The Republican representative in the Knesset?

Though he is outspokenly critical of Obama’s approach, Likud MK Danny Danon insists he works across the aisle to seek support for Israel.

Glenn Beck, alongside MK Danny Danon. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Glenn Beck, alongside MK Danny Danon.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Likud MK Danny Danon delivered an impassioned argument that when it comes to American politics, he is bipartisan.
Then he undermined what he said completely when he was brought his lunch.
Danon helped organize visits to Israel of conservatives Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, and held a high-profile press conference in New York last month with leading Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry.
But in an interview at a popular Jerusalem waffle bar, the legislator, who may be Israel’s most vocal critic of US President Barack Obama, said he had also held events with top pro-Israel Democrats, including Congressman Elliot Engel of New York.
Then Danon was served his waffle with ice cream on the side and he proceeded to eat the ice cream – with a knife and fork.
So much for not being a Republican.
The press conference with Perry raised eyebrows in the Prime Minister’s Office and the White House. In an interview with CNN, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was asked by Wolf Blitzer whether he was aware of the press conference beforehand and approved of it.
“A member of your party, the deputy Knesset speaker, a member of Likud, came and stood next to Rick Perry on the eve of President Obama’s speech at the UN General Assembly and effectively endorsed, got involved in domestic American politics,” Blitzer blitzed Netanyahu.
Netanyahu responded that had he known, he would have told Danon to “stay out of American politics.” Danon revealed that people close to Netanyahu had told him that the press conference didn’t really bother the prime minister. He said Netanyahu realized the press conference effectively counter-balanced former US president Bill Clinton’s criticism of him the same week.
“My interviews and the press conference weren’t coordinated with the prime minister, and he didn’t send me, but the result of my activity strengthened both Netanyahu and the State of Israel,” Danon said. “I think the prime minister appreciates what I did at the UN and the continuous pressure I and others have encouraged on Obama to be more pro-Israel. I know for a fact that the pressure from the Republican party, Jewish leaders, and the news media have had an influence on the White House and that’s a good thing.”
A poll in this newspaper suggested that attitudes in Israel toward the Obama administration’s policies had become more positive following his pro-Israel UN speech, but Danon did not sound overly impressed.
“I say honestly that Obama’s policies are not good for Israel and haven’t advanced the peace process,” he said. “There might be American Jews who have a problem with my direct approach criticizing the president’s policies, but such views must be heard. If we don’t voice our opposition when an American president almost completely adopts the Palestinian viewpoint on issues like Jerusalem and the pre-1967 lines, our silence means we agree. I respect the president and the presidency but this is against our interests, and it must be said.”
When asked whether he was concerned that his support for Republicans could boomerang and justify interference by Obama in elections in Israel, as happened in the past with former US president Bill Clinton, Danon went on the defensive.
“First of all, I am not interfering in the American election,” he said. “I work together with pro-Israel politicians in America no matter what party they are. I got a lot of criticism for helping Glenn Beck but I also help Democrats. Secondly, if Obama interferes in the next election against Netanyahu, it would be the best present he could give the Likud.”
Danon pointed out that when Obama was seen as humiliating Netanyahu, it strengthened the prime minister politically. He suggested that due to his controversial Mideast policies and statements, Obama had lost credibility with Israeli centrists and even leftists.
“Obama’s stature in Israel fell when he called [the Jerusalem neighborhood] Gilo a settlement and said Jews shouldn’t build there,” Danon said. “Even [Kadima leader] Tzipi Livni criticized him in the Knesset for that. He lost the support of the Israeli Left and Center, not just the Right that was skeptical about him to begin with.” Obama is not the only leader of a country that Danon has criticized. He also organized protests of Likud central committee members against Netanyahu when the prime minister initiated a 10-month construction moratorium in Judea and Samaria.
Danon took part of the credit for persuading Netanyahu not to renew the freeze when it ended last Succot, despite pressure the prime minister faced from Obama and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
“My pressure on Netanyahu is to lead in the spirit of the Likud and not be Barak’s contractor,” Danon said. “We weren’t elected to evacuate outposts. We were elected to change things and not to continue the same mistakes that were made in the past by people like Ehud Barak, who unfortunately is now the closest minister to Netanyahu and whose influence is worrisome ideologically and politically. If we are dragged behind the whims of the defense minister, we can’t lead the national camp.”
Netanyahu tried unsuccessfully to end Danon’s political career twice. The first time came in 2006 when he sent his ally Yuval Steinitz to run against him for the chairmanship of World Likud, the international arm of the party. When Danon ran for a slot on the Likud’s Knesset list reserved for a candidate from the coastal plain in 2008, Netanyahu encouraged basketball star Tal Brody, who is an Israel Prize winner and national hero, to run against him. But Danon overcame both challenges.
Danon said that despite their past and inevitable future conflicts, he maintained a good relationship with Netanyahu.
“I defend him and work for him in the Knesset, and he knows he can rely on me,” Danon said. “When it comes to ideology, he knows it’s not personal. I’m not trying to harm him or topple him. I didn’t like it when he sent candidates against me. He obviously would have preferred more disciplined MKs. But he realizes that I bring support to the Likud.”
The next battle between Netanyahu and Danon could take place soon after Succot, when the Knesset returns after an extended summer recess. Danon intends to initiate a vote on a preliminary reading of his bill that would apply Israeli law over the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria in response to a Palestinian unilateral declaration.
The so-called Annexation for Declaration bill was initially seen as having no chance. But now most of the Likud faction, including high-ranking ministers, back the bill, as does Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his Israel Beiteinu party.
So far the Palestinians’ efforts in the UN have been stymied, but if there still ends up being a vote on a Palestinian state in the Security Council or General Assembly, Danon wants the annexation option to be available as a possible response by the prime minister. Such a vote could cause problems for Netanyahu internationally, but Danon believes the prime minister has it in him to annex settlements under certain circumstances.
“It would take a courageous act by Netanyahu, like [former prime ministers] Levi Eshkol and Menachem Begin when they annexed the eastern part of Jerusalem and the Golan, but I think he could do it,” Danon said. “Israel would have to respond in some way if the Palestinians’ position is bolstered by the UN. [Annexation] actually wouldn’t change much for the people living there, who would be dealt with by the Interior Ministry like the rest of the country instead of the Defense Ministry, but it would have significant symbolic value.”
Danon persuaded Republican Congressman Joe Walsh of Illinois to submit a bill supporting the right of Israel to apply Israeli law over Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria in response to a Palestinian unilateral declaration. Walsh has obtained 40 co-signers to the controversial bill. The decision to call for the annexation of only the settlements and not the entire West Bank is a tactical move for Danon aimed at achieving a consensus, but he eventually wants Israel to annex the overwhelming majority of Judea and Samaria.
“If some say Israel should keep blocs in Judea and Samaria and the rest will be for the Palestinians, I say the Palestinians can have blocs where they are now and the rest will be for us,” Danon explained. “Most of the land in Judea and Samaria is vacant. The dispute is over empty land, and I believe we should keep as much of it as possible.”
According to Danon’s plan, the status quo would be maintained at first, but the Gaza Strip would eventually be administered by Egypt and the Arab cities in the West Bank by Jordan.
“There is no connection between Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, who are being run by two different regimes with different funding,” Danon said. “My vision is more longterm, so it’s hard to persuade a public that is used to quick, slim-fast-style solutions. Politicians normally say vote for me and you get change. I say vote for me and there won’t be any change for the coming years. I believe in conflict management, not conflict resolution.”
Asked why he did not run with a more right-wing party, Danon said the Likud is where the real influence lies. He said he believed his more right-wing views are becoming more accepted in the Likud, which is currently conducting a membership drive in which thousands of residents of Judea and Samaria are joining the party.
“If I was in a more right-wing party, I could fight more fiercely against Barak, but I wouldn’t be able to achieve the same results,” he said. “There are views I hear from my Likud colleagues that I don’t like, but I can fight against them, and most of the Likud is to the right of Netanyahu.”
Danon does not agree with the many political columns in Israel that have blamed Netanyahu for Israel’s increasing isolation in the Middle East. He believes the Arab Spring could end up helping Israel internationally in the long run.
“Democratic and Republican leaders and the American people have started waking up to the dangers of the Arab Spring,” Danon said. “They realize that we are alone on the front lines for America in a region that is becoming more dangerous and they appreciate that. Americans see the domino effect of Iran, Turkey and the Palestinians getting more extremist and they realize it will get to them in the end. The polls in the US show that more and more Americans realize that Iran is a risk to the US. Islamic extremists are seen as the bad guys in America, and justifiably. This encourages a stronger feeling of identity with an Israel at peril.”
One country not too far away that Danon sees as an ally of Israel is South Sudan. He became the first Israeli official to visit the new state two months ago when he went to propose a plan to South Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit that would encourage migrant workers from South Sudan to return there from Israel. Mayardit told Danon he supported Israel and would build an embassy in Jerusalem.
That promise has been made to Israel by many American presidential candidates. Danon said all the Republican candidates for president are pro-Israel, except for Congressman Ron Paul, and they all say Obama shouldn’t pressure Israel to make concessions.
While he won’t be issuing any public endorsement of any candidate in the Republican primary, Danon will continue building relations with the candidates and other American politicians, even though it’s not the regular job of an MK.
“I have made sacrifices by investing time taking Republican congressmen on a helicopter ride over Judea and Samaria when I could have held a parlor meeting in Dimona or issued a parliamentary inquiry on the housing situation in Beit Shemesh,” Danon said. “But you never know who is going to be president eventually, and making sure they will be pro-Israel is really important.”