Despite professed turnaround, Israel’s new UN envoy Danon doomed to ineffectuality

Israel should annex the West Bank if the UN votes on Palestinian statehood, the hawkish Likud MK urged not long ago. His purported about-face won’t be enough to gain other diplomats’ trust

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon speaks at the 4th Likud Party conference at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds, May 7, 2014. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon speaks at the 4th Likud Party conference at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds, May 7, 2014. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

This reporter once asked Danny Danon if his fierce criticism of the US administration and his vehement rejection of the two-state solution might come back to haunt him one day — perhaps when he sought a position demanding more political correctness than that of the backbench MK he was at the time. He would not be the first hardliner to moderate his stance as he climbed the ladder to higher office, I posited.

But Danon, who was named Friday as Israel’s next ambassador to the United Nations, was adamant that he’d never change. He would always stay true to his beliefs, he vowed. That’s why he eternalized them in his 2012 book “Israel: The Will To Prevail” — so critics could call him out if he ever appeared to stray from the right path.

“I have stayed loyal to my ideology for the last 20 years and I am sure I will do it in the future as well,” he told me on another occasion, in October 2013, by which time he was serving as deputy defense minister. Holding firm, indeed, he was fired the following July for criticizing what he called the government’s overly soft approach to fighting Hamas in Operation Protective Edge.

In his book, Danon argues passionately against the two-state solution and calls for a partial Israeli annexation of the West Bank. First, “talks on the establishment of a Palestinian state must cease, effective immediately,” he demanded, laying out a short-term vision for managing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Second, any future UN vote on Palestine statehood would give Israel the opportunity to annex all of the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, as we did with the eastern half of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.”

Now that Danon is about to become Israel’s man at the UN, a resolution calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state might come across his new desk in Turtle Bay as early as this fall. He will fight it tooth and nail, of course, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will instruct him to do. But despite those previous assurances of his, Danon is most unlikely to use the opportunity to pursue his promised annexation bid. For even before taking up the post, Danon has begun signaling that he’s changed.

“Today, more than before, I have a greater appreciation of my role as a public servant and the responsibility this entails,” Danon declared in a remarkable statement of changed intent Saturday, as he sought to fend off widespread criticism of his appointment. “As Israel’s ambassador to the UN, I will represent the prime minister’s policies and positions on security and peace,” he pledged, specifically referencing a position he had hitherto made crystal clear that he rejected: Netanyahu’s stated “vision of two states for two peoples — a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state.”

Like many Israelis, Danon is no great fan of the United Nations and its various institutions. “The UN has been at the forefront of de-legitimizing a state it helped legally found,” Danon wrote in his 2012 book, presumably with little expectation that it would become his future workplace. “Israel has become the scapegoat for all the world’s ills, according to this organization.”

And in a 2013 conversation with me, he left no doubt that he personally paid scant heed to UN or other routine international condemnations of Israeli construction in East Jerusalem. Israel’s government, he said at the time, could and should do whatever it pleases, wherever it pleases. “The international community can say whatever they want, and we can do whatever we want,” he said.

By Saturday, he was sounding a rather different note. “I will fulfill my duties as Israel’s ambassador to the UN responsibly, respectfully and proudly. I intend to surprise my critics,” he promised.

Danon has also been a vocal critic of the current US administration — until this weekend, that is. “I am neither a Democrat nor a Republican. I am a proud Israeli. But the truth needs to be said, and the truth is that Obama, his stance toward the Palestinians … are not good for Israel,” he said in another interview.

This Saturday, Danon reined himself in on that front as well. Since he became science, technology and space minister earlier this year, he declared, his “appreciation has grown for the depth and breadth of Israel’s security cooperation with the United States and its strategic importance to Israel.”

Netanyahu ostensibly believes that Danon can be relied upon to abandon his old principles and grow into a statesman representing Israel in this most highly contested diplomatic battleground. Otherwise, how could he dare appoint him? Perhaps he knows best: Netanyahu was also once an up-and-coming hardline Likud MK — and an Israeli ambassador to the UN — who enshrined in books his opposition to Palestinian statehood and other policy principles, only to disown some of them later for the sake of realpolitik.

Or perhaps Netanyahu has simply given up, believing that Israel’s standing in the UN is hopeless and even Danon couldn’t make it any worse. Israel will always be on the receiving end of whatever the automatic Arab majority proposes at the UN, the prime minister may have concluded, and even the most skilled diplomat won’t be able to get Israel a fair deal there. So why send one, when dispatching Danon solves some of his internal Likud problems.

Does this mean Netanyahu has given up on the Security Council, too, however? Hitherto, there has always been an American veto to count on, but with the Obama pledging to re-evaluate his Mideast policy and a bitter US-Israel argument raging over the Iran nuclear deal, that might no longer be automatic. Does the prime minister think his envoy at the UN can make no difference to the American position? Or does he think that battle is lost?

Danon’s ostensible diplomatic endorsement of the two-solution and his nod to US-relations Saturday show he’s willing to compromise his ideology for the sake of Israel’s image in the world. But it’s unlikely his future interlocutors in New York will buy into the professed volte face. This is a man, after all, who has made a career out of telling the world how he really feels about the Palestinians.

What’s more, while Danon now promises to faithfully represent the prime minister’s policies, he and Netanyahu are anything but close. He’s criticized Netanyahu’s leadership, sought to challenge him at the Likud helm, and was fired by him a year ago. Few diplomats in New York will seriously believe that UN envoy Danon has the prime minister’s ear, or his trust.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed