Israel's UN Ambassador, Danny Danon
Israel's UN Ambassador, Danny Danon.
March 8, 2019
By Henry Levy
On Thursday March 7th I was invited to interview Danny Danon, Israel's Ambassador to the United Nations at his office. Here are the questions I asked (HL) and the answers he gave (DD).
HL: After the United Nation's Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 28th, you invited a group of UN Ambassadors to come with you to Auschwitz and Israel. How did they react to this? What was the experience like for them and the feedback you received?
DD: Once you enter the gates of the Death Camps you cannot stay indifferent. You saw the emotional impact on the faces of the Ambassadors. Some of them were unaware unfortunately about the magnitude of the Holocaust. The European Ambassadors know the history and were fully aware but some from other countries, for them, they heard about it but didn't realize it and were unaware so it was very important for us to explain to them what happened. When we went it was snowing, it was tough. We walked in the snow and saw what happened there, and they will never forget it.
And from there we flew to Israel so they could see what we achieved and what we built and that was incredible for them to have a clear picture and understand that today we have a strong nation and a strong army. We flew in helicopters to show what Israel is doing now to face Hezbollah and other enemies in the region and show there is a strong capable army defending the Jewish people today.
HL: Most of them had experiences just dealing with conflicts that they were aware of at the UN but they were not knowledgeable about how the country looked, how the people live. Was that eye opening for them?
DD: Absolutely. For some of them it was the first visit. They heard a lot about Israel. At the UN they deal too much with Israel but for them it was an eye opener. They got to meet Israelis and speak with them. The side thing is they appreciated the society with its diversity, its innovation and its democracy. Only when you come to Israel you get it.
HL: Do you think that as a result of that visit some of them, while they are directed by their governments how to vote, had their attitude change at the UN towards the issues?
DD: Absolutely, and I see it with many of the Ambassadors who came back, who like to meet with me. Today I have a meeting with one who participated from Mongolia and we will talk about issues we want to cooperate on. Those Ambassadors today are part of the decision making process about voting at the UN. Sometimes they will have to call the capitol about their votes but they will be involved in the decision. In the same way, I will be in the room when my Prime Minister will take a decision on an important vote at the UN. Those Ambassadors will be able to say what they think, what they believe, and so the visit has proven very effective for us. Also, when they finish their term at the UN they will go back and become a Minister of Foreign Affairs, a Head of State. It is a good investment for the future.
HL: Is that what happened from the two prior trips that were similar to this one?
DD: Yes. Yes. For example, the Ambassador from Sierra Leone was very emotionally inspired by his visit to Jerusalem and on his return to his country he formed a Friendship League between Sierra Leone and Israel. Today he is very active in the Parliament and does other great things for Israel. I think it is a great investment not only for the votes tomorrow morning (at the UN) but also for the long run.
HL: Were the Ambassadors you invited very open and excited to come or were there some that said flat out that they would not accept the invitation?
DD: In the beginning it was harder to convince Ambassadors to come. Some of them were afraid from so called security concerns but when we came back (from the first trips) it was easier to include more Ambassadors. Unfortunately there are still a few countries that will not come. The Ambassadors would love to come but it would be a problem for their capitols to allow them to come to Israel. I hope in the future we will see more countries that we don't have open diplomatic relations with coming to Israel. For example, I met the Ambassador from Chad, where we just opened a Commission between Chad and Israel, and he is eager to come to Israel to visit for the first time.
HL: Have any of the Ambassadors you invited on these trips extended an invitation to you to visit their countries?
DD: Indeed. Many of them did. Unfortunately, as Israel's Ambassador to the UN, I have to be here and we have many ongoing struggles and are very active in the UN so it is hard for me to travel, but we definitely got invitations from many countries.
HL: Tell me a little about your family and where you travel with them.
DD: I came to New York with my wife and three children. Living in a beautiful Jewish community for us is a great experience. Usually when I go places (on business) and see something interesting, I try to come back with my family. I had the honor to visit Dubai two years ago and it was so interesting that in the future we will see more and more Israelis visiting the Gulf - it's only a two hour flight from Israel.
HL: How would you assess the importance of President Trump's choice of Nikki Haley as America's Ambassador to the UN?
DD: She was a great Ambassador. She stood for the values of the US and Israel sometimes and we value our friendship. The fact that she publicly supported Israel helped us a lot but it also helped the US. More countries respect the US today because of Nikki Haley's approach and because of President Trump's decision to move the Embassy to Jerusalem. I think you will see that the US is in a better place than it was two years ago. It was not only about supporting Israel but it was about strengthening the US.
HL: Did you visibly notice a change of a dynamic at the UN having someone who had such a strong voice?
DD: We went on the offense. That is my approach. My background is like Ambassador Haley's. We come from politics. She was a Governor and I was a Minister. We are not afraid to take important positions and to initiate. When Israel put a resolution on the floor of the General Assembly to condemn Hamas ... it was the first time to actually do that, 87 member states voted. Even though 67 voted against the resolution, who would have believed we could get 87 member states to vote on a resolution to condemn Hamas? I think our approach of initiating is the right approach.
HL: When Trump decided to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, what was the impact you noticed at the UN from that decision?
DD: Absolutely in the beginning they tried to condemn the Unites States. I don't understand why they attack a decision of the US, but when it comes to Israel they have a different set of rules at the UN. But as I said earlier, they respected the leadership of the US. And look what happened afterwards. Nothing happened. Remember, you had people threatening the President, the US, Israel, but it didn't change much in terms of the dynamics in the region. I think it was the right decision because it showed the Palestinians they had to move on. It was a reality check for them.
HL: Speaking of the region, is there a new dynamic between Israel and the Muslim world, and what is it?
DD: Well, there is. It is still not public enough and sometimes when I speak with my colleagues from those countries I ask them why they don't acknowledge publicly what is happening privately? But it is not happening yet. It is moving in that direction. Take for example Egypt. When Sisi came to New York, he met with Prime Minister Netanyahu, it was public, and nothing happened (in terms of bad publicity). We also collaborate with the Egyptians on many issues and they can acknowledge that. We should expect more recognition for what we are doing quietly with those countries.
HL: Are some of these changes in dynamics with the Muslim world because they find that some of their enemies are the ones that threaten Israel as well, so that is what brings you closer together?
DD: Yes, I think in a way we can understand there can be a solution to some of their problems. It is understood that the Iranians are not only coming after Israel but the moderate countries of the world and it makes it easy to cooperate with us on this issue.
HL: What is the toughest job you have being Israel's Ambassador to the UN?
DD: I think the challenge is that sometimes you enter a room and you know many countries will speak against you, when you know the facts are different, when you know privately they think differently, and our challenge is to close the gap between what is publicly said and what is privately said. And we achieved a lot in the last three years. The fact that I was elected to public offices within the United Nations, being elected Chair of the Legal Affairs Committee, the first time Israel chaired a committee, and becoming Vice Chairman of the General Assembly, showed everybody that we are a full member state. People respected that. Even our enemies had to sit in the room while I was Chairing the meeting. I am very optimistic about the future. We are moving in the right direction.
HL: Is Israel being treated fairly in the mainstream American media in your opinion?
DD: Well, in general you will see the media criticizing Israel. It is using different standards compared to other regions in the world. Take for example the issue on the fence with Gaza. Instead of criticizing Hamas, they focused on Israel and they didn't reveal all the facts. So, I deal with it a lot. I write op-eds and I give interviews but it is an ongoing struggle. I expect them to report the facts. I don't expect them to support Israel. But you cannot say that when you have a riot of thousands of people trying to bring down the fence, and throwing Molotov cocktails on the fence, that it is a peaceful demonstration. So, we do have issues with them but I think the public is smart enough to read between the lines and understand what is happening.
HL: How are you being treated by the American Jewish media?
DD: Well, it's much easier and we work together with the American Jewish media, and for me it is very important because support from the Jewish community is crucial and the unity is also crucial to us. Our enemies at the UN do not make distinctions between the left and right, they don't care which synagogue you go to - they are coming after us. The anti-Semites and anti-Zionists are coming against us so we have to be united.
HL: How do the foreign and ethnic media treat Israel?
DD: For me the challenge is to get them to write when you have a policy agenda, not just when you have a crisis. The end of March we have an event at the UN about all the humanitarian work Israel provides in times of crisis around the world - in Mexico, Greece, Brazil, the Philippines. The challenge is to get coverage for that.
HL: You are very strong and forceful and direct. Have you always been that way?
DD: Yes, that's my approach - to be direct and to the point. I think the fact that you can achieve a lot is that you have a practical approach. At the UN, in debates I try to be practical.
HL: Were you like that when you were younger? How did you adopt this approach? Were there any role models that guided you?
DD: I started in high school to be involved politically with the Betar Youth Movement, so for me I just continue to do what I love and what I like. As a child I grew up on the stories of the underground Lehi, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Ze'ev Jabotinsky. Those are the mentors. I read a lot of material about them. If I had the opportunity to meet one person, it would be Begin ... especially to discuss the peace treaty. Today we all want to see results immediately and changes immediately, but Begin was strong enough to wait for his position for 30 years to become Prime Minister. He realized his achievements, the peace process, keeping his party together.
HL: What message would you like to give to the Jewish audience in America?
DD: I think we have to be optimistic. Jews like to argue. We have to be optimistic about Israel and about the future for the Jews. I think we have 99% of things in common. Sometimes we exaggerate our differences, so be optimistic about our future.