Fired by Netanyahu in midst of Gaza campaign, rival aims to give voice to Likud’s hawks
Former Israeli deputy defense minister Danny Danon did not seem bothered by the fallout from his rift in mid-July with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—a spat that ended with Netanyahu removing Danon as this country’s Deputy Minister of Defense.
In fact, he seemed more relaxed than he did during previous in-person and telephone interviews as he sat down at a Tel Aviv café Wednesday morning.
The ambitious young Knesset member and chairman of Likud’s powerful Central Committee has always seemed more than willing to promote his ideology to English-language media, whether to The Times of Israel, Al-Monitor or Glenn Beck.
And on Wednesday, Danon, 43, cited his public opposition to Netanyahu’s acceptance of a failed July cease-fire with Hamas as the most recent example of his willingness to call out Likud leaders when he believes their actions stray uncomfortably to the left.
But for someone who aims to represent Likud’s right-wing bloc in the future, perhaps as a cabinet member or even tPrime Minister, whether Danon can successfully balance his commitment to what he says are the party’s core values with the need for political gamesmanship and acuity is yet to be seen.
Asked whether he now regrets publicly opposing Netanyahu given the political fallout, Danon said he “absolutely” does not, adding that his opposition to the Prime Minister’s acceptance of a July 15 cease-fire with Hamas (which the group rejected) was validated when an Israeli ground invasion that began July 17 revealed over 30 underground cross-border tunnels that Hamas planned to use in terror attacks and kidnappings.
“I did the right thing by criticizing it, otherwise we would have woken up Rosh Hashanah with hundreds of Hams terrorists [inside Israel],” he said, alluding to reports that alleged Hamas was planning a massive September assault on Israeli towns and communities near the border. “Today, people say the highlight of the operation is that we dealt with the tunnels.”
A public opponent of the two-state solution and a proponent of annexing large portions of the West Bank and returning much of the Palestinian population to Jordanian rule, Danon had already butted heads with Netanyahu in March when he announced that he would resign his deputy minister post if 26 Palestinian prisoners were let go as part of a final stage of releases that were agreed upon as a prerequisite to embarking on the most recently failed peace negotiations.
Netanyahu shelved the release in March, effectively allowing Danon to (temporarily) hold his minister post while at the same time holding firm in his opposition. In a Spring interview with Al-Monitor, asked whether he was worried about being fired by Netanyahu for his repeated antagonistic public remarks, Danon responded that no, he was not worried and that receiving the boot from Netanyahu “will only strengthen me.”
“I am fighting to bring the faction back to life,” Danon told Al-Monitor. Wednesday, too, Danon portrayed himself as the bearer of Likud’s flag and someone who “will make sure the Likud party stays in the right direction” amidst a Prime Minister who, he said, “is shifting” too far left.
“If for example Netanyahu will become a subcontractor of [Justice Minister] Tzipi Livni or who like [former Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon will decide to adopt a different ideology,” Danon said, “I will be there to block it.”
Unsurprisingly, Danon, like many Israelis and most Likud members, wishes Israel increased the intensity of its Gaza campaign and removed Hamas from Gaza. Somewhat surprisingly, though, given his opposition to negotiating with Hamas, he suggested that if Israel refused to provide economic relief to Hamas and Gaza until the group demilitarized, it may decide that doing so is in its best interest.
Asked why Hamas, given its historically violent resistance to Israel, would voluntarily disarm itself, Danon likened the situation to America’s threat to use force in Syria in Aug. 2013 amidst that government’s use of chemical weapons on its own civilians. The Assad regime eventually capitulated and agreed to part with a significant portion of its stockpile.
“People thought Syria would never give away their chemical weapons,” Danon said. “And it happened.”
On West Bank security concerns, Danon advocated for the construction of a settlement on the land where three murdered Jewish teens were discovered in June and called for the deportation of the murderers’ families to the Gaza Strip and for the destruction of their West Bank homes. As for the Palestinian Authority, Danon is skeptical that it will be the “heroes of the Palestinian people.”
While the outspoken Knesset member’s consistent and vocal opposition to the head of state is nothing new for Israeli politics, his rapid rise within Likud and his recurrent coverage in the media at such an early stage in his career—without having the benefit of either cabinet experience or a place in Israeli military lore—indicates that Danon has thought through how he intends to climb the political ladder. He cited his close relationship with Sharon (who was his oldest son's godfather) before the Gaza disengagement and said that the former Prime Minister told him that there's nothing wrong with seeking positions of greater political influence.
In Likud’s 2012 primary elections, Danon finished fifth, ahead of current President Reuven Rivlin and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. And today, he says much of Likud is alarmed at Netanyahu’s tilt away from the base on security issues.
Wednesday, though, Danon rejected any comparison of his role within Likud as similar to the Tea Party’s role within the Republican Party—a conservative faction seeking to keep the party in line.
“The Tea Party is mostly new people who joined the Republican Party,” Danon said. “The people that I represent are the people who grew up in the party.”
While Danon said he has “no fear” of running for higher office if Likud’s leaders stray “in terms of ideology and policy,” for the foreseeable future the price he paid for criticizing Netanyahu may result in lost political influence.
Asked whether he still has the Prime Minister’s ear after the flap one month ago, Danon responded:
“As of today, not—but things can change.”