I RECENTLY SAT down with Member of Knesset Danny Danon, one of the most outspoken and active members of the Likud party. With the fervency of a true believer, Danon fights for Likud ideology and strongly opposes a Palestinian state, which he believes will simply make it unsafe for people to live in Israel. Like many Likud loyalists he maintains his “love affair” with Ze’ev Jabotinsky, whom Danon often quotes in his speeches and writings.
In his youth, Danon was a shaliach (emissary) for Betar, the Likud’s youth movement, working in Florida. Eventually, he rose to become Chairman of World Betar. In 2006, he was elected to the position of chairman of World Likud, beating out Yuval Steinitz (currently the Minister of Finance) by a landslide vote. His victory in that contest was credited to his virulent opposition to the Disengagement. Today, Danon is still the chairman of World Likud and is a member of the Knesset, where he chairs the Knesset Committee of Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs and also serves as deputy speaker of the Knesset.
We discussed a wide variety of topics, from his beginnings in politics, to more controversial topics such as the character of the Likud, the situation in Egypt, whether the parliamentary committee of inquiry he has been chosen to head represents “McCarthyism” in Israel, the dangers of a Palestinian state and Gilad Shalit. We also discussed aliyah, electoral reforms and even the possibility of having Sunday as a day off in Israel.
Danon is also scheduled to speak to Likud Anglos in Jerusalem this coming Tuesday. [Details on Likud Anglos’ website or on facebook].
Due to its length, the interview has been split into two parts. Below is part one of the interview. Thanks to Ariel Pulver for editing and producing the accompanying video clips.
Beginnings in Politics
Why don’t you talk a little about how you got started in politics. How did you go from being someone who was a dreamer to being a Member of Knesset?
I got infected by the virus at relatively a young age. When I was in high school I was very involved in my high school in Ramat Gan, Blikh high school. Every year we had elections, people used to say that the results of this particular high school were the results in the general elections. We got a lot of media attention and I found myself very active in promoting Zionist ideals. Then I was between Techiya and the Likud. Eventually after the army I became very active in the Betar youth movement for many years. I was an emissary in Florida. Since then I have been active.
I started because I love the country so at a very young age I travelled a lot. By knowing the land of Israel by knowing the history of the people of Israel I got involved. And I understood in order to make a change you need to be involved in the political system. It is not enough to know the Bible. It’s not enough to know the history in order to make the change you have to go into the kitchen.
On the Likud
Most people who I found are involved in the Likud or feel very strongly about the Likud have some kind of personal connection to Jabotinsky or Begin. Some people say “my father took me to hear him speak” or “someone in my family was in the Irgun.” Anything like that for you?
I started my love affair with Jabotinsky only by reading his books. Also with Menachem Begin. I was very young when he became prime minister so I do remember hearing his speeches, but as for actually meeting him or sitting with him I didn’t have the opportunity. I worked with three prime ministers after that. With Prime Minister Shamir, I had many conversations with Prime Minister Sharon and Prime Minister Netanyahu. But unfortunately with Prime Minister Menachem Begin I did not get the chance to actually sit and discuss the issues.
I feel the same way about that. My grandfather actually worked for Jabotinsky. I also feel like I was born too late to meet him.
But I think the legacy of Jabotinsky is still vivid. In my office you can see his picture. In my speeches I do quote from his writing. Sometimes I tell my colleagues what is the real interpretation of Jabotinsky’s ideology. Some people within the Likud today come and tell me “what you are doing now is not the legacy of Jabotinsky or Menachem Begin.” I say to them don’t preach to us what is the legacy of Menachem Begin or Ze’ev Jabotinsky we can teach you about it.
This begs the question: One high-ranking Knesset member once told me that the Likud is “no longer the home of Herut.” Do you think that’s true? Jabotinsky and Begin, there are statues, busts of each of them, in the lobby of Metzudat Ze’ev, the headquarters of the Likud. But do you think that there is any truth to this claim that the Likud is not true to the ideology of Jabotinsky and Begin?
I think that the Likud is the only home for the national camp. It’s very easy to be in the fringe or in the opposition. If you want to make a change, if you want to work, the only place you can really make a change is within the Likud. I’m not very happy with everything I hear among our people. But this is democracy and democracy is vital, vital within the party. And even at the time when Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin, they used to fight about issues within the Betar youth movement. It was done within in a manner of democracy, such as the convention where Jabotinsky spoke very harshly toward Menachem Begin.
He called him an empty can rattling, something like that?
Jabotinsky told Begin that the noises he is making are like the noises made when one opens the door. I think it wasn’t a nice meeting to be at, but still this is part of democracy. And today when I promote the inquiry committee, for example, that will look where those NGOs who fight against Israel are getting funds – from foreign governments, there are members of Knesset, within the Likud who are attacking my position or my initiative to set up the inquiry committee. So I think what we should do is to stick with democracy, but promote our values. And when I speak with the voters, people who voted for the Likud party, I feel and I know that they still support our ideas. They choose us. This is the right place to be.
The Committee of Inquiry into Leftist NGOs
So what is the status of that committee, you were made the head of it, right?
Yes. God willing, I will head the committee that will look at the way that our enemies are transferring funds to NGOs in Israel who fight against Israel. I will ask these governments, the government of the UK or the Netherlands, why did you give so much money to these organizations? I will also look at Arab funds that are getting to Israel in order to purchase land.
When will the committee begin its functions? I think the establishment of the committee was only approved by the Knesset House Committee. It’s not yet . . .
The process to approve such a committee . . . First you have to vote in the plenum [a general vote of the Knesset] for the first vote, that was done. Second you have to vote in the House Committee, were finished with that. On the 28th of this month, we’re going to put it back to the plenum which will vote for the mandate and the members of the committee.
Those are the second and third readings of the bill?
It’s not second and third because it’s not a bill, it’s a motion, but you need another reading to make it happen. And I hope and believe that we will have the majority, the same majority within the high-ranking people of the coalition which will support this important committee.
Do you think there is any truth or that there is a concern, to what – as Lieberman called them – the Likud “Feinshmeckers,” Begin, Rivlin and Meridor, said that this committee could be a bad thing because it could start a trend that the Knesset will be used to persecute people who are not popular, certain political groups and not others. Do you think there is any truth to that? Is there a possibility that this committee will be misused or that this will be a negative trend in the future?
I hear voices mainly coming from the media. It sounds like an orchestra, saying don’t set up this committee, McCarthyism, you are actually limiting democracy. But if you read the law, you’ll understand that this is not the case, this committee cannot investigate people we cannot sue anyone, the only thing we can do is expose what is happening to Israel today. And that’s what we will do. We will look at organizations from left to right and we will expose where governments, and I emphasize the word governments – it is not private donors or organizations. If someone in San Francisco who wants to donate to Peace Now or Breaking the Silence, I will not be happy about it, but it’s a democracy. But if the government of Saudi Arabia or the EU wants to transfer millions of dollars to those organizations and their active political life, we should limit it.
So the problem isn’t if the New Israel Fund donates, more that the European Union is donating to these groups.
Daniel that is what is happening today. As we speak, the EU is transferring millions of Euros and Dollars every month to a lot of NGOs and they tell them “we’ll give you that money but you have to do 1, 2, and 3.” In the U.S. you have to register as a foreign agent in certain cases. In Israel, governments transfers funds and they try to change the reality, the democracy in Israel within the democratic system, and I say let’s stop. Also, I am very afraid that Arab funds being used to purchase land in the Galilee and the Negev.
There’s another committee that’s being set up for that . . .
No. That will be our committee. There will be another committee that will be headed by MK Fania Kirshenbaum (Israel Beteinu) that will look at those organizations that our fighting our soldiers and undermining the IDF. That will be another committee.
Democracy in Egypt
Let’s turn to Egypt. What do you make of what’s going on in Egypt? Specifically, Thomas Friedman hammered Israel because it didn’t support the democratic movement enough. Do you think our government was too slow in supporting the protests or was it correct in being cautious about what could happen, about the treaty being revoked, about the Muslim Brotherhood taking over? What do you think about what is going on there and what should Israel’s role be?
With all due respect to Thomas Friedman, we have to be very cautious about what’s happening in our neighborhood. It is very easy to sit in Fifth Avenue and to write notes to the newspaper, but where we live we have to be very cautious. And I think what the prime minister is doing now is the right thing. We have to be quiet and look at what’s happening.
At the same time we have to understand that our security is in our hands. Period. We cannot count on anyone else. We can’t count on different regimes. We cannot even count on the U.S. Look what happened to Mubarak! He was considered to be one of the greatest allies of the Administration in White House, and it took a few hours and the president said he should resign immediately.
It is very serious. Not because I think there will be a war, God forbid, with Egypt in the next year. But imagine what will happen if one million refugees, African refugees that are in Cairo decide they want to march into Israel tomorrow morning. Who will stop them? We will need the cooperation of the Egyptian army, the Egyptian authorities. That’s how we have to work with the authorities there. It’s not time for us to give grades, not to what’s happening in Egypt or Iran. We have to look very carefully and at the same time we have to understand that we have to be strong in the future.
What about what Natan Sharansky said, that if Egypt is free or if the same thing happens in other Arab countries, it’ll be a chance for us to have a new pact with the Arab countries, and that having democracy in the Arab countries will help bring peace for Israel. Are you saying it’s too early for those kinds of things?
It’s too early for declarations. Look what happened to President Obama, he came to Cairo last June  he gave a wonderful speech about the new Middle East about democracy. Today, in Lebanon you have Hezbollah taking over, In Egypt it is still not clear what is happening there. So I think it is premature to declare anything about right now.
Is there anything Israel could do? Right now the army is in control in Egypt. Is there anything that Israel could do to make sure that the transition to democracy is a real one and not one that goes directly to the Muslim Brotherhood or other groups? Is there anything that we can do or we just have to sit and wait?
There isn''t anything we can do now. We have to sit and watch. Even the people in the White House cannot lead real changes there and nobody actually predicted what happened in Cairo. So with all due respect to our strengths or the strengths of the U.S., there are some limitations of power. And we can see here in the Middle East that the situation is very fragile, so we should wait to see what’s happening in Egypt. Continue to Part II of the Interview.