Among the hundreds of thousands of people who gathered on Pennsylvania Avenue last January to watch the inauguration of Donald Trump as president of the United States, was a delegation from Israel led by Yossi Dagan, the head of the Samaria Regional Council in the West Bank. For Dagan, an ardent supporter of the Republican Party, attending the ceremony was a top priority.
Upon his return, he tried to explain this to his colleagues on the council. Dagan’s remarks appear in the minutes of a meeting of the body under the rubric “Diplomatic Update.” The trip, he stated, “had two main purposes. One was to accede to the official invitation from his [Trump’s] staff, with the invitation as such and the participation of a representation from Samaria at the ceremony being of maximum importance. The other was to continue strengthening the ties with the people in the administration and with senior figures in the Republican leadership, based on the recognition that this is a propitious moment, in reaction to the radicalism toward the settlers [shown by President Barack] Obama.”
Dagan offered the detailed explanation in order to justify the costs of the diplomatic mission – his ticket alone, in business class, cost the council, a public body, about 16,000 shekels (some $4,100 at the time; Dagan flew business class on several occasions on which the flight lasted longer than six hours, as is permitted for civil servants under the guidelines of the Finance Ministry’s accountant general). With him on the visit to Washington and New York were the Samaria Council’s foreign relations liaison, Chen Ben-Lulu, and its spokeswoman, Esther Aloush. All told, the council shelled out 56,000 shekels for the junket.
Dagan is a strong, centralist council head, whose proposals are generally approved by a lopsided majority. However, even then there were hints in the minutes of unease about his many trips abroad. On one occasion, a council member wondered where the money was coming from.
In November 2015, I published a profile of Dagan in Haaretz (Hebrew edition). At that time he was fresh on the job, having succeeded Gershon Mesika, who turned state’s evidence in a corruption case involving top officials from the Yisrael Beiteinu party and had been forced to resign. Dagan was described as an independent, assertive politician, a control freak and a craver of credit, who did not hesitate to clash with the settlers’ veteran leadership.
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A key section of the article dealt with Dagan’s frequent trips abroad on council-initiated diplomatic missions. Already as Mesika’s deputy, he was considered “foreign minister of Samaria,” having created the well-oiled information apparatus to rebrand the northern West Bank at the start of the decade, under the aegis of the foreign relations liaison unit. Also noted in the article were the diplomatic tasks Dagan had undertaken: establishment of a settlement lobby in the German Bundestag, visits to the parliaments in Brussels and Budapest, meetings with members of Congress in Washington, a wineries tour in Tuscany accompanied by local vintners and West Bank winemakers, and more.
At the time, it was difficult to estimate the scale of Dagan’s trips, and impossible to calculate their cost. This week, in the wake of a request from the Movement for Freedom of Information in Israel, the Samaria Council conveyed an up-to-date account of Dagan’s diplomatic initiatives over the past two years: the purpose of each trip, time spent in each destination, names of delegation members, costs.
The data show that between January 2016 and July 2017, Dagan and his rotating delegation members flew abroad 13 times, mostly to Europe (France, Czech Republic, Hungary, Belgium, Russia), along with two trips to the United States. All told, the Samaria Regional Council allocated some 325,000 shekels (about $95,000) to underwriting the trips.
The focus on the travels and their cost is relevant to the question of how the Samaria Council manages its resources, because just last October Dagan organized a protest tent opposite the Prime Minister’s Residence, alleging insufficient budgeting for the Judea and Samaria local authorities.
The council’s response to the Freedom of Information request details the purpose of each trip. The visit to Prague, for example, included “a meeting with an importer with the aim of advancing a ‘boycott-bypassing track’ of Samaria products in the Czech Republic.” During the mission to the United States on the occasion of Trump’s inauguration, a meeting was held with “five members of Congress and the commissioner of agriculture of Texas.” And the visit to the European Parliament included “intensive personal meetings with 15 members of parliament from across the party spectrum.”
The five visits to France were of a different nature, focusing on recruiting potential immigrants to Samaria. (Approximately one-third of the overall cost of these trips, about 100,000 shekels, was invested in encouraging immigration.) Dagan’s chief of staff, Dan Bismuth, who had the added title of “official in charge of immigrant absorption from France,” was coopted. Bismuth, in turn, was often accompanied by Dina Cohen, the council’s media and publicity coordinator, on the grounds that “both are French speakers.”
Also invited on the visit to France in June 2016, a five-day outing that centered around a “summarizing seminar for olim,” was the spokeswoman, Esther Aloush. The council laid out 38,000 shekels (about $10,500) for the four of them (Dagan, Bismuth, Cohen and Aloush).
Recent articles in the media have described the integration of immigrants from France in the settlements of Paduel and Bruchin – proof that this is a relevant sector and that Dagan’s activity is bearing fruit. Still, it’s worth pondering where Dagan, the head of a municipal authority, gets his mandate to hold “a round of policy meetings in New York” or to establish the “Judea and Samarian Friendship Group in the European Parliament” – initiatives that would seem to fall under the purview of the Foreign Ministry.
By comparison, Avi Roeh, who heads the regional council of the neighboring Mate Binyamin, did not go on even one diplomatic mission abroad in the 2015-2017 period, according to his calendar, which was provided to the Freedom of Information Movement at the request of the NGO Peace Now. Both councils are similar in terms of geographical scope (the Samaria council incorporates 28 settlements, the Mate Binyamin council, 27), and both would be similarly affected by any dramatic political development.
In light of this, questions arise about the purpose of these missions and whether, in addition to bettering the international status of Samaria, they are also designed to upgrade the status of the mission head. Probably the two are intertwined.
“The impression,” wrote columnist Amit Segal in the newspaper Makor Rishon in 2015, “is that sometimes an unfortunate mixture occurs [in Dagan] between the interests of the settlements and personal interests.”
In Dagan’s case, one of the “personal interests” is sometimes a function of media coverage. The article I published dealt in part with his strategy in handling journalists, which boils down to a plane ticket in one hand and a libel suit in the other. “Even when a journalist wins the suit, he still has to hire a lawyer, come to court, run around, check himself,” he said in a Makor Rishon interview in 2013, referring to one side of the carrot-and-stick equation. “He’ll think twice the next time he writes about settlers.”
The other side of the equation, the carrot, is manifested by the generous praise he heaps on journalists he’s fond of. Reporters from the freebie newspaper Israel Hayom, from the settlers’ media outlet Arutz 7, from the Walla! site, and even a representative from a weekly pamphlet published by synagogues – all these people have accompanied the Samaria Council’s foreign affairs liaison unit on global junkets. The reporters saw the world and the “Samaria foreign ministry” gained exceptionally favorable media coverage.
To discover whether the custom was still being followed, and if so, with what frequency, I asked the Freedom of Information Movement to provide details about the cost of the flights and accommodations for “persons who are not council employees, such as journalists.” The response provided by the council, which was otherwise clear and detailed, makes no reference to the accompanying journalists.
Still, it appears that at least the two trips to the United States included media people. Traveling on the January 2017 trip was Arutz 7 reporter Eliran Aharon (Arutz 7 stated that it covered his costs), and the September 2016 visit co-opted the journalists Efrat Forsher from Israel Hayom, who noted in her report that she was a “guest of the delegation,” and Ariel Schnabel, from Makor Rishon. In response to my questions, the council stated that it did not participate in covering the costs of journalists.
Another participant on the last trip, about whose funding the council said nothing, is right-wing activist David Ha’ivri, from the Kfar Tapuah settlement. He was described as “working for the council’s foreign relations.” Ha’ivri, a former foreign relations liaison of the council, was invited to the United States because of his excellent command of English and his extensive ties with the evangelist community.
At the same time, the decision to front Ha’ivri in a dialogue with members of Congress also has to be examined in light of the fact that in 2005, he was convicted of being in possessing racist materials. During a demonstration in Jerusalem’s Zion Square, he was found carrying a T-shirt with the inscription, “No Arabs, no terrorist attacks.” He was tried and sentenced to community service work.
A spokesperson for the Samaria Council told Haaretz that Ha’ivri’s connections and skills turned out to be “essential” for the trip, and that he received payment from the council for his services and had his expenses and lodgings paid for. These facts were missing from the council’s response to the Freedom of Information Movement.
The Samaria Regional Council offered only this general response to this article: “Council head Yossi Dagan views the development of Samaria and the building of the Land of Israel as his life’s mission. Just as culture, education and tourism in Samaria are leaping ahead, so too is activity in foreign relations.”