Danny Danon has had an interesting 15 months since he resigned his Knesset seat and his Cabinet post as minister of science and technology to become Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.
Israel has faced occasional international criticism for its handling of lone-wolf terrorists attacking with knives, guns and vehicles.
Rumors of U.S. willingness to let a Palestinian statehood resolution pass the U.N. Security Council refuse to die.
Evidence continues to emerge of Hamas’ use of relief funds to build tunnels and other offensive infrastructure right under the noses of U.N. Refugee Welfare Agency officials, some of whom have expressed support for the Palestinians and opposition to Israel on social media.
The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and its various arms have passed resolutions ignoring if not outright denying historical Jewish ties to the Temple Mount, Jerusalem’s Old City and other archaeological sites — with the next step expected to be a Palestinian claim of ownership of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
And testimony from left-leaning Israeli nonprofit organization B’Tselem before members of the U.N. Security Council drew an angry response from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and revived arguments over what it means to be pro-Israel during the stalemate with the Palestinians.
But Danon, a Likud politician, not a career diplomatic, seems unfazed.
“I am very optimistic, period. When you look at the story of Israel, when you see all the challenges and obstacles, when you see what we have today, you have to be optimistic,” Danon said in an interview before his appearance Monday night, Nov. 7, at the Israel Bonds dinner honoring Congregation Etz Chaim member Norman Radow at the Grand Hyatt in Buckhead. “I think we should be also optimistic about the U.N. for we are beginning to see a change with member states. Eventually, with their appreciation to Israel, we will see the results at the U.N. We’re starting to see it now. It’s not going to happen in one day.”
Danon has reasons for optimism, including successes against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, recognition of Yom Kippur as a day when the United Nations does no official business, and a Passover seder that drew 44 other U.N. ambassadors.
He won election in June as the chairman of the U.N. Legal Committee. No other Israeli has led a permanent U.N. committee.
The Legal Committee, which Danon described as “193 lawyers in one room,” deals with terrorism, international law, various treaties and conventions, and, in a refreshing change for the Israeli ambassador, a range of conflicts and other issues having nothing to do with the Palestinians or any alleged shortcomings of Israel.
“I’m very proud to be the first Israeli to chair a committee at the U.N. It was not easy to get elected to this position,” he said, explaining that the opposition of Israel’s traditional enemies forced a secret ballot, but, thanks in part to his political skills, he won, 109-44, even though the Organization of Islamic States has 56 members. “We showed that we have quiet support at the U.N. My challenge is to make it public. … When it comes to a vote, they are not always with us.”
That shortcoming has emerged in recent weeks with a pair of UNESCO resolutions portraying Jerusalem and the Temple Mount as strictly Arab and Muslim heritage sites. Danon said those resolutions mean nothing themselves and just make UNESCO lose credibility, but the countries that vote for them should be held accountable for ignoring reality to support the Palestinians.
“You could have a resolution saying that Atlanta was part of Mexico and that Israel was somehow to blame, and it would pass,” he said.
It was a diplomatic victory that several countries, including Western Europe and Latin America, dropped previous support for the Temple Mount resolutions and abstained instead, Danon said.
“We will never allow UNESCO to erase our history,” he told the bonds dinner. “We will continue to build and to stay in our eternal capital.”
In the interview, he also cited a success involving one of Israel’s most strident critics at the United Nations, Venezuela.
After the Venezuelan ambassador made a speech in which he accused Israel of having a “Final Solution for the Palestinians,” Danon demanded an apology and pushed the issue with colleagues and with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Danon said he got a phone call from his Venezuelan colleague, who noted that he does not talk to Israelis but felt he had to apologize for his speech. Danon said the apology needed to be public, and a few days later it was.
That incident was representative of Danon’s strategy at the United Nations. Perhaps because he is not a career envoy and does not feel a need to be diplomatic, he believes that Israel should fight back whenever it is attacked at the world body.
The response is trickier, however, when the criticism comes from an Israeli nonprofit such as B’Tselem. After the director of the human rights group called for U.N. action against Israeli settlements during a Palestinian-organized meeting meant to blame the settlements for the lack of progress toward peace, Danon called for the United Nations to cut off funding for B’Tselem.
The ambassador, visiting Atlanta a week before a representative of B’Tselem backer New Israel Fund comes to town, said he supports freedom of speech, but an organization receiving U.N. funding can’t appear as an objective source of information for Security Council members. It’s a conflict of interest and a propaganda defeat for Israel, Danon said.
Media reports pushed by the Palestinians led with the idea that an Israeli organization criticized the settlements, without emphasizing that B’Tselem is not an official representative of Israel.
Meanwhile, Danon is enjoying his time as an official representative of Israel. He said he relishes the challenge of getting up each morning with the knowledge that a couple of dozen members of the Israeli mission at the United Nations, including seven diplomats, must struggle against hundreds of envoys who would love to see Israel’s demise.
He acknowledged that the United Nations is not the final stop in his career, saying that he anticipates returning to Israeli politics after three or four years in New York and noting that men such as Abba Eban, Chaim Herzog and Netanyahu have held the position.
He said that not only is the Israeli mission holding the line at the United Nations, but it is making slow, steady progress in educating other nations’ diplomats about the reality of the Middle East through techniques such as group trips to Israel, thus creating a global “moral majority.”