The Saddest Thing About Israel’s New UN Envoy: U.S. Jews Will Get Used to Him

This article appeared in the print edition of Ha’aretz on August 30th 2015

My Twitter timeline was awash with sad and exasperated tweets last week when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided in his wisdom to pick Danny “Deportation Now” Danon as the new face of Israel to the world, by appointing him Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. His rejection of the two-state solution and his want to deport all refugees make him the poster boy for the far-right members of Likud. His close relationship with Glenn Beck and his friendly on-camera appearance with Mike Huckabee suggest he could soon become Israel’s own representative to the Tea Party. And if that weren’t enough, despite being fired as deputy defense minister for not being able to have the self-restraint to withhold attacking the government during a time of war, Bibi apparently felt that this was the best person to build global partnerships and prevent diplomatic upsets.

Analysts rushed in to show the internal political reasons for the Danon pick: Bibi’s wish to remove him from the Likud Central Committee, to free up a cabinet seat and the like. Some, like veteran Israeli journalist David Horovitz, despaired, writing that this move showed Bibi’s true face and that of Israel.

Personally, I think this appointment demonstrates the utter disregard that Bibi has for diplomacy and his desire to control everything from the Prime Minister’s Office. Let the diplomats do public relations, anything of importance comes directly to him.
Ignoring the “why” of the appointment, the sad reality of this move is that the firestorm will calm down and the U.S. Jewish community will get used to having Israel’s own version of Ted Cruz in their backyard, and will invite him to the normal functions and honors.

When Avigdor Lieberman was first appointed foreign minister in 2009, there was an equal cry of anguish from the global Diaspora community. For his first term, it was then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak, not Lieberman, who handled the U.S. relationship. Yet, when Lieberman was reappointed as Foreign Minister in the following Knesset, he was often seen as the grown up in the U.S.-Israel relationship, particularly during the peace negotiations led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. His obnoxious policy positions toward Israel’s Arab minority, which he had always held, did not change, though, and on the eve of the most recent election, while still foreign minister, Lieberman threatened some 20 percent of Israel’s population, on live television, saying that they were citizens “for now.” We just got used to having a brutal pragmatist who saw a fifth of Israel’s population as disposable.

So too will be the case with Danny Danon: We will get used to him. There will be some awkward moments for sure, maybe the Anti-Defamation League will issue a condemnation or too, but nothing serious. Danon will get the same invites to the same receptions as his predecessor did. Jewish Americans have set their expectations so low for him that if he manages to get through a speech without a racial slur, it will be seen as a diplomatic masterpiece.

All the while his appointment makes an utter mockery of the work that the Jewish community – led by the American Jewish Committee – has been doing in the United Nations. The AJC, nicknamed the “State Department of the Jewish People,” sees its role as being the representatives of mainstream Jewish opinion to the diplomatic community in the United States and to foreign governments around the world.

The AJC took on preventing the United Nations from recognizing Palestinian statehood when the General Assembly voted on it in November 2011, as one of its major calls for action. Its rubric was: support peace and oppose the UN “gambit.” It feels odd, then, that the AJC lobbied the world to vote against recognizing Palestine as a state on the grounds that doing so would go against a viable two-state solution, but went silent when the Israel announced its new ambassador to the United Nations is a decisive opponent to the two-state solution and supports annexation in the West Bank.

I wonder what the atmosphere was like within the AJC when Danon’s appointment was announced. How does appointing a man who spent the past few years embarrassing Bibi – including in the pages of the New York Times – in his desire to destroy any hopes of two states for two peoples play with the AJC policy position and advocacy for a two-state solution?

By tolerating the appointment and adding Danon into the fold of the U.S. Jewish communal architecture, the American Jewish community will show once again that there is no right-wing flap in the communal tent: While we brutally and viciously police the lines on the left regarding who is in and who is out, we are starting to understand that one can say whatever he wants on the right and still be welcomed with open arms.

Israeli commentators worry about what Danon’s appointment says about Israel. I worry about what his reception in America will say about us.

 

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Foreign funding for Israeli politicians undermines Diaspora ties

This article first appeared in Ha’aretz 12/31/14

The role of Jews from around the world in Israeli politics has been the third rail of Israel-Diaspora relations. Can we be critical? Should we be supportive? Do we get a say on peace and security? Do we get a say on immigration? How about the role of the non-Orthodox?

Yet, all of these careful discussions, which have been calibrated over years of tinkering, are thrown out the window during election season. It is now that the niceties of this conversation are thrown aside and the real dynamic between Israel and the Diaspora is laid bare.

For the majority in the Diaspora, an Israeli election is a confusing affair, a circus of different political parties flashing across the headlines. Israeli journalists, think tankers and communal professionals will come to synagogues and community centers and attempt to explain what the main issues are, and who might come out on top. Election season is the busy season for Israel educators across the world.

For the global Jewish donor community, however, the Israeli election season is a chance to boost favorite candidates.

Likud’s primaries, which take place on Wednesday, consist of two separate elections: One to pick the party’s leader, and another to determine its Knesset slate. This year, ahead of these ballots, Likud politicians have received donations from across the world. As of last week, Benjamin Netanyahu raised 539,000 shekels ($137,000) from 14 U.S. donors and one from Spain. Danny Danon, who is challenging Netanyahu for the leadership of Likud, raised 261,000 shekels ($66,800) from 11 donors, 10 of which are in the U.S. Zeev Elkin, who is vying for a preferential position on the party’s slate, was backed by donors from U.S., Russia, Switzerland and Britain.

Likud members are not the only ones receiving funding from abroad. Labor MK Nachman Shai reportedly received 79,352 shekels ($20,300) from donors in the U.S. and Canada, as well as Israel. MK Ayelet Shaked from Habayit Hayehudi received 51,976 shekels ($13,300) from donors from the U.S. and Israel.

Nearly every democratic system struggles to deal with the issue of money in politics, the U.S. being a prime example. Yet, the extent to which it is acceptable, both legally and publicly, for Israeli political candidates to receive direct funding from foreign interests is astonishing.

Israeli politicians should be joining the time-honored global political tradition of whispering political promises into the ears of their own tycoons, not foreign nationals; at least the tycoons need to obey the laws of those they are seeking to put in power.

This bizarre allowance, both legally and in the eyes of the public, shows the real nature of the Israel-Diaspora relationship: Rich boosters from abroad are allowed to have undue influence in the political process of a country they care enough about to try and buy off, but not move to.

The political donor dynamic undermines every argument of those Israelis, on the left and the right, who say that Jews from abroad should not have a say in Israeli politics. Those who have always maintained that Jews abroad should serve as Israel’s cheering section, that they should sit quietly if they disagree with Jerusalem’s policies, are hypocritical when they stand by and allow foreign funding for Israeli political careers.

It makes a mockery of the efforts that Jewish foundations have made, via seminars and dialogues, to make Knesset members understand the complexities of life in the Diaspora.

As long as it is a publicly accepted, legal norm for Jews from around the world to donate to political candidates in Israel, whether in the primary or general elections, the unhealthy dynamic between Israel and the Diaspora will continue unabated.