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Interview'Obama came with an agenda. Biden's style is different'

Calling Obama administration ‘cowardly,’ Danny Danon releases book on UN tenure

In ‘Lion’s Den,’ veteran Likudnik writes on Russia’s surprising help at Turtle Bay, laments current Israeli coalition’s ‘inexperience’ at the top

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

In this photo from June 13, 2018, Israel's Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon speaks to the General Assembly before a vote to condemn Israeli actions in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, at UN headquarters in New York. (Don Emmert/AFP)
In this photo from June 13, 2018, Israel's Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon speaks to the General Assembly before a vote to condemn Israeli actions in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, at UN headquarters in New York. (Don Emmert/AFP)

In December 2016, less than a month before US president Barack Obama left the White House, the UN passed Security Council Resolution 2334. The resolution blasted Israel for building West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements, which, according to the resolution, have “no legal validity” and are “a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-state solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace.”

Washington stunned Israel by abstaining on the resolution, amid a nadir in ties between the countries under Obama and then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, allowing it to pass and drawing the ire of Israeli officials.

Danny Danon was Israel’s ambassador at the UN when the vote was passed, a job he calls “the most intense and demanding position in the Israeli diplomatic world” in his new book, “In the Lion’s Den: Israel and the World,” released on Tuesday.

Danon tells the story of the infamous resolution from his perch at the UN, lambasting Obama and then-US secretary of state John Kerry for “working diligently behind the scenes to make the resolution and its passage a reality before they left office.

“I had hoped [Obama’s] thinking would be stronger than his emotions, but it was not the case,” Danon writes. “He wanted to conclude his term with a UN resolution that would define the legacy of his Middle East policy.”

Danon also reveals the roles Ukraine and Russia, who are now fighting a bitter war in Europe, played in the lead-up to the vote. Kyiv wanted to abstain, according to Danon, and was under pressure from Israel and the incoming Donald Trump administration to do so.

“At the end, they decided to support the resolution,” writes Danon, “because they were afraid that President Obama would take measures, even at the eleventh hour of his administration, to hurt them.”

Barack Obama, accompanied by, rear, from left, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Secretary of State John Kerry, and US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, right, listens as Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi, seated next to Obama, speaks at a summit on IS at the UN in New York on Sept. 29, 2015. (AP/Andrew Harnik)

Russia, while also voting for the measure, was surprisingly helpful, says Danon. Russia’s ambassador told him at the time that Obama and Kerry had been preparing a second resolution about Israel, called Parameters for Peace. The US kept Israel in the dark about the measure, which set out Obama’s vision on borders, refugees, and Jerusalem. Not wanting to give Obama diplomatic victories in his final weeks, the Russians made clear they would veto the second measure, giving the US no choice but to abandon it.

What’s more, Russia tried to postpone the vote by several days, in order to potentially buy Israel more time to fight it, but was unable to find any other Security Council members to join it.

Israeli leaders were scathing in their criticism of the December UN resolution, with Netanyahu arguing that it attempted to define as illegal the presence of Jews in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, as well as Israel’s presence at the Temple Mount holy site.

Vitaly Churkin, left, speaks to John Kerry at UN headquarters in New York on September 19, 2014. (photo credit: UN/Eskinder Debebe)

In his book, Danon doesn’t hold back in his criticism of the Obama administration: “It was done behind our backs. The US enabled the push for the resolution in the council quietly but powerfully. They used proxies to push their agenda, and it was cowardly to do so.”

Trump tensions

Danon spoke to The Times of Israel in Hebrew last Thursday, as he prepared to head to the US for his book tour.

He lamented how the US-Israel relationship unfolded in the final weeks of the Obama administration, after years of cooperation.

“We had very good relations with the Obama administration, until the last month, and we did important things,” he said. Danon pointed to his election as chairman of the UN General Assembly’s Sixth Committee, which deals with legal issues. It was the first time an Israeli was selected to head a permanent committee at the General Assembly, and was due in large part to US lobbying behind the scenes.

Danon, who served as Israel’s Permanent Representative to the UN in 2015-2020, spent most of his tenure working with the Trump administration.

His relief at the change of administration comes across in the book. “The Obama administration’s invisible facilitation and support of the resolution was its last attempt at payback,” he writes. “And then that administration and its policies were gone.”

He goes on to laud Trump’s first UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, who wrote the foreword to “In the Lion’s Den.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, flanked by his wife, Sara, and Israel’s UN ambassador Danny Danon, applauds after US President Donald Trump’s speech at the UN General Assembly in New York on Tuesday, September 19, 2017 (screen capture: YouTube)

“I wanted to prioritize Israel — our friend — against our enemies,” Haley writes. “The reason was simple: One month earlier, America had abandoned Israel at the UN… I wanted Israel to know that America once again had its back.”

Though he was effusive in his praise of Haley and her support of Israel, he describes Trump himself as a more complex interlocutor.

“He is extremely direct,” Danon said of Trump. “There were times when he was very blunt toward the prime minister and toward Israel. And there were times when he was extremely warm and supportive. And I think in the end, in terms of his policies, he did very important things for Israel.”

US President Donald Trump and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu take part in an announcement of Trump’s Middle East peace plan in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC on January 28, 2020. (MANDEL NGAN / AFP)

At the start of Trump’s term, when he was pushing fresh peace efforts, the president told Danon to pass a message to Netanyahu that “he shouldn’t play games.”

“At the beginning he thought we were the ones who didn’t want to advance the peace process,” Danon explained. “After several months, that changed. But at the beginning, there were tensions. Not everything was perfect. At the beginning of his candidacy, he wanted things to be done as he wanted, and passed along the message in a very direct and blunt fashion.”

Danny Danon’s 2022 book, “In the Lion’s Den: Israel and the World” (courtesy)

Though the two leaders got along famously during most of their four years in office together, Trump turned on Netanyahu once he left office over the Israeli premier’s congratulatory message to incoming president Joe Biden.

“Nobody did more for Bibi. And I liked Bibi. I still like Bibi,” Trump said then, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname.

“But I also like loyalty. The first person to congratulate Biden was Bibi. And not only did he congratulate him, he did it on tape. And it was on tape.

“Bibi did not want to make peace,” Trump also said. “Never did.”

Likud rivalry

Danon had a complex relationship with Netanyahu as well.

Danon, who represented a hawkish Likud young guard that grew increasingly vocal and demanding during the first half of Netanyahu’s tenure, was elected chairman of the Likud Central Committee in 2013, and sought to pass new bylaws in the party that would dramatically weaken the post of party chairman Netanyahu. After a long fight in the party institutions, Netanyahu retained his control over the party institutions, but the tension between the two did not abate.

During 2014’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, Danon, then deputy defense minister, publicly criticized what he believed was the government’s exaggerated restraint in its conduct of the Gaza operation, particularly its refusal to launch a costly ground incursion into the Strip.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to supporters after the exit polls in the general elections were announced, January 22, 2013. Standing to his left, applauding, is Likud MK Danny Danon. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Netanyahu then summarily fired Danon. “While the government of Israel and the IDF are in the throes of a military campaign against terror groups, and are taking determined steps to defend the security of Israel’s citizens, it is inconceivable that a deputy defense minister should sharply attack the heads of the state who are leading the fight,” Netanyahu said then in a letter to cabinet ministers.

In “Lion’s Den,” Danon made sure to drop a hint that Netanyahu — who in the 1980s served in the UN post himself — sent him to New York in 2015 to remove a threat to his leadership. “Some argued that the prime minister was afraid of my popularity within the party ranks and wanted to remove me from the government,” he writes.

Netanyahu’s camp did not respond to requests for comment.

“I don’t know what really went through his head,” Danon admitted last week, “but I am grateful for the opportunity that was given me.”

Likud MK Danny Danon (R) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen at the Likud party conference at Airport City conference center near the city of Modiin on November 9, 2014. (photo credit: Flash90)

“I think it was a combination of several things,” he continued. “The main factor was that he knew that I know how to fight and struggle. I also struggled with him. He knew it personally.

“In the end, Bibi respects people who fight for their principles, even when it’s not comfortable for him.”

And Danon showed that he certainly wasn’t afraid to use undiplomatic language on the world stage. In March 2020,  he assailed US Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders as an “ignorant fool” in reaction to Sanders calling Netanyahu a “reactionary racist.”

The two Likudniks are not in “close contact” but do occasionally communicate, said Danon.

Russian surprise

Israel’s relationship with Russia has come under increased strain and scrutiny since the start of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24. But Israel has long had to perform a delicate balancing act with Moscow, which supports many of Israel’s regional adversaries but sees Israel as the only Western state not instinctively hostile to Russia.

A Ukrainian National Guard soldier patrols during a reconnaissance mission in a recently retaken village on the outskirts of Kharkiv, east Ukraine, Saturday, May 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

“There were instances in which Russia surprised us in a positive way,” said Danon, pointing to its actions around Resolution 2334, as well as other initiatives that he declined to elaborate on.

Still, in the book Danon casts Russia, along with China, as regularly taking “openly hostile” positions at the Security Council and watering down condemnations of Hezbollah.

Danon met with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on multiple occasions. “He is very on the ball, he knows the UN well, he served there for many years,” Danon reflected. “We had many contacts with him on issues that were important to us.”

Lavrov was Russia’s representative at the UN from 1994 to 2004.

“Russian pride is very important for him,” Danon explained, pointing to Lavrov flying to New York in 2018 to open an exhibition on the Holocaust in the former Soviet Union.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, second left, is escorted through “The Holocaust: Annihilation, Liberation, Rescue” exhibit, by Yuri Kanner, left, president of the Russian Jewish Congress, and Ilya Altman, right, founder and co-chairman of the Russian Research and Educational Holocaust Center in Moscow, in the United Nations headquarters in New York, January 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

“I was impressed, he went down to the details,” said Danon. “His experience comes across in his work. He’s seen it all already, he knows it all. In our conversations, he goes down into the dynamics within the coalition in Israel, and what will happen within the factions. It shows that he goes into the details in depth.”

In remarks that now seem foreboding, Lavrov said at the event that it was troubling “that recently we see the creeping rehabilitation of Nazis.”

A central Russian justification for the invasion of Ukraine was the supposed need to “de-Nazify” the country.

Danon, who clearly holds Lavrov’s diplomatic skills in high regard, said he was stunned when he heard the foreign minister’s recent comments on Hitler’s “Jewishness” and Jewish cooperation with Nazis.

“It could say something about the problematic situation Russia finds herself in,” he offered.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky; Prime Minister Naftali Bennett; and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Composite/AP)

Danon is broadly supportive of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s attempts to mediate between Russia and Ukraine, but argued that Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s apparent inexperience got in the way.

“I think the mistake that was made comes from inexperience in the country’s leadership,” he said. “In this case, they should have made fewer headlines. It is right to offer humanitarian help, but fewer headlines [were needed] from the prime minister on the international mediation, and creating unrealistic expectations. And also fewer headlines [were needed] from the foreign minister, who stepped into conflict with the Russians [over Ukraine] too early.”

Lapid’s and Bennett’s offices declined to comment.

The mistake that was done comes from inexperience in the country’s leadership

Israel has sought to maintain open communication with both Russia and Ukraine. Bennett held a handful of calls during the war’s first weeks with both Putin and Ukraine’s Voldymyr Zelensky as he sought to exploit Israel’s working ties with both countries to help mediate a ceasefire to end the war. A senior Ukrainian official recently called those efforts “not successful” but said Kyiv is ready to meet for talks anywhere, including in Jerusalem.

‘Biden’s style is different’

Today, in addition to his work on his second book, Danon is also the chairman of World Likud.

Though he is now a private observer, Danon expects Joe Biden — with whom he met multiple times before he became president — to treat Israel differently than his former boss. “With Biden there wasn’t the personal issue,“ he explained. “Obama came with an agenda, and would get very upset with anyone who got in the way. Biden’s style is different. “

US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield speaks to reporters during a news conference at United Nations headquarters, March 1, 2021. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

But he doesn’t expect the same level of support Israel enjoyed during the Trump years.

“You hear Ambassador [Linda Thomas-]Greenfield talk multiple times about the need for restraint on all sides; that’s not something you’d hear from Nikki Haley or Kelly Craft.”

Though he says he is focused on his book now, he hasn’t been shy about expressing his interest in reaching the highest levels of Israeli politics.

“Next time you come to my office, you will see the list of the former [UN] ambassadors. You will see one of them became the president, one became minister of foreign affairs, and Bibi became the prime minister,” he said in 2019.

“In the Lion’s Den,” which portrays Danon as an outspoken defender of Israel in a hostile environment, may well be part of that effort.

Raphael Ahren and Eric Cortellessa contributed to this report. 

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