Danny Danon addresses a United Nations Security Council meeting in 2017, when he was Israel’s ambassador to the UN. (UN photo/Rick Bajornas via Wikimedia Commons)
Many Israelis and their overseas allies may see the United Nations as an assembly of antagonists, but a former top diplomat who spent five years there sees plenty of reason for optimism.
Danny Danon, who served as Israel’s ambassador to the UN from 2015 to 2020, spoke candidly during a livestreamed conversation Feb. 8 with Jonas Prince, chair and co-founder of Honest Reporting Canada, which hosted the event.
Danon was a Likud party member of the Knesset from 2009 to 2015 and served as minister of science, technology and space, as well as deputy minister of defence and deputy speaker. He is also an author and world chairman of the Likud party.
“I’m optimistic because we are starting to see change,” Danon said. “We are starting to convince countries to read the resolutions before they talk about them and we are able to see a few victories at the UN, including in the General Assembly.”
He cited two examples of victories during his time at the international body. Working with then-U.S. ambassador Nikki Haley, Danon proposed a resolution condemning the terrorist group Hamas. To pass, it required a two-thirds majority, which was not attained, but a plurality of the member-states supported the motion.
“For us, it was a victory,” he said. “People speak about disappointments but we have to also speak about achievements.”
One unequivocal achievement was when Danon was elected chairman of the legal committee of the UN.
“We got the support of 109 member-states who voted for me and only 44 voted against me,” said Danon. “I became the first Israeli ever to chair a UN committee.”
How did it happen? Secret ballots, he said. On resolutions where the votes of each country are publicly counted, Israel routinely experiences massively lopsided defeats. In secret ballots, the outcomes can be quite different. For example, there are 57 members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which officially opposed Danon’s candidacy. Yet only 44 countries voted against him, he noted.
In his time at the UN, Danon also learned that ambassadors from the smallest countries are often the most persuadable. They do not have large foreign affairs apparatuses in their capitals and so they do not have bureaucrats overseeing their behaviour at the UN, giving them more freedom to vote as they wish.
One regret he has is that Israel did not run for a seat on the Security Council.
“I convinced the prime minister we should run because it’s a secret ballot,” he said. “Unfortunately, the diplomats in the ministry in Jerusalem convinced the prime minister that we don’t have the budget and the energy to run a successful campaign and we had to drop out at the early stage of the campaign, which for me was a big disappointment and I think it was a grave mistake.”
Over time, somewhere between 75% and 80% of country-specific condemnations at the UN have been directed at Israel.
“I call it diplomatic terrorism,” he said. “It has no connection to the reality. When you speak about human rights resolutions, you cannot ignore what’s happening in Syria, in Libya, in Yemen and blame Israel.”
Danon said the situation goes back to the very earliest era of the UN, when the Arab world rejected the Partition Resolution to create a Jewish and Arab state in the area of Palestine. To justify that rejection, and the rejection of every olive branch since, the Arab bloc has had to initiate resolutions against Israel, he said. This took off in earnest in the 1970s, with the infamous (since rescinded) “Zionism equals racism” resolution of 1975, he noted.
The UN General Assembly also engages in a sort of Groundhog Day every year, in which the same series of condemnatory resolutions against Israel is brought out and passed, year after year.
“I come from the Knesset, from the parliament,” he said. “Like every parliament in the world, once you pass a bill or a piece of legislation, you move on. That’s not the case at the UN. Every General Assembly takes the same resolutions you adopted last year and brings them back to the table.”
For all the energies expended against Israel at the UN, Danon argues little of it helps actual Palestinians.
“When you look at the outcome of those resolutions, we can agree that they are not helping the Palestinian cause,” he said. “On the contrary, it gives them empty victories so maybe they get a few headlines for a day or two and then what?… I call them feel-good resolutions, so maybe the Palestinians feel good for a day, but the Palestinian people don’t get anything.”
Danon said he also tried to raise awareness of Palestinian incitement to violence among his UN colleagues.
“Nelson Mandela once wrote that you are not born with hate, someone is teaching you to hate,” Danon said. “I focused on the Palestinian incitement, what they are teaching the kids in school, what they are showing them on Palestinian television, and I proved my case. I said, we can argue about a lot of things, but we cannot allow the Palestinians to continue with the education of hate propaganda against Jews. I showed them the textbooks of the Palestinians [and] what you can find on the internet telling Palestinian children how to stab a Jew, which knife to use and how to be effective.”
The former ambassador insisted he has nothing against humanitarian aid to Palestinians.
“On the contrary,” he said. “But make sure that the funds you are giving are not being used for terrorism and for incitement. Ask tough questions about … the results…. Instead of teaching the Palestinians and giving them the proper education, they did exactly the opposite.”
UN member-states should demand to see results from the billions of dollars poured into UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, which is a unique entity that acts as a quasi-governmental body for Palestinians. Rather than resolving the issue of refugees or other challenges facing Palestinians, Danon argues that UNRWA perpetuates the problems in order to justify and prolong its own existence.
The Palestinian refugee issue gets a great deal of international attention, he said, while the parallel number of Jewish exiles from that same era he calls “the forgotten Jewish refugees.”
“When my father’s family fled Alexandria, Egypt, in 1950, they left everything behind,” said Danon. “Nobody is coming and asking the Egyptian government to pay compensation, but at least it should be recognized and I think it’s a claim we shouldn’t abandon. We have to speak about it and make sure it will be brought up in future discussions as well.”
The Palestinian Authority’s President Mahmoud Abbas is 87 years old and Danon hesitates to predict whether the next leader will be a genuine partner for peace.
“I hope that, in the days after President Abbas, a leader will emerge that will care more about education, infrastructure, rather than coming to the UN and speaking against Israel,” he said.
Israel’s defensive actions, like those during the war with Hamas less than a year ago, can make the country unpopular, Danon admitted. While it would be nice to be liked by the world, Danon said some things are more important.
“I prefer the situation where we are today, where we are strong, independent and we have borders, we can protect our people rather than being a place where we beg for mercy from the international community,” he said.