Danon in the Lion’s Den

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Israeli Ambassador Danny Danon speaking outside the Security Council, at United Nations headquarters, last April. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

This was supposed to be an exit interview, but Danny Danon’s term is going extra innings.

Danon’s term as Israeli ambassador to the United Nations was to have finished at the end of 2019, but thanks to Israeli elections and re-elections and re-relections (scheduled for early March), just before the year ended Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu extended Danon’s term until May 2020.

Our interview came during a frenetic week for Danon. Earlier that afternoon, he hosted an event along with the JIMENA organization (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) to promote recognition of the 850,000 Jews forced to flee those countries following the establishment of the State of Israel. The previous day he spoke against five resolutions relating to Israel and Palestinians in the General Assembly; as expected, all passed by wide margins. And a few days later, he led a delegation of U.N. ambassadors on a trip to Israel.

Danon sat down with Hamodia just outside the U.N. building’s Trusteeship Chamber, where the JIMENA event was held, discussing his four years as ambassador, the peace process, and Israeli politics, to which he has made no secret of intending to return whenever his ambassadorial term ends.

Tell us about the effort to have the Jewish refugees recognized.

We have to tell the story of the forgotten Jewish refugees. We speak a lot about the Palestinian refugees here, but there were more Jewish refugees than Palestinian ones. We don’t expect anyone to go back and live in the communities they left in Morocco, Egypt, Syria; that is not their request. But we think changing the narrative is important, telling the story about what really happened there. It is important for the future and that is why we are pushing forward this resolution.

What have the last four years been like?

I think I proved that we can build bridges and we can get elected to different positions and we can do many major events; and if in the past the U.N. was the playing ground for the Palestinians, it’s not the case anymore. We take the initiative, we put resolutions on the floor. They are not happy — and I am sure they were not happy with the event we held here today —but I think that that approach is the right approach.

So you think there has been progress, compared to when your term began in 2015?

Absolutely, and you see it also in the votes. Yesterday there was a vote, we saw the change, when we put the Hamas resolution to a vote in the General Assembly. It was very impressive and I proved that, you know, you have to work hard. I have led many delegations to Israel.

You have one in a few days.

Yes. Once you make friendships, even when ambassadors cannot vote with you, they will share with you the information, they will be helpful.

Can you point specifically to a few examples of ways that you say the U.N. has become more favorable toward Israel in the last four years?

I don’t like to name names. Even though, if you look at the chart of yesterday you see countries all of a sudden voting with Israel that in the past voted against us, but in general, I would recommend to look at Africa and Latin America and, for sure, Eastern Europe. We have strong support coming from those areas.

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L-R: Danon, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder at a Chanukah event at The Pierre Hotel in New York in 2015. (Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Ronald S. Lauder)

What about U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres? What has his attitude been toward Israel, and your relationship with him?

So, we don’t agree all the time about all the issues but, you know, the issue of fighting anti-Semitism, for example, is very close to his heart and he is very serious about it. Two weeks ago we visited together the Auschwitz exhibit at the Jewish Museum downtown, and we invited the [U.N. ambassadors]. So he takes this issue very seriously and we are very grateful for that.

That’s anti-Semitism. What about the attitude toward Israel?

I have a lot of discussions with him and he says, “The member states decide, I am not deciding for them.” But, for example, you take the last report about anti-Semitism, which was a U.N. report, that is something very impressive. When you read the report — it comes from the U.N. Human Rights Council — we don’t take that report for granted. So, I think with those issues, it was good.

Sometimes we are not happy to see the reports about Israel or remarks about settlements, but I don’t think he has an agenda against Israel.

So you just think he is following what most of the member states say?

So basically he would say, if I have a request from the member of states to do A or B, I have to follow the will of the member states.

As far as personal comments, can you compare him to, say, Ban Ki-Moon, who was considered to be anti-Israel?

I think with [Guterres] I have a better dialogue, so even if we do not agree about everything, we will talk about everything. That’s important.

At the end of 2016, the Obama administration abstained from the U.N. resolution condemning Israeli settlements. Historically, the U.S. had vetoed resolutions condemning Israel. What was that like? Can you take us behind the negotiations and discussions?

It was a shameful moment for the U.S. administration. We have to say that. For the first time for me, and for the U.S. voting against Israel. They were saying that they weren’t involved, but they were very involved in the behind-the-scenes of the resolution. I know from my colleagues — and [as I mentioned, when you make these delegations to Israel and build friendships] people tell you that they wanted to abstain and they couldn’t because the U.S. pressured them not to abstain.

Can you name countries?

You can look at the names and see whom the U.S. is affecting and you can figure that out.

But the U.S. actually was pushing those countries not to abstain. And I regret that, I think it was a mistake, it wasn’t helpful for the Palestinians, it wasn’t helpful for us and I think that it was a personal issue between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, and I regret that.

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Danon shaking hands with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo before a meeting last August of the U.N. Security Council on the Mideast. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Then in January 2017, President Trump took office. Can you contrast the relationship Israel has had with the Obama administration versus the Trump administration?

Firstly, we are grateful for Ambassador Haley and Ambassador Craft, both of them stand with Israel, and we took the initiative. Take, for example, the decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem. We are grateful for that.

Then, with the Security Council resolution condemning the U.S. for moving the embassy, which was vetoed by the U.S. and then we fought it in the General Assembly, so we took the initiative.

So, I was very proud to enter the Security Council and to explain why [moving the embassy] was the right decision, and then to do the same in the General Assembly, and I think we showed that when you take the initiative, when you lead, you control the agenda.

And I would add that the U.S. became more respected in the U.N. because of the way they spoke about Israel and the way they stood with Israel.

But if the U.N. is, in general, anti-Israel, how can you say that this anti-Israel entity became more respectful of the U.S. when the U.S. became more pro-Israel?

Because people appreciate when you stand with your allies.

So, for example, when the U.S. lost the vote in the General Assembly [condemning its moving the embassy], I think it was a victory despite us being in the minority. And, a few days later, Ambassador Haley invited all the counties that voted with the U.S. and Israel to her apartment, and we had a celebration. Many of the European countries were not invited. So it shows you can lose a vote but still become stronger because you say we have the moral clarity, we have the vision, and we will continue to do what is good for our values.

Speaking of standing with allies: Although President Trump has taken a very strong pro-Israel stance, in other areas of geopolitics, like spending on NATO, and regarding Syria, he has become more of an isolationist. And his withdrawal from Syria has allowed Russia and Turkey to take a stronger role there. How does Israel view this? Has Israel tried to push the Trump Administration to maintain America’s historic position as the world’s policeman?

We discuss a lot of issues with our American colleagues — but issues concerning our borders.

But Syria is on your border.

Yes, but we will not tell the U.S. how to handle its foreign policy. When it comes to our interests, yes, we will speak about it. And when it comes to Israel, you know, we cannot complain after the decision to pull out from the Iran deal, moving the embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing the Golan Heights and, only recently, Secretary Pompeo’s statement about the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria. So, we cannot complain about the policy of this administration in the Middle East.

What about Syria specifically? Is there any fear that either Russia or Turkey may now become more of a player there now that Trump has pulled out?

The threat is from the Iranians stepping in. So we bring it up with the Russians, with the Americans, they are very determined to continue with that, they are spending a lot of money doing that. And unlike other leaders that only speak about it, they actually implement their ideology.

Regarding the Trump Administration’s peace plan, that won’t be released until after the next elections?

It is up to them. If they would ask me, I wouldn’t recommend that it be presented during the campaign. Once you’re in a campaign, it will become political, and we are very respectful for the effort of the administration. We know they put a lot of energy into that and I think that if they want us to actually look at it seriously, it shouldn’t be part of the campaign.

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Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (R) and then-Minister of Space Danny Danon at the Knesset in 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Speaking of campaign, you have been very open about wanting to return to politics. And you have also been one of the few Likud members who in the past have challenged Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for the party leadership. Do you feel it is time for a change of Likud leadership now?

As you mentioned, I was in the last one, in 2014, to challenge the prime minister.

I work with the prime minister, and I respect him. When you come to my office and [look on the wall at the list of previous Israeli ambassadors to the U.N.] you see that one became president, one became minister of Foreign Affairs, one became prime minister. So, I definitely intend to go back to being involved, but I also learned a lot in U.S., that timing is very crucial.

Besides the issue of power and who is Number One on the list, are there specific ideological, policy issues that you disagree with the prime minister on?

Even if there were, I wouldn’t be able to tell you now, in my position.

But I can tell you that many of my ideas and my views when I was in the Knesset were considered to be to the right, six, seven years ago. Today we see that the majority of the Likud Party adopted those ideas. That is why I think when you have something you believe in you should say it out loud. Many of the things I said back then were considered to be too hawkish, but today it is the platform of the party and you hear the prime minister promoting them. So we don’t have too many differences today.

Do you feel that it is okay for Netanyahu to serve, and run again, as prime minister while he is under indictment, even though the law allows it?

I think you have to respect the law both when it is comfortable for you and when it is not comfortable for you. The MKs who were involved in drafting the law, it wasn’t a political decision back then — I think it was Yossi Sarid and Uzi Landau — actually envisioned a scenario that there will be an investigation against a sitting prime minister. And they wanted to prevent a case that you can actually bring down a prime minister without his proving his case in court. So I trust the system in Israel. Sometimes it’s slow, but at the end of the day I believe that it is a good system and that’s why we should allow the prime minister, like any other citizen, to prove that he is innocent.

What is the rationalization behind a law that says that all ministers have to resign under indictment, except the prime minister?

With ministers, it’s not the law. It is the way the Supreme Court decided to interpret the law, but the law doesn’t say anything about ministers. About prime minister specifically, there is a law that he can stay in office. You can also have the same arguments about ministers, but that is the case today in Israel.

The reasoning behind it is that a minister can go defend himself and come back to the government. But when you are the prime minister, if you have to leave office and there is a new government, it is impossible to come back to your position.

You mentioned the Supreme Court. The Court’s power is controversial. What is your view of the appropriate role of the Court in interpreting law and making law?

We respect the law, but there should be a balance. And sometimes when the political system is too weak, we are busy with elections and campaigns, the Supreme Court takes more power than the Knesset, and that shouldn’t be the case. We have to respect the balance of power, which means we respect the Supreme Court, but at the same time, the Supreme Court should respect the Knesset.

What is your view of Avigdor Liberman? He seems to have collapsed the entire right-wing coalition simply out of his opposition to chareidim. He actually went up in the polls after that. Do you think he may end up joining with Blue and White, or with the Arabs? What do you think he really wants? Does he really hate the chareidim? Is it just about power?

I am not in a position today to give grades to my colleagues back in Jerusalem, but I would say that I hear a lot of [rhetoric] in the last few days in Israel, and I think it is part of the campaign. I think both sides are exaggerating, and even Mr. Liberman, I don’t think he is anti-religion. I know his wife; she is shomeret Shabbat. His daughter, she is religious. So I think both sides are exaggerating and I regret that, because we live in one country. Yes, you need to get votes, but at the end of the day we have to live together and respect each other.

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Danon at his office in New York. (Hamodia/File)

There is major tension that flares up from time to time over the religious issues, starting with the military. What is your view of the draft vis-a-vis chareidim?

I was the deputy minister of Defense when Lapid was in the government and he presented the legislation to impose the draft, and I didn’t vote for that — even though I was in the government, because I don’t think we should impose it. At the same time, I think we should find a way to give incentives because we need the chareidim — not for the military, the military can do without them numbers-wise — but we want them to get involved in our economy so they will have better lives after the military. And I think that is why we need to find a way to give incentives because financially, economically, we will need them supporting our economy in 10, 15 years.

Isn’t the only way to do that by abolishing the draft? Because otherwise you’re telling someone, “If you leave yeshivah and go to work, you are going to have to go to the military,” and they may not want to go to the military for religious reasons or whatever. So isn’t the only way to accomplish this by abolishing the draft completely?

I think that a very good idea is national service. You can go to yeshivah but, at the same time, you should also be involved in society, you should acquire the tools to be able to make a proper living.

When you look at the poorest people today in Israel, it is the chareidim and the Arab-Israelis, and both of them do not serve in the military.

If a yeshivah bachur is doing the nachal hachareidi, his chances of making a proper living are much higher than the guy who is staying in yeshivah.

You seem to be implying that it is because they go to the military that they have a better …

They have more education, they have a better network, they are open-minded to think about other things and I think they will be able to contribute more to our society.

But isn’t it true that when the military exemption lasts only as long as the boy is in yeshivah, you are essentially telling them that if they go to work they will have to go to the military? So by simply abolishing the draft wouldn’t that get many more people to go out to work?

Maybe, but I think there’s a value to contributing to the country. So, as I mentioned you can do national service, even in the chareidi community. There are so many things to do there. So you do a year, eighteen months, you find a way to get involved in our economy in our country. I think it will be beneficial for everybody.

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Danon addressing the United Nations Security Council in January 2019. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

There is also the debate about Shabbat, whether public places should have to observe Shabbat, whether it is transportation, or stores in certain cities. What is your position on the appropriateness, if any, of religion in government?

I think we should respect our tradition.

When you walk out on Shabbat, wherever you are, in Ranaana, in Jerusalem, in Tel Aviv, you feel that it is a different day, and I think that is part of being a Jewish democracy. I don’t want to see Tel Aviv like Manhattan, and I think that is why we have a status quo. It worked for 72 years, it is a good one.

So you don’t advocate changing the status quo in regard to Shabbat, allowing public transportation and open stores. You want things to be as they’ve always been?

I believe that we should maintain the status quo. You have some areas in Israel that are open on Shabbat. In some cities, for example, there are certain areas that people who want to go to a restaurant, they have a place to go without interfering with the feeling of Shabbat in the city.

At times in the past, you have spoken against the two-state solution. What is your view of this now?

As you know, today I represent the Israeli government; I don’t represent my own private ideas. The Israeli government today, the policy is that we are willing to negotiate, but there is no one to negotiate with. And I tell my colleagues, you can ask about two-state, ’67 lines — we are not going to decide the outcome of the negotiations without negotiating. Bring Mr. Mansour [Riyad Mansour, the Permanent Observer of Palestine to the United Nations], have him come sit with us, we will negotiate — we did it with the Egyptians and the Jordanians — but we are not going to acknowledge the outcome before we enter the negotiating room.

I think our goal should be, in the long run, to have maximum security for Israel, that is one, maximum freedom for the Palestinians without risking our security. That should be the guidelines.

Election season is gearing up in America also — although here we know there will only be one election! Israel has always said that there is no daylight between America and Israel, and that support for Israel is bipartisan. Now with the left-wing of the Democratic Party — Bernie Sanders and others — do you feel this dynamic may be changing, that the Democrats, or some of them, may be becoming the anti-Israel party?

The bipartisan support is very important for us and we are very proud of it, and we will continue to work with both parties. But at the same time, when you have candidates who are attacking Israel, we shouldn’t be quiet about it. You mentioned Mr. Bernie Sanders. I think some of his remarks are shameful. We shouldn’t be quiet when he blamed the IDF for killing over 10,000 people in Gaza. It was insane!

I think he should consider maybe joining one of the trips of the ambassadors that they take to Israel. Because we go to the Kerem Shalom checkpoint, we go to see the tunnels, we see the actual facts — and I don’t know … the last time he was in Israel. I think 1963. It’s changed a little bit since then.

Tell us about that trip with the ambassadors.

It is the best way for us to actually show what is happening on the ground.

We go to Poland first to see what happened with the death camps, the Holocaust. Then when we arrive in Israel, they get connected with the history, they meet many people, go the Old City, meet dignitaries. And I can tell you that I found out that we have a lot to offer to developing countries, with technology and innovation. So it is not only about showing them the threats, the security challenges, but also to speak about possibilities, cooperation, and that is a major part of the program, to speak about what we can do together.