Neville Teller reviews the book by Danny Danon
Danny Danon is a forthright, straight-from-the-shoulder sort of guy. He is clear in his own mind about the things he holds dear, and he is equally clear about declaring them frankly and defending them vigorously when the occasion demands. None of these characteristics are the normal attributes of a professional diplomat – the role he fulfilled on behalf of Israel for five years as UN ambassador. But, as he himself writes: ”There are times when you have to step on a few toes to blaze a righteous and secure path.”
In 2015, when the Temple Mount was subject to one of its recurrent periods of rioting, the French ambassador to the UN called for international observers to be stationed in Jerusalem to keep order. At the time the so-called Yellow Vest demonstrations in Paris were at their height. Danon turned to the French ambassador and addressed him directly: “I don’t recall anyone in this chamber criticizing your security forces when they use a lot of force to contain the riots. Maybe we should discuss sending international observers to the streets of Paris?”
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The French ambassador was discomforted, but Danon says he persisted in his undiplomatic zero-tolerance approach which in essence was: “If you attack us, expect an immediate sharp response.” When Rafael Darío Ramírez Carreño, the Venezuelan ambassador, compared Israel to the Nazis and asked if a final solution was being planned for the Palestinian people, Danon with a group of sympathetic ambassadors applied heavy and constant pressure on Carreño until he issued au unreserved apology and, at their insistence, in the same UN forum is which he had originally spoken.
“In the Lion’s Den” is not an autobiography. References to Danon’s personal life and relationships are few, and reserved to the Acknowledgments section at the end which, incidentally, is as unconventional in its presentation as the rest of the volume. The notable exception is Danon’s father. The influence his father had, and continues long after his death to have, on him is mentioned frequently.
“What you find in this book,” writes Danon, “is a direct approach in describing the experiences I had over my five years of service at the UN… as they relate to the future of Israel and its security. I don’t hide or censor what I saw, heard, and did…It is my roadmap for the hard and continuous work we need to be engaged in to ensure the safety and strength of my tiny nation in the middle of a tough neighborhood.”
Danon had more than a decade of political and public service behind him when he was first elected to the Knesset in 2009. As a parliamentarian he soon built a reputation for outspokenness and quick-on-the-draw action in defense of Israel, even to the point of openly criticizing the US president in print. Ministerial office followed the 2013 elections, but he was sacked by then prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu for publicly criticizing the handling of the Gaza campaign. Netanyahu seems to have borne no grudge against the brash enfant terrible, not even for the chutzpah of standing against him twice for leadership of the Likud party. He gave him ministerial office after the 2015 election, and in August 2015 appointed him Israel’s ambassador to the UN.
The UN is notorious for sponsoring anti-Israel resolutions or issuing anti-Israel reports. Danon encountered many such during his years as ambassador. When this happens, he explains, there are three choices: ignore it, issue a diplomatic rebuttal, or “the third way, which I continue to promote, was to fight back.” In short, Danon refused to ignore falsehoods, especially when promulgated in the public arena. “This is an ongoing fight in which we must participate.”
And yet Danon, as Israel’s UN ambassador, was far from combative for its own sake. On the contrary he spent vast amounts of time and energy in building bridges and fostering friendly relationships with fellow ambassadors, even from countries that had no official relations with Israel. “Everyone counts” was his philosophy, as he liaised with fellow diplomats from eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, South America and even the Pacific Islands. Time and again he found that these personal friendships paid off when he needed support in the UN forum. The fact that Guatemala, Honduras and Kosovo have joined the US in moving their embassies to Jerusalem is due in no small measure to Danon’s efforts.
Danon was successful also in beating the in-built bias against Israelis achieving any sort of recognition within the UN. When he nominated Israeli security expert Dudi Zechia to a senior position, he outflanked the usual anti-Israel blocking tactics and succeeded in getting him appointed. And Danon himself became the first Israeli to chair one of the six permanent committees of the UN General Assembly. It took a prodigious effort to overcome heavy and determined opposition, and to be voted into the chair of the Legal (or Sixth) Committee supported by 109 member states, with 44 voting against him.
“In the Lion’s Den” is a book that pulls no punches. Danny Danon is candid and unreserved about his time as Israel’s ambassador to the UN, describing often in blunt detail some of the major campaigns he waged on Israel’s behalf, not always against Israel’s enemies. He is equally frank about his unshakeable belief in, and support for, Israel, its reputation and its future. How rare to find a volume about politics so truthful, outspoken and upfront.