With a Conflict Over Iran Looming, Israel Sends New Envoy for the Post-Trump Era

(The Washington Post) -
Israel Ambassador to the United States Gilad Erdan. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel’s new ambassador to the United States began work last week as his country braced for conflict with its most important ally.

President Joe Biden has vowed to rejoin the international nuclear deal with Iran that was signed in 2015, when he was vice president. Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bitterly opposes the agreement and former president Donald Trump built his pro-Israel bona fides by renouncing it.

But Gilad Erdan, the new ambassador, does not appear rattled.

“Not every disagreement should lead to a crisis,” Erdan said in an interview with The Washington Post.

“Our bond with the United States of America and our shared values and interests are so deep and strong that sometimes we can agree to disagree,” Erdan said in the interview, his first with a U.S. publication since becoming ambassador to Washington.

But the new administration will present a marked contrast from what came before.

Trump called himself the most pro-Israel president ever, and courted an unusually close relationship with Netanyahu.

While in office, Trump moved the U.S. Embassy to Yerushalayim, recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and cut funding for the Palestinians. He became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Kosel, and helped broker diplomatic and economic agreements between Israel and four Muslim-majority countries.

Israel returned the favor, naming a neighborhood, train station and more in his honor.

Biden also calls himself proudly pro-Israel. He has welcomed the diplomatic breakthroughs and is unlikely to reverse Trump’s other moves.

But he is unlikely to show Israel as much consideration as Trump, particularly when it comes to Iran. At the same time, he is likely to deal with Israel differently than his old boss.

“Biden is not [Barack] Obama,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Unlike Obama, Biden grew up in a political time when being quote-unquote ‘good on Israel’ was not only expedient in one’s political career, but it was viewed as an ethical and moral position.”

“Biden is not looking for a fight,” he added. “But at the same time, he is going to pursue policies that are almost certain to annoy and aggravate Netanyahu.”

Biden and Netanyahu have known each other for decades, and Biden is well-versed in Israel’s objections to the United Nations-backed agreement that limited Iran’s nuclear activity in exchange for lifting economic sanctions.

The deal caused a breach between Israel and the Obama administration at the time.

And Israel’s view has only hardened that the agreement is too narrow, riddled with loopholes and was negotiated in bad faith by Tehran. Netanyahu and other Israeli officials accuse Iran of using money that flowed from the deal to finance terrorism and extremism that targets Israel.

“We’ll do everything to convince the administration of our views, because in Israel, unfortunately, we are the first to be threatened by the Iranian ayatollahs’ regime,” Erdan said.

The Biden administration, preoccupied with the coronavirus pandemic and economic crisis, has signaled that it may not hurry to rejoin the deal Trump left in 2018, and might wait for Iran to make a significant first move.

Biden has said he would rejoin the deal if Iran returns to compliance, and then use the pact as a starting point for a larger and stronger deal that would address most of Israel’s concerns.

“We are a long way from there,” Antony Blinken, Biden’s choice to become secretary of state, testified Tuesday during his Senate confirmation hearing.

But Israel’s leaders are warily eyeing other Biden senior foreign policy picks, especially Wendy Sherman, who was the lead U.S. negotiator for the 2015 agreement, and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, who helped initiate secret contacts with Iran that led to full negotiations.

Biden could also try to jump-start a return to the deal or broach an interim agreement over Israel’s objections, but would have only a short window to do so before Iran is preoccupied with its own elections this year, said Cailin Birch, a global economist with the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Biden has “been unequivocal in his stance that he’d like to reengage with Iran and he sees an imperfect deal as less dangerous” than no deal at all, Birch said. “But the timeline is very constrained and it’s a big ask for Iran.”

“It just feels unrealistic that something would happen in the next couple months,” she said.

Erdan said Israel shares Biden’s goal of an Iran with no ability to acquire nuclear weapons, and does not rule out all negotiation. But he voiced the same deep skepticism about Iran’s intentions that Netanyahu has for years.

“For us, Iran is an existential threat,” Erdan said.

The Israeli-Palestinian issue also hangs over the new U.S.-Israeli landscape, but with less immediacy.

Blinken reaffirmed U.S. support for a separate Palestinian state, and urged both Israel and the Palestinians to refrain from “unilateral actions” that make an eventual settlement more difficult. The phrase has often been used by U.S. officials to signal Washington’s opposition to the building and expansion of Jewish settlements on land Palestinians claim for a future state.

Blinken added that he does not foresee peace talks anytime soon.

“I think realistically, it’s hard to see near-term prospects for moving forward on that,” Blinken said.

The settlement issue chilled relations between Netanyahu and Obama from the start, and Biden was embarrassed when Israeli officials announced a large expansion of Jewish housing in East Yerushalayim while Biden was on an official visit to Israel as vice president in 2010.

Biden has not spoken with Netanyahu since his inauguration last Wednesday, though he will probably call him soon. Biden and his aides kept allies at arm’s length during the months since the Nov. 3 election, in keeping with U.S. practice.

But Erdan, who arrived in the United States in the summer as Israel’s United Nations envoy, has been seeking out Democrats since the election.

“I intend to try to expand those relations” with Democrats and constituencies Biden has prioritized, including Black and Latino Americans, he said.

Israel has strong bipartisan support in Congress, but Netanyahu had less reason to reach out to Democrats during the Trump era. Erdan said his reception has been positive.

“We respect whoever the people of the United States voted, decided to, as their president,” he said.

Erdan is the first Israeli envoy to hold both ambassadorships since the 1950s. The Washington position is the more coveted post.

The 50-year-old politician lives with his family in New York and plans to commute to Washington for a few days a week. For now, his office at the Israeli Embassy is sparse, with no personal items or books. Empty hooks for his predecessor’s pictures remain on the walls.

Erdan’s predecessor in Washington, Ron Dermer, is a close Netanyahu confidant who also forged strong ties to the Trump family.

The choice of Erdan turns the page in Washington, even though Netanyahu has remained in office throughout both the Obama and Trump administrations. Netanyahu announced his choice in May, months before Biden won.

Erdan said he is confident the new administration will be receptive to his outreach.

“Clearly, they see Israel as a very strong ally. They keep saying again and again that they will consult with Israel on important issues, and that is what is important for us,” Erdan said. “To continue our strong relations and cooperation because we know that we share the same values and also strong interests.”

Erdan is a former MK and member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, and is sometimes seen as a younger rival to the veteran prime minister. He has never previously lived outside Israel and has no prior diplomatic experience.

Erdan has, however, met Biden before. On a visit to the United States in 2013, Erdan encountered then-Vice President Biden on an Amtrak train. Biden, who commuted between Washington and Delaware when he represented the state in the Senate, is famously fond of Amtrak.

Erdan has a memento he may display whenever he sees the president again: a cellphone snap of the two men posing side by side on the moving train.