In late December 2020, the Likud Party’s constitution committee voted against holding primaries for their list of candidates for the forthcoming March 23 general election. They’re keeping broadly the same list as presented at the last election.
Danny Danon, 49, the recently returned Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and a Likud heavyweight who has courted controversy in the past, was not added to the list despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu having been given the green light by the Likud committee to choose six additional names to add to the party slate.
Before anyone gets the wrong idea, Danon – despite plenty of cynicism when he accepted the job – proved to be a capable permanent representative of Israel at the UN during his five-year tenure. Throughout our interview, he went out of his way to compliment Netanyahu on his record and achievements, although that praise was often balanced with a degree of thinly veiled criticism.
Soon after this interview, Danon came off second best in an apparent power struggle with other top Likud figures and was forced out of his position as chairman of World Likud. A few hours after that ousting (and possibly in a fit of pique), he published a tweet urging President Biden to call Netanyahu, something the new US leader hadn’t done since taking office. He also published a Jerusalem phone number that he said was a direct line to the PM’s Office.
Although ostensibly a tweet supporting Netanyahu, the subtext was that Netanyahu no longer has the ear of the US leader as he did with the previous incumbent. A furor broke out and Danon was forced to quickly back down. “The choice of words was not successful but I stand behind the message,” he told Army Radio. “The tweet was not coordinated with the prime minister or his adversaries.”
In 2014, Netanyahu fired Danon from his cabinet for publicly defying him on policy during Operation Protective Edge. I began by asking if he feels Israel’s longest serving prime minister lacks the strength to make the really big decisions, reacting to events rather than being proactive?
“Prime Minister Netanyahu did great things for Israel and we should be grateful for that,” Danon tells The Jerusalem Report. “The Abraham Accords, [and vaccinating Israelis against] COVID, and I worked with him very closely at the UN. I learned to appreciate him, and he learned to appreciate me more than the time when I was in his government. But I agree with you. Today it’s a different kind of leadership. I think we should definitely go back to the days of Menachem Begin and [Yitzhak] Shamir, when the meaning of leadership was to actually show the way to the public and not to try to get ideas [from] the public.”
“I want to remind you [that during Operation Protective Edge] we knew about the Hamas tunnels and I knew a lot of things as deputy minister of defense and was very direct with the prime minister. I told him that I thought he should take action. Maybe today, looking back, I should have used different language. I tried to do it quietly – and then I did it publicly.”
Danon broke the doctrine of collective responsibility. There was talk that he had already written his resignation letter but that Netanyahu rushed to fire him before he could go on his own terms.
“I don’t think it’s important if I submitted my resignation before [he fired me]. It was important for him. A few days after my sacking, Israel did exactly what I demanded and we dealt with the threat of the tunnels. That was the right decision.”
At the end of 2014, Danon ran against Netanyahu for leadership of the Likud, having previously run against him in 2007, polling at just 3%. This time he polled at 19%, a respectable showing. He soon returned to the government as science, technology and space minister, and eight months later Netanyahu appointed him ambassador to the UN.
Many seasoned observers felt Danon’s appointment to the UN could prove disastrous. He came with a reputation of representing the hard right, and some wondered if it was simply a calculated move on Netanyahu’s part to wrong-foot him; if that was Netanyahu’s plan he may have made a tactical error.
“I was very proud to receive the nomination from the prime minister,” Danon insists. “Some of my colleagues in the government told me I should not leave but I felt it was the right decision. I was able to prove that we can even win in a hostile place like the UN and can accomplish a lot. I’m very proud of what I did during those five years and I think today we can continue and do more in the international arena.
“Prior to leaving office, [former US president Barack] Obama decided to push a resolution at the [UN] Security Council, Resolution 2334. It was a nasty resolution condemning Israel, calling our presence in the Old City of Jerusalem ‘a flagrant violation of international law.’ Usually, it’s Israel and the US against everyone else, but during that period I was by myself fighting against the US and the entire UN. Unfortunately, the resolution passed, but I was very strong in my speech and told them that things would change. Little did I know that a year later the embassy of the US would actually move to Jerusalem, then I was instrumental in bringing the embassy of Guatemala from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.”
Against all the odds, Danon achieved a major first for Israel at the UN and in July 2016 was elected to chair the UN Legal Committee despite the large majority opposing Israel in the UN General Assembly.
“I worked quietly, met most of the ambassadors and knew I had the votes. They counted the secret ballot... and announced that I received the support of 109 ambassadors with only 44 against. I was very proud for myself, for my family and most importantly for my country.”
Looking back at the experience of his five years in New York, I wondered if he could now characterize the different skills of a diplomat and a politician.
“I can tell you it’s much harder to be a diplomat because you have to think very carefully about every step, every word, about every line you write,” he says with a wry smile. “I was used to coming to the podium in the Knesset to speak freely about my values, my ideas, my intentions. You cannot do it at the UN. When you speak there you are in front of the world.”
The arrival of Donald Trump’s administration certainly gave a boost to Israel’s position at the UN, but Danon is quick to point out that it wasn’t all uphill during the Obama years. “I’ll tell you something that might surprise: we also achieved a lot during the years of president Obama. Overall, Israel and the US work very closely together in the UN arena regardless of who is sitting in the White House.”
Despite the damage done to America’s international standing during the last weeks of Trump’s presidency, Danon is reluctant to lay specific blame for the shameful scenes in Washington, couching his response in careful fashion.
“We should be grateful to President Trump and the administration for what they did [for Israel]. We can’t ignore it; the recognition of Jerusalem as our capital; the recognition of the Golan Heights; pulling out of the Iran deal was the most important decision of the administration; the Abraham Accords – today I speak with many colleagues in the Gulf and we discuss the Iran issue and we have to give [Trump] credit for that.
“Regarding what happened on Capitol Hill, I don’t think we should blame anyone. We’re not in a position to give grades to anyone, but we were sorry to see those scenes. We all admire the US for the strength of their democracy, for their freedom of speech.... I’m happy that democracy prevailed and we saw a smooth transition of power.”
The autumn of 2020 provided an unexpected mini-tsunami of normalization agreements with Arab nations and was another huge boost for Israel. Here, Netanyahu took just about all the credit, but Danon was keen to point out that much of the groundwork came from his meetings – on and off the record – with ambassadors at the UN.
“One thing I’ve learned is that in politics you have to claim credit immediately. In diplomacy you do the opposite; you do everything quietly in order to deliver, and that’s what I did. One day when I write a book I’ll be able to share [what happened] but I’m very proud of the quiet things that I achieved. Many of the normalization agreements started with working together at the UN, working against Iran. You have a huge gap between the public UN and the private UN. Publicly they will condemn Israel; privately they admire Israel.”
Danon expresses his concern about US President Joe Biden administration’s potential return to a nuclear deal with Iran but hopes the new president’s policies will be more like those of former president Bill Clinton than those of Obama.
“We all know today that the [Iran nuclear] agreement was a bad agreement and the reality of 2021 is not the reality of 2015. I hope the US administration will not try to appease the Iranians but actually apply more pressure on them.”
Danon suggests his lack of belief in the two-state solution no longer goes against the Israeli mainstream. He believes that if current polls are correct, between 70-80 members of the next Knesset will hold right-wing political views, and that the new mainstream has now moved much closer to his ideology. He has missed out on the next Knesset, but the Ramat Gan-born father of three will not stray far from mainstream politics for long and has no plans to join any other party.
“It’s very hard to become the prime minister of Israel if you are not part of one of the major parties. I grew up with the Likud. It’s part of myself. I think you have to be patient even when you want to change things. By the way, I have a lot of criticism about what happened in the party and in the government, but I believe we must change from the inside and not from the outside.”
And just in case you are still in any doubt about his burning desire to hold the top office in the land, Danon makes no bones about his plan of action. “When the time comes and Netanyahu will not be the candidate of the Likud, I see myself as one of the potential candidates to lead the party.”