One of the most important events in Danny Danon’s life happened in 1969, two years before he was born.
That was the year Joseph Danon, a 29-year-old army reservist, was pursuing a Palestinian guerrilla cell in the Jordan Valley. When battle was joined, one of the Palestinians threw a grenade and Danon was hit by shrapnel. He emerged from a coma after several months, having suffered a serious head wound. He was rendered permanently deaf.
Many of Danny Danon’s childhood memories are of serving as his father’s interpreter at banks and government offices and of going on hikes across the country and then reporting back to their home in Ramat Gan, describing the routes and the landscapes to his father, once an avid hiker himself but now too infirm to come along.
“We would re-enact the hike at home,” Danon said in a recent interview. “Despite his injury, he managed to get across the message of knowing the country and loving the country.”
Danon began reading books about the underground groups that fought the British in pre-state Palestine, and learned the sites of battles from David and Goliath to the Yom Kippur War. That, he says, gave him a strong connection to the geography of Israel. Interpreting for his father, he said, “gave me the confidence to speak and argue and say what I think.”
In 4th grade, he remembered, he once argued with a teacher about the event that still serves as a dividing line in Israeli politics — the sinking of the Irgun weapons ship “Altalena” off the coast of Tel Aviv in 1948 on the orders of David Ben-Gurion, who feared a rightist putsch. Menachem Begin, the Irgun leader and future Likud prime minister, was on board. Ben-Gurion’s commander on the scene was Yitzhak Rabin, the future Labor prime minister.
“She said Begin was to blame,” Danon recalled. “I said Rabin was to blame.”
Danon’s mother was born in pre-state Israel — “a Palestinian from Palestine,” Danon says. His father came from Egypt as part of the mass exodus of Jews from Arab lands; Joseph Danon died of complications linked to his combat injury when Danny was 22.
Anyone paying attention to the stream of hardline rhetoric and legislation emanating from the Israeli right in the last four years will have noticed Danon’s name attached to much of it — attempts to disqualify certain Arab lawmakers, or to make getting an ID card contingent on a loyalty oath, or to hem in leftist groups by outlawing contributions to nonprofits from foreign governments. Last May, he declared at a rally that illegal African migrants — “infiltrators,” in the lingo of the right — had set up an “enemy state” in south Tel Aviv. After the rally, some Israelis attacked Africans who happened to pass by.
Danon is not a joke. He is not crazy. And he is no longer a back-bencher
Danon has mostly been described as a fringe character from Likud’s rabid back benches. Recently, the country’s most popular satire show, Eretz Nehederet — “Wonderful Country” — began mocking him as a lonely and weird teenager with acne scars.
But Danon is not a joke. He is not crazy. And he is no longer a back-bencher. Years of smart maneuvering inside the Likud catapulted Danon to the ninth spot on the joint Likud-Beytenu list for the upcoming election, putting him ahead of veteran politicians like Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin and security figures like Moshe Ya’alon, the former army chief of staff. The same primary vote banished Dan Meridor, a prominent moderate, and Benny Begin, a principled hardliner of the old school and Menachem Begin’s son, to unrealistic slots at the bottom of the list and ensured they would no longer be members of Knesset.
Along with Danon, the Likud vote strengthened other candidates who believe in building settlements and in eternal Israeli control over the West Bank, dismissing what that would mean for Israel’s Jewish majority or its democracy, and who have acted to constrain state agencies or civil organizations which might impede their goals.
It further brought in Moshe Feiglin at number 22 on the list. Feiglin supports building the Third Temple in Jerusalem, has suggested that Arabs not be allowed to vote in national elections, and once told a reporter, “You can’t teach a monkey to speak and you can’t teach an Arab to be democratic.” Feiglin’s inclusion has accomplished the admirable feat of making Danon appear moderately right-leaning and Netanyahu a staunch liberal.
The Likud primary vote put Danon and his vision at the center of power in the party and within reach of a post in the cabinet. Netanyahu, outmaneuvered, is outnumbered in his own party. Menachem Begin is long dead, and his son is in the political wilderness. Anyone following Israeli politics after this election will have to get used to the fact that today Danny Danon is Likud.
Danon, 41, lives in Moshav Mishmeret, in central Israel. His wife is a dietitian and they have three children, the oldest 11 and the youngest 5.
For those who are used to his strident public persona, Danon’s personal demeanor can come as a surprise. He is polite and well-spoken, his answers polished and his words chosen with care. He spurns the informal dress of many Israeli politicians for a suit of a conservative congressional blue. He comes across less as a rabble-rouser than as someone who has correctly gauged the fears, frustrations and dreams of Israel’s right, shares them, and has done a canny job of riding them to power.
Danon began trying his hand at politics at his secular high school, participating in the school’s branch of Techiya, a now-dormant rightist faction. After serving in the army as an education officer with Jewish teenagers coming from abroad for a taste of Israeli military life — a distinctly noncombat position — he became active in the Zionist youth movement Beitar and spent time doing organizational work in Miami, Florida.
In 2006 he ran an upstart campaign for the leadership of Likud’s international arm, World Likud, beating out Netanyahu’s candidate, Yuval Steinitz, who is now the finance minister. He entered the Knesset in 2009, and became associated with a new bloc of young MKs in the party who made a habit of attacking Netanyahu from the right, opposing the few conciliatory moves the prime minister wanted to make toward the Palestinians — such as announcing a partial housing freeze in the West Bank in 2009 to assuage American displeasure and allow talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to go ahead.
Netanyahu made the move in order to salvage Israel’s deteriorating ties with the administration of US President Barack Obama, but Danon saw it as an unacceptable admission that the Jewish presence in the West Bank was illegitimate or temporary. His vocal opposition to his party leader’s policy brought him substantial national attention and bolstered his position among the party’s base.
“The settlements are not an obstacle to peace,” Danon said. “After the disengagement from Gaza, the public freed itself of the idea that this is about the settlements, and about land for peace.”
Danon believed he was both expressing a necessary truth and doing Netanyahu a tactical favor — allowing the prime minister to point to the internal political challenge mounted by Danon and others to show Israel’s allies and critics abroad why the freeze was a major concession and why it could not be extended.
“It was important to Netanyahu that my voice be heard, and I know he used it, in the US and Europe, when he talked about his domestic difficulties,” Danon said.
Netanyahu has said he supports the idea of a Palestinian state, though some in his own party doubt his sincerity, as do many outside it. Even if that is Netanyahu’s goal, he no longer has a majority inside Danon’s Likud.
Danon’s platform is virtually indistinguishable from that of the ascendant Jewish Home party, a religious pro-settlement faction that supports annexing nearly two-thirds of the West Bank and leaving Palestinians in enclaves surrounded by Israeli territory. Likud has been bleeding votes to Jewish Home despite an attempt to attack the smaller party as too extreme — an attempt that is doomed to fail, given the current makeup of Likud. Jewish Home appears to many voters from the ideological right as more pure than Netanyahu’s party, which has been tainted by the compromises necessary to govern.
Danon believes Palestinians in the West Bank should be given “autonomy” in their cities and towns, but that their state is actually Jordan and their blocs of territory should be linked politically with the Hashemite Kingdom to the east. The Palestinians of Gaza can look to Egypt. Israel will directly govern most of the territory, have security control of the rest, and continue to build settlements, somehow remaining a Jewish democracy while ruling over more than 2 million Palestinians who are denied equal rights. The Palestinians, and the world, will live with it.
Does he believe the plan is realistic?
“Nothing is realistic,” Danon said.
That rather apt take on where the prospects of peace stand has a lot to do with Danon’s own rise within the Israeli right and with why the right will win this election.
“In terms of dealing with Arab nations, many Israelis today have gone back to the warrior mentality of David Ben-Gurion,” Danon wrote in a book he published last year, “Israel: The Will to Prevail.” “We’re sick of hollow accords and grand ceremonies done for the camera’s sake.”
Politicians of the right have taken to citing Ben-Gurion as their model for ignoring international opinion, quoting his oft-repeated line, ‘The question is not what the goyim say, but what the Jews do’
Ben-Gurion, he wrote, “was willing to pay a price for the security of Israel in international opprobrium, and so it is with a new generation of Israeli leaders. We also understand the necessity of shaping our fate by our own hands. If we have to pay a price with the United Nations, the European Union, and the United States, so be it.”
Politicians of the right, both from Likud and Jewish Home, have taken to citing Ben-Gurion as their model for ignoring international opinion, quoting his oft-repeated line, “The question is not what the goyim say, but what the Jews do.” That quote is featured in a Jewish Home video, for example, explaining why annexing most of the West Bank would be a good idea.
Ben-Gurion detested Likud’s ideological forebears and would almost certainly have detested their descendants. He was keenly aware of international opinion, and ensured Israel was always allied with a greater power. Some remember that he famously declared that when faced with the choice between the entire land of Israel and a Jewish state, “we chose a Jewish state.” That adage does not appear popular among candidates from Likud or Jewish Home.
While Netanyahu has been circumspect in public about his presumed affinity for the Republican party, Danon has been openly critical of the current US administration, writing in his book of the “growing irrelevance” of American influence under Obama and suggesting that “confidence in the US as a stabilizing force is eroding.”
“The Obama administration support for the Palestinian position and their engagement of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt call the strength of its support for Israel into question,” he writes. Danon is proud of his contacts with influential figures in the US; he mentioned TV host Glenn Beck and one-time Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee.
But at the same time, he says ties with the US administration are “very good,” pointing, as do other politicians of the right, to security cooperation over the last four years — the point being that Israel can continue its current policies without causing undue harm to the country’s most important strategic relationship. His own plans for the permanent disenfranchisement of the Palestinians notwithstanding, Danon says he believes “Obama and Netanyahu will work together this time.”
In any case, he said, peace is off the table in the near future.
“In the short term there are two options: One is what’s happening now in Judea and Samaria, where the conflict is being managed,” he said. “The other is what’s happening in Gaza, which is chaos. I choose the one in Judea and Samaria, which is not ideal, but at least we’re in control.”
“Our area is so dynamic and dangerous that you can’t afford to make mistakes,” he said. “If I told you three years ago that Hosni Mubarak would be in a cage in Cairo, or that Assad was going to fall, you would have said I was crazy.”
In January 2013, it would be hard to find many Israelis, on the left or right, who would disagree. The electorate is currently split over whether a peace agreement and a withdrawal from the West Bank would theoretically be desirable, not about whether those things are practically possible now. Almost everyone knows they are not. After years of rocket fire from Gaza, and with the old Mideast disintegrating around Israel and morphing into something that will probably be markedly more dangerous, it is not only ideological rightists who look at a city like Jerusalem, for example, with its heterogeneous and combustible population, imagine an Israeli withdrawal, and see the specter of Aleppo.
The left has failed to present voters with a clear or credible alternative. The right has: control the West Bank forever. That vision now dominates the right and is set to dominate the next Knesset.
For guidance, Danon says, he looks to Vladimir Jabotinsky, the ideologue of Revisionist Zionism, who said Jews must build an “iron wall” of military force that would ensure their safety in Israel.
“We’re not there yet,” Danon said. “Today there are forces in the area who still think they can get rid of us with force. When we create a real iron wall, it will be possible to think about peace agreements.”
This is the fifth in a series of profiles of political players leading up to Israel’s national election on January 22, 2013. Previous installments featured the renegade rabbi Haim Amsalem; retired general Elazar Stern; Ayelet Shaked, a secular candidate in the religious party Jewish Home; and Omer Barlev, a former commando and hi-tech entrepreneur.