Danny Danon would seem to be the unlikeliest of choices to be Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, especially at such a sensitive time for Jerusalem in terms of its image in the international community.
Danon, 44, who served most recently as minister of science, technology and space in the Israeli government, has a reputation as a firebrand. He is adamantly opposed to a two-state solution regarding Palestinian sovereignty. He has a reputation for making highly undiplomatic statements, particularly in calling for the annexation of much of the West Bank, and he is a political rival within the Likud Party of Prime Minister Netanyahu, who also serves as foreign minister and decides on diplomatic appointments.
So why would Netanyahu, who fired Danon from the post of deputy defense minister in 2014 for criticizing his handling of the Gaza War, turn around and appoint him last summer to such a prime diplomatic posting? Especially when critical and delicate discussions are on the horizon at the U.N. Security Council regarding Palestinian statehood.
To answer that, one must understand Israel’s political climate, where most decisions — no matter how global in impact — are based on narrow, shtetl calculations. Consider: Danon ran against Netanyahu for the leadership of Likud in 2014 — he received 19 percent of the vote — and was reportedly planning to oppose him again. So Netanyahu banished him to Israel’s version of Siberia: the U.N.
It’s the place where even the most passionate and eloquent speeches from Jerusalem’s representatives fall on deaf ears, and where the world’s most ruthless nations head up committees on human rights.
Some say the appointment was a punishment for Danon, condemning him to endure the ongoing barrage of anti-Israel rhetoric. Others suggest it was Netanyahu’s way of telling the community of nations what he really thinks of their deliberations.
David Horovitz, the thoughtful and usually restrained editor of The Times of Israel, wrote on learning of Danon’s posting in August: “It is hard to conceive of a more short-sighted, shameful, self-defeating and damaging appointment. Not just for Netanyahu and his government, but for all of Israel.”
Horovitz explained: “It appears to confirm everything Netanyahu’s critics at home and abroad have asserted about his true intentions with respect to the Palestinians. … Undeniably, now, by the prime minister’s own decree, Danny Danon is the true face of Netanyahu’s Israel.”
How does Danon deal with all the conjecture and criticism?
During an interview in his office a few blocks from the U.N., he was as polite to his guest as he was dismissive of media condemnations.
“I would invite David Horovitz to come to the U.N. and see my work here,” he said in a soft voice. “Menachem Begin received similar responses [from detractors]. I say to my critics, judge the result.”
He acknowledged that his job is “challenging,” but pointed out that as a veteran of the Knesset and Israeli politics, he can roll with the punches.
“I’m a fighter,” he said. “I have a passion to defend Israel and I do that day and night. My goal is to be on offense, not defense.
“My message to my staff,” he said, “is zero tolerance. If I see a lie, we will call it.”
Despite the fact that a number of diplomats at the U.N., where Israel’s legitimacy is still questioned, refuse to shake Danon’s hand or speak with him in public, he says he is making inroads under the radar.
“I am not waiting for the next anti-Israel resolution,” he said. “We are setting an agenda.
“There is a public U.N. and a private U.N.,” he observed, “and they are two different planets. Privately I am building relationships, and I see there is interest in and admiration for Israel and our achievements” in science, medicine, technology, water irrigation and other areas. “People are shocked at our accomplishments and want to know more about how we do it.”
Taking advantage of that curiosity, Danon has chosen to make 2016 “the year of showing the other side of Israel” in terms of science and technology — the ministry he headed. His office is sponsoring events each month at the UN that highlight Israeli innovation.
Some countries that don’t recognize Israel send staff members to these programs. They sit in the back of the room and take notes, Danon said. And several ambassadors from Arab countries have approached him privately to discuss issues like water.
“A few ambassadors from African countries have told me they are afraid of reaction from the Arab League” if they are seen in public with the Israeli diplomat, but he engages with them privately. In return, Danon said, “we are asking our bilateral friends to show their support, even at the U.N.”
While he emphasizes his “cultural” advances, he noted that he was successful in a campaign in December to have Yom Kippur declared as the 11th U.N. holiday, joining several Christian and Muslim holy days. That means Jewish workers will not be docked for taking the day off as a vacation day and no votes or official discussions will take place at the world body on Judaism’s holiest day.
Danon also noted that Israel managed to have a resolution dealing with agricultural development passed at the U.N. despite Arab objections.
Those are the kinds of modest achievements the ambassador can cite, given the fact that Israel is increasingly marginalized internationally for its policies dealing with Palestinians and settlements. Most notably of late, Brazil has refused to accept Israel’s appointment in August of Dani Dayan, a former leader of the settlement community, as ambassador to the embassy in Brasilia. Dilma Rousseff, president of Brazil’s left-wing government, has said consent would signal “support for the settlement enterprise.” But Israel, citing prejudice, has insisted it has the right to appoint whom it chooses, noting that Brazil has not objected to ambassadors appointed by countries like Iran, Syria and Sudan, which murder their own citizens and commit other barbaric violations of human rights.
“We will choose the ambassador,” Danon commented, calling Brazil’s resistance “unacceptable.”
On reflection, Danon can be seen as the perfect choice for his post despite being personally opposed to a two-state solution, the very objective his government publicly espouses, and being an advocate of the West Bank settlements that the U.S. and virtually all other countries dispute. After all, the U.N. is a Hall of Mirrors, an embodiment of hypocrisy, with the world’s moral inmates running the asylum. So when Danon declares that despite his own views, “I represent the policy of my country — period,” or when he asserts that he has a “very good” relationship with Netanyahu — “he fired me [as deputy defense minister] but it wasn’t personal” — one realizes he may have the ideal temperament for the U.N. and understand its culture of double standards better than most.
He can play the game, calling for a return to “the peace table,” where Israel will be “flexible,” while not backing off of previous statements that no one espousing a two-state solution should be allowed to be a member of Likud.
“I came here with a lot of passion,” Danon told me at the end of our interview, noting that he gave up a major ministry to take the U.N. post. “I really care, and the prime minister appreciates my willingness to fight for the cause.”
I’m just not sure exactly what cause they are fighting for.