When Danny Danon took up his position as ambassador to the UN five years ago, meetings he held with representatives of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and other Arab countries with which Israel did not have diplomatic relations were held clandestinely in hotel rooms or conference rooms at New York law offices.
“Each of those meetings necessitated a lot of logistic groundwork,” Danon said in an interview this week. “I once came to the lobby of a hotel for a meeting, and there was a celebrity there – I think it was one of the Kardashians – and a lot of paparazzi. I received a text saying that it would be impossible to meet there, because somebody might see us, so we changed the venue of the meeting.”
Nor was it unusual, when he first went to New York, to hold a meeting with Arab representatives outside of the UN headquarters on one day, and then see them in an elevator in the UN on the next, without a word of greeting or polite acknowledgment being exchanged between them.
It was odd, he said, but that was the Mideast normal.
That normal has suddenly changed. On Wednesday Danon’s successor, Gilad Erdan, who replaced him in July, met openly with UAE Ambassador to the UN Lana Zaki Nusseibeh at her country’s permanent mission in New York.
While many were caught by surprise last month when the White House announced that Israel and the UAE would normalize ties and sign a peace deal, Danon said that he was not among them.
“We worked on this for five years,” Danon said. “I visited Dubai in 2016 [to attend a UN conference] and was in contact with various officials in the Gulf. I also know very well the extent of the US involvement there.”
One thing Danon said he came to understand well at the UN was the closeness of the relationship between the United States and the Gulf countries, something he said is very much underappreciated and downplayed in Israel.
“We talk a lot in Israel about our relationship with the United States, and how it is a special relationship. But I also encountered a special relationship between the US and the Gulf countries. That is something significant and important, and in this case it worked to our benefit because the US was very active on this issue.
“We need to remember,” Danon continued, “that the US is not only obligated to Israel, but also to the Gulf countries – they have army bases there and strategic relations, and this is something that helps us today.”
In this regard, it is worth remembering that the US went to war against Saddam Hussein in 1990 for the benefit of Kuwait.
Danon said that he met US President Donald Trump’s senior adviser Jared Kushner soon after Kushner took up his new role in 2017, and that Kushner made it clear that he intended to invest a great deal of time and effort developing relations with leaders in the Gulf “to bring about peace deals.”
Danon said that just as “they made light of me” when he first came to the UN without diplomatic experience, and just as “they made light of [former US envoy to the UN] Nikki Haley at the beginning, they also made light of Kushner and said that he doesn’t understand diplomacy or know what he is doing. But look, his work bore fruit, and he deserves credit for the work he did.
“So I was not surprised.”
CONSIDERING THE close nature of the relationship between the US and the Gulf countries, could not president Barack Obama and his secretary of state John Kerry have leveraged that relationship to broker a deal between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain during their eight-year tenure?
No, Danon said, because Obama decided to go forward with the nuclear deal with Iran, and by so doing “brought the Gulf countries closer to us, and created a feeling of disappointment, and even abandonment – a sense that the US abandoned its partners in the region. It would not have been possible for them [Obama and Kerry] to work on this issue – they did not have the capability. But after Trump left the Iran agreement, and acted with determination toward Iran, that gave greater leverage to the US in the region.”
According to Danon, had Obama not pushed so hard for the nuclear deal with Iran, his administration, too, would have had leverage in the Gulf and “certainly could have brokered something like this.”
But that was definitely not in the previous administration’s mindset.
A video clip under a minute went viral last week showing a supremely self-confident Kerry at the Brookings Institution’s annual Saban Forum in December 2016 sharing his wisdom and take on Mideast events shortly before leaving office.
“I’ve heard several prominent politicians in Israel sometimes saying, Well, the Arab world is in a different place now. We just have to reach out to them, and we can work some things with the Arab world, and we’ll deal with the Palestinians. No, no, no and no,” Kerry said.
“I can tell you that... there will be no advance and separate peace with the Arab world without the Palestinian process and Palestinian peace. Everybody needs to understand that. That is a hard reality.”
Kerry’s “hard reality,” as it turned out, was neither “hard” nor “reality,” and Danon – asked if the reason the UAE and Bahrain have made the strategic decision to pursue peace with Israel was primarily to please the US – said that he identified three main reasons for the move.
“First, they did it because it is good for them. It is good for their security, country and economy. When you have a joint, dangerous and determined enemy like Iran, and you are a small country in the Gulf, you have to build as many security walls as possible, and find partners. This is significant, because you never know where that piece of information or cooperation will come from when you need it.”
Second, Danon said, the UAE and Bahrain took this step because of their relations with the US. “This should not be played down. Sometimes there are dilemmas between national security needs and local public opinion. And here the US is very significant.”
In Danon’s telling, close ties with the US are a national security interest for the Gulf countries, one that takes precedence at certain times over local public opinion.
“You heard President Trump calling at the White House for another country to join in. There is no doubt that the US will appreciate it if other countries do so, and Trump will appreciate it even more if those countries do it before the elections.”
And the third element behind the UAE and Bahrain move, he said, was a regional element.
“The UAE is very active in Jordan and Egypt, and they want regional influence. There is competition in the Arab world. In the past there was a negative competition between the countries about who had the most hatred toward Israel – look at how Nasser and others used that to build up their leadership. Now the competition is in the economic sphere, in regard to who has the closest relations with the US, and – to a lesser degree – in regard to the level of cooperation with Israel.”,
DANON CAUTIONED, however, against expecting that the peace agreements with the UAE and Bahrain will translate into an immediate change in their attitude toward Israel at the UN.
In fact, the opposite may be the case, he said, because the UAE and Bahrain may come under increased criticism from some Arab states and, as a result, “may be on the defensive and feel the need to show that they have not abandoned issues important to the Arab League.”
In other words, don’t expect a change – at least not immediate – in these countries’ voting patterns toward Israel. While at the practical level, in terms of cooperation at the UN, there will be an improvement, Danon predicted that at the declaratory level, such as in how they vote on anti-Israel resolutions, the change will be gradual.
Danon said that among the Arab states there are subgroups, and subgroups among the subgroups, and that numbers matter. Presently, four of the 22 Arab League states have relations with Israel. If another three or four states now follow the UAE’s lead – regardless of their size – it would be highly significant.
Palestinian Authority Social Affairs Minister Ahmed Majdalani told KAN Radio last week that Israel was conducting normalization talks with Oman, Sudan, Comoros, Djibouti and Mauritania.
And to those who understand why ties with Morocco or Saudi Arabia – two other countries considered prime candidates for normalization – are important, but do not understand the importance of relations with Comoros, Djibouti or Mauritania, Danon responds that at the UN, numbers have significance.
“If, among the Arab League, there will be seven countries with ties with us tomorrow, instead of the four today, that would strengthen this subgroup and allow it to do more things openly. And when that happens, you might start to be able to talk about changes in voting patterns.”
As to the likelihood that the UAE and Bahrain will want to prove their allegiance to the Palestinian cause by taking more initiative on this issue at the UN then they have in the past, Danon repeated the line about the Palestinians “never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
“We say this all the time,” he acknowledged, “but it always repeats itself.”
According to Danon, Israel was concerned at the beginning of Trump’s term that he was leaning toward blaming Israel for the impasse with the Palestinians.
“But the Palestinians, instead of taking advantage of that, attacked and smeared the administration,” he said. “In one of my first meetings with Nikki Haley she said she intended to open her door to the Palestinians, sit down and listen to them. But after a number of weeks they attacked her shamelessly in the Security Council, at one point referring to her as ‘that woman.’ They then lost all contact with the US delegation. This was diplomatic malpractice that worked to our benefit.”
That same “malpractice,” he said, is on full display now in the Palestinian reaction to the UAE and Bahrain moves. “Instead of saying that they are disappointed, they are attacking those countries’ leaders and causing them to distance themselves from the Palestinian issue. That is called throwing out the baby with the bathwater.”