Ex-settler Leader Dani Dayan: Netanyahu Hasn't Pressured Brazil Enough to Accept My Appointment as Ambassador

Dayan tells Haaretz that if government does not act in his case, it could create a precedent barring settlers from representing Israel abroad.

Moti Milrod

Dani Dayan, the former head of the Yesha Council of West Bank Jewish settlements, whom the cabinet has approved as Israel's next ambassador to Brazil, has told Haaretz he believes the Foreign Ministry and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also foreign minister, have not done enough to pressure the government of Brazil to grant its consent to the appointment. The Brazilian government, in an unsual step, has held granting its consent to the appointment of the former settler leader for more than four months. 

The Argentinian-born Dayan, who has not spoken publicly about the issue since being tapped as ambassador in Brasilia, told Haaretz in an interview that if the government doesn't act in his case, it could create a precedent barring settlers from representing Israel abroad. 

"The Foreign Ministry, including the foreign minister who is also the prime minister, believe up to this point that the way to deal with the situation that has been created is a policy of wait-and-see," Dayan said, saying that they were acting on the assumption, that "like in the famous Jewish joke, either the dog will die or the nobleman will," Dayan said. "I don't exclude the possibility that there are also those who hope that I will either be the dog or the nobleman and simply announce that I am withdrawing my candidacy and solve the problem for them."

And Dayan added: "I don’t know if I will be the ambassador in Brazil and personally, it doesn't matter that much. It would even make things much easier for me, but I am fighting for the next ambassador who is a settler. From the standpoint of conscience and ideology, I am not prepared to allow myself to be the one who creates the precedent that a resident of Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] or even the chairman of the Yesha Council can't represent the government of Israel abroad. The Israeli response to the current instance will determine how the host country for the next ambassador from Judea and Samaria is appointed, or heaven forbid, creates a reality in which hundreds of thousands of Israelis are disqualified from serving as ambassadors because of their place of residence and that Israel will be reconciled to it."

In recent years, Dayan has been involved with diplomatic issues to a considerable extent. He was the unofficial "foreign minister" of the Yesha Council, but the process of his official entry into the diplomatic corps began five months ago. At the end of June, Dayan and his wife, Einat, flew on vacation to Italy and on their last day there, while tasting wine at a local winery, Dayan received a phone call from former foreign minister Moshe Arens, who asked him what he thought about being appointed Israeli ambassador to Brazil. 

Arens, who has known Dayan for many years, told the former Yesha Council leader that he, Arens, had a conversation with Prime Minister Netanyahu two days earlier about the need to strengthen ties with Brazil and the need for the appointment of a strong ambassador to Brasilia. A few hours after that meeting, Arens called the Prime Minister's Office and suggested Dayan as a candidate for the post. Netanyahu, who also knows Dayan well, was enthusiastic about the idea.

Dayan's initial response was negative. "I told him, Moshe, I'm not sure you've done me a favor. I hadn't planned on moving abroad," Dayan recounted. "On the plane home from Italy, I already told Einat that I would not go ahead with it, both for personal reasons --  we have a daughter in the army and my wife has a career – and also for professional reasons, I wasn’t sure that I wanted it."

Dani Dayan.
Tomer Appelbaum

Dayan then got a call from Netanyahu, who invited him for a personal meeting. On Saturday evening August 1, Dayan went to the prime minister's official residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem, where Netanyahu spent a considerable time explaining the importance that he attributed to Brazil and, beyond that, his believe that a strong ambassador could bring about a major change in Brazil's relations with Israel. Dayan promised to think about the offer and get back to the prime minister within a few days.

The next day, Netanyahu called Dayan, who told the prime minister that he didn't yet have an answer for him. A day later, Netanyahu called again and Dayan asked for more time to think about it. The following Wednesday afternoon, while the cabinet was spending the entire day considering the state budget, the prime minister left the meeting and called Dayan again, who at that point gave Netanyahu a positive answer. "Netanyahu convinced me," Dayan said. "When I got into the matter in depth, I understood that he was right and that it was important to go to Brazil." 

The Prime Minister's Office didn't delay announcement of the appointment, which it issued in celebratory fashion in a press release.

Contrary to other instances during Netanyahu's terms as prime minister, Dayan's appointment attracted support from nearly the entire political spectrum. The accolades came from people in the Hayabit Hayehudi party and Netanyahu's Likud as well as from Shelly Yacimovich and Yossi Yonah of the Zionist Union. Dayan confessed that he himself was surprised by the strength of support for his nomination and how much he was seen as a consensus figure. 

He began preparing for the move abroad, to learn Portuguese and wrap up personal affairs and take care of all the bureaucratic procedures involved in appointment to a senior position like this one. He said he expected to move to Brazil after last fall's Jewish holidays or at the beginning of November at the latest, but the official consent of the Brazilian government, which is required to finalize the appointment, wasn’t forthcoming. 

Dayan's identification with the settlement enterprise, together with a severe political crisis in Brazil, led Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to delay approval of the appointment. As more and more time passed, there were growing indications that the delay in approving Dayan's appointment was deliberate. A week ago, the Brazilians leaked word to the Times of Israel website that they were opposing the appointment but hoped that Israel would take the hint on its own.

Dayan found himself in a Catch 22 situation, left hanging. On one hand, his departure for Brazil was being held up, and on the other hand, he was not a Foreign Ministry employee and was not drawing a salary. As part of the ambassadorial appointment process, he had signed a conflict of interest statement barring him from working in a range of fields. From the moment the cabinet approved the appointment, he was also instructed to halt all of his activity in organizations with which he had been involved in a volunteer capacity, including the council of the Yad Vashem Holocaust remembrance authority and the Beit Uri Zvi Greenberg cultural center. He was also forced to rein in making public comments. He gave almost no interviews over the five month period and his previously very active Twitter account virtually ground to a halt.

AFP

Over this weekend, after considerable deliberation, he decided to break his silence. "I never sexually harassed anyone," he said, in reference to a series of recent sex scandals involving public figures that have surfaced recently. "I haven't taken a garment bag from an airport duty-free shop," a reference to allegations against Jacob Frenkel that scuttled his reappointment as governor of the Bank of Israel, "and I haven't written nonsense on Facebook," apparently referring to controversy over Facebook comments by Ran Baratz who had been tapped as director of national public diplomacy. "If I have to pay a price, at least it's for living in accordance with my beliefs. I sleep very well at night even if it is [in the West Bank settlement of] Ma'aleh Shomron and not at the ambassador's residence in Brasilia."

Dayan expressed disappointment at how the government has been functioning in recent months. While the Palestinians have waged an aggressive and effective campaign against him in Brazil, enlisting support from members of parliament and Arab ambassadors and conveying warnings to the Brazilian Foreign Ministry and in the media, Israeli officials, he said, adopted a passive policy. "It certainly would have been possible to do things differently," he insisted. "I don't want to expand on this, but unfortunately from some of the messages conveyed to the Brazilians by officials in Jerusalem, they could have understood that Israel understands their opposition to the appointment."

He also expressed disappointment at people from his own political camp. Just a few days ago, while secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization Saeb Erekat told a major Brazilian newspaper that Brazil must not agree to Dayan's ambassadorial appointment because he represents war crimes, it was not stalwart Knesset members supporting expanded settlement activity who came to Dayan's defense, but rather members of the opposition Zionist Union, Ksenia Svetlova and Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin. 

The only cabinet minister who took effective steps in the support of his nomination, Dayan said, was Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, who tried to expert pressure with his Brazilian counterpart. "He wasn't put off from trying again and again," Dayan recounted. "He gave it his attention and I appreciate how he acted." 

Dayan said Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, who wasn't involved in the matter for the first several months, recently also began to deal with it. "She correctly sees the situation, but it needs to be translated into deeds," he added.

In recent months, there have been those on the left wing of the Israeli political spectrum who have tried to scuttle the nomination. Former Foreign Ministry director general Alon Liel and several other retired Israeli ambassadors contacted the Brazilian government asking that Brazil's consent to the appointment not be forthcoming. Dayan also claimed that Liel and his colleagues recruited left-wing Jews in Brazil to send letters to the Foreign Ministry in Brasilia opposing Dayan as ambassador.

"That had a substantial effect, without a doubt," he said. "The head of the foreign affairs committee in the Brazilian parliament is opposing the appointment. In one of the statements she issued, she explicitly noted the Israelis and Jews who were opposed to the appointment. I wasn't angry with them. It's their right. I was angry with former Knesset member Mossi Raz, who said my appointment was a political payoff for my support for Netanyahu. It's simply a lie and it hurt me."

There is no disagreement between Dayan and Israeli Foreign Ministry officials that there is a diplomatic crisis with Brazil. The disagreement is rather how to deal with it. Senior ministry officials have noted that unless Dayan withdraws his candidacy, until further notice there is no intention to appoint another ambassador to Brasilia, but there is also no intention to turn Dayan's case into a wide-ranging diplomatic crisis with the Brazilians.

A large part of the problem with the Dayan appointment, Foreign Ministry officials said, stems from the domestic political crisis in which Brazilian President Rousseff finds herself. She is facing an impeachment effort from parliament. The president, who is considered pro-Palestinian and a bitter critic of settlement activity, at this point needs the support of every member of parliament that she can get, included those pressing her not to approve Dayan's nomination as ambassador. Officials at the Foreign Ministry have expressed the view that if Israel insists on Dayan as ambassador, it could take six months to a year to have it approved, if it approved at all.

"Despite the difficult political situation in Brazil, there is no paralysis," Dayan stated. "The new Argentinian ambassador was approved within three days. That was also a decision. It was important for them to make that gesture. This shows that decisions are being made despite the crisis. I think it's still possible to save the appointment, but it will require action. Israel needs to decide if a delay in approval of an ambassador who is a settler is a diplomatic incident that requires action or not." 

"That is a decision that only the prime minister can and needs to take," Dayan said. "It's a ratcheting up. It's no longer the labeling of products but of the labeling of people. Israel must not allow this to happen and help create this precedent. On the matter of the labeling of [settlement] products, Israel reacted strongly, but here [on the ambassadorial appointment] it has not yet done so. I'm leaving it as an open question mark."