When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stepped off his plane three weeks ago at JFK Airport in New York following a five-hour flight from Mexico City, standing in line to greet him alongside the red carpet were Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, Consul-General in New York Dani Dayan, and Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon.
Israel"s envoy to the UN, Danny Danon, speaks to reporters
Dermer is Netanyahu’s alter ego; Dayan someone the prime minister has a great deal of respect for; and Danon, well, Danon was appointed by Netanyahu partly because he was a political nuisance he wanted to dispatch an ocean away.
Danon, politically to Netanyahu’s Right, ran against him in 2007 for Likud leadership, and lost tremendously. He ran again in 2014, and lost again. He criticized Netanyahu in 2014 for the way he carried out Operation Protective Edge and not being aggressive enough against Hamas, and – as a result – was fired by Netanyahu as the deputy defense minister.
Nevertheless, Danon won the ninth slot on the Likud election list in 2015, and Netanyahu had little choice but to make him a minister – so he gave him the Science, Technology and Space Ministry. Still an irritant on his right who was as outspoken about his opposition to a two-state solution as he was to the Obama Administration, Netanyahu presented Danon in 2015 with that proverbial offer he couldn’t refuse: Ambassador to the UN.
True, it’s not a position around the cabinet table where the country’s decisions are made, but it is a high-profile position with great exposure to international leaders and the opportunity for generating lots of headlines.
So two years ago, around Sukkot, Danon, 46, packed up his wife and three children, aged 10 to 16, and headed to the post from which Netanyahu catapulted himself to the top of the country’s leadership pyramid some 30 years ago.
Though when he was a Likud backbencher, a deputy defense minister and even government minister Danon had little compunction about criticizing Netanyahu’s policies and the US administration, as the country’s ambassador to the world body over the last two years he has been very disciplined.
Which doesn’t mean that he does not eventually see himself again running for the Likud leadership and premiership of the country. Just not right yet.
When Danon was in the country at the end of August accompanying UN Secretary-General António Guterres on his first visit to Israel in that capacity, he sat down with The Jerusalem Post over a salad and sandwich at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel.
One of the first questions was whether, as the police investigations around Netanyahu continue and people inside the Likud are beginning to elbow into position to possibly replace him, he is not kicking himself for being so far away from all the political action.
“When I took up this position, some of my friends said, ‘You are a minister in the government, you are going to give all that up for the UN?’ But it felt right, and I am very much at peace with the decision,” he said.
Danon said he felt in retrospect the decision was correct both because of the achievements he has had at the UN – first and foremost in being the first Israeli elected as the chair of the UN’s Legal Committee – and also because of what he is learning in his job.
“Today I know many people around the world and have a much better understanding of the international system,” he said. “When I return to serve Israel in the future, those tools will help both me and the state, because not many people in Israel understand the complexity of the international system. In Israel, unless you are the foreign minister, you do not deal with this – it is not something you touch as a minister.”
Which sounds a lot like he is grooming himself to one day serve as prime minister. Asked if this was indeed his goal, Danon replied by retelling something told him by Ariel Sharon – with whom Danon was close until they parted ways over the withdrawal from Gaza.
“On a trip to the north he told me that there is a pyramid in politics: all the Knesset members want to be ministers, and all the ministers want to be the prime minister. That is the math of politics,” he said.
“Today I am in a position that gives me satisfaction,” he added. “Right now there is a prime minister, whom I just met two hours ago, and who is doing his job very well. He has both experience and an understanding of foreign relations.”
Danon said the discussion about whether he will run for prime minister is not relevant at the moment. “But when I return, I intend to return to [political] action. There are those who will be pleased by this, and some who will be less pleased.”
Danon acknowledged that his hobnobbing with diplomats and statesmen in New York is giving him valuable experience that could serve him well down the line. Asked if this particular job has moderated his positions – when he left the country two years ago he was deep in the Likud’s right flank – Danon said that his “values” have not changed.
“I still believe in our right to Eretz Yisrael, and the justice of our cause,” Danon said. But, he added, his position on the international stage has changed his understanding about how best Israel can attain its goals.
“If in the past I said ‘this is ours, period,’ today I believe in the same position, 100% that it is ours, period, but I think there is a need to act with more sophistication,” he said.
Pressed to give an illustration, Danon said he recently spoke to a senior personality at the UN who talked to him about Israeli construction in the settlements. “‘Danny,’ he told me, ‘why do you make 19 announcements a year on projects that in the end you don’t build? Approve it all once a year, we will condemn once a year, and then build what you want.’”
Israel, Danon said, needs “to do our homework and make corrections on our behavior in these matters.”
Danon acknowledged that when he went to the UN, he felt that the world was against Israel. But today, he said, he realized that the situation is “not black and white.”
“Some who stand up against us publicly support us in a quiet manner, including some Muslim countries,” he said, without being any more specific. “There is a big gap between what is said and what is happening on the ground.”
For instance, Danon said, sometimes an ambassador will warn that he is going to blast Israel, but then help him by relaying information about what is going on behind closed doors, or telling other countries that the issue in question is not really important to his country.
Danon said he has a “very interesting” dialogue with some of the ambassadors from Muslim countries. Nevertheless, they are still unwilling to bring those ties out into the open.
As to what it will take to bring these conversations out of the closet, Danon said that the renewal of talks with the Palestinians would be necessary. “If there is no process of dialogue, it won’t be possible,” he said.
Interestingly enough, he added, when he does speak to his Arab and Muslim counterparts behind closed doors, “You see that the Palestinian issue is not on the top of the agenda. Iran is there, Islamic Jihad is there. But when you ask [them] about doing something publicly, they say that because of the Palestinian issue they can’t do anything openly.”
The Palestinian Authority ambassador, he said, is not one of the Muslim envoys at the UN with whom he has a constructive relationship.
“The Palestinian ambassador [Riyad Mansour] has chosen a very angry and aggressive line of besmirching the IDF and libeling us in the UN, and I am not willing to accept that and attack him in return,” Danon said.
Nevertheless, after serving in the Knesset, and then as both a deputy minister and a minister, Danon acknowledged that there are significant differences between being an ambassador and being a minister – one of the biggest differences being an inability to “say everything you think right away.” He admitted this was a difficult transition for him to make at the beginning.
“I was used to going to the Knesset rostrum and talking, not reading from a written text. I would just jot down a few points and talk,” he said. At the UN, however, he must stick to the text, since the policy is determined by the government.
Still, he said, politicians bring something to this job that is not brought by polished diplomats – a greater willingness to take risks, less of an aversion to make mistakes. Diplomats, he said, are more likely to take the safe path and try diplomatic maneuvers that only have a good probability of success – politicians are more willing to take greater risks.
Danon said that, like himself, US ambassador Nikki Haley also came to the UN from politics, not from the diplomatic corps, and that she was panned by critics – as he was – for a lack of diplomatic experience. When he met her for the first time, he told her to ignore that criticism, that it was “nonsense,” and that she should just “go with her truth.” He told her that the tools acquired in politics – such as the ability to develop relationships with a coalition of people – were valuable in being effective at the UN as well.
Danon characterized his relationship with Haley as “very good,” and that the public nature of her unapologetic support for Israel at the UN is very significant and important.
“In the past we also got support from the US, but it was done quietly, in a different manner. But when you do it publicly, when you say [as Haley recently did], that the UNIFIL commander does not know what he is talking about, that is significant. It makes it possible for people who think like her to speak out as well,” he said.
US President Donald Trump’s election, he noted, brought a degree of uncertainty to the UN, with the organization not sure whether the US would reduce its allocation, which amounts to about 25% of its budget. That the US – from Trump, though Congress on down to Haley – are talking about reform in the UN presents Jerusalem with a great opportunity to bring its issues to the table, such as reforming the Human Rights Committee, making sure UNIFIL provides honest and timely reports to the Security Council, and reducing the number of anti-Israel resolutions passed each year in the General Assembly.
“This will not happen in one day,” he said. “But if we work at it, and if the US will continue its pressure, then next year at the UN we will be in a much different position.”