When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu formed his government last year, he promoted four young, up-and-coming Likud MKs to deputy minister: Ophir Akunis, Ze’ev Elkin, Tzipi Hotovely and Danny Danon.
All four are hawks who oppose the creation of a Palestinian state. But since their appointment, they have taken very different approaches.
They can be compared to the four sons who were discussed in Jewish homes around the world this week at Passover Seders.
Akunis is Netanyahu’s good son. A former aide to the prime minister, he gives interviews all the time defending his policies, or at least explaining Netanyahu’s moves that he opposes.
Elkin is far from a simpleton, possessing crafty political maneuvering skills that helped make Netanyahu’s previous coalition, which he chaired, far more stable than the current one. But he has tried to remain on everyone’s good side: Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, and the most extreme settlers.
One would have to be naive to think he could keep that up.
Hotovely has settled down, preferring to focus this term on getting married and giving birth to her daughter, who she is taking care of full-time on maternity leave. She still knows how to ask, but the MK who once queried the prime minister most at faction meetings is now willingly silent.
That leaves Danon, who is unquestionably the wicked son. If Netanyahu thought appointing him deputy defense minister would make him content, disciplined, or at least responsible, he had another thing coming. Danon has become a thorn in the side of the Americans, the chairman of the powerful Likud central committee, and the prime minister’s most vocal critic.
In an interview conducted Thursday morning, Danon explains why he has threatened to resign if a fourth round of prisoner releases takes place, takes credit for the current coalition crisis with Bayit Yehudi, and reveals how he intends to use the Likud institutions he heads to prevent Netanyahu from making diplomatic concessions.
It has now been a month since March 19, when you threatened to resign if a fourth round of prisoner releases takes place. Are you surprised you’re still deputy defense minister?
I said back then that I hoped there wouldn’t be a fourth round and I could keep my job. But I still think it will unfortunately happen, and I will keep my promise to give the prime minister my resignation letter. The letter will say that releasing murderers does not fit our values, and this week’s terrorist attack reinforced that. There is no point in a fourth round since the talks will end soon anyway.
You didn’t quit over the first three rounds. In the spirit of the Passover Seder, in which we ask why that night is different from all others, why is the fourth round different from the other rounds?
I was against the first three rounds too.
I was skeptical of those who said those rounds could lead to new accomplishments, but I understood their opinion.
This round is only intended to buy more time, and that’s a redline for me. The mask of Abbas has been removed. He was only doing the process to get the murderers released and then find an excuse to blow up the talks. I started all alone in my protest, and I am happy I am not alone anymore. Had I not started this effort, figures in Bayit Yehudi and Likud would not have spoken so forcefully.
But Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett is only protesting the release of Israeli Arabs. If they are replaced on the list by Palestinians, he stays in the government.
I hope those who joined me in threatening to leave keep their word. I know there are efforts to compromise with them. If they keep to their principles, I think this move can be stopped. It is a strategic mistake to release the Israeli Arabs. It is terrible to make Abbas the liberator of Israeli Arabs and make him their leader. There will be parades with Abbas’s picture in Umm el-Fahm. But it is a strategic mistake to focus on the Israeli Arabs. Releasing Palestinian murderers also cannot be justified.
But aren’t you really still the only one threatening to quit if the fourth round takes place no matter who is in it?
Coalition chairman Yariv Levin and Elkin have spoken out against it. I expect them to stay tough. I have no responsibility for what they do, but I hope they carry out what they said they would.
Among the ministers, there has been a change. I knew the prisoner releases would pass in the government, but I said I would quit anyway. Bennett saying the same is a significant change. The government is going in a different direction. It is no longer serving [Hatnua leader] Tzipi Livni.
Why didn’t the inclusion of Israeli agent Jonathan Pollard persuade you to drop your threat?
When I heard Pollard would be in the deal, I reconsidered. I fought for Pollard’s freedom together with activist Rabbi Avi Weiss when I was an emissary of the Betar movement in the US 20 years ago.
But then I read what Pollard wrote in the Post last August questioning the morality of prisoner releases, and he persuaded me. I was not the only one who said including him in a deal is cynical. I expected to be attacked by the Right for saying that the connection was un-kosher but I was not attacked.
But The Jerusalem Post has reported this month that Pollard would not decide to remain in prison as part of an agreement in which Palestinian and Israeli prisoners are released.
I can’t judge him if his state of mind has changed. I think he needs to come home, but not this way. Now that the US no longer deems him a security risk, it is clear that there is no reason not to release him other than excuses. We should insist more than ever that his release not be part of the negotiations with the Palestinians.
But what if a deal is the only way to get him out alive? What if you and Bennett are condemning him to death by opposing the deal?
It’s not fair to present it that way. I want Pollard home, and I also don’t want buses blowing up. I’d tell Pollard that I am thinking about him but also about the victims of future attacks, and that’s why I can’t tolerate such twisted linkage.
By throwing him in as a bargaining chip, like a chip in a casino, [US Secretary of State John] Kerry is showing the cynicism of him and his negotiations.
What do you think of Kerry blaming the stalemate in the diplomatic negotiations on Israel building in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, and not his own mistake in committing to the release of Israeli Arabs in prisoner releases without consulting with Israel?
There is an understanding by people in Israel that the current administration in the US is against us. Israelis didn’t get emotional when the US blamed the failure of the talks on building in Gilo. They saw it as part of the American administration’s one-sidedness. To say to a government that has released murderers and gotten nothing in return that they are to blame is blatant hypocrisy. The secretary of state was a senator from Massachusetts, where this week many ceremonies were held to commemorate last year’s Boston Marathon bombing. In the US, the terrorist has been given a death sentence.
But Kerry is asking us to release murderers. He’s saying our blood is cheaper than that of the Americans who were killed in Boston. The only words to describe this is a “double standard.”
It is one thing for you to say that. Do the prime minister and defense minister agree with you?
You need to ask them. But in the past, I proved that what I say publicly others are saying quietly. Sometimes they say it publicly later on. I heard ministers say similar things after Kerry blamed Israel.
But they said it to me privately and to reporters without using their name.
Would Netanyahu have had an easier time with a Republican president?
It’s not a matter of parties. It’s a matter of stances. The Democrats are pro-Israel too. As I wrote in my book, there have been issues with presidents from both parties, but the American people and Congress have good relations with Israel in a way that crosses party lines. The problem is just with the current administration.
We don’t know who the candidates will be in 2016, and the views of some of the candidates are still unclear. I have friends who have good relations with [likely Democratic candidate] Hillary Clinton and with other candidates in both parties. The more candidates know about Israel, the better. That’s why I have been meeting with potential candidates and inviting them to come here.
It is better to get to them now, when we can get more quality time with them.
How would you react to a Kerry candidacy?
It would be legitimate. But voters in Democratic primaries and then the American people as a whole would have to judge his term as secretary of state and his achievements. I am not going to give him grades.
Your own boss, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, has clearly given Kerry grades on key issues affecting Israel, even though he, unlike you, has an interest in remaining quiet.
I will say the secretary has adopted the views of the Palestinians in the talks with Israel. The efforts to stop Iran are at a critical time. The Iranian economy is advancing and exporting more oil. I am worried about the secretary’s approach.
I would prefer more determined leadership on Iran than we see today. On Syria, we in Israel are careful not to get involved, but Western nations have an opportunity to change a situation that is very problematic.
What is your take on the current crisis in Syria?
From a humanitarian standpoint, of course it’s painful to see whats happening so close to our border. But it also sends us a message that we have to be ready militarily, because the world won’t help us. We cannot rely on the mercy of another country.
What will happen when the Likud holds its long-awaited convention that you will chair?
There will be a convention by the end of May. Diplomatic issues will be raised.
What Netanyahu will hear at the convention will balance out the pressure he feels from Livni and the American administration. I welcome the prime minister’s recent decision to return to be in contact with party activists.
But when he meets with the activists, he attacks you harshly and describes you as a threat to the party’s continued existence.
I am just glad he’s back and giving the activists a chance to talk to him. But I think the prime minister sees Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beytenu, where decisions are made by the leader, and it could be that he is jealous. The Likud is a democratic party. We will make democratic decisions on Kerry’s framework and our future with Yisrael Beytenu. When Netanyahu opposed [then-prime minister Ariel] Sharon’s support for a Palestinian state, he insisted that the party make a democratic decision and it did.
But then Sharon split the party. Could that happen with Netanyahu if he adopted Kerry’s framework?
I won’t let a Likud prime minister implement a plan to return to pre-1967 lines, divide Jerusalem and abandon the Jordan Valley. He can’t do that under a Likud banner. I don’t know if the prime minister’s views are there. I hope not. But I know that the Likud isn’t there. I don’t like the word split. But if the prime minister implements Kerry’s framework, he cannot remain the leader of Likud. The Likud has a tradition of supporting its leaders, but we also are loyal to our path.
Since you might leave the Defense Ministry soon, what did you do there?
I don’t know too many people in politics or the press who give up a job. I was in charge of the reserves and the ministry’s security and social affairs department that helps released soldiers and Christians, haredim and other minorities. It would be hard to leave the access to information the ministry has given me. But if I have no choice, I’ll return to my modest office in the Knesset.
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