The Settler Leader Who’s Even Charming Liberals as Israel’s Top Man in New York

Dani Dayan even gets lauded by J Street for being open to dialogue — a good thing since issues like the Western Wall crisis are likely to make his second year on the job even tougher than the first

Moti Milrod

WASHINGTON — In late July 2016, exactly one year ago, Dani Dayan became Israel’s consul general in New York, taking over the country’s largest diplomatic mission in the world. Dayan, 62, arrived on Second Avenue as a personal appointment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and before becoming a senior diplomat, he was well known in Israel as an ideological and political leader of the settler movement.

From 2007 to 2013, he headed the Yesha Council — the most important body representing settlers in the West Bank, so his arrival to liberal New York was met with a healthy dose of skepticism. Israel has had settlers as senior diplomats before, even an ambassador to Washington (Sallai Meridor, appointed under Ehud Olmert), but Dayan was a different story. He wasn’t a diplomat who also happened to be a settler, he was a high-profile settler leader being made a top diplomat as a political appointee.

The decision to send him to New York of all places seemed strange and misguided to many observers in the city’s Jewish political scene. One skeptic was Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish movement in North America. When Jacobs first heard that Netanyahu was planning to send Dayan to New York, he told the prime minister over the phone that it would be a major mistake.

“I remember telling the prime minister, ‘how in the world can you send someone like that to our city?’” Jacobs told Haaretz. “I told Netanyahu — this guy isn’t a professional diplomat, he’s a partisan figure in Israel, and his views on the conflict and the settlements are diametrically opposed to those of the majority of American Jews, including those in the area he will be stationed in.”

Jacobs complained that instead of sending to New York “someone who will help lower the flames” and repair the damage that the Netanyahu-Obama era had done to Israel’s relationship with liberal American Jews, Netanyahu was “doing the exact opposite.”

Netanyahu listened carefully and asked Jacobs to give the new consul general a chance. “He’ll surprise you,” the prime minister said. Jacobs doubted it, but when Dayan arrived in New York, Jacobs agreed to meet with him at the consulate and discuss possible cooperation.

“I remember arriving to the meeting, sitting there with my hands crossed, and thinking to myself — this isn’t going to work,” Jacobs recalled this week. But after spending more than an hour with Dayan, he began to realize that maybe this time the prime minister was right. After all, Dayan had clearly done his homework before coming to New York. He told Jacobs about his long conversations with Rabbi Gilad Kariv, leader of the Reform movement in Israel, and with Anat Hoffman, leader of Women of the Wall, the movement fighting to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

At the time of Dayan’s arrival to New York, the Israeli government had already approved a plan to create such a prayer space, but for political reasons it was holding back on implementing the plan. Jacobs was impressed with Dayan’s “deep understanding,” as he puts it, of the issues at the heart of the Western Wall controversy. “It didn’t take me a lot of time to understand that I was wrong about him,” he said. “Today, I can say very clearly that Dani Dayan is a terrific consul general. He’s doing a great job.”

Jacobs isn’t alone in this opinion. A number of leaders of liberal and progressive Jewish-American organizations have similar stories — dwindling skepticism that had begun with wide disagreements about the occupation and the settlements. The deep skepticism made way for a pleasant surprise and a positive relationship despite the differences in opinion.

“I have a lot of respect for Dani Dayan,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president and founder of J Street, the largest Jewish group focused on promoting a two-state solution and opposing the settlements. “We don’t agree politically on almost anything, but as a diplomat, his approach has been exactly the right one for the State of Israel.”

Courtesy URJ

Dayan’s relationship with J Street is particularly interesting because it started, in March 2016, with a public relations disaster. Dayan wasn’t originally supposed to be consul general. During Israel’s 2015 election campaign, he gained a place on the ticket of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party, but as Election Day neared, he shifted his support to Netanyahu’s Likud party — a move he believed would give the right a better chance of preventing the center-left parties from forming a governing coalition.

Dayan called on settlement supporters to get behind Netanyahu, and on election night, after the prime minister secured his victory, Dayan was one of the people he called from his limousine to thank. A few weeks later, Netanyahu offered Dayan one of the most prized positions in the foreign service: the ambassadorship to Brazil.

Playing the Trump card right

Dayan, who was born in neighboring Argentina, has spoken for years about the importance of improving Israel’s standing in South America. Becoming the ambassador to that continent’s most important country sounded like a dream job, and he happily accepted. But it wasn’t to be. The Brazilian government, upon learning of Dayan’s political background, stalled his appointment as a way of expressing its opposition to the settlements.

Dayan’s appointment, which was announced in the summer of 2015, still hadn’t been approved by Brasilia by early the following spring. Dayan sat frustrated at home waiting for a message that seemed less and less likely to come. Netanyahu tried to persuade him to take a less important post in another country, but Dayan had no interest. He was coming close to simply giving up on a job in diplomacy.

It was during this period that Dayan, on the last weekend of March 2016, gave an interview to I24, an international news channel operating from Israel. Dayan was asked what he thought about a decision by AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby, to invite Donald Trump — back then one of four Republican candidates for the presidency — to speak at its annual conference. Dayan said that while Trump’s opinions and statements were “not my cup of tea” and “probably not my first choice,” AIPAC had no choice but to invite him because there was a chance he would be president.

When confronted with the argument that Trump’s statements ran against Jewish values, and therefore AIPAC shouldn’t have invited him, Dayan defended AIPAC by attacking J Street, the rival lobby on the left, for supporting “anti-Israeli” candidates for Congress. He described J Street’s support for candidates who constantly criticize Israel as “un-Jewish.” The interview didn’t make any headlines in Israel or abroad, and Dayan went home for the weekend.

Three days later, everything changed. Late at night, Dayan received a call from Netanyahu’s office, telling him he had been chosen Israel’s next consul general in New York — a position much more prominent the others Netanyahu had offered him as a substitute to Brazil. The New York consulate is Israel’s largest diplomatic mission in the world in terms of staffing and budget. Politically, only a handful of embassies — including the one in Washington — are more important.

“The consulate’s importance is a result of New York’s image as the center of the Jewish world, the center of the American media industry, and the global financial capital,” said Alon Pinkas, Israel’s consul general to New York from 2000 to 2004. Israel has nine other consulates across the United States, but New York is in a category of its own.

Dayan of course was very happy to hear about Netanyahu’s decision, but there was one problem. Just two days earlier he had given an interview expressing a negative view on a leading presidential candidate — who happened to be a resident of the city he was about to be appointed to. And he had also attacked a leading Jewish organization that had a strong presence in that same city. When the Israeli media discovered the I24 interview, it immediately made headlines, creating an unfortunate start for Dayan’s diplomatic career.

J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami on a study tour in Israel.
Courtesy of J Street

Dayan quickly apologized for his words and emphasized that at the time of the interview he had no idea that Netanyahu was planning to send him to New York. (The decision was indeed a spontaneous one: When Dayan had raised the New York option with Netanyahu a few months earlier, the prime minister hinted that the position was already promised to someone else.) J Street accepted Dayan’s apology, but the incident didn’t help dispel suspicions about him among liberal and progressive Jews.

In Israel, Dayan has been known to hold close relationships with people on the opposite side of the political divide. Shelly Yacimovich, a former Labor Party leader and harsh critic of Netanyahu, considers Dayan a personal friend. Isaac Herzog, Yacimovich’s successor, lobbied Brasilia to approve Dayan’s appointment, even though the settler leader had helped Netanyahu beat him in the last election.

More militant settler leaders have attacked Dayan in the past for being “influenced by Tel Aviv leftists.” Yet in New York, Dayan’s reputation for reaching across the aisle was barely known. In his meeting with Jacobs in August last year, two weeks into the job, Dayan told the Reform leader that he was planning to invite more than two dozen Jewish leaders and activists from liberal and progressive groups to a series of breakfast conversations at his official residence.

Jacobs was surprised, but strongly encouraged Dayan to go ahead with the idea. “I told him that it’s a great idea, but that he should be ready to hear some tough criticism, and that even if he does his best, there probably won’t be an immediate click with many of the people,” Jacobs recalled. “Still, I thought it was very smart of him to do these meetings.”

No insults

Among those invited to the breakfast talks was a representative of J Street’s New York chapter. This wasn’t an obvious decision, since Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, has been accused by J Street of boycotting the movement ever since his appointment in 2013.

“Dani Dayan has the exact opposite approach from ambassador Dermer,” Ben-Ami said, calling the ambassador’s snubbing of J Street “a big mistake for Israel.” Ben-Ami said that “at a time when both Israel and the United States are experiencing a trend of political hatred and division, it’s important to have people like Dani, who are open to dialogue with those they disagree with. He knows that we’re going to argue and disagree with each other on many things, but insists that we should do so respectfully, without boycotts and insults.”

Dayan, according to Ben-Ami, not only apologized for his comments from the March 2016 interview, he also shared with him the plan to hold the breakfast conversations, “which I thought was a smart way for him to get to know people in the city.”

A participant in one of those conversations said “what I liked about it, was that he [Dayan] didn’t try to sell us the usual explanations about how much the current government wants the two-state solution to happen. He didn’t do hasbara on us. He just said — ‘listen, you and I are probably not going to agree when it comes to the settlements and the conflict. I’m here representing the government’s line, and you have a different line — and that’s okay. But let’s try to find areas where we can work together.’ There was something honest and refreshing about his approach.”

But not everyone on the Jewish left shares in the praise for Dayan. Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, says Dayan shouldn’t be treated like any other Israeli diplomat, since his very appointment was an attempt to “normalize the settlements,” which are illegal under international law and contradict U.S. policy.

“Dayan’s posting quite deliberately conveys the Israeli government’s contempt for long-standing U.S. policy, international law and world opinion, particularly regarding settlements,” Friedman said. “The fundamental issue is the policy of government he represents, not him personally, but it’s absurd to pretend that Dayan is merely another Israeli diplomat in the U.S., just as it is absurd to pretend that David Friedman is merely another American ambassador to Israel.”

According to Friedman, “Dayan’s very identity is inseparable from the settlement cause. Normalizing his presence in New York entails, by definition, normalizing the settlements and the Greater Israel agenda. This is likely the reason Brazil refused to accept him as Israel’s ambassador, and it is why Israel’s right wing and its U.S. allies celebrated his posting in the United States.”

Ben-Ami of J Street doesn’t think Dayan’s presence in New York has changed how liberal and progressive Jews view the settlements. David Sable, the chief executive of marketing and communications company Y&R and an active figure on Israeli and Jewish issues, said “Dani doesn’t spout settler positions and philosophy here. I don’t think his presence here is going to change anyone’s mind with regard to the settlements — but it might change what people think about the settlers as people, because Dani is very different than the image people have when they think of a typical settler.”

So there is a clear consensus among leading Jewish figures in New York that Dayan’s first year in town was a success: He arrived with the “settler thing,” as one leader described it, hovering over his appointment, and has overcome suspicions and built strong relationships all across the city and state.

Simpatico diplomat

He has also made a special effort in New York’s large Hispanic community, using his fluency in Spanish to make inroads into a community where Israel’s standing is less solid than in other parts of American society.

Ruben Diaz, the borough president of the Bronx (home to New York’s largest Hispanic community) and an emerging leader in the Democratic party, says Dayan’s control of Spanish is “a strategic asset for Israel.” He says Dayan “understands that America’s future is Hispanic and Latino, and that if we want to protect the important relationship with Israel, we have to build Israel’s ties to the Latino community.”

The events of the past year haven’t made things easy for Dayan in that regard. Trump’s victory in November has put Israel and U.S. minority groups on two sides of a clear divide: While Israel’s government has been gushing over Trump’s rise to power, a majority of Latino-Americans holds negative views of Trump, who made racist comments about them during the election. Then came Netanyahu’s tweet during Trump’s first week in office that praised the president for his controversial plan to build a wall along the Mexican border — Israeli diplomats across the United States heard complaints from Latino allies.

Diaz says he’s optimistic about the Israeli-Latino relationship, but adds that more Israeli politicians need to approach the issue with urgency, something he says Dayan has done since arriving in New York. “In the future, the leadership of this country is going to look different than what we’re seeing today,” Diaz said. “We’re going to have many more Latino mayors, governors, members of congress. Dani gets it that in order to ensure their strong support, you have to lay the foundations today.”

But hiccups in Israeli-Latino relations are a modest challenge compared to the storm last month when the Israeli government froze its support for an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall after pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition. Dayan, who has built strong relationships with Reform and Conservative leaders over the past year, found himself in the eye of that storm. In a recent interview with a leading Israeli radio station, he tried to hold back from criticizing the government’s backtrack while strongly denouncing the vicious attacks that some Israeli ultra-Orthodox and right-wing politicians and journalists have directed at the non-Orthodox denominations.

“I represent the government of Israel,” Dayan said in the interview. “This means that until a few weeks ago, I supported the Western Wall plan, and as of now, I’ve halted my support for it. But from here I’m following what is being said and written in the Israeli media on American Jewry, and it reminds me exactly of how angry I used to get, when I was leading the Yesha Council, when people who have never visited a settlement and never met a settler would talk about settlers.”

For anyone who might have had a hard time understanding the comparison, Dayan quickly explained: “People who have no idea what a Reform siddur looks like have decided that the word ‘Zion’ has been removed by the Reform movement. I read an article by some professor who called Reform rabbis ‘priests’ — I’m sure that person has never actually met a Reform rabbi. I hear that people are calling a Jew by the name of Rick Jacobs, the head of the Reform movement, a ‘hater of Israel.’ It makes me horrified. This man deeply loves Israel. He’s a Zionist in all his might. I don’t agree with him politically on anything, but to say that he hates Israel, that’s libelous. People who have never met a Reform Jew in their life are sure they know everything about Reform Judaism.”

Dayan’s strong words are unusual: No other Israeli official has defended the Reform movement so forcefully. Some members of the coalition opposed the freezing of the Western Wall plan, but Dayan took things a step further by attacking those who attacked the Reform movement — many of them people from his own political camp.

Jacobs says that by the time this interview took place — a little more than a month ago — he was no longer surprised by Dayan’s statements. “I’ve come to appreciate him as someone who has a truly pluralistic worldview and a strong commitment to the unity of the Jewish people,” Jacobs said. He added that last month the Reform movement invited Dayan to speak at an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War.

“It was a day of learning about Zionism and Israel, and even though we knew and he knew how different our views are on this issue, we wanted him to come and speak about his own journey, from Argentina to Israel to the settlement movement,” Jacobs said. “I know we’re never going to convince each other, but I cherish the opportunity to have a conversation.”

But despite the mutual appreciation, Jacobs and other Jewish leaders believe that the Western Wall crisis could make Dayan’s second year on the job even more complicated. “The anger over this thing isn’t going to just disappear,” said one prominent Jewish leader who requested anonymity. “Dani is a great guy, but a consul general can only do so much. There is a deep crisis and lack of trust right now with the Israeli government, and it will have to be solved by Jerusalem, not by the representative in New York.”

Pinkas, the former consul general, agrees. “If the Western Wall crisis was a stand-alone issue, it could be handled by patiently explaining the background, context and political considerations involved in the decision,” he said. “The real problem is that this decision is just one link in a chain of insults that Israel has been throwing at the vast majority of American Jews, on issues like conversions, rabbinical authority and even recognition of one’s Jewishness. The accumulation of all these problems makes it impossible to truly solve the crisis.”

This impossible situation is now on Dayan’s plate. When he was a leader of the settlement movement, one of the settlers’ main objectives was to “settle in the hearts” of Israelis, a metaphor for expanding support and sympathy for their movement. Dayan has certainly managed to “settle in the hearts” of New York’s political and Jewish leaders over the past year, but many of his new friends and fans believe that his hardest work is still ahead of him.