Vilnai (born May 20, 1944) was born in Jerusalem during the British Mandate of Palestine. In 1966, Vilnai was drafted into the Israel Defense Forces where he would begin a long and distinguished military career by serving in the Sayeret Matkal special forces unit of the Israeli infantry corps.
During the Yom Kippur War, Vilnai was commander of a task force in the Sinai Peninsula and, in July 1976, he was tasked as the deputy commander for the Entebbe rescue mission, Operation Thunderbolt. From 1978 to 1982, Vilnai was Chief Paratroop and Infantry Officer and he was appointed as OC Southern Command in 1989. Promoted to the rank of Major General in 1994, Vilnai served as Deputy Chief of the General Staff for three years following which he retired from the IDF.
Elected to the Knesset in 1999, Vilnai was appointed Minister of Science, Culture and Sport in August 1999 and also served as Chairman of the Ministerial Committee for Israeli Arab Affairs. As a Member of Knesset, he served on the Foreign Affairs & Defense, Science & Technology, Constitution, Law & Justice, Ethics, and Foreign Workers Committees.
Vilnai was reappointed Minister of Science, Culture and Sport in March 2001, serving until October 2002, when he resigned from the government together with the other Labor ministers. A few months later, Vilnai was re-elected to the Knesset. In January 2005, he was appointed Minister in the Prime Minister's Office; in August 2005, Acting Minister of Science and Technology; and in November 2005, Minister of Science and Technology.
From July 2007 until March 2009, Vilnai served as Deputy Minister of Defense and in April 2009 he was reappointed Deputy Minister of Defense in the newly elected government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In January 2011, he was appointed Minister for Home Front Defense, a position he held until August 2012 when he left Israel to serve as Ambassador to China. Following his appointment as Ambassador, Vilnai resigned his seat in the Knesset, a void filled by Shachiv Shnaan of the Independence Party.
He is married and the father of three.