As prisoner release fell through, Danon stood front and center

In recent months in Israel, one star in Israel’s ruling Likud Party has been making headlines for his outspoken demeanor and unapologetic one-liners.

No, it’s not Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

It’s one of Netanyahu’s main political rivals — Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon.

The 42-year-old Knesset member has suggested Israel should dissolve the Oslo Accords and increase construction in the West Bank. He has also called out Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni and the left-wing Meretz Party for what he sees as their dangerously dovish policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians.

And just this week, he sits front and center in two of Israel’s bigger news items — the now-scuttled Israeli release of Palestinian prisoners and the abruptly delayed Likud Party convention, which would have highlighted the rivalry between Netanyahu and Danon, who is Likud’s central committee chair and has increasingly become a political thorn in the prime minister’s side.

Israel was slated, until a last-minute hiccup, to release 26 Palestinian prisoners on March 29, most of whom are serving time for the murder of Israeli civilians and soldiers.

Last summer, the Netanyahu government agreed to release 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners in stages, in response to a Palestinian demand to beginning the most recent round of U.S.-brokered negotiations with the Palestinian Authority (PA). Israel has thus far released 78 prisoners.

In late March, Danon wrote a letter to Netanyahu threatening to resign his post as deputy defense minister and Likud central committee chair if the government went ahead with this final prisoner release. He said he would nevertheless hold onto his seat in the Knesset. 

“It is now apparent to everyone that these negotiations have failed,” Danon wrote to JTA on March 25. “The two sides are clearly no closer to the resolution of the conflict than we were a year ago, [and] we are again being asked to release Palestinian prisoners.”

And in a March 27 telephone interview  with the Journal, Danon made clear he was not bluffing. “I will not stay as deputy defense minister in a government that’s releasing terrorists without receiving anything in return,” he said.

“There are more than 32 states [in America] that have [the] death penalty for murderers,” Danon said. “In Israel we do not have it, unfortunately, but it does not mean we have to release the people.”

Asked whether he would change his position if Israel released only some of the 26 prisoners, he replied, “It’s a moral decision. It’s not about the numbers.”

As things stand now, though, Danon may not have to resign — Netanyahu’s government has reportedly delayed the prisoner release, missing the legally required deadline to publicly list the prisoners scheduled for release.

According to JTA, no date for releasing that list has been made public. Jibril Rajoub, a Palestinian security official, reportedly said Israel had relayed through American channels that it will not move forward with the release at this time. Israeli officials reportedly are demanding that the PA extend the talks beyond April as a condition for Israel releasing the final batch of prisoners.

This allows Danon, at least for the time being, to score a political victory: He will remain as deputy defense minister while standing by his threat to resign the post should one more prisoner walk free as a precondition to negotiations.

Had the release gone through, the Likud convention scheduled for March 31 would have been an uncomfortable occasion for Netanyahu, who would have had to confront Likud hawks like Danon who oppose prisoner releases and have pushed Netanyahu to permit more construction in Israeli settlements.

According to the Jerusalem Post, the convention has been postponed until late May, putting off what may be an inevitable showdown between Netanyahu and Danon, who wants the Likud central committee, which Danon leads, to play a more active role in Netanyahu’s policies.

Although Danon supports negotiations with the Palestinians, he opposes construction freezes in the West Bank and is an outspoken opponent of the two-state solution, another position that puts him at odds, as far as official policy goes, with Netanyahu.

But though Danon is seen as a potential candidate for prime minister in the future, he does not have only critical words for Netanyahu.

“He was one of the only leaders who identified the [Iran] threat way back,” Danon said, and he praised Netanyahu for “making sure that the issue of Iran is on the agenda of the leaders of the West.”

With Danon secure, for now, at the helm of Likud’s central committee, he intends to continue efforts to move the Netanyahu government further to the right.

“I will continue to support my ideology,” he said. “We are not Tzipi Livni or Meretz.”

Israelis protest the release of Palestinian prisoners in Jerusalem on March 26. Photo by Ronen Zvulun/Reuters