|Interview: Danny Danon|
Inside Israel’s ruling Likud Party, Danny Danon is seen by some as a true believer and by others as a Trojan Horse. Deputy speaker of the Knesset and chair of World Likud, he has been a frequent critic of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and once challenged him for the party leadership. Acknowledged as one of Likud’s rising stars, Danon, 40, makes frequent media appearances in Israel and is active in worldwide Jewish affairs. He is considered a specialist in foreign policy, children’s rights, aliya and diaspora information.
Q. You wrote in a controversial New York Times opinion column last spring that the Palestinian effort to create a unilateral state through the United Nations essentially terminated the Oslo Accords. What consequences did you envision?
A. At Oslo, Israel and the Palestinians agreed that “neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the permanent status negotiations.” Their unilateral actions at the U.N. definitively said to the world: Oslo is dead.
Q. What would you like to do in reaction to Mahmoud Abbas’s appeal to the United Nations in September?
A. Actions have consequences. To ignore the Palestinian campaign would be irrational. I specifically proposed that Israel and the U.S. withhold upward of $1 billion in diplomatic and security assistance that it annually provides to the Palestinians, including the transfer of taxes they claim are due to them. Second, we should absolutely rectify a mistake made in 1967 by failing to annex all of the West Bank, which we did do, thankfully, in East Jerusalem. We could then extend full Israeli jurisdiction and rights to the Jewish communities there. This would finally end the legal limbo of 44 years and put us on track to forge a more secure future.
Q. As one of President Obama’s sharpest Israeli critics, did you change your mind after his speech and American support of Israel at the United Nations?
A. I respect the president and I am saddened that the traditional admiration of the people of Israel for the U.S. president has plummeted so rapidly under Obama. He should definitely be commended for words and votes that upheld the important U.S. tradition of defending Israel in an exceptionally biased environment within the United Nations. With all due respect, however, you don’t need a Ph.D. in political science to understand that the events at the U.N. occurred immediately following the special Congressional election in Queens and Brooklyn in which a little known Republican triumphed decisively in a district with three to one Democratic [advantage, and] where no G.O.P. representative had been elected in over 60 years. This was largely the result of local Jewish voters expressing their profound disappointment with the president over his consistently worrisome policies regarding Israel. The facts are that this president, unlike any of his predecessors, has adopted all of his policies in response to the demands of the Palestinians. I think he has now got the message and as he begins his reelection campaign he echoed the messages he was receiving. Although he did the right thing, I would not call it a bold profile in courage.
Q. You are seen as being close to the Republican Party and have been associated recently with Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, to name a few, most of them presidential candidates. Is that a smart idea?
A. Traditionally, bipartisan support for Israel in America was practically a sacred mantra. But things have changed. I believe in a bipartisan approach. But no less important is the vital need to encourage and express appreciation to our friends and supporters whatever their political affiliation. At the end of the day, please remember, I am not a Democrat and not a Republican. I am a Zionist, and I work to encourage politicians of all kinds who understand Israel’s needs and special mission.
Q. You are deeply involved in diaspora Jewish affairs—organizations, delegations to Israel, attending conferences. These people are not Israeli voters, so why do you invest so much time in this activity?
A. It’s not a deep, dark secret. I was raised to believe that Israel belongs literally and spiritually to every single Jew in the world. That is why I so deeply admire Hadassah, which has elevated practical Zionism to the ultimate degree. Its medical, educational, vocational and youth work has done more for our society’s growth than a million speeches. A Jew living in Brooklyn or Miami or Los Angeles may not be able to vote in Israel or serve in the Israel Defense Forces, but he or she is a potential citizen and someone who cares. She wakes up and looks for the headline from Israel in the morning newspaper, listens for the TV report on CNN or Fox. We are one relatively small global family and Israel’s future is tightly linked with the well-being, security and pride of the Jewish people everywhere.
Q. You recently traveled to the fledgling country of South Sudan. What did you discover there?
A. It is a rare and truly remarkable honor to witness a nation come into existence. I always envied the Israelis who lived through [David] Ben-Gurion and Menahem Begin’s speeches and danced in the streets when independence was declared. Sudan, like Israel, is in a dangerous neighborhood fraught with famine and bloodshed. The South Sudanese officials had a real appreciation for the commonalities shared by their new nation and Israel. I was especially pleased when a commitment was made in our discussions to open their embassy in Jerusalem, which would be a real diplomatic achievement. I left South Sudan feeling that not only a new country but a genuine friend of Israel had come into the world.
Q. Civil libertarians were outraged when you introduced a law that would make those who boycott Israel subject to civil suits for their actions. Why create such a law?
A. This legislation was a long overdue victory for all reasonable citizens of our democracy. Why should the Israeli government provide favorable organizational recognition and rights or any type of incentives to bodies that delegitimize the Jewish state? No one is seeking to silence anyone or to curtail basic freedoms. Yet we cannot stand by and watch our country come under economic boycott attack from abroad with the active assistance of Israeli citizens. Sometimes common sense must prevail.
Q. What are your commitments as chair of World Likud?
A. It is the Likud’s rich history and compelling principles that put me into politics as a student and ultimately into the Knesset. The Likud is my natural, passionate home. It helps me define the world and the risks faced by Israel, and it tells me that certain key values can never be compromised. Our love for the Land of Israel, our commitment to security, our belief that every Jew enjoys a special destiny—this is what I grew up believing and continue to embrace even today. Heading the Likud’s international framework gives me a remarkable opportunity to meet and work closely with Jewish leaders around the world. This is both a privilege and a huge commitment, no less important to me than my work in the Knesset. Aliya, Jewish education, cultural pride: No one said it better than Ze’ev Jabotinsky or Menahem Begin, and I deeply aspire to faithfully follow in their footsteps.
Q. You have both criticized and supported Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. How did you feel after his speech on Capitol Hill earlier this year?
A. I sincerely applauded the prime minister’s effective and eloquent defense of the Jewish people’s historic ties to the Land of Israel. His speech was inspiring and rousing. His single most compelling duty was to reject President Obama’s pressure. When he returned home to Jerusalem, he realized there was no majority in Israel, and certainly not in his own Likud Party, to cede large portions of Judea and Samaria to Arab control, nor to relinquish our permanent presence in the Jordan Valley. We were elected to safeguard our historic homeland, not to abandon it. I try with all my heart and soul to remind him of these commitments, even when others seek to cloud his view. I am hopeful the visions that nurtured both [of us] will prevail and his policies will remain faithful to these commitments. No matter what, I will be nearby to remind him.