Danny Danon has a story to tell about the past, but his eye remains fixed on a political comeback at the highest level
A politician who writes a memoir does so for one of two reasons: because the glory days are behind him, or because he hopes that they still lie ahead.
As a leading Likud politician and Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations from 2015 to 2019, Danny Danon has a story to tell about the past, but his eye remains fixed on a political comeback at the highest level.
The title of his new book about his time in the UN, In the Lion’s Den: Israel and the World, speaks volumes about the uncompromising, right-wing values such as opposition to a two-state solution that Danon brought to the job.
His appointment was widely seen as an attempt by Bibi Netanyahu — whom Danon had challenged for the top job in Likud — to neutralize him as a political threat. Israeli media warned that the new ambassador’s political views made him anathema to the Obama administration, and would render him irrelevant.
But in his book, the former ambassador details why his pugilism was the right approach for a body that is structurally built around anti-Israel bias.
The son of impoverished, traditional immigrants from Egypt far removed from Israel’s old elites, Danon speaks of his emotion at having risen to diplomatic influence in the land his parents labored to build.
And as the Bennett government totters, Danny Danon is convinced that a political earthquake is in the making, and declares himself ready to compete for the top job.
David Ben-Gurion set the tone for Israel’s relationship with the United Nations, famously dismissing the body (in a play on its Hebrew acronym “Oom”) as “Oom-Shmoom.” In a world where globalism is in retreat, should Israel still worry about what the UN says and does?
Yes, the UN matters, because to most of the world it has moral force, and we can’t ignore it. When you’re in the room, you can dilute the hate. When you actually show up, then the language used about Israel changes, and some ambassadors who would otherwise side with our adversaries won’t do so. It’s also a good forum for sharing what Israel gives the world in areas like tech.
And behind the scenes, you can develop relationships. The ambassadors from Venezuela or Syria, for example, were very hostile, and we never had any contact. But the Turkish ambassador became a good friend, and we met many times, even when they had no ambassador in Israel.
Another well-known figure from Israeli diplomatic history, your predecessor as ambassador Abba Eban, memorably described UN peacekeeping forces as like an umbrella that is folded away as soon as it starts to rain. So again, what elevates the United Nations beyond a talking shop?
For a concrete example, look at the UNIFIL peacekeeping force on Israel’s northern border. They are meant to prevent Hezbollah arming and approaching the border. They don’t do a good job, but we don’t want them to leave; we want them to be more effective.
The UN as a body is still hostile to Israel, and there will always be anti-Israel resolutions, but things there are very different than even a few years ago because of the Abraham Accords. Back in 2016, I could only have contact with some Arab ambassadors quietly. I visited the Emirates discreetly in 2016, without a stamp in my passport, and the Emiratis didn’t want anything in the news. Look where things are today. So it’s not the same UN at all.
In your book, you give a lot of space to describing President Obama’s parting “gift” — Security Council Resolution 2334 — criticizing Israel’s settlement policies, which passed due to US abstention. Why did Obama take such a hostile step against an ally?
That chapter is the most important in the book, and it was also one of the hardest moments of my career. I felt like Daniel in the lion’s den — Israel was literally alone, because once the US turned against us there, of course the Europeans went along.
Ultimately, Obama acted the way he did for two reasons: one, personal hostility to Bibi Netanyahu. But also, because he wanted to teach Israelis a lesson about the Palestinians over the heads of their government.
What I reveal in my book is that Obama actually pushed two resolutions against Israel; it was the Russians who blocked the second. Not because of the strong relationship between Bibi and Putin, but to deny Obama another win on his agenda in the UN.
Many see Biden’s administration as Obama’s third term, given the continuity in personnel and outlook. Was Joe Biden involved in kicking Israel at the UN?
As I recall, Biden as vice president didn’t play a role here, although he would have known of it. The effort was pushed by Obama and John Kerry.
The lesson that I learned at the UN was to always go on the offensive, so I went to the media after the resolution was passed and attacked Kerry’s approach, claiming to know better than us what was good for Israel. Remember that John Kerry said we would never have peace with the Arabs until we’d made peace with the Palestinians.
Before the Security Council vote, I met Obama’s UN ambassador Samantha Powers and told her that all of the good that Obama had done for Israel, including a massive aid package, would be forgotten if the resolution went ahead.
That’s what happened: ultimately, 2334 defines Obama’s Israel legacy.
What was it like changing to the unwavering support of the Trump administration?
The difference was felt immediately. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who wrote the foreword for my book, felt a sense of obligation to repair the damage of Resolution 2334. Whereas under Obama we had to do a lot of explaining to get them to back us, it was automatic under the Trump administration. Alongside the US, we went on the offensive at the UN, which is how you win there, by sponsoring resolutions against Hamas, among other moves, and working against the Iran Deal.
No one wants to say this clearly, but at this point, surely, it’s a lot better for Israel to have a Republican in power than a Democrat like Biden, however much they talk of being pro-Israel?
I don’t think we should be thinking on those terms. You’re right, there’s a difference now — just yesterday a group of congressmen led by Rashida Tlaib called for the US to commemorate what they call the “nakba” or disaster of Israel’s creation. But despite that, overall, you still have bipartisan support for Israel, and we need that to continue.
Getting back to the US exit from the Iran Deal, which you chalk up as a win, how has that been a success, given that Iran, according to reports, is now weeks from nuclear breakout?
There always was — and still is — a better alternative to this weak agreement. We have to demand that allies don’t give a hechsher to Iranian behavior by this deal. The Iranians have entrenched themselves with thousands of rockets all around us, from Gaza to Lebanon. One of the alternatives remains military action by Israel, which is why we are rebuilding those capabilities now.
Unfortunately, although the world is distracted by the Ukraine war, the negotiations in Vienna continue, and even though relations with Russia have broken down, they continue to talk about the nuclear issue, and it looks like there will be an agreement.
Has Naftali Bennett struck the right balance between supporting Ukraine and not angering Russia, whose forces are on our northern border?
I think that Bennett made a mistake when he tried to position Israel as a negotiator between the two sides. We have no leverage, so it was bound to fail, yet it put us in the spotlight when we should have lain low. We shouldn’t arm the Ukrainians or go beyond the humanitarian support we’ve given, as well as diplomatic backing for Ukraine at the UN, but at the same time our international friends expect us to stand with them, and since we’re in a tough position, the right thing to do is stay low-key.
Getting over to Israel’s domestic security, what is the best way to deal with the wave of violence against Jews from the Arab Israeli sector?
Terror has returned under this government, because although Israel has power, the perception of power is more important. We have to rebuild deterrence by being decisive. That means deploying security wherever Jews want to go.
We can’t let it stand that Jews feel insecure to come to the Old City of Jerusalem or to the Kotel. We need to boost police budgets and training, and where necessary, deploy military forces on Israel’s streets to restore that feeling of safety.
You’re the only politician to run against Bibi for the Likud top spot, lose, and continue inside the party. As the current government crumbles, are you planning to run against him again?
I’m definitely still in public service and politics as head of World Likud, but I won’t run against Bibi now. The day after he retires, I’ll see what happens then.
As most observers can see, the current deadlock is about one man — Bibi — and if he were to go, votes from the right would come home and the Likud could be back in power. Is Netanyahu not the problem, then?
That’s for Likud voters to decide. I’m a strong supporter of democracy inside the Likud party — that’s how I rose to become ambassador despite my Sephardic immigrant background.
So how does this years-long deadlock end? I think we’re heading for a complete reshuffle of the system. Existing parties will disappear. Personally, I hope that doesn’t happen through elections, which are bad for the country now, but for a new government emerging from within this Knesset.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 912)
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