Israel Is Mocking the United Nations

Why Israel appointed one of its notoriously most-undiplomatic politicians to be one of its top diplomats.

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
Danny Danon in his office in Tel Aviv, August 14, 2013.
Danny Danon in his office in Tel Aviv, August 14, 2013.Credit: AP
Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

“What was he thinking?”

This, without a doubt, was the first question many Israelis and non-Israelis alike had in mind upon first hearing the news that Benjamin Netanyahu has decided to appoint the ultra-nationalist Likudnik firecracker and incumbent Minister of Science, Technology and Space Danny Danon as Israel’s new ambassador to the United Nations.

The appointment had been largely anticipated, yet still unbelievable enough to shock many, even journalists and insiders who knew beforehand that Netanyahu was considering both Danon and Ofir Akunis, another hardline Likudnik like Danon, for the role.

The second question on many minds, in Israel and abroad, was “why?” As in, why would Netanyahu appoint Danon, one of the biggest ultra-nationalist hawks in Israeli politics, a man who seemingly lacks even the slightest level of finesse and subtlety required of a senior diplomat, known for his brashness and anti-intellectualism, a staunch opponent of the two-state solution and a fervent supporter of the annexation of the West Bank, a man he himself had sacked just a little over a year ago from his previous role as deputy defense minister for being a loose cannon, calling him “irresponsible”?

This seemingly makes no sense.

In an effort to find an explanation for Netanyahu’s decision, many pundits chose to focus on Netanyahu’s internal troubles. By transferring one of his biggest political rivals within Likud, a man who has repeatedly challenged his leadership and even went so far as to attack his “leftist flaccidity” in the past, Netanyahu is essentially removing one of the biggest threats to his power, before he becomes an even bigger threat.

This line of thinking has a lot going for it. The appointment of someone as ill-suited for the delicacy of diplomacy as Danon has certainly shown, once again, Netanyahu’s predilection for political survival, even when ensuring it seemingly contradicts national interests. It also goes a long way toward solving the great mystery of this strange, seemingly-inappropriate decision. Why else, after all, would Netanyahu appoint a provocateur like Danon to a role as sensitive as UN ambassador?

Whatever his reasons, the outcome is the same: Dear people of the world, Israel is mocking you.

The world as an afterthought

To be clear: Danny Danon was not appointed UN ambassador to spite the international community. Internal politicking likely played a bigger part in this decision than anything else.

Nevertheless, the appointment of a person like Danon as one of the chief communicators of Israeli policies amounts to a cruel joke at the expense of the world’s perception and criticism of Israel, a finger in the eye of an international community that is having an extremely hard time balancing its longtime sympathy for Israel with the growing evidence of what this sympathy has allowed Israel to become.

Simply put, countries that truly care about how they are perceived worldwide as much as Israel says it does don’t appoint someone like Danon to a role as delicate as that a UN diplomat.

Danon, who believes Israel should annul the Oslo Accords and annex the entire West Bank, owes his meteoric ascension to the higher echelons of Israeli politics to a long series of provocations aimed against the left wing, asylum seekers and, of course, Palestinians. (“Not every Arab is a terrorist”, said Danon in 2012, “but within Israeli reality, every terrorist is an Arab.”)

He has repeatedly lambasted the Obama administration, his new working partner, advocating an adversarial, hard-line stance and openly calling for Israel to spurn its biggest ally. After Barack Obama was reelected in 2012, Danon declared “the State of Israel will not bend before Obama. We cannot trust anyone but ourselves.” In his 2012 book “Israel: The Will to Prevail,” he wrote of his future workplace: “The UN has been at the forefront of delegitimizing” Israel, a state it helped legally found.”

In Israel, Danon is largely known as a national punchline, the subject of countless memes and online parodies that portray him as a dimwit and mimic his unique personal style. His appointment as minister of science caused a deluge of satire in social media. His appointment as UN ambassador surely gave many Israeli humorists heart palpitations.

In a few short weeks, Danon will enter the shoes of one of Israel’s top diplomats, in charge of defending Israeli policies in a largely-hostile environment where Israel is constantly forced to struggle for legitimacy, at a highly sensitive and precarious time.

It doesn’t take an oracle to see that Danon as a senior diplomat is a disastrous choice. He may owe his new job to his bitter political rivalry with Netanyahu, but this decision could not have been made without the climate in which it was decided, in an Israel that cares less and less what the world thinks of it.

It is the same climate that has allowed the appointments of Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister in 2009, the two-state opponent Silvan Shalom as a chief negotiator with the Palestinians, and Netanyahu’s decision in April to name himself as his own foreign minister.

All three of these controversial appointments were made not to send the rest of the world a message, but due to domestic political calculations. Nevertheless, they became possible thanks to a process during which Israel’s foreign policy has become largely an afterthought, the identity of its foreign service officials inconsequential since the battle is already lost. They were made possible because Israelis voted again and again for politicians like Netanyahu, like Lieberman, like Danon and his compatriots in the Likud’s extremist wing, whose agenda could be defined as complete disregard of what the rest of the world thinks Israel should do.

Danny Danon, in short, owes his recent appointment, as well as much of his success, to the fact Israel has largely given up on trying to convince the world it is right.

The upside

Back in March, Israelis reelected Netanyahu and gave the right wing a clear majority in the Knesset, thereby sending the international community, who hoped Israelis would make a different choice, a clear message. Five months later, with Netanyahu’s appointment of Danon, the message is a similar one. The gist of it: “We don’t care what you think.”

In recent years, many Israelis have become convinced that the world is hostile to Israel, no matter what it does. This common perception has made many Israelis disregard the international debate regarding Israel, and contributed to the increasing popularity of hard-line, hawkish, isolationist politicians like Danon, who claim Israel is completely and utterly alone in the world.

Despite the grimness of this type of thinking, there is an upside to this. After years of sending smooth-talking, camera-friendly professional diplomats like, well, Netanyahu himself when he served as ambassador to the UN, Israel will finally have a UN ambassador that truly, unreservedly represents its views.

Danon may be extremist in his views and undiplomatic in his demeanor, but he is also an appropriate representative of Israel, circa 2015, its perception of itself and the way it sees its place within the world. This gives the world an opportunity to deal with Israel as it is, not what it purports to be.

Throughout his political career, Danon has been shy to speak his mind, and one hardly expects him to do so now. If expectations of him are correct, he will apply no sweet-talk, no sugarcoating, no flattery. At the UN podium he will tell the rest of the world what Israel thinks of it: very little.

What the rest of the world will do with that information remains to be seen.

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