About a week after Danny Danon took up his post as ambassador to the United Nations in October, he was invited to a debate around the Security Council table. It was not a special occasion. Israel often comes up at the Security Council and more often than not, it is to be condemned.
This time, the Security Council was convening to debate violence on the Temple Mount and a French initiative to deploy international monitors there.
Israel, of course, was opposed but what made the hearing special was that it was Danon’s first time around the table and that the council was gathering as Israelis were finding themselves under attack in a new wave of terrorism – mostly by knife-wielding Palestinians – across the country.
He gave a standard speech – Israel was not to blame for the violence but rather the attacks were being provoked by the Palestinian Authority’s continued incitement and education system which teaches hate instead of promoting coexistence.
At the end of his speech, Danon pulled a kippa out of his pocket and placed it on his head. He then opened a Bible and read a verse from Psalms: “The Lord will give strength unto his people; the Lord will bless his people with peace.”
The idea to put on a kippa and read the verse came to Danon earlier that morning. It wasn’t something planned but rather, as a traditional Jew, he thought it would be appropriate to read from the Jewish people’s ancient text during his first appearance before the Security Council.
What happened next surprised him. After the meeting adjourned, an ambassador from a Muslim country came up to Danon and asked if they could meet.
“I’ve never seen an ambassador wear a kippa before,” the Muslim envoy said. “I’d like to learn more about it.”
This story sums up – to a large extent – the seven months Danon has served as Israel’s permanent representative to the United Nations. On the surface, it often seems like the entire world is against Israel, but behind the scenes, relationships are established, deals are made and strategic alliances are forged.
Israelis get a glimpse of this every so often – like when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks about the shifting alliances in the region and Israel’s growing ties with Gulf states. But, for the most part, this all takes place far from the public’s eye.
In private conversations, Danon refers to the UN as a battlefield, not much different than what Israeli soldiers encounter in the Gaza Strip or southern Lebanon when fighting Hamas or Hezbollah.
It’s true that the lives of Danon and Israel’s other diplomats stationed at the UN are not in direct danger, but the work they do has consequences far beyond the halls of power in New York.
In August 2006, for example, it was Security Council Resolution 1701 that ended the Second Lebanon War and in the various operations Israel has carried out in Gaza since the 2005 disengagement, diplomatic action at the UN has played a key role in achieving a ceasefire.
In late April, Danon again made waves at the Security Council when he hosted the husband and daughter of Dafna Meir, the victim of a Palestinian terrorist stabbing earlier this year. At one point during the hearing, Danon called on Riyad Mansour, his Palestinian counterpart, to condemn terrorism.
This is the same Mansour who, when violence erupted in October, accused Israel of harvesting organs from dead Palestinians.
Mansour refused. Danon yelled at him: “We condemn the killing of innocent civilians, including Palestinian civilians. Do you do the same?” Mansour shot back: “Shame on you for killing Palestinian children.” Danon responded, “You are naming streets after terrorists.”
He didn’t let up and the shouting match continued until the Israeli had made his point – Mansour would not bring himself to condemn terrorism. Chinese Ambassador Liu Jieyi, who was presiding over the hearing, became flustered, taking longer than usual to get the debate back on track.
After the hearing, Danon was approached by a few of his colleagues, other UN ambassadors. “That was a bit aggressive,” one of them said. “We have never seen a hearing like that,” said another.
The comments didn’t faze Danon. On the contrary, it made him realize that he was doing something right. He was rocking the boat in a way that had not yet been done in the UN, possibly since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu served as ambassador there in the 1980s.
But that could be expected. Before Netanyahu appointed Danon to the UN, the now ambassador was known as a Likud rebel. He was also the darling of the Likud’s far-right wing and even ran twice against Netanyahu for the party’s leadership. In 2014, he wrote an op-ed declaring that Israel would not be threatened by Secretary of State John Kerry, and called into question the Obama administration’s ability to act as an honest broker for peace. Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer issued a statement, at the time, distancing the government from Danon. A few months later, Netanyahu finally had enough and fired Danon, then deputy defense minister, for publicly criticizing the prime minister during the Gaza war.
But that was Danon before the UN.
The diplomatic Danon of today sat recently for two-and-a-half-hours next to US Ambassador Samantha Power – said to be one of the closest people to President Barack Obama – during a showing of Fiddler on the Roof he had organized for over 1,000 guests, including 70 ambassadors and hundreds of UN staffers.
Before Passover, Danon held a model Seder for his UN counterparts. Forty attended and each was given a section of the Haggada to read.
Don’t worry though. While Danon plays the diplomatic game well, he hasn’t lost his fighting spirit. He just navigates it differently. Instead of fighting the prime minister, he fights Mansour.
Instead of criticizing the Obama administration, he slams the UN and its obsession with Israel. Instead of campaigning Likud central committee members to vote for him in the party primaries, he lobbies foreign ambassadors ahead of key votes in the General Assembly. And instead of declaring that the Oslo Accords are dead as he did in a New York Times op-ed three years ago, he faithfully represents the government’s official position that it seeks two states for two peoples.
Part of what Danon has done is that he has shifted his attention to stirring the pot in the UN. When Venezuelan Ambassador to the UN Rafael Ramirez, for example, called on Security Council members earlier this month to ask themselves if Israel is planning a “final solution” for the Palestinians, Danon immediately organized a huge backlash from other ambassadors and local American Jewish organizations. The result – Ramirez called Danon a couple of days later to apologize.
For Danon, it was important to send a message with the Ramirez incident – that the rest of the UN ambassadors should think twice before making similar comments. It was about creating deterrence.
Danon’s big diplomatic test though has yet to come. As the US presidential elections near, Israel is concerned that Obama will use the final two months of his term – between Election Day and his successor’s inauguration – to try and pass a Security Council resolution that sets down clear parameters for a peace deal with the Palestinians, including a timetable for its implementation.
For the time being, Israel does not have an indication if this will even happen, but the entire government is bracing for this possibility and the potential diplomatic fallout.
If a resolution is put together – the US National Security Council could compose a document within a day, if it decides to – Danon will find himself at the center of a diplomatic storm. The assumption that Obama will decide to go ahead with the resolution, is pushing Israel to forge stronger diplomatic ties with other countries that have permanent seats on the Security Council, despite the small chance that any of them would use its veto to topple an American-led initiative.
In the meantime, Danon is focused on using soft power to spread Israel’s message. Next week, he will host 1,500 students, activists, jurists and diplomats at an anti-BDS conference that will be held for the first time in the General Assembly. The highlight will be a performance by US singer-songwriter Matisyahu who recently came under attack by BDS groups ahead of a music festival he was invited to in Spain.
It’s difficult to tell what effect this will have on the UN diplomats, but the lyrics from Matisyahu’s hit song “One Day” might help: “Treat people the same. Stop with the violence. Down with the hate... One day we’ll all be free and proud. To be under the same sun. Singing songs of freedom.”
One hopes the UN will be listening.