InterviewEnvoy gives Obama credit for supporting Israel

After 4 years at UN, Danon plans plunge back into Israeli politics, eyes top job

The one-time Netanyahu rival says it would be ‘difficult’ for PM to hang on under indictment; warns against ‘generalizing’ after Trump says Democrats hate Jews

Danny Danon, Permanent Representative of Israel to the United Nations, addresses the UN Security Council meeting on October 18, 2017. (UN Photo/Rick Bajornas)
Danny Danon, Permanent Representative of Israel to the United Nations, addresses the UN Security Council meeting on October 18, 2017. (UN Photo/Rick Bajornas)

NEW YORK — Danny Danon is ready for a change. Next month, he will hit his four-year anniversary as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations — a sign, for him, that it’s time to move on.

“I always joke with my dear friend, Ambassador Haley, that she got the shortest sentence in this building, because she got to leave after two years and I’m now finishing four years,” he told The Times of Israel this week, at United Nations headquarters, referring to former US envoy Nikki Haley. “I think that after four years, it’s time to think about the next step.”

The former Likud MK is not shy about his plans to get back into politics upon returning to Jerusalem, nor about the loftiness of his ambitions.

“Next time you come to my office, you will see the list of the former ambassadors. You will see one of them became the president, one became minister of foreign affairs, and Bibi became the prime minister,” he said, using Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nickname.

For now, he is living in a kind of limbo. With Israel’s political future anything but certain, he’s unable to plan an exact departure from Turtle Bay, but Danon said he will stay on until at least early 2020.

On Wednesday, President Reuven Rivlin gave Netanyahu the first chance to form a government, but the prospect of Israel being forced into a third round of elections within 12 months is growing increasingly real. Israeli TV reported Friday that the prime minister might announce as soon as next week that he cannot muster a majority. His chief rival, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, has an even less sure path to forming a coalition.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (L), President Reuven Rivlin (C) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meet at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on September 25, 2019. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

In the meantime, Danon said his prognostications are as good as anyone else’s. On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, he sat with The Times of Israel to talk about the world body’s intensified focus as of late on Iran, Israel’s political crisis, Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian peace push, and more.

Danon, a right-wing Likudnik opposed to a two-state solution, said the Obama administration was more supportive of Israel than many of his ilk give it credit for. He also said it would be “very difficult” for Netanyahu to maintain his leadership if he is eventually indicted on criminal charges.

Below is our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.

How has the General Assembly been for you thus far? 

Busy, as always. Very interesting. Everybody is speaking about the Iranians, especially after the attack in Saudi Arabia. So it’s not only us speaking about the threat coming from Tehran, it’s the other Arab leaders walking the halls, speaking at events, which for us, it’s better that we’re not the only ones talking about it.

So Iran has been a really big focus, but what about the peace process? 

Not at all.

No one’s talking about it at all?

[Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani mentioned it, but President Trump didn’t mention it. It’s not the main issue.

But it has been the expectation, based on the White House’s comments, that after the election they would release their peace plan. Obviously, things are still not definitive. But the release of the political component of the proposal was supposed to be imminent at this time. 

US President Donald Trump meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on September 26, 2018 in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. (AFP PHOTO / Nicholas Kamm)

You have the political reality, both in Israel and here. In Israel, we went to elections. I think it was the right decision not to make [the plan] public until the elections in Israel. Now, with us forming another government, it might take a while. In November, here in the US, there will be a new cycle for the domestic elections.

So it’s absolutely up to the administration when to make it public, we will be very respectful of the efforts for the plan — without knowing the content of the plan, but we see the work that was done. We appreciate it, and we will be open-minded.

Let’s talk about your boss. Is this the end of the era of Bibi?

It’s not going to be simple. We’ve had a unity government in the past. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked. Maybe that will be the solution. Many of the heads of state that I met today and yesterday were asking about Bibi: How is Bibi doing? Whether he will make it or not. I tell them we hope for the best and he’s very experienced, but the numbers are tough. Basically, no one won this election.

Do you think there could be a third election?

Hopefully not, but technically if you look at the law — with all due respect to the president, prime minister, [Blue and White leader] Benny Gantz — at the end of the day, you have a timeline. [If] you don’t have the government, automatically, you go for third elections.

Of course, many have speculated that if Netanyahu is not able to maintain his position as prime minister, that would make him more vulnerable to prosecution.

Well, next week he will have a hearing in front of the attorney general. I hope that, at the end of the day, he won’t be indicted. Personally I don’t want it to happen to him. And for Israel, I don’t think it’s something we want to see.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Science Danny Danon in the Knesset on June 17, 2015. (Photo by Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

If he is indicted, do you think he should be able to serve as prime minister? 

The law allows him to stay, but politically he has to be able to put together and maintain a government. It’s going to be very difficult.

What did you think of Trump not rushing to his defense last week when asked about the election? He said, “Our relationship is with Israel.”

First of all, he was right. Our relationship is between nations. Trump will not be in office in five years, or one year. Netanyahu will not be in office in a few years, or one year. But still, the relationship will be there. It was accurate.

I know they are good friends, but a lot of leaders are looking at Israel and, unfortunately, they don’t know what is going on.

He didn’t seem confident that Netanyahu would pull ahead. 

Well, after the first election, he made a comment angry that it wasn’t over. He wasn’t happy about that because he has plans, he wants to get things accomplished. It’s very hard to do it when you are in this limbo.

Amid all of this uncertainty and tumult, what are you thinking about in terms of your future?

Even though I am the permanent representative, I’m not here for life. I’m thinking about the day after being the ambassador to the UN. I plan to go back and be involved. Next time you come to my office, you will see the list of the former ambassadors. You will see one of them became the president, one became minister of foreign affairs, and Bibi became the prime minister.

So it’s a good place, you gain a lot of experience in terms of world politics and international relations, many friends in many capitals. I think it will be very important coming back.

How much longer do you think you’ll stay? Of course, it may depend on who the prime minister is. 

I always joke with my dear friend, Ambassador Haley, that she got the shortest sentence in this building, because she got to leave after two years and I’m now finishing four years. For now, I am here. I am starting to work with the new US ambassador. Unfortunately, it takes a lot from the US ambassador to deal with our issues.

Partly, it depends on the government, but I am already thinking about the next step. I am not doing anything about it, but in terms of thinking about it, I think that after four years it’s time to think about the next step.

Here at the UN, you’re working with a new US ambassador, Kelly Craft. What’s the difference between working with her versus Ambassador Nikki Haley?

US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley talks with Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon before a vote in the General Assembly, June 13, 2018 in New York. (AFP Photo/Don Emmert)

I think it’s too early to tell. Ambassador Haley was great, she stood with us, she spoke very strongly for us. Ambassador Kraft made her first appearance last Friday at the Security Council. That was also very impressive, because she focused her entire speech [on] her commitment to Israel. And that was it.

So that was very interesting and very impressive. I think she will be good. The president is very supportive of Israel, and I think we feel it over here at the UN.

You became ambassador here during the Obama administration. How did things compare? How did Haley compare to Samantha Power, who has a new book out? 

I think with Ambassador Haley, she publicly endorsed and supported Israel. She was very important. We also had that support with the Obama administration. But it was done in a different way, more sophisticated, more quiet. And at the end of the day, they came up with that shameful resolution to the Security Council. It was shameful because no one will remember the good things we did together during the Obama administration.

So you think the Obama administration doesn’t get enough credit for supporting Israel?

I think it’s not black and white. If somebody is doing something good for Israel, even if you don’t support him, acknowledge it. I say it to my Republican friends, if President Obama did something good, you acknowledge it. I acknowledge it. We got the support of the US here at the UN, but the last step was a horrible mistake, I believe, and it overshadowed the entirety of their administration’s work here at the UN.

US President Barack Obama (right) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, November 9, 2015. (AP/Andrew Harnik)

But President Obama was not the first American president to allow a resolution through at the Security Council critical of Israel for settlements, or its use of military force. Reagan let them through. George H.W. Bush was tougher on Israel than Obama ever was. Why was that resolution so inflammatory? 

I think the timing was problematic. It was like the last day, the last week, why do it now? Also, it was the way it was done. It was behind our back. If President Obama had come out publicly and said this is my legacy, this is my platform, I want to come to the Security Council, we wouldn’t be happy about it. But we would accept it. The way it was done, the use of proxies, other nations, to say they were not involved when they were, that’s what left a bad smell.

I want to get back to Trump. There is a concern among a sizable portion of the pro-Israel community in Washington and the United States that he’s politicizing the US-Israel relationship and making it seem like a Republican cause. Do you see it this way and are you worried this could hurt Israel down the road?

It’s complex, because we don’t want Israel to be part of the political debate. We value the bipartisan support. Having said that, you cannot tell the president or a Democratic candidate not to bring Israel to the table as part of the debate. We want Israel to have support from both sides. But it’s something people will have to deal with — the president will use his actions on the Middle East and will take credit for that.

We are not involved in [their] political process. Now there is going to be impeachment. [They have their] problems, we have our own in Jerusalem, but if we are being asked about the actions of the administration, we will acknowledge that we are grateful.

Mainly, Iran — that’s on a different sphere — then the embassy, then the Golan Heights. In that order.

US President Donald Trump speaks to the media prior to departing on Marine One from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, September 12, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP)

But when he said that Democrats hate Israel and Jewish people, was that helpful? 

I’m not in a position to give remarks about the president, but in general, when I speak in front of the Jewish community, I say we shouldn’t generalize.

Going back in time: When you were nominated for this position, you were a big domestic adversary of Netanyahu’s. In fact, there was quite a bit of speculation at the time that his motivation for sending you here was to remove a rival. Do you see it that way? And how has your relationship with him evolved since then? 

We work together. I think he appreciates my efforts, and I learned to appreciate his skills in the international arena. He was also the minister of foreign affairs, so I had no [additional superior], which was easier for me.

In terms of removing me, I think being here and the exposure I got actually helped me for the future. So I don’t know what his intentions were for offering me this position, but I am grateful for the opportunity.

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