When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Science, Technology and Space Minister Danny Danon last Friday to tell him that he had chosen him to be the next ambassador to the United Nations, Danon was on a tour of Gush Etzion with his family.
Danon received the call as he descended from the enormous Herodion fortress, which stands out amid the hills of Judea, south of Jerusalem. Netanyahu gave him the good news, and the newly appointed ambassador continued on his tour of the region that is not controversial in Israel but is seen in his new place of work as an obstacle to peace in the Middle East.
“I am going to the lion’s den,” Danon told confidants afterward, recalling the story of his biblical namesake.
Danon is mentally ready for the challenge. He has faced hostile interviewers on CNN and plenty of political adversaries in the Knesset.
His performance on CNN impressed Netanyahu, who made a point of screening interviews of Danon and other candidates for the post.
The prime minister chose Danon, and not his political ally Minister-without-Portfolio Ophir Akunis, for the post, in part because Danon outperformed Akunis in English.
Akunis started campaigning for the UN ambassadorship a year ago, hoping to follow in the footsteps of Netanyahu, his mentor and former boss.
He published a flyer about himself in English and went to New York to speak at the annual Salute to Israel Parade.
But it was too little, too late for Akunis, whose investment in English media and Jews abroad was nothing compared to that of Danon, who spent years building himself up abroad. When Jewish leaders in the US have been asked in recent years to name a Likudnik other than Netanyahu, they have said Danon, not higher ranking Likud politicians such as Gilad Erdan or Gideon Sa’ar.
Likud sources said that besides Danon and Akunis, Netanyahu was considering one other candidate, who was not a politician. The sources said it was not former MK Einat Wilf, who actively campaigned for the job and would have been a very talented ambassador.
Wilf grew up idolizing Netanyahu when he was ambassador to the UN, even putting up pictures of him on the wall in her room. But she was an MK in the Labor Party and then-defense minister Ehud Barak’s short-lived Independence faction, and appointing a “leftist” could have harmed Netanyahu among Likud activists.
Instead, Netanyahu received accolades from hawks in the Likud central committee for appointing “one of us” to go fight the Israel-haters at the UN.
Danon believes he got the job because of his experience in public diplomacy and because his departure freed a spot in the cabinet. Netanyahu would like to promote one of his former ministers who are now MKs, Bennie Begin or Tzachi Hanegbi.
The Likud might also have to surrender one of its ministries if the High Court of Justice rules that United Torah Judaism leader Ya’acov Litzman cannot run the Health Ministry as a deputy minister.
Netanyahu’s deal with UTJ gave the Likud an extra minister at UTJ’s expense, which UTJ might need back.
Danon discounts the possibility some analysts have suggested – that Netanyahu sought to get rid of a political pest who was bothering him in the cabinet and in his (Danon’s) powerful post as chairman of the Likud central committee.
Relations between Netanyahu and Danon had improved since the prime minister fired him for insubordination during Operation Protective Edge and Danon ran against him for Likud leader. He had made a point of acting more statesmanlike since becoming a minister, and in the central committee, Netanyahu and Danon had made compromises.
When central committee members demanded the right to elect the Likud Knesset faction on their own and Netanyahu wanted the wider party membership to continue to select the MKs, Danon and Netanyahu worked out a compromise whereby some MKs would be selected by each body.
Some central committee members accused Danon this week of “selling them out to Netanyahu” in return for a plum post in the Big Apple.
But Danon’s associates said he did not know he would be ambassador when that vote took place, and had he been in the prime minister’s pocket, he could have prevented the vote from happening and maintained the status quo that Netanyahu wanted.
Those saying that Netanyahu chose Danon as UN ambassador to remove him from the central committee chairmanship perhaps have not looked at the list of his potential replacements.
There is Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, who has sparred with Netanyahu since she entered politics, and MK David Amsalem, who has rebelled against the prime minister since he joined the Knesset. There is also the possibility that Sa’ar might run in the race that will be held in the committee in the fall, though he has denied it.
Amsalem is already promising the prime minister legal woes in the election process, especially if Netanyahu decides to run himself for the post.
“The Likud constitution prevents the prime minister from running,” Amsalem said. “In order to have this election, we’ll have to go to a court. It won’t go smoothly. There are bylaws, and we must follow them. That’s why I want to run. I don’t care about the title. I grew up in this party and I want it to run it with the proper respect for its laws and for one another, making decisions in Likud institutions, the way we are supposed to.”
While Danon’s replacements in the cabinet and the central committee chairmanship will not be known until after the fall Jewish holidays, in his other post, he will be replaced immediately when he goes.
Danon’s trusted deputy in the World Likud, Ya’acov Hagoel, will automatically take the job of his political partner when he leaves for the United States.
Danon’s wife, Tali, is dealing with moving the family’s three children to New York, where they will start school in September.
Their eight-year-old daughter is less excited about leaving Israel than the rest of the family.
For how long are they going? Ambassadors typically serve for three or four years.
But changes of government often hasten a diplomats’ departure, especially for political appointees.
Danon does not believe there is a chance the Left could come to power, which would likely lead to him being ousted immediately.
While he is not giving interviews at this point, Danon has told confidants that he is excited about using his networking skills on Israel’s behalf in the UN and playing a larger role in Israeli public diplomacy.
He intends to “defend Israel without apologizing” and to remain as ideologically consistent as he has been throughout his career.
The jeep tour he took through the Judean hills immediately after he received the call from Netanyahu proves it. He was getting hundreds of text messages congratulating him on the job, but he stayed the course, driving through Gush Etzion.
Danon left behind Herod’s fortress, en route to a less secure environment. He hopes to leave unscathed, just like Daniel in the Bible.
Lahav Harkov contributed to this report.