How Danny Danon Went From Israel’s Rebel to Top Diplomat
Young, brash and ambitious, Danny Danon has built his reputation in the cauldron of Israeli politics by sidelining the international community, openly criticizing the president of the United States, and kicking aside the cornerstone of Israel’s agreement with the outside world: the acceptance of a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians.
But now Danon is trading in his rebel public persona for the hat of a diplomat. That could present a formidable task for him as he settles in as Israel’s new ambassador to the United Nations. Long considered one of the Likud party’s enfants terribles, he is known for a quick-on-the-draw readiness to attack Israel’s rivals and allies, and even his own party’s leadership. Danon’s public statements have veered so far away from the Likud mainstream that they won him a rebuke from Israel’s right-wing ambassador to Washington and later got him sacked from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
How he will represent that government in the sometimes-hostile halls of the U.N. and build relationships with the allies Israel desperately needs will determine whether Israel can hold its own on the global stage. Why he was given the post in the first place reflects either deep cynicism, clever politics or both on the part of the prime minister he now serves.
Though he was not scheduled to present his diplomatic credentials to the U.N. until October, Danon had, by late September, already started making the rounds in Turtle Bay, telling counterparts and colleagues that while he has not abandoned his beliefs, for the next few years he’ll toe a different line.
“He shared with us that he intends to represent the State of Israel and the Netanyahu government, which has declared its support for a two-state solution,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, after meeting with Danon on September 23 in New York. Greenblatt sounded convinced by Danon’s pitch, saying he believes that the former Likud minister “will do a very good job as ambassador to the U.N.”
The first test for Danon 2.0 began after Netanyahu’s speech before the General Assembly, October 1, on the heels of a year fraught with harsh controversies between Israel and its allies over the nuclear deal with Iran. At the U.N., Danon will face a renewed effort by the Palestinians to get the international body to recognize their claim to statehood without first having to achieve a negotiated bilateral agreement with Israel.
To counter these efforts, Danon will need the support of the United States. In the past, Washington has blocked any Palestinian attempt to internationalize the Palestinian-Israel dispute through America’s veto power on the U.N. Security Council. But the Obama administration hinted earlier this year that it might be open to reconsidering its position due to what it viewed as Netanyahu’s backpedaling on his commitment to promote the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Right now, Israel views continued U.S. support on this issue as solid. “Our delegation’s assessment is that the full American backing for Israel will remain intact,” an Israeli official at the U.N. told the Forward, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with the diplomatic protocols under which he operates.
But for Danon, ensuring this full U.S. backing could prove to be more difficult, or at least more awkward, than it was for his predecessors.
Danon’s claim to fame as a leading member of Israel’s Knesset, and later as a Cabinet minister, was his willingness to openly attack the Obama administration on its support for a two-state solution. In 2011, as the Palestinians prepared to present the U.N. with their appeal for full membership, Danon went a step further in a New York Times op-ed in which he called on Netanyahu to respond to this move by annexing the Jewish communities of the West Bank, “or as Israelis prefer to refer to our historic heartland, Judea and Samaria.”
More than his policy differences with the United States, his personal aim at Obama stood out as unusual even in an environment of increasing hostility in Israel toward American leadership.
Obama “has not been a friend of Israel,” Danon said on the eve of the 2012 presidential elections, adding that the president’s policies have been “catastrophic.” He also famously escorted then GOP front-runner Rick Perry when he appealed to Orthodox Jewish voters. At Perry’s New York event with Jewish supporters, Danon accused Obama of showing weakness that allowed Israel’s enemies to threaten the Jewish state. “We see a lack of leadership coming from the White House,” he said. “That’s why we see the leader of Iran continuing to build the nuclear reactors.”
When serving as deputy defense minister, Danon lashed out at Secretary of State John Kerry, who in the midst of his efforts to broker a Middle East peace deal warned that without a two-state solution, Israel could become an apartheid state. These comments, Danon wrote in Politico, “call into question his administration’s ability to act as an honest broker in our region.”
This attack was viewed as so out of line that Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to Washington and no fan of the Obama administration, issued a statement distancing Jerusalem from Danon’s views.
Danon has also shown little interest in the international community’s role in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When asked in 2013 about condemnations from the U.N. and other international bodies of exclusively Jewish housing built by Israel in Palestinian East Jerusalem, Danon replied bluntly, “The international community can say whatever they want, and we can do whatever we want.”
To those who have followed his fast political rise, these views should come as no surprise. Now 44 years old, Danon was born in the suburbs of Tel Aviv to a middle-class family. His father, whose family came to Israel from Morocco, suffered a serious head injury in a battle with infiltrators along Israel’s border during his military service. Danon was named after his father’s army commander, who was killed in battle.
In a 2012 interview with Haaretz, Danon said that even though he did not grow up in a political home, his parents supported his right-wing political activism from early on. In high school Danon headed a student group affiliated with Hatchiya, a now defunct political body to the right of the Likud.
Danon began his career in the Likud as an aide to Uzi Landau, a member of the Knesset aligned with the more hawkish wing of the party. Danon also served as chairman of the Knesset’s foreign affairs and defense committee, and was later elected to head World Betar, the Likud’s youth movement, before running for a seat on the Likud slate in the 2006 elections. He won 23rd place, a major achievement for a young newcomer but not high enough to get him into the Knesset. When Israel went to elections again in 2008, Danon won a seat and was appointed deputy speaker. By the next election he came in fifth in the party primary, a high-ranking that brought with it an appointment as deputy defense minister.
In his years in politics, Danon drew attention thanks to his unwavering nationalistic views and his tendency to take on key figures in his own party. He defeated his Likud colleague and fellow lawmaker Yuval Steinitz in the battle over chairmanship of World Likud in 2006. And last year he was the only Likud member to challenge Netanyahu for re-election as the party’s leader. Danon never expected to win, but with 19% of the votes he established his position as leader of Netanyahu’s internal opposition.
Danon’s political activism also played a key role in his personal life. He met Tali Danon, his wife, at a gathering of young Likud activists. For their second date, Danon invited her to a party he organized in celebration of Netanyahu’s victory in the 1996 elections. The Danons have three children, who moved with them to New York in September and are attending Jewish day schools.
Within the party, Danon represents a unique strand of Likudniks — younger than the ruling elites, and further to the right than most who are not directly involved in the settler movement. Danon has stated time and again his clear opposition to a two-state solution. But as he prepared to assume his U.N. position, he began saying instead that due to Palestinian misconduct, the idea of establishing a Palestinian independent state alongside Israel is not currently feasible. In private conversations Danon stated that there is hardly any daylight between him and Netanyahu on the Palestinian issue, because both agree there is no practical way of reaching a two-state solution when the region is going through tremendous volatility.
During the 2014 conflict in Gaza, Danon’s relations with Netanyahu reached a breaking point when Danon, who was then deputy defense minister, publicly lambasted the Israeli leader for being insufficiently aggressive, even as Israel’s massive bombing and invasion of the territory caused high civilian casualties and provoked international condemnation. The prime minister took the unusual step of firing Danon from his Cabinet, saying publicly, “At a time when Israel and the Israel Defense Forces are in the middle of a military campaign, it is unacceptable for the deputy minister of defense to attack the national leadership.”
But if Danon has sought to distance himself from Netanyahu’s policies, he has taken a page from the
prime minister’s playbook in terms of tactics and networking. Just like Netanyahu, Danon has succeeded in weaving a network of supporters in the United States that comes in handy when running for elected positions. Danon, who did his undergraduate studies in the United States, at Florida International University, and was active in the American branch of Betar, was among the first to engage with pro-settler Christian Zionists and with Jewish supporters from the right. He has since visited the United States numerous times, written a book in English aimed at an American audience, and actively supported Jewish groups raising money for West Bank settlements.
When running in the primaries for a place on the Likud list and for the party’s leadership, Danon tapped into some of these contacts, making him the second largest recipient last year of campaign funds from American citizens, trailing only Netanyahu.
Citing protocol that restricts him from speaking to the press before formally handing in his credentials, Danon declined the Forward’s request for an interview.
Already he has attracted supporters and detractors. “He is a principled, courageous Israeli Jew who fights strongly to make sure that Jerusalem will not be divided again,” said Morton Klein, national president of the hawkish Zionist Organization of America. Klein has known Danon since his early days in Betar.
Klein strongly supported the choice of Danon for Israel’s envoy to the U.N., saying Israel “needs someone who will be able to stand up to the bigoted attacks against Israel there.”
The nomination, however, raised many eyebrows in Israel.
David Horovitz, who is the centrist editor of The Times of Israel and rarely sides with the left, wrote that appointing Danon confirms the suspicions of Israel’s critics’ about Netanyahu’s real intentions toward the Palestinians. “It is hard to conceive of a more short-sighted, shameful and damaging appointment,” he wrote.
But the choice of Danon could also be viewed as another link in a chain of controversial diplomatic appointments made by Netanyahu in recent years. He chose Dermer, his adviser known for his previous ties with the Republican establishment, to serve as ambassador to the United States; appointed Dani Dayan, a former settler leader, as ambassador to Brazil, and nominated Fiamma Nirenstein, a former member of the Italian parliament from Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party, as ambassador to Rome, where her former party is now in the opposition.
But whether Danon is the best of candidates for the job, as some on the right believe, or the worst, as others argue, the truth, according to veteran former Israeli diplomat Dan Arbell, is that being a successful U.N. ambassador is a mission impossible for any Israeli envoy.
“The U.N. is, largely, a lost cause,” said Arbell, who served as Israel’s deputy chief of mission in Washington and teaches at American University. “It’s a Sisyphean task that anyone would find it hard to succeed in, since they’ll encounter an anti-Israel majority at every step.” Arbell added, however, that sending Danon, “who by nature likes provocations,” would only add fuel to the flames.
Israel’s outgoing ambassador to the U.N., Ron Prosor, was a career diplomat who had previously served as director general of the foreign ministry. Prosor, while unsuccessful in moving the international body’s positions toward Israel, used his pulpit to deliver strong rebukes of Iran, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. He also had a flair for symbolic measures, such as broadcasting an Israeli rocket alarm from the U.N. podium during last year’s Gaza conflict, and holding the first ever U.N. Tashlich ceremony, in which Jews cast away their sins, in September.
Danon has said in private conversations that he is aware of the difficulties facing Israel in the U.N., but he hopes to succeed in forging unofficial diplomatic ties that will help Israel’s cause. He has also said that the fact that he comes from a senior position, as a Cabinet minister, will help him to position himself as an envoy with direct lines to Israel’s decision-making circles.
Most political analysts agree that Netanyahu’s motivation in choosing Danon for the position had more to do with internal politics than with concern about Israel’s standing on the international scene. Sending a known troublemaker into a New York exile could help calm the party. It also freed a valuable position for Netanyahu in the Knesset and in the Cabinet, where Danon was appointed minister of science, technology and space after the 2015 elections.
But Danon also has much to gain from taking on this post.
When he returns to Israel just in time for the next elections, he will be able to brandish foreign policy credentials essential for moving ahead in the Israeli political hierarchy.
And Danon has a role model to look up to on this issue: Netanyahu, who masterfully used his position as ambassador to the U.N. during the 1980s as a springboard to launch his successful political career, which is still in full swing three decades later.