Israel’s Outgoing UN Envoy Danny Danon Says He Aimed to ‘Dilute the Hatred’ at Global Body
The Jewish state’s outgoing ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, is even more optimistic about the country’s prospects at Turtle Bay than he was when he started in the role nearly five years ago. This despite the long-time consensus that the UN presents one of the toughest challenges for Israeli diplomacy.
Lacking the rhetorical flourish of his predecessor, Ron Prosor, the progress made by Danon has come as a product of good-old fashioned grit, creativity and the inner confidence in the justness of the Jewish state’s cause that Danon projects.
In a departing interview with The Algemeiner, the last of his tenure, Danon said he discovered that it was “almost impossible” to erase existing resolutions at the UN, even “ridiculous resolutions.” Instead, he focused his efforts on “diluting the hatred against Israel by adding resolutions” and calendar events.
“So at the end of the day yes, we still had the regular twenty anti-Israel resolutions every year in the General Assembly,” he said. “But when you see the amount of activity that we put into the whole in terms of Jewish culture, trips to Israel and techno-diplomacy, at the end of the day, we diluted the hatred.”
One example of this came in 2018, when a US-introduced resolution condemning Hamas received a historic plurality of votes in the General Assembly. Last April, the General Assembly also approved a resolution condemning antisemitism among other hate crimes, following a diplomatic battle led by Danon.
Danon also made history when, in 2016, he was appointed head of the United Nations Legal Committee, becoming the first Israeli ever to be picked to lead a permanent UN committee. In 2017, Danon was elected as vice president of the General Assembly as the representative of the Western states. In 2019, he was appointed by the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) to co-chair the Science, Technology and Innovation Forum, alongside Ghana’s ambassador, Martha Pobee.
“I fought that Israel will be almost in every place we can,” he said. “My motto was to get there and be there and change the atmosphere in the room, and it worked.”
His fellow ambassadors, he said, also appreciated his initiatives to celebrate Jewish holidays at the UN, like Passover and Hanukkah, as well as the trips he led to Nazi death camps in Poland followed by tours of Israel.
“I have taken with me more than 100 UN ambassadors over the years, and you know, some of them became ministers of foreign affairs, or moved up to different positions,” he said. “They will always remember this visit.”
Danon’s appointment in 2015 was greeted skeptically by critics. Known in Israel as a right-wing political upstart, he had unsuccessfully challenged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for leadership of the Likud party and, in 2014, was dismissed from his position as deputy minister of defense for publicly criticizing the prime minister’s positions during Operation Protective Edge.
Pundits at the time of his appointment invariably described Netanyahu’s choice of Danon as “odd,” “short-sighted, shameful and damaging,” “curious,” “cynical,” “a strategic mistake,” and “driven by petty politics.” Israeli daily Haaretz listed the “six reasons to worry” about his appointment.
Looking back now, Danon is confident that he’s “proven wrong the critics.”
“I think I proved you can be a successful ambassador even if you come from the right, even if you come with ideology, and even if you are proud of your religion and Jewish traditions,” he said. “When you are not a career diplomat and you come with a perspective of ‘yes, we can do, yes, we can change the minds of other countries,’ I think it was the right approach.”
Danon noted that he’s “been proud to see that some of the people are actually acknowledging that they misjudged me when I entered the position.”
One of his proudest moments came in 2017, when in one of his speeches to the Security Council he read from the Bible and placed a kippah on his head.
“After the speech, a Muslim ambassador approached me,” related Danon, “and he told me that he’s tired from the conflict between us and the Palestinians, he’s tired from the discussions at the UN, but the fact — he told me that ‘you actually respected your religion’ is something that spoke to him, and he wanted to meet with me and we became friends after that.”
The changing atmosphere at the UN, says Danon, is also reflected in the numbers. “In the UN you have 193 member states; Israel has diplomatic relations with more than 160 countries, and many of them, the rest, we do work quietly with them. You know, I was in Dubai. I met many heads of states in all different countries.”
In the future, he hopes, some of the behind-the-scenes relationships will make their way out into the open.
Danon’s tenure has been marked by peaks and valleys for Israel at the UN. When he was first appointed, US President Barack Obama was still in office and taking stances strongly opposed by the Jewish state at the international body, specifically the infamous Resolution 2334 which condemned Israel’s presence in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem.
Danon described it as “the lowest moment for Israel, for myself, in the UN in the last two decades.”
“When President Obama decided to push the shameful Resolution 2334 against Israel,” he said, “that was the point that I was actually fighting the US. It was not pleasant.”
When President Donald Trump later appointed Nikki Haley to represent the US at the UN, she worked quickly to “repair the damage that was done.”
“She did beautifully with a lot of passion, a lot of love, and remarkable skills,” said Danon. “She spoke on behalf of the US, and she strengthened the bond between Israel and the US.”
Haley’s successor, Kelly Craft, also earned praise from Danon. “She continued with support for the State of Israel, and we are grateful for that also,” he said.
In his parting words, Danon also weighed in on the longtime debate over strategy for the US and Israel at the United Nations, and the wisdom of staying engaged with hopelessly-biased UN bodies in the interest of trying to exercise some positive influence.
“Wherever you can make a change or impact you should be there,” he posited. “If you cannot and you just give legitimacy to a circus, then you shouldn’t be there. So for example, when you look at the Human Rights Council, you know, once it became a circus and you have insane resolutions against Israel, you shouldn’t be part of it. But when you look at the Security Council, where I see the involvement of the US, the leadership of the US, I think it’s crucial to be there.”
One regret Danon has, is not seeing Israel take a seat at the coveted Security Council. “I think it’s about time that after 72 years Israel will sit in the Security Council like almost every other nation in the world has sat at the Security Council,” he stressed, vowing to continue to promote the effort from any future position he comes to hold.
As for the future, Danon looks forward to being released from the constraints of diplomatic life and being able to speak his mind. He’s committed to continuing to seek office and serve the Jewish state, but now with “better skills, better knowledge, understanding and connections world-wide.”
Ideologically Danon hasn’t changed since his first interview with The Algemeiner as UN ambassador, and he remains committed to the ideas of his ideological mentor, the late Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, in whose Betar Movement he grew up.
The rigor of his role at the United Nations, and the sensitivity it often called for, appears to have brought for Danon a sense of political maturity. It is, perhaps, that newfound status that will see his long-term goal of serving as Israel’s prime minister as now being one step closer.
“I support the prime minister,” Danon concluded, “but I’m sure in the future when the time will come, I will be able to contribute to the leadership of the party that I belong in a very meaningful way.”