Dani Dayan Boldly Goes Where No Settler Leader Has Gone Before: Washington

Since he stepped down as head of the Yesha Council, Dani Dayan has been making the case for settlements in quarters that were once off limits to him: with foreign ambassadors, left-wing policy institutes and even in the pages of The Guardian.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

Three and a half years ago Dani Dayan, the head of the Yesha Council of settlements, and his director general Naftali Bennett sat with Dr. Dore Gold in his research institute in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood and asked him for advice. This was after the Bar-Ilan University speech in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the first time expressed consent to the establishment of a Palestinian state, and at the height of the contacts with the U.S. administration to discuss a freeze on construction in the settlements.

“We want to establish a diplomatic arm for the Yesha Council, to begin to present to the world a thesis that contradicts the Bar-Ilan speech, or even to open a bureau in Washington,” said Dayan at the meeting. “What do you think?”

Gold, who served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations and as Netanyahu’s diplomatic adviser during his first term as prime minister, is familiar with the world of diplomacy and with U.S. politics. “Save the money on the airline ticket,” he said. “You won’t cross the threshold of anyone in Washington.”

A lot of water has flowed in the Potomac since then. Bennett entered politics and settled into the office of the economics minister, Gold has been playing around with the idea of a government post as an ambassador or a diplomatic adviser, and Dayan left his job as head of the Yesha Council.

Dayan was disappointed by Gold’s pessimism, but didn’t discard the idea. On Friday, when he flew to Washington, he was on his way to setting a precedent. Dayan will be the first representative of the settler leadership to enter the gates of U.S. administration institutions. Dayan will arrive at the meetings with a new title − chief foreign envoy of the Yesha Council.

Danny Dayan is very likable. In addition to his clever and cynical sense of humor, he breaks the stereotype of the average settler. He’s secular. He has a background in high tech. He’s rational rather than messianic. Until he moved to a settlement he lived in Tel Aviv.

When we sat in a cafe over a double espresso and a soda a few days ago he blended into the landscape, despite the fact that in the last election most of the people around him voted for parties ranging from Hadash ‏(a left-wing Arab-Jewish party‏) to Labor.

Make no mistake. Dayan’s views place him on the far right. But as opposed to many of his colleagues in the Yesha Council and on the right, he is a liberal. He publicly opposes homophobia and xenophobia, harshly attacks right wingers who claim that the “price tag” retaliation attacks against Arabs are nothing more than graffiti, and also admits that the Palestinian national movement is authentic. He claims that he is not a poster boy of the Yesha Council, and believes that he represents most of the settlers − those who oppose a Palestinian state and are identified with the right, but are not extremists, believe in democracy and reject the hilltop youth.

Since January, when he left his job as head of the Yesha Council after six years, Dayan, 58, has rediscovered himself. When you speak to him you realize at once that something has changed. He is radiant. Flourishing. When Communications Minister Gilad Erdan ‏(Likud‏) offered him the job of director general of his ministry, he politely refused and explained that he was otherwise occupied. “I’m enjoying myself very much,” he says. “I’m doing what I really love.”

He devotes most of his time to establishing the diplomatic arm of the settler leadership. He wants to imitate Peace Now or the Geneva Initiative − only on the right. He runs around to meetings with foreign diplomats, briefings to the international media and conferences about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in London and Washington. In the time that’s left he is carefully nurturing a social media persona with thousands of Facebook followers and a Twitter account on which he tweets in Hebrew and English against the two-state solution.

Dayan feels that there has been a change in the attitude of the international community towards the settlers in the past year. The United States and the European Community countries believe that the settlements are in contradiction of international law, that they are an obstacle to peace and must be removed. But they understand that the settlers are a significant political player that cannot be ignored. “From total indifference and treating us like lepers with whom one doesn’t speak, the situation has changed − now there’s curiosity and an eagerness to hear what we have to say,” notes Dayan.

For example, one day last October Dayan’s cell phone rang. It was former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, who is currently the vice president and director of Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. The two, each of whom was at different meetings in the Knesset, arranged to meet in the Knesset cafeteria.

While talking to Indyk about “the situation” Dayan realized that he was actually in the midst of an “audition.” At the end of the meeting Indyk invited him to participate in the Saban Forum − one of the most prestigious events in Washington dealing with Israel-U.S. relations. The Israeli participants − politicians, academics, diplomats and journalists − are traditionally identified with the left. Dayan was the first representative of the settlers.

George Mitchell, the U.S. Middle East envoy during the first term of U.S. President Barack Obama, has never agreed to meet with Dayan or any representative of the Yesha Council. All requests were turned down at best, or ignored at worst. The only liaison for Dayan and the settlers was the U.S. consul general in Jerusalem, who is actually credentialed to the Palestinian Authority. Nowadays Dayan is invited to dinners in the home of U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro. When one of the most senior advisors to President Obama visited Israel a few weeks ago he sat with Dayan for two hours.

There has also been a change in the attitude of the international media. Last August The New York Times, which is known for an editorial policy critical of the settlements, wrote a flattering portrait of him entitled “A Settler Leader, Worldly and Pragmatic.” A month earlier Dayan published an article in the Times entitled “The Settlers are Here to Stay.” In March he published another article in which he declared that “The Two-State Formula is Impossible.”

But the most interesting example is the British newspaper The Guardian, compared to which the New York Times looks like the mouthpiece of the Yesha Council. Many European leaders read the op-ed page of The Guardian with their morning coffee. Two weeks ago Dayan published an article in the paper entitled “What You Call ‘Settlements’ are on Solid Moral Ground.” Dayan claimed that the settlements are not an obstacle to peace and that the world must recognize the fact that the settlers are not the problem but part of the future solution.

The article received 565 responses. Some were erased by the editors, apparently because they contained various types of curses and invective. The rest consisted mainly of harsh criticism of Dayan and of The Guardian itself for publishing the article. “The Al Qaida manifesto demands the return of Al Andalus in Spain where I live. Perhaps we should have an article by one of them explaining how the land is theirs. I am appalled that such a propaganda article has appeared in The Guardian,” wrote one respondent. Many bloggers also published posts attacking The Guardian.

One can think of many reasons for the change in the attitude of the international community towards the settlers. The stagnation of the peace process, the lack of hope for the two-state solution and the outcome of the recent election in Israel are some of them. “My explanation is that for the first time in 20 years the world is beginning to internalize that we don’t necessarily have to travel on the two-state highway,” says Dayan. “We’ve reached a crossroads and everyone is asking themselves where do we go now. People have understood that ignoring the settlers was a mistake and only undermined the attempts to find solutions.”

After many years of opposing the idea, Dayan now believes that the settlers have to present a genuine and serious diplomatic plan as an alternative to the two-state solution. He has no consolidated plan as yet, but his basic assumption is that there will be permanent Israeli control in Judea and Samaria and no foreign sovereignty west of the Jordan River
Dayan is opposed to right-wing proposals such as the “Stability Initiative” of Habayit Hayehudi head Naftali Bennett, to annex Area C on the West Bank ‏(which is under full Israeli security control‏) to Israel, and also rejects left-wing warnings of the danger that Israel will become a binational state at best or an apartheid state at worst.

He explains that in the coming 30 years we have to invest in making the status quo more tolerable by improving the texture of life of the Palestinians and the Jews on the West Bank, investing in the Palestinian economy, reducing to a minimum infringements to the Palestinians’ human rights, and even removing the separation fence. In the future, he believes, it will be possible to deal with the Palestinians’ right to self-determination and their nationalist aspirations in the framework of some kind of agreement with Jordan.

To Dayan’s credit it should be said that as opposed to many members of the settler leadership, he thinks out of the box. The problem is that his ideas are somewhat simplistic, overly optimistic and ignore facts that don’t conform to them. Dayan dreams of a new Middle East. A right wing Shimon Peres if you will. It’s not certain that the two men would agree with the comparison.

Dani Dayan.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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