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The Ted Cruz of Israel

Danny Danon is driving Bibi—and just about everyone else—crazy

AFP/Getty Images

Three Septembers ago, in that fleeting moment when Rick Perry seemed like a legitimate presidential candidate, the Texas governor came to New York, where he received a rare international endorsement. With just days until a planned United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood, Perry stood at a podium flanked by U.S. and Israeli flags and introduced a freshman right-wing Israeli lawmaker whose name he had trouble pronouncing: Danny Danon (dah-NOHN).

Wearing a dark suit and red tie, his black hair parted neatly at the center, Danon lionized Perry and taunted the Palestinians. “Even if there will be a vote, it will be a Facebook state,” he said, stabbing his finger into the air. “They will have a lot of likes in the Facebook, but it will not change the lives of the Israelis, the Jewish pioneers, who live in the hills of Judea and Samaria.” But Danon saved his harshest words for Barack Obama. “When we see a lack of leadership coming from the White House, that’s what brings leaders in Turkey to attack Israel the way they do,” he thundered. “When we see a lack of leadership coming from the White House, that’s why we see the leader of Iran ... continuing to build the nuclear reactors.”

Danon’s foray into the presidential race induced cringes back home, especially within his own party. “I would’ve told him: Stay out of American politics,” Benjamin Netanyahu said in a CNN interview. But Danon relished the attention. Enraging people in spectacular style had become his trademark. In December 2010, as Turkey demanded that Israel apologize for killing nine Turks on a Gaza-bound ship, Danon read his own apology on the Knesset floor: “We are sorry that, due to the [Israel Defense Forces’] over-cautious behavior, only nine terrorists were killed.” In March 2011, he held a hearing to determine whether the U.S. “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby J Street was actually pro-Israel. That July, he hosted Glenn Beck at the Knesset. The stunts raised his profile. By the time Danon stood with Perry, he was giving interviews to outlets ranging from Fox News to Al Jazeera and writing op-eds for papers as diverse as The New York Times and The Washington Times.

Illustration by Julian Callos

Many Israelis, even some of his ideological allies, wished Danon would disappear. “Whenever I see him representing my views, I am a little bit embarrassed,” one prominent right-wing figure told me. But over the past year, Danon has parlayed his headline-making power into actual power. He finished fifth in Likud primaries (ahead of many veteran ministers) and was named deputy defense minister after the January election. Then, in a surprise coup, he became chairman of Likud’s central committee, making it impossible for his detractors to just write him off. He’s basically Israel’s Ted Cruz: a 42-year-old media hound doing everything he can to push his party— and his country—to the right.

“Ariel Sharon said that you have a triangle in politics, that every [Knesset member] wants to be a minister and every minister wants to be the prime minister,” he told me. “My goal is to be higher on the hierarchy.”

Danny Danon’s neutral expression is a smirk. He speaks good English, but with a thick Israeli accent and a heavy lisp. When I saw him earlier this month in New York and later in Jerusalem, he was (as always) in good spirits. The topic of the moment was Iran’s diplomatic offensive—or “the road show of [Hassan] Rouhani,” as he put it— but Danon’s mind was elsewhere: on the recently resumed peace talks with the Palestinians. “We have rights to the land,” he said of the West Bank. “We have biblical rights. We have international-law rights. We have historical rights. And I added another one called the common sense: We won. When you win, you keep what you won.” It wasn’t a coincidence Danon had wanted to be deputy defense minister: All new settlement construction needs the ministry’s approval.

Danon was born in 1971, four years after Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan and two years after his father was critically injured in a Palestinian grenade attack while stationed in the newly occupied territory. His father encouraged him to “know the land,” and the young Danon took up hiking, sometimes venturing into the West Bank to visit biblical sites (though he himself is secular). “[My father] wasn’t able to travel with me, but he was inquiring about how I did it and which way I took and why I didn’t take the shortest way or the longest way,” he told me. “So that was a way of actually traveling together.” After his army service, Danon moved to Florida, where he earned his degree and worked as a representative for the right-wing Zionist youth group Beitar. His time in the United States coincided with the 1993 Oslo Accords and the famous Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White House lawn. Danon drove to Washington to protest the deal. “I had to spoil the party,” he says.

Danon was a marginal figure in Israeli politics for years—his first two Knesset bids in 2003 and 2006 failed; a quixotic leadership challenge to Netanyahu in 2007 garnered less than 4 percent—but after scraping into the Knesset in 2009, Danon quickly became one of the Likud’s most active lawmakers, pushing various pieces of controversial legislation that earned him comparisons to Joseph McCarthy. He tried establishing a parliamentary committee to investigate the foreign ties of local human rights NGOs. He introduced a bill requiring all citizens to pledge loyalty to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state in order to get a passport or driver’s license. He sponsored another to annex all Israeli settlements. Each of these initiatives failed, but they helped move once-taboo ideas into the conversation, at least on the right. The annexation campaign, for example, earned the support of more than half of the Likud faction and was later co-opted by hard-right Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett. Danon also proved he wasn’t afraid to challenge Netanyahu, making it safer for others to do the same. As the prime minister considered extending his ten-month settlement moratorium in 2010, Danon helped fuel the Likud revolt that scuttled it. On the day it expired, despite heavy pressure from Netanyahu’s office, Danon arrived at a settlement cornerstone-laying rally with a shovel and led the crowd in a countdown to the freeze’s end.

For his first term, Danon could be dismissed as a sideshow—a mascot for the Likud fringe—but after being elected to the party’s top body, and after many of his allies defeated moderate ministers in recent, Tea Party–esque primaries, Danon increasingly is the Likud. His elevated profile has unnerved more centrist coalition members like current chief negotiator Tzipi Livni, who urged Netanyahu to reject “Danonism.” But Danon remains undeterred. A couple weeks ago, he brought hundreds of Likud activists to a pro-settlement rally. He also continues to make headlines blasting the two-state solution—and, implicitly, the ever-more-centrist Netanyahu. “I think it’s very important, because there are pressures from the other side, coming from the administration, coming from Tzipi Livni,” he told me. Ironically, he has also threatened to do to Netanyahu what Netanyahu did to Sharon in 2002: advance a motion forbidding Palestinian statehood.

Danon knows that, just as Netanyahu couldn’t stop a determined Sharon from pulling out of Gaza, he can’t prevent a determined Netanyahu from reaching a deal. But with some help from his fellow Likud hard-liners, he could raise the political price of a Palestinian state high enough that Netanyahu concludes it will cost him the party’s leadership and the fourth term he covets.

What happens in Jerusalem, of course, will depend very much on what happens in the White House. I was curious whether he had second thoughts about the Perry endorsement. Danon immediately rejected the word: “I said very clearly that I’m not endorsing anyone. Whoever will support Israel, I will stand with him.” As it turns out, Danon had led tours of Jerusalem’s Western Wall tunnels and other sites for Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, and “What’s his name, the pizza guy?”—“Herman Cain,” his aide chimed in. “Herman Cain,” he repeated, “he was very funny.” Looking ahead to 2016, I asked, would he show Marco Rubio and Chris Christie around Jerusalem? “Democrats, Republicans,” he said, his smirk morphing into a full-blown smile. “Even Hillary Clinton, I’m willing to guide her in the tunnels.”

Ben Birnbaum is a writer living in Israel.