The nadir in the US-Israel relationship came on December 23, 2016, when outgoing President Barack Obama slammed Israel with a UN resolution labeling it an occupying power and its historic homeland “illegal settlements.” Obama had just had his legacy destroyed by Donald Trump’s election victory, and he wanted to do something he felt he couldn’t do politically during his eight years in the White House.
This was the conventional thinking until now. But it was much worse than that, says Danny Danon. From his perch as Israel’s ambassador to the UN, he had a front row seat to what Obama was trying to do. And for the first time, he is revealing the inside story through his book, In The Lion’s Den.
“I was used to fighting the Palestinians, sometimes the EU,” Danon, who since 2020 has served as chairman of the World Likud, told the Yated in an exclusive interview. “But for the first time, I actually found myself against the US, our closest ally.”
At the UN, Danon broke a couple of glass ceilings. He became the first Israeli to lead a UN committee when he was elected chairman of the Legal Committee in 2016. That same year, he led the UN’s first international summit against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.
Danon, 51, uses his book to highlight the friendship he developed with Nikki Haley, his counterpart from the US during their time at Turtle Bay. Now a rising Republican star seen as a future presidential contender, she wrote a warm foreword to In The Lion’s Den, recalling Danon’s influence on the world stage.
Books by former UN ambassadors are always interesting, because it’s a job that is mostly behind the scenes and there are lots of fascinating vignettes and details that only come out in the book. Your book doesn’t disappoint. The highlight of the book, or the lowlight, is the UN resolution of December 2016. The US abstained from the resolution, which to the passive observer seems to mean that it had no say in it. But in your book, you lay out how behind the scenes, the Obama administration was actually the one which drafted the resolution and lobbied countries to vote for it.
Exactly. And I describe in detail in my book how it happened and why I was so disappointed in Ambassador Samantha Power and the president, and the fact that they couldn’t even put the Israeli prime minister on the line with President Obama. The information I received from my colleagues was that the US was actually working against Israel. For me, it was the hardest moment at the UN.
But from there we moved forward. Once Ambassador Nikki Haley came in, we were able to change a lot of things at the UN together.
You said you were surprised and disappointed that President Obama would do such a thing. To many people who had followed the Obama administration, while it was obviously a disappointment, it wasn’t surprising. It was seen for years that this was something that he was planning on doing. You didn’t get that impression?
Yes. I was disappointed because of the content, the language of the resolution that called our presence in the Old City of Jerusalem a violation of international law; that was unacceptable. But I was even more disappointed by the way it was done. Instead of coming to us and telling us, “You know, here’s what we want to do, this is what we believe we should do,” they did it behind our back. I had to gather information from other countries, and I took that very hard.
I was used to fighting the Palestinians, sometimes the EU. But for the first time, I found myself against the US, our closest ally.
The resolution was first introduced by Egypt, but they quickly withdrew it, reportedly under pressure from the Trump transition team. But then a different country adopted it and it passed. You’re saying that all this were machinations from the Obama administration?
Absolutely. They were working very hard behind the scenes, making sure there would be support for the resolution. One of the countries, Ukraine, wanted to abstain, because of their strong bond with Israel. But the US administration pressured them not to abstain and to support the resolution, because they wanted to orchestrate the result that only the US would be abstaining from the vote.
Many people ask us about the relationship between Israel and Ukraine and Russia, and this episode shows that we were friendly with them, that they were willing to help us. But they also needed the US, so they had no choice — they were afraid of the consequences coming from the Obama administration in its last days.
It turns out that the Trump transition team’s alliance with Israel started before he even became president. Can you tell me about what the incoming presidential administration was doing to stop this resolution from moving forward? There were reports at the time that they were lobbying countries to abstain, vote against, or drop sponsorship of the resolution.
Yes. They were very active and they were making phone calls to different countries.
You mentioned Egypt pulling out from sponsorship of the resolution. Another story I reveal in my book is the fact that the UK was considering abstaining as well. Theresa May had just stepped into the office of prime minister, and she wanted to build a bond with the new Trump administration. She was even considering vetoing the resolution. We were not aware of that at the time, unfortunately.
At the end of the day, the minister of foreign affairs convinced her to support the resolution. (Ambassador Danon does not say this, but the minister was Boris Johnson, the present prime minister of Britain.)
The incoming president was very active and he made many phone calls, but the administration and the White House were also very active. They were in power and had more leverage on different countries.
Were you the ambassador when Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu made his congressional address against the Iran nuclear deal?
I was in government at that time as a cabinet member. I arrived in New York right when the deal was signed in 2015.
I was just wondering about that time when you went head-to-head with John Kerry, Obama’s secretary of state, after the resolution passed in December 2016. He gave that infamous speech in which he called settlements illegal and promised that there wouldn’t be peace with Israel and the Arab world without a deal with the Palestinians. You then gave your own speech, refuting each of his points. Was that an extraordinary thing to do?
That was after the vote in the Security Council in December. He was trying to justify the shameful behavior of the US, and I decided not to be quiet but to expose the behavior of Secretary Kerry. We also conducted dozens of interviews that week to counter how he was justifying what he said about peace in the Middle East, or that he was doing it to support Israel.
I was telling everyone the opposite — it was a bad resolution, and it would not support any peace treaty in the region.
Peace treaties between warring countries or alliances that develop between two countries tend to start off in backroom meetings by the countries’ respective UN ambassadors in New York, and eventually go up to a higher level. Did any of the Abraham Accord deals start off with meetings you had with Arab ambassadors in the years before?
Absolutely. Years before the accords, we were already cooperating with moderate Arab countries against radical Islam, against Iran. I described in the book that I had secret meetings with Arab ambassadors in different locations in New York, and I even visited the United Arab Emirates in 2016.
So we collaborated, we worked very closely, but it took effort and time and the support of the US to make it public and to sign the Abraham Accords. But we started to cooperate a few years before the agreement was signed.
Were there any other meetings, besides for with the Arab world, that would surprise readers?
I describe my campaign to run for a position at the UN, and the fact that I was elected to become the first Israeli ever to chair a UN committee — the Legal Committee. It was done by secret ballot, and it proved that we have a lot of friends, a lot of support. But it’s usually done quietly.
When it comes to public votes, we still have a lot to do. We have to close the gap between the private support that we have and the public support which we don’t see.
When you were having these secret conversations with diplomats from other countries, what were their excuses for not going public? Was it because they are scared of the Arab street?
Absolutely. That was their claim, and I told them it’s just an excuse, and that the leadership should lead the way. But it wasn’t the case with them.
But now, with what they saw happening with the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan, I think more countries understand that they can actually lead and they shouldn’t be afraid of their constituency.
You developed a close relationship with Nikki Haley. She currently has a political action committee, and she’s active in helping Republicans win local races across the country. It seems likely that she is prepping for a presidential campaign. Outside her relationship with Israel, what is your impression of her?
She’s a great friend. She supported us for years and we are grateful for that.
John Bolton once joked that the UN building has 38 floors, and if 10 of them would disappear, it wouldn’t make a bit of a difference. A lot of people in Israel and here in the United States feel that the UN should be ignored, not worked with. You worked over there for five years — what are your feelings today, having come out of that environment? Do you believe that the UN as an institution could be useful to Israel?
I think that the UN is important. But we have to change the UN, not ignore the UN. We have to bring it back to its core principles. And I think it’s an important platform to promote dialogue and to do good things. But unfortunately, it was kidnapped by hostile forces which, instead of focusing on the atrocities around the world, would rather do other things, mainly against Israel.
But overall, I think there are a lot of things we can do at the UN. Israel, with our knowhow and technology, should be a leading force at the UN in supporting and helping other countries.
What about working in such a hostile environment? The UN has these 22 anti-Israel resolutions that automatically pass every year. And you meet with these countries that continually vote against Israel just because it’s there, just because the resolution was proposed. How was it dealing with those people afterward?
What I did — and I describe it in detail in my book —was trying to dilute the hatred against Israel behind the scenes by bringing a lot of things and events to the UN. Almost every week, we had an event — it can be bringing art, culture, food, technology, you name it.
So yes, we still have to deal with the ridiculous resolutions — they will never disappear. But when you bring content, you basically show the real face of Israel.
One of the initiatives I started was to bring UN ambassadors to Israel. I ultimately brought with me more than 100 UN ambassadors over the years to visit Israel. I think it is possible to actually show the real face of Israel, but it requires a lot of initiatives and efforts.
Outside that 2016 resolution, did all your efforts pay off? Did it show any dividends? Did it prevent a country from adopting BDS? Was Israel able to benefit behind the scenes from it?
For sure. We were able to see a different approach taken toward Israel. We were able to see more countries recognizing Israel. Take the Abraham Accords, for example. That didn’t happen overnight. We collaborated with some of the countries over the years — as I said, I visited the UAE in 2016. When I went there then, it had to be in a very secretive manner. Today, we have public relations.
So a lot of things start in the UN, and then you see the results in the bilateral arena.
You became the UN ambassador right after the Iran deal was signed. I don’t know how close they are to another deal right now, but as a diplomat who was in the thick of things, how would you recommend Israel should go about fighting this?
I think we shouldn’t be so quiet. We have to be vocal — it’s a dangerous agreement not only to Israel, but to the region and the stability of the world. And unfortunately, I think we are too quiet now. We have to pay more attention to that threat, even if it means disagreeing with our strongest ally and with other friends. We shouldn’t sit idly when we see the Iranians achieving nuclear capabilities.
Did Israel lose anything by going so publicly against the Obama administration?
What difference does it make? It is legitimate not to agree all the time. I discuss in the book what happened in December 2016, which I think was a payoff — President Obama personally wanted to do something to show that he was in charge after Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke in Congress against the agreement. But we cannot be quiet about it. I think today we are also too quiet about the new agreement that’s being drafted.
So you would go more with the Netanyahu method rather than the Bennett method. If you could shift gears a second and put on your political hat, where do you think the political situation in Israel is headed? I saw a report in Haaretz that even Bennett allies are saying that the government can’t last more than another few weeks. What is your take on it?
The way I see it, the existing coalition cannot survive much longer. You cannot govern without a majority. They will be able to maneuver, but in the long run you have to approve a budget, you have to deal with the security issues we are dealing with, and you cannot do it when you rely on the votes of non-Zionist parties or members of the Knesset actually promoting incitement against Israel — some of them even collaborate with people convicted in terror attacks against Israel. So I don’t think it will be able to last for much longer.
What is your relationship with the chareidi politicians, the chareidi political parties in Israel?
We have very good relations. In my book, In The Lion’s Den, I speak a lot about being proud about Judaism and about tradition, reading from the Torah in the Security Council, quoting from the Torah in the General Assembly, and holding events to actually show our tradition to UN members.
It was very empowering when I started the tradition of having Passover Seders at the UN or a Tashlich ceremony on the East River. I think that when people saw the respect that we have for our religion, they respected Israel more.
Did you pick up any relationships with the Orthodox community here in New York during your time here?
Sure. I appeared in many shuls. I visited the tziyun of the rebbi (the Lubavitcher Rebbe) many, many times before crucial votes or decisions at the UN. I found that we have a lot of support for Israel in the community in New York.
You understand that the community in New York has its concerns about the way the government has been operating the past year or so.
I think every Jew should be worried if you look at the core issues of respect to our tradition, to our religion — take, for example, the issue of Passover, where the minister of health was fighting to bring chometz into hospitals in Israel. When I see the policies of the Israeli government, the Jewish state of Israel, I am ashamed. I believe that soon we’ll be able to replace that government, and instead of inserting chometz into Israeli hospitals, we will be able to insert Jewish values into the textbooks and Zionism into the schools.
One final question — you titled your book In The Lion’s Den. What gave you the inspiration for that title? Did you actually feel like you were in the lion’s den?
When I told you that I used to speak a lot about the Torah in my speeches at the UN, in many events I felt like Daniel in the lion’s den, being there by myself, surrounded by hostile forces. But we prevailed. And the people of Israel prevailed. And that is my message of the book — yes, we have to struggle, we have challenges, but at the end of the day, we can prevail and we will prevail.