'In the lion's den': Israel's Danny Danon writes on his time at the UN

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: The former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations writes a book on what happened behind the scenes.

 DANNY DANON and his new book, ‘In the Lion’s Den.’ ‘The world of diplomacy and foreign policy makes for interesting friendships.’ (photo credit: Courtesy Danny Danon)
DANNY DANON and his new book, ‘In the Lion’s Den.’ ‘The world of diplomacy and foreign policy makes for interesting friendships.’
(photo credit: Courtesy Danny Danon)

It was the low point of Danny Danon’s five-year stint as Israel’s ambassador to the UN: December 23, 2016.

Danon had returned abruptly to New York from an aborted Hanukkah family vacation with his wife and children in Puerto Rico, and was sitting in a meeting of the UN Security Council, which was just about to pass a sharply worded anti-settlement resolution shepherded through by Israel’s greatest ally, the United States. 

“At that moment, I felt for the first time the meaning of the words in the Bible that the people of Israel will be alone among the nations,” Danon writes in a book about his time at the UN, to be released next week, In the Lion’s Den. “Right after the vote, everyone stood up. I was the only one sitting in the room while people clapped and hugged each other.”

It was a moment that captured Israel’s isolation. The world applauded as, among other things, Israel’s claim to the Western Wall was deemed a “flagrant violation” of international law. It was a moment brought about by what Danon described as duplicitous behavior by the administration of president Barack Obama. 

Ironically, Danon noted in the book, he first caught wind of the resolution the day before, when he had just landed in Puerto Rico and received a text message from a colleague from an unnamed Muslim country. 

 THEN-ISRAELI Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon addresses a United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, in 2018.  (credit: Mike Segar/Reuters) THEN-ISRAELI Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon addresses a United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, in 2018. (credit: Mike Segar/Reuters)

“The world of diplomacy and foreign policy makes for interesting friendships,” he wrote. “Other ambassadors with whom I was close didn’t call me to reveal Obama’s plan. Only one, a Muslim, shared the news with me. Other ambassadors were asked to keep it quiet, but once I called them, they couldn’t lie.”

The book reveals some of the on-the-ground backstories behind the resolution, a move that he wrote was “a hostile diplomatic attack against Israel pushed through in the final days of the Obama administration.” 

Nothing better illustrates the depths to which the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem had sunk at that time than the fact that Obama refused to take a call from then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu before the vote, under the pretense that he was vacationing in Hawaii. Likewise, the US ambassador to the UN at the time, Samantha Power, would not take Danon’s calls. 

“It was frustrating. Power and I had worked together very well up until this point,” he wrote. “We had enjoyed an open and honest dialogue, and now she was refusing to take my calls, which was a red flag. It was calculated and strategic on her part. Ignoring my phone call showed just how strained US-Israeli relations were at that moment.”

IN AN interview this week in advance of his book’s publication, Danon gave two reasons for Obama’s determination to push this resolution through – the US abstained, rather than cast a veto, but was very much behind its passage. 

“First of all there was the personal issue,” Danon said. “Obama wanted to send a message that he had the last word.” Danon wrote in his book that Netanyahu believed “the resolution was the result of a personal grudge” Obama had against him. The two leaders had a famously rocky relationship, and a year earlier Netanyahu infuriated the president by speaking against the Iranian nuclear deal to a special joint session of Congress. 

In addition to the personal issue, Danon said in the interview, there was also a desire by the administration to leave a clear message regarding how it viewed the ideal Mideast deal in the future. 

The administration’s original hope, he wrote, was that this vision message would be enshrined in a second UN Security Council resolution, called the “Parameters for Peace” resolution, that would have outlined Obama’s vision for peace and set parameters for an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians that dealt with borders, refugees and the status of Jerusalem. 

It was Moscow, Danon wrote, that kept that particular resolution from being formally presented, with the Russians making it clear that they would veto it. Russia, he said, “didn’t want to give Obama a parting gift” by letting his resolution pass.

Among the interesting tidbits that Danon revealed in the book about the give-and-take behind the resolution was that then-British prime minister Theresa May actually considered vetoing the resolution as a way of sending a positive signal to incoming president Donald Trump, who had articulated his opposition to the resolution. Danon said she was dissuaded from doing so by then-foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who succeeded her at 10 Downing Street. 

Israel, Danon admitted, did not know about these British calculations in real time. Had it known, he said, it would have focused more energy on London than it did on some other countries, such as New Zealand and Senegal, which were both co-sponsors of the resolution.

Danon wrote that it was apparent that the New Zealand ambassador to the UN “hadn’t a clue” about the importance of Jerusalem to the Jewish people. “Unfortunately, this was not the first time I identified the desire of some countries to try to become relevant at Israel’s expense.”

Regarding Senegal, he wrote that France pushed Senegal, with which Israel had a strong bilateral relationship, to co-sponsor the resolution. 

Danon said during the interview that there were two main lessons that Israel should take away from those experiences.

One is that the relationship with the US should never be taken for granted. “It is an important strategic relationship that we need to invest in all the time.”

The second lesson is that in addition to investing effort in preserving and maintaining the relationship with the US, Israel should invest – in this sense literally via foreign aid – to help developing countries. Bewailing that Israel’s foreign aid contributions are far less than what they could be, considering the size of the country’s economy, Danon said Israel should be giving a lot more in terms of technological and health assistance to developing states.

The UN has set a target of countries contributing 0.7% of their gross national income (GNI) to foreign aid. Israel is way below that figure. In 2020 it contributed only 0.07% of its GNI to other countries, putting it at the bottom of the list of foreign aid by OECD countries. 

Not only could more foreign aid help when it comes to getting other countries to vote for Israel at the UN, Danon said, but it also wins friends over the long term. “We do this, but it is too little and too late.”

ANOTHER DISAPPOINTMENT at the UN that Danon related to in the book was the decision Netanyahu made – against Danon’s advice – to pull Israel out of a race for a prestigious seat on the 15-member UN Security Council. There are 10 temporary members of the Security Council that serve for two years on a rotating basis, and there are five permanent members. Israel is one of only 63 countries – most of them small island states in the Pacific or Caribbean – that have never had a seat on the influential body. 

In 2018 Danon first won Netanyahu over to the idea that this was a goal worth pursuing, even though Germany – in a move Danon said was not very “collegial” – entered the race and significantly reduced Israel’s chances of success. Israel, Germany and Belgium were vying for the two positions on the council open to their regional grouping at the UN.

Within a year, however, the Foreign Ministry – in Danon’s telling – convinced Netanyahu to give up what it viewed as an expensive bid that would end in defeat.

“It was a mistake to withdraw,” said Danon of the effort, which many in the foreign policy establishment viewed as quixotic. “I don’t know if we would have won, but when you don’t believe in your abilities, that broadcasts something. Sometimes, if you run and lose, that says something else. I agree that it would have been difficult to win; but if we would give a good fight, then every campaign prepares you for the next stage, for running for the next position.”

That is a philosophy Danon has adopted for his own political life, having run twice in long-shot campaigns against Netanyahu for leadership of the Likud: first in 2007 and then again in 2014, getting trounced both times. To some, those races at the time seemed as quixotic as Israel’s race for a UN Security Council seat. 

Those political races make perfect sense in hindsight, however, considering the philosophy that comes out in Danon’s book that it is better to have run and lost than never to have run at all, because the run allows you to make your positions known and proves that you are a fighter. 

Danon’s challenges of Netanyahu positioned him for the job he eventually got at the UN, a job Netanyahu appointed him to. Danon said he will never know for sure whether Netanyahu appointed him because he respected his capabilities, or because the prime minister wanted to move a political rival oceans away – although he suspects it was a combination of the two. 

Danon denied that he wrote this book to present an orderly worldview before running for higher office, something many politicians do. Were that the case, he said, he would have written it – and released it – in Hebrew, not in English. He said he wrote it in English because he has been actively involved in public diplomacy for years, and wanted to bring Israel’s message – as well as the way he thinks that message needs to be brought across – to a wider audience. A Hebrew translation will come later. 

Which doesn’t mean Danon is not eying higher office in Israel. Asked what he is doing these days, he said he is the head of the World Likud Organization, a visiting professor at Yeshiva University, “and I am getting ready to see what will be, what will be in the Knesset this week.” •