vilnai's appointment, sources at the Foreign Ministry began to make overtures toward Nadai, asking if he would agree to shorten his term and return home earlier than planned.

According to two senior Foreign Ministry officials who spoke with Nadai, the ambassador made it clear he has no intention of returning to Israel even one day before the end of the official end of his term. He said he received a letter from Lieberman informing him that he had been approved for a fifth year of service in Beijing, and that he would be returning to Israel in August 2012.

Nadai is an experienced diplomat who has served in a series of senior roles in the Foreign Ministry. In recent months, he waged a struggle against the director general of the ministry, Rafi Barak, over his failure to be appointed to the role of internal ministry comptroller. Nadai even retained lawyers and submitted a formal complaint to the state comptroller over irregularities and other extenuating circumstances which led to the position being granted to Israel's ambassador in Nairobi, Yaakov Keidar.

During Lieberman's visit to China a few weeks ago he spoke with Nadai about Vilnai's appointment and the possibility of shortening his term. According to ministry sources, Lieberman asked Nadai to meet with Vilnai and try to reach an agreement with him on a scheduled time for them to make the switch.

Because of the delay, Vilnai is not expected to be present for Netanyahu's upcoming visit to Beijing in June. Opening his term with Netanyahu's visit could have eased Vilnai's entry into the job and help him establish direct relations with senior Chinese government officials. Since Vilnai's term is expected to last only two or three years, he will probably not get the privilege of hosting an Israeli prime minister in China.

One theory circulating around the Foreign Ministry is that Nadai is refusing to cut his term short because he does not want to miss Netanyahu's visit. Nadai worked hard for three years, sources say, laying the groundwork for the visit, and it has been cancelled at the last minute once before.

Government ministers who spoke with Vilnai said he is very frustrated. At the last cabinet meeting, which dealt with home front security issues, Vilani was said to be particularly annoyed. He is in a hurry to quit the Knesset, under pressure to do from Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who wants to clear the way for Shachiv Shnaan to take his place. Meanwhile, he remains minister of home front defense, which has no ministry nor budget. Thus, Vilnai is in limbo until August.

He said he recently had a short preparatory meeting with Nadai and is planning to meet with him again soon.

"The foreign minister spoke with Amos Nadai regarding the conclusion of his term," said Vilnai. "I would like to depart for China in late June, and he wants to leave in August, and we are trying to find a time that is good for both of us."

Said Nadai: "Foreign service regulations establish that the outgoing ambassador and the incoming ambassador work together to determine the appropriate time to make the switch and that's how it will be this time as well."