While Israel tries to sort out who will lead its government, the wheels of statecraft continue to turn, and on the occasion of the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in New York last week (with the first main discussions in the GA set for Tuesday), Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Danny Danon said he hoped the nations of the world would come to the conclusion that Israel did – that Iran is the cause of most of the instability in the Middle East, and much of it elsewhere.
That latter point was made clear to everyone just a few weeks ago, Danon said at a special press briefing. “Iran is still the main issue, the main threat,” Danon said. “We saw what happened in Saudi Arabia,” when a major explosion on September 14th badly damaged Saudi Aramco’s Abqaiq oil refinery, the largest in the world. “Every time when I speak with U.N. Security Council, I tell them that what is happening in the Middle East is affecting you. And sometimes they are very skeptical about it because it is the Middle East – it has nothing to do with Europe or the U.S.”
This time, however, was different – the explosion drove the price of oil sharply higher, a potential problem for many economies that are working hard to avoid recession; now Iran’s troublemaking is affecting everyone. The U.S. and the Saudis strongly suspect Iran’s direct involvement in the attack, and Danon said that it would fit Tehran’s modus operandi. “From our experience, whenever we see chaos in the Middle East, we see the fingerprints of the Iranians. Sometimes they are doing a good job hiding [their involvement], sometimes they are not doing such a good job.”
A closer look at the Saudi attack might indicate that Tehran didn’t do such a “good” job of covering it up, Danon said. The U.S. has pinpointed sites where drones and cruise missiles used in the Saudi attack were fired from, and the Saudis displayed wreckage of the missiles and drones it said was launched by the Iranians – but no solid evidence has yet emerged to prove that Iran ordered the strike on the facility.
But in several attacks against Israel, IDF forces have positively identified Iranian involvement – and responded in kind, Danon said. Iran “tries to send drones into Israel from Syria, so we could actually see their operatives and we had the intelligence about the Iranians bringing in technology and training the people. I think also in [the refinery attack] scenario you will be able to find the fingerprints of the Iranians on this attack.”
The Saudi attack just goes to show how much Israel has in common with other Middle Eastern countries threatened by Iran, Danon said. “We collaborate with many countries in the region on security issues. We will continue to do that, to collaborate and to share information. We do understand that we have a common enemy and a common threat and I hope that the leaders that will attend the U.N. opening will address the issue of Iran. I think that should be the main focus and we hope it will be the main focus,” the ambassador said.
The Iranians are wreaking havoc throughout the region via their surrogates – to the tune of some $7 billion a year, Danon said. “The Iranians are funding terror groups in Yemen, in Lebanon, in Syria. We feel it especially today in Syria, we see that the Iranians are heavily involved. When I say heavily involved it is not only about sending money to terrorist groups, it is about sending money to buy land, to buy assets, and they are building their presence in Syria, very similar to what they did in Lebanon.”
That country, which has put Hezbollah in charge of its southern border, is a threat to Israel, but it’s also a threat to Arabs as well. While he hasn’t been to Beirut recently, Danon said, “you can speak to my colleagues at the U.N. from the Arab countries.” Many “used to go to Beirut a lot but today they say we cannot go there anymore, we don’t feel safe anymore.”
That, too, is the work of Iran. “For us the main issue is the technology that [Iran] wants to provide with Hezbollah, such as giving them GPS-guided missiles. We attacked a few shipments of that technology that was on the way from Syria into Lebanon and we will continue to attack because for us it will change the rules of the game if Hezbollah will acquire technology that will enable them to actually pinpoint targets. You can imagine them doing that to a target in Yerushalayim and Tel Aviv. That is why whenever we have the intelligence and information, we take action,” Danon said.
Israel is not only cooperating with Middle Eastern countries, it continues to expand its diplomatic footprint worldwide. “Armenia announced that they are opening their embassy in Tel Aviv,” Danon said, adding that the embassy was “not yet in Yerushalayim, but for us it is a good start.” Guatemala’s embassy, on the other hand, is already in Yerushalayim, and despite endless pressure from Israel-haters, Danon said he met with that country’s president-elect several weeks ago, and “he made very clear at the end he would stay in Yerushalayim. Hopefully we will see more countries moving their embassies to Yerushalayim. We saw some countries opening offices, trade missions or culture offices in Yerushalayim. We welcome it, we appreciate that, but it is not enough. We want to see, we hope to see more embassies Yerushalayim.”
Many in Israel – including Danon – attribute the growth of Israel’s international profile and its ability to cooperate with formerly hostile Arab countries the work of [still] Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – but this year, Netanyahu will not be representing Israel at the General Assembly. That task will be taken up by Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz, with his speech most likely set for Thursday. Netanyahu, of course, would have liked to come, but “because of the political situation in Israel he had to stay in Israel.”
That “situation” – the efforts to create a government out of a collection of disparate parties with widely differing views on Israeli society (especially the role of religion in the state) and disparate characters, many of whom have vowed not to join governments if their rivals are present – was still not resolved as of Monday. But the fact that the country was going through such severe governmental birth pangs showed not the weakness of Israel’s political system, but its resilience, Danon said.
“You know it is challenging to run a proper democracy but still it is the best system we have, and you can see that the among Israelis, even though it was a second cycle, 70% went out to vote,” similar to the voting rate in the April election. The best hope for the country, he said, is a unity government. If that fails, the only alternative will be a third round of elections – a very bad idea, Danon said. “I hope we will not get to this situation. It is not healthy for our democracy, it is not healthy for our economy, and also in terms of making decisions, it is very hard to run a country when you have another cycle of elections,” he said.
And organizing a government is essential for meeting Israel’s next challenge – the peace plan that U.S. President Donald Trump is finally expected to begin unveiling in the coming months. It’s not clear if Trump will present major details when he speaks on Tuesday at the General Assembly. “The question for the administration is whether to wait for the forming of a government, for the formation of a government, or to actually present a plan before, maybe help the parties come together because of the plan,” Danon said.
Either way, “we are looking forward to seeing the plan. We are open-minded about what it may say,” the ambassador said. “We will negotiate, we will be open-minded, and I can say that that will apply no matter who will be the prime minister. I know Prime Minister Netanyahu very well, since he was elected as chairman of the Likud party in the 90s, more than 25 years. And I know Mr. Gantz from when I served as deputy minister of defense and he was the Chief of Staff of the IDF. So I know that both of them will be respectful to the U.S., will be respectful to their efforts, and will try to negotiate based on the contents of the plan.”