Herb Keinon’s one-on-one with Israeli Ambassador to the U.N. Danny Danon

Danon concluded it would not be responsible for him as ambassador to the UN to suddenly drop everything, rush home, and leave behind all he was working on.

Israel's Ambassador to the United Nations (UN) Danny Danon speaks during a meeting of the UN Security Council at UN headquarters in New York, February 20, 2018 (photo credit: LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS)
Israel's Ambassador to the United Nations (UN) Danny Danon speaks during a meeting of the UN Security Council at UN headquarters in New York, February 20, 2018
The political ground in Israel quaked this week, as in rapid succession Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked broke away from Bayit Yehudi and formed their own party, and Zionist Union head Avi Gabbay split up his union and unceremoniously sent Tzipi Livni packing.
It is understandable, therefore, that Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon’s decision to stay in his position in New York and not compete in the Likud primaries did not register that strongly on the country’s political seismograph. There was just too much other seismic activity out there. When major tectonic plates are colliding, a slight tremor on one of those plates barely registers.
But still, in normal times Danon’s move would have attracted much more attention. Why? Because it was widely believed three years ago, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent Danon to the UN, that he was trying to get rid of a political nemesis on his right, and that Danon was willing – even eager – to go to the UN to build up a resume that would make it easier for him to one day capture the Likud leadership.
Because, after all, wasn’t this Netanyahu’s trajectory – first UN ambassador, then prime minister?
Yet here we are, with elections now just around the corner, and Danon has decided to take a pass on the February 5 Likud primaries, stay in his job at the UN – at least through the summer – and sit out the next political cycle.
“Why?” he is asked during a phone interview with The Jerusalem Post. “What are you thinking?”
Danon said that after the Knesset dissolved itself on December 26, he needed to make a quick decision whether to compete in the Likud primaries, a contest he did very well in the last time around in 2015, winning the ninth slot on the party’s Knesset list.
This quick decision became even more imperative because the day after the elections were formally called, it was reported that he was quitting the post at the UN and returning to run in the Likud race.
“Fake news,” he said. “The reporter didn’t even call to check with me.”
Danon thought about the matter over Shabbat, and on Saturday night concluded it would not be responsible for him as ambassador to the UN to suddenly drop everything, rush home, and leave behind all he was working on at the UN.
“I decided to remain in my position here, and in the future return and continue serving the public in Israel, but not by dropping everything, leaving the delegation at the UN without anyone at its head, and coming back to Israel the next day,” he said.
But that does not sound like a logical explanation for a politician like Danon, who has never hidden his political ambitions.
Challenged a number of different ways on the matter, he stood by this explanation: that with the Palestinians set to embark on yet another effort to gain full membership in the UN; with an important event marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day coming up in a couple of weeks; and with plans to lead a group of 40 UN envoys to Israel later this month, this was no time to leave the UN ship for more attractive vessels.
In addition, he said, it would be a particularly inopportune moment for the Israeli delegation to be without a head, since the US delegation – which has been so active in defending Israel over the last two years in the world body – is without an ambassador following the resignation of Nikki Haley, which went into effect on December 31.
Danon said that when he gave up a seat in the cabinet in 2015 as science and technology minister and left for the UN, friends told him he was not making the correct political move.
“I said it feels right to me, and I went with my gut. I don’t know what the results of my decision now will be, but it also feels right,” he said.
Danon took over from Ron Prosor at the UN in August 2015, and Netanyahu extended his term there last summer until the next elections. The prime minister could further extend his term – Abba Eban served there for 10 years, Michael Comay and Yosef Tekoah served seven-year stints, and Yehuda Blum and Dan Gillerman were each there for six years – but Danon said that Netanyahu has not made him any promises, nor is he certain he would stay longer than the coming summer, even if an extension were to be offered.
“Four years is a long time,” he said.
Danon said that even though he has no intention of running for the next Knesset – neither with the Likud nor with any other party (no other party has approached him) – he still has political ambitions.
If that is the case, how can he stay politically relevant, if he is neither at the UN nor in the Knesset? Without mentioning him by name, Danon pointed to former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, who has not held a public position now for nearly four years, who has not made clear what his political opinions are, but has managed to stay relevant enough to soar in preelection polls.
Danon said the same is true of “my friend” Gideon Sa’ar, the former minister who opted out of participating in the Likud primary in 2015, but is challenging this time and is expected to do well in the Likud primary and be ranked high on the party’s list.
Danon dismissed the notion that he is committing “political suicide.”
“In the past I have shown that I know how to make an impact on other levels, and I will continue to do so – from one position or another,” he said. “I just can’t now say what that position will be.”
WHEN HE went to the UN in 2015, he was considered to be a representative of the Likud’s “hard right,” posing challenges to Netanyahu from the party’s right flank. He said that his time at the UN has not changed or moderated his fundamental “values,” which he said are “in the same place,” but it has given him “diplomatic tools” he did not possess before.
These, he said, include “understanding how to explain our positions, and how to attain achievements on these issues, not only say what it is we want.”
And he has presided over some diplomatic achievements at the UN, the most recent being the vote in December on a UN General Assembly resolution to condemn Hamas.
Though the resolution was not adopted because of a last-minute procedural issue which necessitated that it garner two-thirds of the yea or nay votes cast, fully 87 countries voted for the measure and against Hamas, while only 57 voted against it, 33 abstained and 16 countries did not vote.
He said people were surprised by the numbers, not only by the number of votes for the resolution, but how few countries – and which ones – voted for the Palestinians.
“People understand that the next time we bring this resolution, it will pass,” he said. “And we will be prepared for the two-thirds procedural issue. For us this was a big achievement.” He said the motion will be brought again – it is just a matter of waiting for the most opportune moment.
Danon said that the Palestinians were shocked by the results, and saw that the UN General Assembly – for so long their “home field” – is no longer “absolutely in their hands.”
“They understand that they no longer have carte blanche, and that we can fight back,” he said. He added that the Palestinian delegation at the UN waged a huge campaign to keep the resolution from being adopted, including closely working with Hamas, Iran and Turkey.
Despite the setback in that vote, however, Danon said the Palestinians have announced that they will once against seek full membership in the United Nations, something that needs to pass the Security Council.
In 2014 they tried a similar maneuver, but it failed when they were unable to get the nine votes needed for a resolution to pass the Security Council. Israel and the US worked hard to prevent the Palestinians from getting those nine votes, so that the US – which, along with the four other permanent members on the council, has veto power – would not have to use its veto and show that they were isolated on this matter.
Danon said that the Trump administration has less qualms than the Obama administration did about using its veto, and would almost certainly use it against this measure. While the Obama administration used its veto only once in the Security Council to block an anti-settlement resolution in 2011 (it let another pass in 2016), the Trump administration has already used the veto twice – in December 2017 to block a resolution condemning the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and in June when it blocked a resolution condemning Israel for violence in Gaza.
But if the Palestinians know the measure has no chance of passing, why are they going through the motions? To put the issue back on the public agenda, Danon said, to make sure that people continue to talk about it in capitals around the world.
In other words, to stay relevant – something Danon will also have to figure out how to do politically, once his term as ambassador to the UN ends, and since he has now opted out of competing for the next Knesset.