Done fighting the White House, settlers’ ‘foreign minister’ vies for Knesset seat
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Done fighting the White House, settlers’ ‘foreign minister’ vies for Knesset seat

Secular and cosmopolitan, Dani Dayan, the former settlers council head who hired Naftali Bennett as his deputy, is a rare creature in the national-religious camp

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Dani Dayan during a press conference on December 14, 2014, during which he announced that he will seek a seat in the Knesset with the Jewish Home party in the upcoming elections on March 17. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Dani Dayan during a press conference on December 14, 2014, during which he announced that he will seek a seat in the Knesset with the Jewish Home party in the upcoming elections on March 17. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Not many Israelis can claim to have emerged victorious from a confrontation with the government of the United States of America. But Dani Dayan, a prominent right-wing activist now hoping to enter the Knesset, insists that in the fight over the future of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, he won and the White House lost.

In 2007, Dayan was urged to take the helm of the pro-settler Yesha Council. Although a livelong supporter of Greater Israel, he hesitated at first. Ehud Olmert was prime minister at the time, having won the previous election on a platform of advancing Israeli territorial withdrawals, and Dayan was chary of leading a group that was disillusioned after the 2005 Disengagement from Gaza and now virtually defunct.

“It sounded like a mission impossible,” he recalled in a recent interview. But eventually he was convinced to run for the chairmanship. Five minutes after he was elected, one of the activists who persuaded him to run for the position told him: “Now that you’re already into it, I want to tell you that it’s you against the United States,” Dayan remembered laughingly. “That gave me a lot of confidence,” he added ironically.

But when asked who had triumphed — he or the leader of the free world — Dayan had an answer as immodest as it was unequivocal: “There’s no doubt the Yesha Council won.”

Despite all the pressure from the American administration, Judea and Samaria are still in Israeli hands, he explained, using the biblical name for the West Bank. During his tenure, he added, the number of Israelis residing there grew by 35 percent, and not a single community was evacuated (except for Migron, which was moved to a much less desirable adjacent plot of land). Perhaps most significantly, the Palestinian state “today is farther than ever.”

Some 390,000 Israelis currently live in the West Bank, not including East Jerusalem, Dayan said, citing Interior Ministry figures. “I am convinced that at some point in my tenure as chairman, the settlement [enterprise] in Judea and Samaria became irreversible.”

‘It wasn’t easy to be Bennett’s boss. He’s very independent and very opinionated’

A vocal opponent of the two-state solution and Palestinian statehood, Dayan, 60, is running for a spot on the Knesset list of the nationalist Jewish Home party led by Economy Minister Naftali Bennett. Dayan and Bennett go way back: When Dayan chaired the Yesha Council, he hired Bennett as his executive director, handpicking him from a number of candidates.

“It wasn’t easy to be his boss,” Dayan said about Bennett. “He’s very independent and very opinionated.”

During the last elections, Dayan supported the Likud party, mainly because he wasn’t happy with Bennett. Now having joined Jewish Home, though, Dayan is adamant that he won’t consider his former employee his new boss. “In politics, there are no bosses. He will be the leader of my party, not my boss. That’s the way I see it. I’m sure he also sees it that way.”

Ideologically, the two men see pretty much eye to eye. But there are significant differences in personality between Bennett and Dayan, which analysts say could help the party ahead of the March 17 elections. (Current polls predict 15 seats for Jewish Home.)

While Bennett belongs to the national-religious camp, Dayan is staunchly secular, making him the party’s second non-Orthodox candidate, after Ayelet Shaked.

Asked whether he believes in God, Dayan initially refused to answer, saying that he didn’t agree to address theological matters in the interview. He did say, however, that he intends to vote with the faction on questions of religion and state, and that while there’s “nothing wrong” with the Reform or Conservative movements, “for me, religious Judaism is Orthodoxy.” (After the interview, he texted this reporter saying that he does believe in God.)

But it’s not only Dayan’s religious outlook that makes him the odd man out in the Jewish Home. The settler movement is often seen as insular, unworldly and messianic, yet Dayan is polyglot and cosmopolitan. Often clad in suit and tie rather than the stereotypical knitted skullcap and sandals, he speaks three languages fluently and has visited some 80 countries, from Brazil to Iceland to Kazakhstan.

Yesha Council head Dani Dayan speaks at a settler's protest outside PM Benjamin Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem against the planned renewal of a settlement construction freeze, November 21, 2010. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Yesha Council head Dani Dayan speaks at a settler’s protest outside PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem against the planned renewal of a settlement construction freeze, November 21, 2010. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

After he stepped down as the Yesha Council’s chairman in 2013, he became its “chief foreign envoy,” a position he created to represent the settlement movement in the halls of power in the world’s capitals.

As the settlers’ foreign minister, as he is often called, Dayan was invited to the White House and the US State Department, making him the first leader of this movement to be granted such an honor. “I take advantage of the curiosity that arises of this exotic vision of a settler with a suit and a tie, speaking good English,” he acknowledged. He has met with senior officials in the American and many European governments, but refused to name names, cognizant that this might jeopardize his contacts. “I prefer to hold five secret meetings than one public meeting.”

‘While Bennett says you can ignore the world, Dani Dayan says you can convince the world’

More than anything, it is Dayan’s ability to present the settlement enterprise in the guise of a Western diplomat that makes him so valuable for the Jewish Home party, noted Akiva Eldar, a senior columnist at Al Monitor and veteran member of the Israeli peace camp.

“He’s secular and open to dialogue with the world — in that, he perfectly complements Bennett,” Eldar said. While Bennett’s style is confrontational and aggressive, Dayan speaks in a calm and diplomatic way. “He’s very nice, but that’s deceiving,” he continued. “While Bennett says you can ignore the world, Dani Dayan says you can convince the world. And that’s very dangerous.”

Dayan and Bennett during a joint conference on December 14, 2014. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Dayan and Bennett during a joint conference on December 14, 2014. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Dayan is no less radical in his views on the Palestinians than Bennett, “but people look at the style and not at the content,” Eldar said. For Israel’s left, a soft-spoken, mild-mannered rightist is more dangerous than Bennett or Avigdor Liberman, he said. Dayan could attract many young secular right-wingers who are looking for a new political home after Yisrael Beytenu became entangled in a massive corruption scandal, he predicted.

Dayan will make it to the top five in the Jewish Home’s January 14 primaries, Eldar assessed, and thus should be seen as a realistic contender for the job of deputy foreign minister.

While Dayan expresses concern about the lack of Zionist and Jewish education in secular schools, his work in the Knesset is sure to focus on the Palestinian issue. As he did during his time at the Yesha Council, he will likely see it as his primary mission to convince the leaders of the international community that the two-state solution is a pipe dream.

“My intention was to cast doubts in their heads. And I’m sure I did,” he said about his many meetings in Washington, Brussels and other capitals.

In his talks with senior international officials, Dayan doesn’t try to persuade them to abandon their support for Palestinian statehood for ideological reasons but rather simply because it’s impracticable. “The main doubt I try to cast in their minds is the futility of pursuing the two-state formula. I didn’t even try to convince them that it’s wrong. I concentrated on convincing them it’s not going to happen.”

World leaders will never publicly admit it, but “the whole international community understands” that no Palestinian state will arise in the West Bank, Dayan claimed, “at least in the short and mid-term.”

The recent votes in several EU countries to recognize Palestinian statehood have to be seen as insincere gestures intended to “replace the actual effort” to implement a two-state solution, he believes. The international community simply lacks the courage to tell the Palestinians straight to their faces that their dream will not come true, he posited.

‘We will have to invent a completely new political structure’

Born in Buenos Aires in 1955, Dayan grew up in a staunchly Zionist home. A portrait of Ze’ev Jabotinsky adorned his parents’ wall and Menachem Begin held his older brother during his circumcision. (His brother later became a left-wing activist.) Dayan himself met Begin when he was 10, during the late prime minister’s visit to Argentina. “For me he was a legend,” he recalled.

In January 1971, Dayan immigrated to Israel with his family at age 15. After seven and a half years in the army, he started working for a software firm and shortly afterward co-founded his own, Elad Systems, which became hugely successful. At the age of 50, he sold his half of the company, enabling him to retire comfortably and devote himself to full-time political activism.

Today, he’s one of most prominent faces of the Israeli far right, whose thoughts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even the liberal New York Times deems fit to print.

Yet unlike many in Bennett’s party, he is not pushing for the immediate annexation of all or parts of the West Bank (though he’d surely relish the thought). Rather, he calls for the enhancement of the status quo. In other words: improve living conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank, because in the next 20-odd years not much is going to change for them in terms of achieving statehood.

‘I cast doubts. Suddenly the settlers are no longer the devil but persons you talk with’

In the long run, Dayan believes, Jordan will have to be part of the solution. But as opposed to the old-fashioned and simplistic “Palestine is Jordan” formula, he suggests that “a functional arrangement and not a territorial one” be found. “We will have to invent a completely new political structure,” he explained. In his vision, there will be two states — Israel west of the Jordan River, and Jordan/Palestine to the east, with “shared responsibilities” over the West Bank. Palestinians living there will be able remain in their homes but will be governed by the state located on the other side of the river.

“I know that today, when you’re still under the spell of the two-state solution, it sounds like political science fiction,” Dayan admitted. But the idea is not as outlandish as it may seem, he argued, quoting a Canadian political science professor telling him that sovereignty is a developing notion and that his vision for Israel/Palestine might well materialize one day.

His many interlocutors in the international community don’t buy his plan, or that of the other members of his party, Dayan knows. “But we’re here for a long run, for a marathon,” he said. “I cast doubts. Suddenly the settlers are no longer the devil but persons you talk with.”

Holding meetings with world leaders alone is not an achievement in itself, he added, “but in every meeting you make inroads. Very small but important inroads.”

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