There are moments in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decisions seem so ill-informed, so downright bizarre, that the only rationale behind them must be either total insanity or simply part of an incredibly elaborate ongoing practical joke. How else to describe his appointment of Likud hardliner Danny Danon to the post of Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations? Danon has spent years making himself a thorn in Bibi’s side, challenging the latter’s authority and spewing far-right wing propaganda in every possible news outlet willing to host him. To be fair, Danon is not much different than many of his colleagues in Likud who espouse annexationist and far-right wing views on a fairly regular basis. But he is one of the few party members willing to challenge Bibi’s place at the top of the Likud pecking order, however unsuccessful these endeavors may be.
The decision seems especially galling given the likelihood of a Security Council Resolution being tabled by the French come September, which hopes to prod Israelis and Palestinians back to peace negotiations with a clearly defined timetable. Readers will recall that the US has acted as a shield at the UN, particularly in the Security Council where it often vetoes ‘undesirable’ resolutions aimed at Israel. For many years that veto was all but assured, but the steady deterioration of ties between the administrations and stagnation in the peace process has led to genuine fear that this no longer the case. Compound that with the current spat regarding Iran, and it would seem obvious to even the most casual of observers that Danon would make a terrible fit for a position that requires at least a modicum of sensitivity.
Einat Wilf, a former Laborite (and later MK in Ehud Barak’s breakaway Ha’azmaut faction) who was a rumored candidate, would have been a much more natural choice, given her moderate nature, and the fact that anyone perceived as truly ‘left-wing’ would have never been considered. Instead, Bibi plans on sending Danon to the lion’s den, armed with matches and plenty of gasoline. Even those Israelis who take a dim view of all things related to the UN—which is to say, most of the population—are completely nonplussed by this appointment.
To those people fretting about the damage likely to be done during Danon’s tenure, I think it best to relax. While it’s true that most past appointees handled themselves with professionalism whatever their political affiliations, the UN (and in particular the General Assembly) has never really been particularly disposed towards Israel, even in the best of times. Most of what happens in the UN has proven to be fairly uneventful, and is unlikely to make waves despite Danon’s notoriety. As a friend of mine recently quipped, “I’ll make you a bet that you can’t recall a single speech that [current Israeli ambassador to the UN] Ron Prosor made without having to Google it.” Indeed, very few speeches at the UN have reverberated unless delivered by Bibi, after which they are scrutinized ad nauseam, and remain in the news cycle for weeks on end. In all likelihood, Danon will have to be on his best behavior and tow the party line, lest he suffer the same fate as he did during last summer’s Operation Protective Edge, when he was sacked for criticizing the Prime Minister’s handling of the war (from the right).
Danon’s appointment does disturb me, but for reasons other than the supposed disastrous effects it’s likely to have on Israeli diplomacy—and as I’ve noted, I rather doubt that they’ll actually be severe. However, it follows a long line of similar actions taken by Bibi to quell any uprisings at home. Bibi’s fear of other politicians within the Likud wielding too much power and influence has led to him exerting undue pressure on them, causing an eventual self-imposed exile from the party. It’s why former Likud rising star Gideon Sa’ar is currently outside the Knesset, and why MK Moshe Kahlon is leading another party altogether, albeit one that is sitting quite snugly in the coalition at present.
Yet, neither of these figures attempted such a naked grab for power the way Danon has. The decision to appoint a political troublemaker to a sensitive post in the name of political expediency is proof of Netanyahu’s priorities: maintaining his grasp on power above all else. Bibi cannot drive Danon from the party, but he can do the next best thing by sending him far away from the wellspring of his strength. Being thousands of miles from his constituents and up to his ears in anti-Israel resolutions, Danon will be unable to rabble rouse against Bibi and plot his downfall from inside the Likud Central Committee. Forced into the role of a buttoned-down dignitary, he’ll watch from afar as his relevancy in the Likud slips away.
Bibi is nothing if not astute; he knows quite well the anxiety this appointment has created in the Foreign Ministry and the Israeli public at large. He must also be keenly aware of the anger felt by members of the American Jewish community who are livid that the Prime Minister could be so cavalier in appointing someone so problematic. And he knows that after the Iran deal is likely passed, retribution by the administration in the form of withholding a Security Council veto is a very real possibility, if not inevitable. And yet, sacrifices must be made.
For years, many observers believed that there were clear limits to Bibi’s hunger for power, even if these limits were not obvious. This incident, I fear, isn’t a precedent so much as another confirmation that these observations have been proven wrong once again. Danon is likely to have an uneventful stay in New York, doing relatively minimal damage. But if Danon’s appointment is any indication, the lengths that Bibi will go to stay on top may be become more and more extreme as time goes by, to the detriment of Israel’s international standing.