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Q&A

Israeli ambassador: Protest against Iran exposed U.N.’s ‘distorted moral compass’

Gilad Erdan: ‘We separate between the people of Iran and the ruthless radical regime that oppresses them’

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Israel’s Ambassador to the U.N. Gilad Erdan holds up a sign stating 'Iranian Women Deserve Freedom Now' seconds after Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi began addressing world leaders during the United Nations General Assembly on September 19, 202,3 in New York City.

Israel’s Permanent Representative to the U.N. Gilad Erdan had a viral moment this week that, judging from the news coverage and reactions on his social media, was seen around the world.

When Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi stood in front of the United Nations’s green marble wall on Tuesday, ready to begin his speech to the General Assembly, Erdan stood up and held a photo of Mahsa Amini, the woman whose brutal killing by Iran’s modesty police a year ago inspired a protest movement in the Islamic republic. U.N. security grabbed Erdan and escorted him out of the room.

From that moment on, Erdan’s spokeswoman’s phone was bombarded with messages from CNN, Fox News, The Washington Post, and more. The video was viewed over 3 million times on his Instagram alone.

On the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, the ambassador took time out to speak with Jewish Insider about his protest and why the U.N. still matters for Israel.

Lahav Harkov: What sparked your act of protest?

Gilad Erdan: Every year, we decide to leave the GA hall when the leader of the only country that calls publicly to annihilate the Jewish state comes on the podium.

This year, it was on the first day of the high-level week and when I was walking over from my office I saw the very moving exhibition of Iranians against the regime. I posted a few Instagram stories from their exhibition that was very moving, with photos [of] all the women killed. I spoke with people there, and they saw I was Israeli. I asked if they have one of the signs there, and they said they would help me get the original photo. 

I asked someone on my staff to go to Staples to print it out. I didn’t want to be stopped on the way in, so we used paper that I could fold easily and I carried it with me.

I felt that really we should highlight to the world the fact that we stand in solidarity with the Iranian people…and say that we separate between the people of Iran and the ruthless radical regime that oppresses them. 

LH: Was that a normal reaction by security?

GE: I never expected them to forcibly drag me out. It was crazy that they touched me. I was silent, so I thought maybe they’d say something to me and then I would stop and leave.

When security detained me, I told them that when the war in Ukraine broke out, I remember many ambassadors were holding signs and Ukrainian flags and no one did anything. 

It’s an anecdote that made the whole story much more interesting, because it showed the world how distorted the moral compass of the U.N. is. They’re so pressured to give a mass murderer oppressing his people the red carpet treatment, but the one silently holding up a sign is dragged forcibly outside. 

Most of the Arab world covered the story and I received thousands of emails from Iranians across the globe.

LH: What did Netanyahu think about what you did?

GE: He was very satisfied. He wanted to visit the [Iranian protesters’] exhibition also, but unfortunately it took place only on the first day, when he was very busy.

Netanyahu is right [to include props in his speeches]. There are so many countries and so many speeches that you have to think about how to draw attention to your message…and I have the chutzpah to fight for the truth.

Once, I smuggled a big rock into the Security Council to demonstrate that rock-throwing is terrorism, even if they refuse to verify and report that fact. The president of the Security Council was [from] Norway and he claimed I endangered them because, as I had told them, the rock was a weapon. I told them it’s a weapon if you throw it at a moving car.

So, I learned my lesson. When I lit a memorial candle in the Security Council, I used an electric one and didn’t try to light a fire.

LH: How much does the U.N. General Assembly really matter for Israel?

GE: It’s a question that I am often asked by Jews in the U.S. I tell them about what [first Israeli Prime Minister David] Ben-Gurion said…that the Jewish state was not established because of the United Nations, but because of courageous Jews. “It does not matter what the [non-Jews] say; it matters what the Jews do.” When it comes to protecting the lives of Israelis, we should only care about Israel.

At the same time, today our enemies don’t think they can defeat us on the conventional battlefield, so their weapon is to delegitimize our existence. They call us an apartheid state and try to convince young decision-makers that Israel is the biggest human rights violator in the world and should be a pariah…They pressure Ben & Jerry’s and others to boycott Israel, they go after us in the International Criminal Court, and their claims ignite antisemitic attacks, because [the attackers] don’t differentiate between Israelis and Jews.

It’s extremely important to be present here, to expose the lies, the hypocrisy, and the double standards. That’s how I go on the offensive.

It’s also important to showcase Israel’s achievements. I organized two very important meetings for Netanyahu. He met with seven presidents of Pacific island countries and five presidents from the Caribbean. They each have the same vote as anyone else here. They all want to gain from our tech solutions, mainly in water, food security, some asked for healthcare and cyber defense. I told them, I separate the two things, but I always present them with a traffic light [chart] of how they vote regarding Israel. Micronesia is number 1 – they [are] 100% with Israel. Hungary does too. We took 40-50 important [U.N.] votes to build this scale.

We try to brand Israel as the solution, not the problem. When we hold these meetings, we say it’s separate — morally we want to share our expertise because we cherish human rights. At the same time, they should understand that Israelis also face challenges…I ask them not to play politics with us. These are the tactics that I use here.

LH: Have they been effective?

GE: I have been working for the last three years, and it is still an uphill battle, but every year we succeed in further eroding the anti-Israeli majority. We’re still losing when the Palestinians present their package [of resolutions], but historically they had 140-150 with them, and this year they got only 87 votes when they presented the resolution to investigate Israel in the International Court of Justice. Many countries now prefer to just disappear during the vote, which is fine — baby steps. I think our position here is getting stronger every year. If we’re patient and understand we need [to] fight to achieve long term goals, exactly like how the Abraham Accords were achieved, we will also shatter the anti-Israel majority. It’s a matter of time.

LH: The U.S. is the only permanent member of the U.N. Security Council whose leader attended the General Assembly this week. Is that a sign of the U.N.’s diminishing influence? If so, is that good for Israel?

GE: I think there are different reasons why each one didn’t send their president. You can’t generalize. I do agree that today, not only because of the competition between the U.S. and China, we also have the war in Ukraine — the U.N. has gone almost back to the Cold War, where you look to see which country is on the side of the U.S., or is with Russia or afraid of Russia. The Security Council is almost paralyzed when it comes to conflicts. If one of the two sides has an interest,  the other will make sure nothing effective can come out of it…When it comes to preventing war and solving conflicts the U.N. definitely lost [its ability], especially now.

But it’s still the biggest international organization, so we cannot ignore it. We have to fight for ourselves here.

LH: Israel appears close to joining the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, an effort that you initiated when you were ambassador to the U.S. What was your role? Where do you think that is going? 

GE: I knew Alejandro Mayorkas when he was deputy secretary of homeland security, and I was [Israel’s] public security minister, and we discussed the idea [in 2017]. Then he became secretary of homeland security soon after I became ambassador, so we started working on it.

I looked into the obstacles to joining the program and I realized that the American officials don’t understand that Israelis who are 21-22 years old didn’t graduate from university yet, so they don’t have jobs, which is different from other countries. That’s why our refusal rate was too high. So many soldiers right after their IDF service were refused visas. I convinced him to review their policy and the instructions. 

I established a joint team with Mayorkas. I met with the State Department and [U.S. Special Representative for the Palestinians] Hady Amr at the time. He told me that without solving the issue of Palestinian-Americans, it’ll never happen. So I spoke with the head of the Shin Bet at the time, Nadav Argaman and he told me if the Shin Bet is the last obstacle, he guarantees he will find solutions.

Then I did one more thing, which I think was the most crucial. When Naftali Bennett became prime minister and came to meet President [Joe] Biden, I convinced his team to ask Biden to say Israel will be added to the Visa Waiver Program. Bennett accepted the idea and he raised it with the president. What I understood, as an experienced politician, was the difference between something getting stuck in the bureaucracy and a presidential commitment. 

Sept 30 is my birthday, and with God’s help, this is the date the Americans are expected to announce whether we met the criteria. I think it will be a big achievement.

LH: You were ranked in the top three of the Likud list in five primaries. Are you making plans for your political comeback?

GE: I still have one more year at the U.N., and I still don’t know. In Israel, a year is like five years in any other country. I want to continue contributing my experience and strengthening Israel, but I think it’s too early to know.

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