Israel’s UN ambassador says crisis with Iran 'brings us closer' to Arab states

In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor, Israel’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Danny Danon says Iran is "lying all the way" about its nuclear program — "We proved it to the world.”

al-monitor Israel's Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon addresses the UN Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East, including Palestine, at the UN headquarters in New York, Dec. 8, 2017.  Photo by REUTERS/Brendan McDermid.

Sep 28, 2019

Israel’s ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations, Danny Danon, says the crisis with Iran is providing a catalyst for deepening ties with Arab countries. 

“It's not a secret that in the last few years, we worked with many moderate Arab countries in the region,” Danon said in an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor at his office in New York. “And what's happening recently, when we see the aggression coming from Iran, we hear they are more open to collaborate with us, even more publicly. … So we are collaborating. We are cooperating. We are not happy with what's happening in Iran, but it definitely brings us closer to our neighbors.

Danon was dismissive of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s regional security initiative, calling it “a joke.”

“They are the ones who are destabilizing the Gulf, and they say they are the one who would actually secure the Gulf,” he said.

“The Iranians are lying, all the way,” about their nuclear program as well, Danon added. “We proved it to the world, and we read information from the archives that they lied in the past, and we think they are lying today again.”

Danon identified three issues where Israel is looking for change in Iranian behavior: cessation of uranium enrichment; ending ballistic missile tests; and stopping support for terrorism.

“We see their fingerprints everywhere,” he said. “So those three issues, if they're willing to change their course, I think that's the day we come for an opening for maybe renegotiation, signing a new agreement.”

Asked about the allegations that Israel attacked the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) in Iraq, Danon said, “So we never took credit for such acts, and we have no desire to escalate anything in the region. Having said that, whenever somebody will plan to target Israel, we will be there. That's our policy.”

Regarding Israel’s annexation of the Jordan Valley, Danon said, “It's not about Likud or Labor. It's about defense of our borders, and most Israelis will agree with that.”

“Politically, I don't know,” he added. “I think today with the result of the elections, we need to have a government; it's not on the agenda today. You have to put together the government, and then the government will have to discuss it.

Israel is also awaiting the Trump administration’s peace plan. “I don't know the details of the plan,” Danon said, “but personally, I don't think that the issue of the Jordan Valley will be compromised because it comes to security.”

Danon stressed that Israel has, and will be willing to take risks for peace. “In the past, we proved that we are willing to negotiate with Egypt and with Jordan,” he said. “With Egypt, we withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula completely. So I think we would be open-minded, respectful to the plan, but issues of security, this is something we will not be able to make any compromises."

Danon comes to his present post as Israel’s UN ambassador with a high-powered political background as well. He is a member of the Likud party and former member of the Knesset who has served in the Israel Defense Forces, as well as deputy minister of defense; minister of science, technology and space; and as chairman of World Likud.

Asked about the current political situation in Israel, Danon said, “I hope we will not go to another cycle of elections. It's affecting our economy. It's affecting our image; I see it here at the UN. … You feel the frustration of, I think, from the remarks of President [Donald] Trump and other leaders. They want to engage with Israel, but it's very hard to do it.”

“We are on the eve of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and I think it's a good opportunity to think about new ideas, about the new bridges to build,” Danon concluded. “And that's what I do at the UN. I build many bridges with many countries, and, you know, we spoke at the beginning about some of those countries. And we see that, you know, every year, we're in better shape in the international arena.”

This interview was conducted by Al-Monitor President Andrew Parasiliti. A lightly edited transcript of the full interview follows:

Al-Monitor:  Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said in his UN address that it is clear policy to advance ties and normalization with the Gulf states, adding, "We have no conflict with the Gulf states. We have common interest in the field of security against the Iranians' threat as well as in developing many joint civilian initiatives." Could you comment on that statement?

Danon:  It's not a secret that in the last few years, we worked with many moderate Arab countries in the region. And what's happening recently, when we see the aggression coming from Iran, we hear they are more open to collaborate with us, even more publicly.

But if you take the last week, for example, it used to be only Israel complaining about what's happening in Iran. Look what happened this week. I encourage you to read the speech of the minister from Saudi Arabia. It looks similar to my speech in the Security Council. So I think we'll see more moderate countries now coming [out] publicly and saying the same messages as we have been saying for years.

So we are collaborating. We are cooperating. We are not happy with what's happening in Iran, but it definitely brings us closer to our neighbors.

Al-Monitor:  Foreign Minister Katz, indeed, spoke at some length about Iran in his address, and you just mentioned it here. Would Iran's acceptance of the additional protocol, that is, meeting some permanent safeguards and inspections, mitigate Israel's concerns about a possible nuclear weapons program? And what specific acts would you want to see Iran take that would show Israel that Iran is going on a different course?

Danon:  The Iranians are lying, all the way. We proved it to the world, and we read information from the archives that they lied in the past, and we think they are lying today again.

The main three issues for us are the enrichment of uranium; ballistic missile tests, to not continue with them; and funding terrorism. We see their fingerprints everywhere: in Lebanon, in Syria, in Yemen, in Gaza, the Sinai Peninsula. It's all coming from Iranian funding: $7 billion a year, that's our estimation. That's the amount that Iran is spending on terrorism every year.

So those three issues, if they're willing to change their course, I think that's the day we come for an opening for maybe renegotiation, signing a new agreement. But so far, they come, they give nice interviews here in the US and speak about securing the Strait of Hormuz. It's a joke. They are the ones who are destabilizing the Gulf, and they say they are the one who would actually secure the Gulf.

Al-Monitor:  What about Syria? How do you see Iran's role there? Tell me about Israel's interest. Your country has struck Iranian and Iranian-affiliated groups and materiel and bases several times — more than several times. Tell me how you see the situation there and the Iranian role there?

Danon:  So, first, we have to look at the broader picture. The Iranians are trying to take over Syria, the same way they did in Lebanon. Today Lebanon is controlled by Hezbollah, by Iranians. They want to do the same in Syria.

Today it's harder because they don't have so many Shias in Syria, but they don't care. They're trying to convert people. They're trying to buy property. They're sending experts. So their goal is to be there and to have the same presence that they have in Lebanon.

It's dangerous. And for us, you know, we do mention that, but we will not allow them to change the rules of the game. They are bringing technology to the region, which for us, it's a threat. We saw the drones. It was Iranian operatives who came to Damascus and actually were helping them to put explosives on the drones. So we had intelligence.

We attacked before. Many times, we find the technology that they are bringing in order to improve the rockets and the missiles; and for us, it's a huge issue, because today they have more than 100,000 rockets in Lebanon. Imagine they will be able to transform 10% of them to GPS-guided missiles. It's changing the reality in Israel. So that's why we attack and we continue to attack whenever we know that they're bringing such technology to the region.

Al-Monitor:  How do you see your relationship with Russia, and has that relationship been helpful in your view in mitigating your concerns about Iran and Syria?

Danon:  Well, first, we have a very open and great, important dialogue with the Russians. Prime Minister Netanyahu met President [Vladimir] Putin in Sochi before the elections. We had a meeting with Minister [Sergey] Lavrov two days ago here at the UN. So we speak with them about the issues. We don't always agree about everything, but I think there is a lot of respect from both sides. They have their own interests, and we tell them, you know, we don't care whether you want to have a presence in Syria; or let's take, for example, they want to build a port or they're building a port. But if you allow the Iranians to build a terminal in your port, that's a problem. We will attack that terminal, and that's what the Iranians are trying to do. They're trying to build their bases in proximity to the Russians to make it harder for us to attack them.

Al-Monitor:  There were attacks on PMU bases in Iraq. Iraq is conducting an investigation. Some have claimed that Israel was behind those attacks. The Iraqi investigation has been inconclusive to date. Could you comment on that, and is that something? Is it a sign that Israel is looking to expand its reach against Iranian-affiliated groups?

Danon:  So we never took credit for such acts, and we have no desire to escalate anything in the region. Having said that, whenever somebody plans to target Israel, we will respond. That's our policy. So today, with technology, it's becoming harder. In the past, they had to come with a mortar to the border, and that's what — we had to shoot them. Today, with technology, they have drones, they have rockets, they have missiles. It can be a ballistic missile. It can be a rocket. When we will know about the intention to attack us, we will take the conditions and the steps to prevent it.

Al-Monitor:  In his address to the UN General Assembly, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas referred to the "arrogant" pre-election announcement of Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu regarding the illegal plan to annex the Jordan Valley and other areas. How do you respond, and do you expect that annexation to precede whatever the composition of the next government?

Danon:  So, first, Prime Minister [Yitzhak] Rabin spoke about the Jordan Valley, and every prime minister in the last, maybe, 40 years made it clear that the Jordan Valley will be our border. I was deputy minister of defense and I remember there were a few ideas coming from DC about allowing international inspectors to establish checkpoints in the Jordan Valley. And we declined to discuss it.

So it's not about Likud or Labor. It's about defense of our borders, and most Israelis will agree with that.

Regarding politically, I don't know. I think today with the result of the elections, we need to have a government, it's not on the agenda today. You have to put together the government, and then the government will have to discuss it. Also, I think we are waiting to see the plan coming from DC, the peace plan. I don't know the details of the plan, but personally, I don't think that the issue of the Jordan Valley will be compromised because it comes to security. I just heard US officials speaking about security issues will be addressed. So this is a basic condition of security. Not only the Jordan Valley and not only the checkpoints with Jordan, it's a matter of national security.

Al-Monitor:  And on that topic — you anticipated my next question. What risks will Israel be ready to take toward peace when you see the plan come out?

Danon:  In the past, we proved that we are willing to negotiate with Egypt and with Jordan. With Egypt, we withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula completely. So I think we would be open-minded, respectful to the plan, but on issues of security, this is something we will not be able to make any compromises. Unfortunately, the Palestinians are not even willing to consider the plan. They say, "We don't recognize Israelis as partners. We don't recognize the US as mediators." Basically, they say, "We don't want to do anything." But we will be more respectful than them.

Al-Monitor:  And can you provide a brief update on the state of play regarding the government formation process, and how you see it playing out given your perspective as not only a diplomat here representing Israel as permanent representative at the UN but also as a member of the Likud party and former member of the Knesset?

Danon:  So, you know, I have been asked a lot about it. Many leaders asked me this week what's happening and "Send our regards to Bibi." It's complicated. There's no winner in these elections, and I think the situation is more complicated than it was after the first round. So now it's even harder.

At the end of the day, I hope we will not go to another cycle of elections. It's affecting our economy. It's affecting our image; I see it here at the UN. Almost a year, you are going to have like a government which is— we do have a government, but it's, you know, waiting for the result of the next elections. You feel the frustration of, I think, from the remarks of President Trump and other leaders. They want to engage with Israel, but it's very hard to do it. At the end of the day, I think that when you look at the players, they want to bring Israel to a better position, even though I don't agree with the ideology, but I think their intention is to bring Israel to a better position, and in order to do that, they will have to make some compromises.

Al-Monitor:  That's all I have, unless there's anything you would like to add that —

Danon:  Well, we are on the eve of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and I think it's a good opportunity to think about new ideas, about the new bridges to build. And that's what I do at the UN. I build many bridges with many countries, and, you know, we spoke at the beginning about some of those countries. And we see that, you know, every year, we're in better shape in the international arena.

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