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‘I’m on your right, Bibi’: The man tipped to be Israel’s new envoy in Canberra

Eetta Prince-Gibson
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Published: 20 August 2020

Last updated: 4 March 2024

Fresh from the UN, Danny Danon is headed for Australia, according to Israeli media. EETTA PRINCE-GIBSON profiles the diplomat renowned for being Right out there

ONCE KNOWN AS the brash enfant terrible of Israeli politics, Danny Danon has recently returned to Israel after nearly five years as his country's ambassador to the United Nations.  And if media reports are correct, he will soon be taking off again, this time to Canberra as  Ambassador to Australia.

Before assuming his position at the UN, Danon was best known for his penchant to butt heads with anyone, from the president of the United States to the prime minister of Israel. Since his first forays into Israeli politics, some 15 years ago, Danon has consistently strategically positioned himself to the right of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and he played a crucial role in the right-wing radicalisation of the Likud party.  In fact, his criticism of Netanyahu has been so vocal at times that, in 2014, Netanyahu fired him from his position as deputy defence minister.

In a book he published in 2012, Israel: The Will to Prevail, Danon defined himself as "past of a new generation of leaders who see Israel taking a different, more autonomous path than it has over the past several decades, and contends that the country  "will have a better and more independent relationship with the United States if Israel were to develop a stronger backbone and just 'say no.'

Utterly rejecting the idea of a Palestinian state, he proposes that Israel assert sovereignty over Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), providing the Palestinians there with limited autonomy in affiliation with Jordan, and transferring the Gaza Strip to Egypt.

Yet, Danon, 49, seems to have tamed himself. Benny Avni, an Israeli journalist in New York and a frequent commentator for Israeli radio, says "during his time at the UN, Danon learned the rules of diplomacy. From the point of view of the Israeli government, he was an especially effective ambassador."

Although he was expected to return to Israel in the autumn of 2019, Danon's term at the UN was extended until this summer due to the protracted negotiations to create a coalition. His appointment as ambassador to Australia is part of the coalition deal between Netanyahu and his partners, according to which Netanyahu retained the right to appoint four ambassadors, reserved for senior members of the Likud who were not given cabinet ministries or other plum political jobs.

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Danon has never made a secret of his political ambitions. In November, 2019, he told the Israeli daily, Zman Yisrael, that he believed his role as UN ambassador should serve as a springboard. "Look at the list of former ambassadors: One of them became president, one of them became the foreign minister, and Netanyahu became prime minister," he quipped. And earlier, in October, 2019, he was widely quoted as  saying that Netanyahu would find it "very difficult" to continue in his position if he were indicted.

Statements like these, could be the reason that he is "being sent away again,” explains a senior Likud MK, who spoke with The Jewish Independent on condition of anonymity. “Netanyahu might be heading into elections, and he certainly doesn't want Danon around, trying to outflank him from the right and making trouble."

Danon refused repeated requests for an interview and for responses to this report and has not commented on the appointment. "Danon realizes that, at least for now, he's better off continuing to build himself through diplomacy than confronting Netanyahu head-on,” says the MK. “e's young, and, when he returns from Australia, he will have positioned himself as a senior statesman."

Danon was born in the suburbs of Tel Aviv to a middle-class family. His father, whose family came to Israel from Morocco, suffered a serious head injury in a battle with infiltrators along Israeli's border during his military service; Danon was named after his father's army commander, who was killed in battle.

Upon completing military service, he was sent to the United States as an emissary of his youth movement, the right-wing Betar.  While in the US he completed a BA in international relations at Florida International University and subsequently completed an MA in public administration at Hebrew University.

Returning to the United States, Danon attempted, and failed, to get a realistic position on the Likud's list for Knesset for the 2006 elections.  At that point, says the Likud senior MK, he realised that "he wasn't known well enough, and that he had to make strategic choices to make himself recognised as a credible front runner."

Danon canvassed Likud party members, and, by 2006, beat the popular MK Yuval Steinitz for the position of the Chairman of the World Likud Organisation.  In 2007, he ran against Netanyahu for the position of head of the Likud under the slogan, "I'm on your right, Bibi."
No one, not even Danon, was surprised when he didn't win against the increasingly popular Netanyahu. But by having the guts and chutzpah to run against Netanyahu, he made himself very well known.

"No one, not even Danon, was surprised when he didn't win against the increasingly popular Netanyahu," says the source.  "But by having the guts and chutzpah to run against Netanyahu, he made himself very well known."

By 2009, he did make it into the Knesset on the Likud ticket. As a junior MK, he made a name for himself with his right-wing nationalist views, dramatic gestures, and controversial legislative initiatives. In one of his first appearances in the Knesset, he stood at the podium and theatrically tore apart a copy of the report by the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict (popular known as the Goldstone Report), which accused both Israel and Hamas of War Crimes.

He tried to establish a parliamentary committee to investigate the foreign ties of Israeli human rights NGO's and introduced legislation that would have imposed heavy tax donations to not-for-profit groups whose work is deemed to be “political” and outlaw donations to these groups from foreign governments.

He also introduced legislation requiring all citizens to pledge loyalty to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state in order to get or renew a passport or driver's license and sponsored bills to impose sanctions on Israelis who speak out in support of boycotting settlements and to increase financial penalties for libel by six-fold, which would have had a devastating effect on freedom of the press in Israel.

In 2012, riding on right-wing anti-migrant sentiment, he declared on his Facebook page, that “it looks as if an enemy state of infiltrators was created within Israel. It is time to declare war on it… expulsion now! Before it’s too late.”

Few of his extreme legislative initiatives were successful, but Danon was making a name for himself and building his base among Likud voters. He was also one of the first Israeli politicians to develop relationships with Evangelical Zionists and right-wing Republican candidates in the United States.  He openly criticized the Obama administration because of its support for a two-state solution and, in a New York Times op-ed, he called on Netanyahu to annex the Jewish communities of the West Bank.

He campaigned hard and nasty in 2013 elections, including an animated campaign video against left-wing Arab MK,  Haneen Zoabi, with a Western theme with graphics and music that played to his American supporters, even if they didn't understand the Hebrew.

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Danon's efforts paid off. By the 2013 election campaign, he had raised more money abroad than anyone other than Netanyahu and placed fifth on the Likud list.  Appointed Deputy Defense Minister, he used this position to lash out at Secretary of State John Kerry, who warned that Israel could become an apartheid state if it did not accept the two-state solution. These comments, he wrote in a scathing oped in Politico, “call into question his administration’s ability to act as an honest broker in our region.”

Furthermore, as Netanyahu appeared to be considering giving in to the pressure to accept the two-state solution, Danon gave an interview in which he declared that neither the ruling Likud party nor the government as a whole would ratify a pact based on two states for two peoples.

The Likud, he claimed, had passed resolutions against this option, and was therefore “legally opposed" to accepting it. Then justice minister Tzippi Livni coined the term, "Danonism" for his ability to outflank Netanyahu on the right while still remaining part of the government.

But in 2014, during the Protective Edge operation, Danon publicly criticised Netanyahu for being too conciliatory when he accepted a cease fire agreement, and the prime minister fired him from the Cabinet.

Danon, however, remained popular among the Likud members and following the 2014 elections, he was appointed of Science, Technology and Space – an undistinguished position for which he was unsuited.  When offered the position of Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN in August, 2105, he took off for New York.

During the first year or so of his tenure, says an American journalist who follows the UN closely and also spoke on condition of anonymity, "Danon was still much more invested in what was happening in the Likud than he was in the UN.  But at some point, he changed.
During his first year at the UN, Danon was still much more invested in Likud than he was in the UN.  But at some point, he changed. He became a diplomat and was able to push back against the UN's traditional anti-Israel stance.

“Maybe because he knew a successful tenure would add gravitas to his image, or maybe because he genuinely began to appreciate the importance of the position, he became a diplomat and was able to push back against the UN's traditional anti-Israel stance."

Danon admits that working with the Obama Administration was particularly difficult and  notes that his "lowest point as ambassador" came in late 2016, when, in the final days of the administration, the US abstained as the Security Council adopted a resolution declaring Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem illegal and demanding a halt to their expansion.

He also lashed out against Bernie Sanders when he was a candidate for the Democratic nomination, despite his popularity with young American Jews, and caustically remarked that Sanders' "visit to a kibbutz for several months in 1963 could not teach him much about Israel today."

But in 2017, the newly-elected Trump administration appointed Nikki Haley as ambassador to the UN, and she and Danon formed a particular close and effective relationship. That year, Danon was elected as Vice-President of the General Assembly as the representative of the Western states – the first Israeli to ever hold such a high position.

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In a recent interview with the right-wing news site, Srugim, Danon listed what he views as his achievements at the UN, including opposition to the nuclear deal with Iran and weapons deals with Hezbollah and Hamas. He brought the families of people murdered by Palestinian terrorists to the UN and arranged a delegation of dozens of UN ambassadors to Israel and to the German death camps in Poland.

He was able to bring the General Assembly to pass decisions denouncing anti-Semitism and to even recognize Yom Kippur as an official holiday.  He also arranged conferences regarding the expulsion of Jews from Arab countries following the establishment of the State of Israel and brought Holocaust survivors from Israel to speak at the General Assembly.

In 2016, Danon made a rare official trip to Dubai, which largely focused on the countries' relationships with Iran.  More recently, when the agreement with the UAE was announced last week, Danon welcomed the agreement, but criticised the suspension of the annexation of the West Bank that was part of that agreement.

It thus remains to be seen what role Danon will carve out for himself in Canberra. Will he choose the diplomatic, quiet route of western-style diplomacy, or will he resume the rough and tumble aggression of Israeli politics?

Main photo: Danon speaking at the UN in New York in 2018 (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

About the author

Eetta Prince-Gibson

Eetta Prince-Gibson, who lives in Jerusalem, was previously Editor-in-Chief of The Jerusalem Report, is the Israel Editor for Moment Magazine and a regular contributor to Haaretz, The Forward, PRI, and other Israeli and international publications.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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