A year and a half ago his appointment as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations made headlines around the world. This week Danny Danon sat down with The Jewish Press to talk about his experiences on the job.
The Jewish Press: What does a UN ambassador do all day?
Danon: Coming from Israeli politics, I thought it would be more relaxed here in the UN but actually that’s not the case. There are so many initiatives and resolutions regarding Israel we are constantly busy blocking, but at the same time we must promote our agenda.
Almost every week we have a positive event about Israel – like last night’s Chanukah party, or taking delegations of ambassadors to Israel, or the innovation event the prime minister attended. I call it soft diplomacy.
What’s it like carrying the responsibility of representing your country in what is often a hostile environment?
Well, it’s not easy. I came back from Israel last week. We visited the borders of Syria and Lebanon. Every morning the commander there has to wake up and make sure everything is OK, the fence is fine, etc. Same here; you wake up and you have the responsibility to make sure everything is OK.
People in Israel know about the fronts in Lebanon, Syria, Gaza. But there is another front – a “fourth front” – right here, in New York, at the UN.
You had several diplomats accompany you to Israel last week, as you did last summer. What do these visits accomplish?
We took a helicopter trip. In the morning we flew to the Gaza border. Then we flew to the Golan Heights. I told them “That’s Netanya on the left, and here’s the ‘green line’ on the right, and that’s my house here in the middle.” They look down at the narrow waist of Israel and can’t believe it. That’s something you can’t explain from a podium at the UN.
I wish I could take every ambassador and every UN official to Israel because it’s so effective. It doesn’t mean they’d all vote with us, but at least they would know the issues.
I’ll give you an example. At the Security Council, I bring up Hizbullah at almost every meeting and the fact that they are ignoring resolution 1701 by building bases and bringing missiles to the border. Now, the next time one of those ambassadors who went on our trip and actually saw Hizbullah across the border hears me speak in the Security Council, he’ll know what I’m talking about.
In your 2012 book Israel: The Will to Prevail, you describe how your father, who sustained life-changing injuries during the Yom Kippur War, instilled in you two qualities: a deep connection to the Land of Israel and a willingness to speak out.
I was never exposed to another reality so for me it was normal to live with a father who was wounded and deaf. He taught me to speak up and not to be afraid to make bold decisions.
As Israel’s UN ambassador you constantly deal with conflict. Does it ever get you down on a personal level?
It can get exhausting sometimes when you sit in the Security Council for eight hours and one after another the other representatives get up and speak against us. But it’s like army service: you just have to keep blocking attempts to hurt Israel.
What are the chances Israel will get elected to a seat on the Security Council?
The prime minister’s recent declaration that we are running for a seat on the Council is a game-changer for Israel at the UN. It will obviously be a difficult campaign, but we proved when I ran for the chair of the Legal Committee that when it comes to a secret ballot at the UN, quiet diplomacy can lead to surprising results.
Your election to chair the Sixth Committee – the primary forum for the consideration of legal questions in the General Assembly – in the face of a strong opposition campaign mounted by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) was viewed as near miraculous. What factors do you think contributed to your victory?
We had a lot of opposition but we also had friends. For example, Iran, which is chair of the Non-Alliance Movement [NAM], circulated a letter saying that all member states should oppose my nomination. If no one opposes within 24 hours, it becomes the official position of NAM. Usually people are afraid to go against the chairman but we saw friends of Israel standing up. I think Singapore was first. Then India, Rwanda, Panama. For me it was amazing, because they sent a letter saying, Listen, you should not circulate that letter because it does not represent us; we support Danny Danon…
It was a remarkable experience, real proof of the relations we have been building with countries like India. The vote at the General Assembly was a secret ballot. Some 109 member states wrote my name on the ballot, while 44 countries opposed my nomination. But since there are 56 voting members of the OIC, it shows that maybe some of the Muslim countries are not really against us, and maybe some of that private diplomacy is paying off.
How are the Islamic Coalition states behaving? Do they accept your authority?
The first day they made a lot of comments against me. But I said, So what? I’ve heard worse in my life. I did not respond. And the next day, they came. They participated. They were part of the process, and that was it.
How does chairing a major UN committee compare to chairing a Knesset committee?
I was chairman of two committees in the Knesset and it’s different because here you have 193 members on the committee. There are long meetings; each one has a statement to make. It’s challenging but for me it’s a great experience, the fact that I’m sitting at the head of the table with a gavel in my hand. At the Chanukah party last night one of the members came up and told me, “I wanted to say thank you, the way you run the committee is so professional.”
Does the UN ever remind you of the Knesset?
Well, really it’s quite different. In the Knesset you have more energy, people don’t read their statements. Here in the UN, people come to the meeting and read a prepared speech. In the Knesset you have more of a dialogue, you can argue, you can try to convince.
You’ve spoken of a “private UN” that exists alongside the public one – backroom meetings where appreciation for Israel is expressed by representatives of countries formally recognized as opponents. Do you find this to be a source of frustration or of hope?
It depends. When I deal with the Arab countries it’s a different ballgame because the leadership understands the importance of Israel, that Israel is a solution and not the problem, but they have a problem with their constituencies. So you have this phenomenon where publicly they speak against Israel but privately they will tell me what they really think.
I don’t like it, but I can understand it. One of them told me, “If we will be seen together I will have a problem flying to my capital tomorrow.” And that’s true.
On the other hand, with Europeans and other countries, I don’t accept it.
We all remember the Security Council meeting last April attended by the family of Dafna Meir, who two months earlier had been stabbed to death in her kitchen by a Palestinian terrorist. You abruptly stopped your speech to demand answers from Palestinian Authority Permanent Representative Riyadh Mansour. What was going through your mind in that moment?
Actually that’s the only time it looked like the Knesset. One of the UN photographers who has been in the Security Council for many years said he never saw anything like it.
Was it planned it ahead of time?
No. I was furious. It was such an emotional moment, visiting with Dafna’s daughter Renana, who witnessed her mother’s murder and was now addressing the Council. And then we got the message about a terror attack in Jerusalem. It just ignited everything. I thought it was an appropriate moment for both of us to condemn terrorism.
Did any personal experiences during your time as a student at Florida International University come into play with the anti-BDS initiative you organized?
Absolutely. I vividly remember standing behind a table with an Israeli flag and people were cursing at me. It’s not easy to face this on campus. I think anyone who was at the UN for the anti-BDS event and saw 2, 000 people in the General Assembly hall waving Israeli flags and singing “Hatikvah” will never forget it.
My approach is that we must keep denouncing resolutions against Israel even though we cannot get rid of them. But we must also continue to build achievements and victories, big and small. The Sixth Committee was a big victory. Getting Yom Kippur recognized as an official holiday was a victory, and so was getting kosher food in the cafeteria.
How does the Jewish community here in the U.S. fit into all this?
The involvement of the Jewish community is crucial. When the Venezuelan ambassador compared IDF soldiers to Nazis, the Jewish organizations joined me in condemning it. By putting pressure on him, we got him to apologize. I’m grateful for that. We need the Jewish community to be aware of what’s happening at the UN; we need their support.