Danon: Behind closed doors, more support for Israel at UN than meets the eye

As he tackles the French peace initiative, Danny Danon says it's "absolutely fascinating to see the difference between public and private discourse" at the UN.

Danny Danon addressing the UN Security Council, October 22, 2015 (photo credit: UN PHOTO/KIM HAUGHTON)
Danny Danon addressing the UN Security Council, October 22, 2015
(photo credit: UN PHOTO/KIM HAUGHTON)
According to Danny Danon, the current Israel Ambassador to the UN, the upcoming weeks will be especially critical. On May 30, dozens of foreign ministers will gather in Paris for the Israeli-Palestinian peace summit, which is a preliminary event leading up to the peace summit that will take place in the summer in Paris.
The Israelis and Palestinians have not been invited to this preliminary gathering. Danon, who fears that a political settlement will be forced upon Israel, says that we are currently in a state of emergency and so he has begun gathering intelligence. From his point of view, each country that Israel succeeds in preventing from attending the conference will be considered an achievement.
"There's so much going on – we don't have a moment to rest," says Danon. "I'm curious to see who comes and who doesn't. Even if we wanted to attend, we weren't invited. So I'm meeting with as many ambassadors as I can to hear what their stance is. The Americans have not yet made their position public."
US Department of State Spokesperson John Kirby told reporters at his daily briefing in Washington last week that Secretary of State John Kerry has not decided yet whether he will attend the foreign ministers' conference. The US government is still examining the French proposal, Kirby said, and consulting with other administrations around the world.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, on the other hand, has already clearly announced Israel's stance, and a few hours before the Passover holiday began, the Prime Minister's Office released a strongly-worded statement about the upcoming session: "Israel adheres to the position that the best solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is direct, bilateral negotiations. Israel is ready and willing to enter into immediate direct negotiations with the Palestinians without preconditions. All other initiatives push the Palestinians further away from the negotiating table and direct negotiations."
"We will wait to hear what the American position is on the issue and then we will reiterate that the two sides need to sit down together and hold negotiations," says Danon. "The Palestinians are doing everything in their power to prevent direct negotiations from taking place and instead are supporting initiatives that just push negotiations further out of reach. The Palestinians believe they will receive a better deal if Israel is not involved, if outsiders dictate to Israel what the outcome will be – and this is a mistake. They don't understand that we are right here and that at some point they will need to sit down together with us in the same room. But they prefer to take detours and look for short-cuts. Maybe this makes them look better to their own people, but it won't help us get the peace process back on track."
Do you think Netanyahu is being sincere when he says his government is ready to return to negotiations? After all, construction in the settlements is still going on.
"Do you know how many hours Netanyahu sat with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in negotiations over the last seven years? The answer is seven. In other words, there have been practically no negotiations. The Palestinians say that they have no interest in sitting down with the Israelis, and so we have not been able to discuss any matters with them. Even when you go to buy an apartment, you don't know what the outcome is going to be ahead of time. The Palestinians want to know in advance who the players will be, who the judge will be and what the outcome of the game will be."
So, in your opinion, do you think that construction in Judea and Samaria should continue or should there be a settlement freeze?
"The government makes these decisions, and I haven't heard about any decisions to freeze construction. But if you look at the numbers, you don't see any massive building going on in Judea and Samaria. The UN relies on reports coming out of Israel and one of the ambassadors quoted a Peace Now report that claimed that 1,500 units were built this past year. I don't know if this number is correct, but even if it is, 1,500 apartments for all of Judea and Samaria cannot be considered massive building under any definition. No one can say that."
Behind the Scenes at the UN
But one thing is certain – the Americans are very unhappy with the expansion of settlements, and from time to time they 'express deep concern' about the resumption of the peace process and how this cannot happen if there's continued construction. When you add the condemnations and expressions of 'concern' to the escalation of the security situation and the poor relations between Netanyahu and US President Obama, you get diplomatic isolation, which shows its ugly head from time to time at the UN, the very place where Israel is in dire need of the US's veto power in the Security Council.
"At the UN, we don't feel any tension with the American administration," Danon says reassuringly. "I have an excellent relationship with US Ambassador Samantha Power. The Americans have lost hope, though, and have expressed to us informally that they're tired of dealing with both sides. But we're definitely not in crisis mode."
Do you feel a sense of hopelessness during your conversations with the prime minister?
"Of course I do – but this is no secret. After Kerry completed his tour of the region, he said he felt like he did his duty and there's nothing he can do if neither of the parties wants to make progress. But I believe that if Netanyahu were to receive an invitation to meet with the Palestinians in Jerusalem or Ramallah, he would attend such a meeting. It’s the Palestinians who keep rejecting such a meeting."
So, there isn’t even a glimmer of hope for a political solution?
"Unfortunately, we don't see any Palestinian leaders who are willing to take responsibility. But the Iran Agreement has had an impact on the Arab world. In the past, most Arab countries would say to us, 'First solve your problems with the Palestinians and then come back to talk with us,' but this is not the case anymore. Now we are forming relationships with Arab countries, which is helping us create a dialogue with the Palestinians. This is happening at the UN, too. I can't mention any specific names at this point in time, but during my discussions with Arab ambassadors at the UN, I've come to understand that we have a chance to work together in the future."
Can you give us a hint about which ambassadors you've spoken with?
"Moderate countries that are also unhappy about the Iran Agreement. On a personal level, I must say that it's absolutely fascinating to see the difference between public and private discourse. For example, I can just have finished a discussion with an ambassador in which he expressed moderate views, who then watch as he takes the podium in the plenary session and lambasts Israel. I've discovered that there's the public UN and then there's what everyone really thinks. The public attitude towards Israel is very anti-Israel, but in one-on-one discussions, many ambassadors tell me that Israel is not the problem, but radical Islam and global terrorism. And these are the issues that are most worrisome for them."
Quiet Support
The past seven months during which Danon has been serving as Israel's Ambassador to the UN have been quite turbulent. There's been the Iran Agreement, Netanyahu's fiery speech at the UN General Assembly, in which he stated that he refuses to be silent, and Danon's verbal wrangling with the Palestinian Ambassador to the UN, Riyad Mansour. Over and over again, Danon has exclaimed from the podium that the UN is biased in its support of the Palestinians.
"I don't think the entire world is against us," says Danon. "At the UN, people are busy with other things, such as refugees in Europe, the Syrian issue, the South China Sea, and tensions between Russia and the US. Israel is just one of the issues. But people need to understand that the situation is not black and white and that we can't talk about Israel without bringing up Hamas. Any scenario involving negotiations or a conference must acknowledge that Hamas is leading a regime of terror in Gaza. Many people prefer to ignore this fact even though it is a daily reality for us."
Two weeks ago, at the weekly government Cabinet meeting that was held in the Golan Heights, Netanyahu declared that the Golan will remain under Israel's sovereignty forever. Germany and the US expressed their criticism of the statement, and Danon believes there is no reason to sweep this controversy under the rug. "Our position regarding the Golan Heights is cut and clear. Menachem Begin's government passed the Golan Heights Law, and Begin said that this was one of the most important laws that was ratified during his tenure. The international community is also in disagreement about Jerusalem – should we then give up our rights in Jerusalem? Just because there are debates about a variety of topics, such as settlements in Judea and Samaria, doesn’t mean we should try to hide them or take the other side's stance."
Until his appointment as ambassador to the UN, Danon served as chairman of the Likud Central Committee and in the most recent internal Likud elections, Danon ran against Netanyahu for leadership of the party. Some sources have said that Danon, who was making life difficult for Netanyahu, accepted the UN appointment just to remove himself from political goings on in Israel.
 Do you miss Israeli politics or being a Likud activist in the Knesset?
"I miss the day-to-day living in Israel. My family, the traffic and the energy. At the UN, you make a speech and no one reacts. Even if you made an emotional, powerful speech, people just sit there staring at you. The Knesset has a very different dynamic. But it's also very challenging here at the UN because there are so many different issues being discussed. I run from one event to another – it's very fast-paced and I love all the energy that's created. In Israel, we mostly deal with domestic issues. Here, no one knows or cares about Likud or the left-wing, or which of us are settlers or living in Gilo. To them, we're all just Israelis."
What's easier, dealing with struggles at the UN or in the Knesset?
"In the Knesset, there are factions making deals with each other all the time. Here, no one supports Israel openly. And those who do support Israel only do so quietly behind the scenes. It's much easier to gather support at the Knesset."
Was your appointment political?
"No. I am the right person for the position. I've always been emotionally involved in my work, and now I'm exposed to so many things that I wouldn’t have been back in the Knesset. Of course, it's hard being so far from home, especially away from my family, but I consider this kind of like miluim (IDF reserve duty), and soon I'll be back to my normal life in Israel."
Will you run against Netanyahu again?
"I'm too busy now with the upcoming summit and the UN General Assembly to think about such issues."
Translated by Hannah Hochner.