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Interview

Trying to oust Netanyahu, an ex-settler head says he can rebuild bridge to Biden

Former consul to New York Dani Dayan claims New Hope, to the right of Likud on many issues, can repair bipartisan ties in Washington that he says the premier drove into the dirt

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Dani Dayan of the New Hope party at his home in Maaleh Shomron, February 8, 2021  (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)
Dani Dayan of the New Hope party at his home in Maaleh Shomron, February 8, 2021 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

In 2016, Dani Dayan was tapped to become consul-general to New York. According to Dayan, he told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he had one central task he planned to undertake while in the role.

“I told him, ‘Look, I intend to be the ambassador to the Democratic party.’ And I didn’t feel that he was really thrilled about that,” Dayan recalled recently.

That Israel would need one ambassador to the Republicans and another to the Democrats would have been unthinkable at any other time in history. But with ambassador Ron Dermer alienating the Barack Obama administration and moving closer to Republicans, it was not an extraordinary ask.

Even stranger, though, was who was saying it. Before becoming ambassador Dayan, 65, had served for years as chairman of the Yesha Council settlement umbrella group and then as the group’s “foreign envoy,” making himself into the face of the settlement movement. A bid to become ambassador to Brazil had been repeatedly delayed, and ultimately failed as Brasilia rejected him for being too right-wing.

Back in Israel, Dayan is running for the Knesset on the party slate of Gideon Sa’ar, along with other right-wing politicians who have splintered off of Likud and other right-wing parties attempting to unseat Netanyahu. One of the central arguments New Hope is pitching voters is that its band of hawkish settlement supporters are best situated to repair ties with the Democratic party and left-wing American Jews.

“Israel didn’t invest in bipartisan support over the last years,” Dayan told The Times of Israel last week, arguing that it was hampering Netanyahu’s ability to work effectively with the current Democratic administration in the United States.

“Netanyahu lost confidence in the feasibility of maintaining Democratic support, and I think it was a mistake,” he added.

An Israeli government official rejected the idea that Netanyahu could not work with US President Joe Biden or his administration. “Prime Minister Netanyahu has a relationship with the president that goes back four decades,” the official said. “When he was deputy ambassador in DC, he forged a friendship with then-senator Biden, a friendship that has been sustained over many years, a very warm personal relationship.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara meet then-vice president of the United States Joe Biden (center) in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010. (Avi Ohayun/GPO)

“It doesn’t meant that they necessarily always agree on the issues, but it means that because there is that long-term relationship, if there are differences, they’ll be able to deal with them.”

Biden’s former boss, president Barack Obama, had a famously strained relationship with Netanyahu in his two terms as president. Ties reached a nadir in March 2015, when the prime minister addressed a joint session of Congress to assail the emerging Iran nuclear deal.

Dermer was accused of colluding with Republicans to organize Netanyahu’s appearance behind Democrats’ backs. Obama administration officials said that Netanyahu “spat in our face” and that he would pay a price for the speech.

In Dayan’s view, the tensions during the Obama years, when Biden was vice-president, now limit Netanyahu’s ability to work with the new Democratic administration in the US.

Illustrative: Then-US president Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, November 9, 2015. (AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB/ File)

What’s more, said Dayan, during the Donald Trump administration, Netanyahu violated the crucial bipartisan spirit with which Israel must approach its relationship with its most important ally.

“The prime minister and embassy in Washington were almost card-carrying members of the Republican party,” he argued.

At the same time, he allowed that “the dividends” from Netanyahu’s courting of Trump — the US embassy in Jerusalem, recognition of the Golan Heights, the Abraham Accords to name three — “were huge and were really beyond any imagination. And it was probably the right decision to embrace him as strongly, as warmly, as Netanyahu did,” he said.

But he also questioned Netanyahu’s decision to name a future train station in the Old City and town in the Golan Heights after Trump. “I have reservations about some of the steps.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with Tzachi Hanegbi during a Likud Party faction meeting at the Knesset on February 8, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Likud Minister for Community Affairs Tzachi Hanegbi dismissed the notion that Israelis would vote based on a leader’s ability to work constructively with a Democratic administration. “Voters in Israel… saw that Netanyahu is fighting for them, they saw that he doesn’t stop until he makes sure that everyone understands Israel’s position about Iran. That’s a sign of leadership and courage.”

“They voted for him and will vote for him once again for a lot of different reasons. One of them is the four agreements that were signed,” Hanegbi continued, referring to the 2020 accords with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco.

The “new” Democratic narrative

Dayan was born and raised in a Zionist family in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He concluded a four-year term as Israel’s top diplomat in New York last summer.

Before becoming an envoy, Dayan had unsuccessfully tried to enter the Knesset with the Jewish Home party. In an August interview with The Times of Israel, he ascribed his failure in politics to the clash between his hawkish views on diplomatic-security matters and his otherwise liberal values, calling himself a “political orphan.”

He has in the past spoken out in favor of Reform Judaism in the US, which is openly denigrated by many Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox politicians in Israel, straining ties with the Diaspora. As a diplomat, he criticized the lack of religious pluralism in Israel.

Then-consul-general of Israel to New York Dani Dayan, right, speaks to police in Monsey, NY, after a Jewish man was stabbed to death in attack, December 2019. (courtesy, Consulate General of Israel in New York)

He believes that his tenure in New York gives him unique insight into today’s Democratic party.  In addition to focusing his outreach on young Black and Latino leaders, Dayan sought to educate himself on the history and contemporary narratives of minority communities in America. On one of his vacations, “instead of flying to the Bahamas,” Dayan took his daughter to Alabama’s Civil Rights Trail, learning about the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s in Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham.

“You cannot bond with today’s Democratic party if you do not understand deeply the new African-American narrative,” he emphasized, which he described as focusing on “the existence of systemic racism in American society.”

Dayan also stressed the importance of understanding the narrative of Latino Democrats on immigration.

“This does not mean we should take a position or be involved in domestic politics,” Dayan cautioned. “It’s about outreach to them, talking to them, dialogue with them.”

The Knesset hopeful acknowledged that there is a wing of the Democratic party that has turned its back on Israel, and another that is skeptical of Israel, but “there is still a huge mainstream in the Democratic party with which we should work.”

“We didn’t pay enough attention to the distancing of the Congressional Black Caucus from Israel,” he said, pointing to one example of Israel’s failure to engage with minority Democratic constituencies.

Democratic US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York speaks at a campaign rally for then-Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, March 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

Still, Dayan said, he is heartened by the officials Biden has surrounded himself with. “I think the top echelon is good,” he said, “There is no cabinet-level appointment that can be interpreted as courting not only ‘The Squad,’ but also the Sanders-Warren wing of the Democratic party.”

.If Sa’ar is elected, Dayan insisted, he “will be free of the burden that Netanyahu carries on his shoulders of being perceived as being a pro-GOP player in American politics.”

The argument is clear, and seems to be supported by the fact that Biden still has not called Netanyahu three weeks into his term, even as complex challenges like the Iran nuclear program loom and demand close coordination between the two leaders.

But even if Gideon Sa’ar becomes the next prime minister, and even if Dayan’s accounting of Sa’ar coming into office free of the burden of past fights with Democrats is accurate, deep disagreements remain between New Hope and the Democrats.

Israel’s settlement enterprise was one of the main targets of the Obama administration, and one of the most pungent of the many incidents to complicate the US-Israel relationship during the Obama years was an Israeli decision to advance home permits in an East Jerusalem neighborhood, while Biden was visiting the country in 2010.

New Hope’s policy positions are no less right-wing than Netanyahu’s Likud party, and some would say they are even more supportive of the settlement enterprise.

Dayan himself is a prime example of this. His home is in the West Bank settlement of Ma’aleh Shomron and he has been a longtime pro-settlement activist and leader. And Sa’ar supports building up West Bank settlements and annexing parts of the West Bank, while granting some autonomy to the Palestinians living in the territory.

A pro-settlement stance will not endear New Hope to the 2021 Democratic party with its dynamic and growing social justice wing. Polls show that support for Israel among liberal Democrats has cratered over the past half-decade. In addition, support for Palestinians is higher among younger and minority Democrats.

Black Lives Matter supporters demonstrate during a march, June 20, 2020, in Salt Lake City. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

The left-wing of the Democratic party sees Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians through the framework of the experience of American minority communities. Referring to Palestinians killed in violent 2018 protests on the Gaza-Israel border, future NY congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said, “The lens through which I saw this incident, as an activist, as an organizer – if 60 people were killed in Ferguson, Missouri, if 60 people were killed in the South Bronx, unarmed, if 60 people were killed in Puerto Rico – I just look at that [Gaza] incident more through just, as an incident, and to me, it would just be completely unacceptable if that happened on our shores.”

As the more progressive flank of the Democratic party grows in power and influence, Israel’s right-wing governments are liable to find themselves standing on shakier ground in Washington.

In May 2020, more than 30 Democratic national security professionals including former US ambassadors to Israel, senior Obama advisors, and top Biden officials like Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines signed a letter calling on the Democratic National Committee  to “include clear opposition to [the] ongoing [West Bank] occupation” in the 2020 platform and to voice support for “Palestinian rights, including self-determination, security, and freedom.”

Dayan made it clear that he remains opposed to Palestinian statehood, even as he tries to build bridges to the Democrats.

“We don’t believe there is room for another Arab state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River,” said Dayan. “That is very clear. That doesn’t preclude different solutions…It’s a theoretical question right now.”

Benjamin Netanyahu and Gideon Sa’ar at a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset, Nov. 21, 2005. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

“We want a solution where the Palestinians have maximum autonomy and freedom, with the minimum ability to hurt and harm the Israeli people,” Dayan explained. “This is not something that anyone has any real debate over.”‘

Dayan stressed that his party would not agree to freeze construction in the West Bank or in Jerusalem either.

While the friction points are many, Dayan believes a Sa’ar administration can soothe tensions over long-term solutions for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with smaller interim steps that improve the situation on the group for Palestinians. “We should do what is realistic. We can engage with the Biden administration to understand that point.”

Fix it or nix it

The New Hope party does not have any significant disagreements with Netanyahu’s stated positions over the Iran deal, but on this too they are banking on their rapport with the Biden administration to navigate conflicting positions over the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal.

“We agree with Netanyahu,” said Dayan, “fix it or nix it.”

“The policy will be clear — to engage very intimately and very discreetly with the administration in order to convince them that first of all no sanctions should be lifted before any new agreement is achieved…Secondly, to amend some clauses in the JCPOA, not restricted to the sunset clauses, but definitely that will be a very important part. And finally, to expand the scope of the JCPOA.”

The landmark 2015 deal between Iran and the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France, and Germany to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions has been largely in tatters since former US president Donald Trump withdrew from it in 2018 and reimposed harsh sanctions.

Illustrative: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visits the Bushehr nuclear power plant just outside of Bushehr, Iran, January 13, 2015. (AP Photo/Iranian Presidency Office, Mohammad Berno, File)

Biden has said he is ready to return to the deal if Iran returns to compliance. Both sides have demanded that the other act first to return to the deal, putting them at a stalemate, for the moment.

Dayan put his faith in the “atmosphere of mutual trust between Israel and the Biden administration” Sa’ar and his team would be able to create.

“First of all we should convince the administration that that [Israel’s terms] should be their position,” he said.

Dayan predicted that the US and Iran would not come to agreement over re-entering the JCPOA. “I wouldn’t bet that the Iranians will abide by the terms that President Biden will present.”

As for what would happen then, Dayan would only say that Israel’s position “should be that all options are on the table.”

Dayan emphasized the importance of the US-Saudi relationship to the effort to counter Iran. He said Israel could have a role to play to quietly mediate those tensions.

“It’s a very important interest,” Dayan argued. “The Biden administration dislikes Saudi Arabia, that is not a secret. They dislike the human rights situation, they dislike the Kingdom’s attitude in Yemen, and they despise the terrible incident that happened in the consulate in Istanbul.”

This image taken from CCTV video purportedly shows Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, October 2, 2018.(CCTV/TRT World via AP)

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a US resident, was killed inside Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate in October 2018, his body dismembered and disposed of by a team of Saudis allegedly directed by righthand men of the crown prince.

Dayan called the US-Saudi relationship “a vital interest for Israel vis-a-vis Iran.”

“We cannot form a diplomatic coalition or any other coalition to contain Iran without Saudi participation.”

Israel and US Jews

Dayan also assailed Netanyahu’s attitude toward non-Orthodox Jews in the United States. “He didn’t care about non-Orthodox American Jewry. In some sense, he was very clear that he doesn’t believe in their future… so he saw no reason to have quarrels with the ultra-Orthodox in Israel for the sake of these relationships with non-Orthodox American Jewry.”

This approach was exacerbated, according to Dayan, by Netanyahu depriving the Foreign Ministry of budgets and authority over the years. He says that as consul-general, he argued with Netanyahu over the importance of speaking to liberal Jews, and even offered to resign over the issue.

Dani Dayan, then in charge of the Yesha Council’s international relations, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Gideon Markowicz/ Flash 90)

A Likud campaign spokesman refused to comment, but a government official denied that Netanyahu dismissed ties with non-Orthodox US Jews. “The prime minister knows the importance of the relationship with the Jewish community in the United States. He knows that community has a wide spectrum of opinion. He is open to engagement with all parts of the community. He has spoken at Orthodox events, at Conservative events, at Reform events.”

Dayan sees this issue as one of utmost importance.

“What literally kept me awake at night is what will be written in the Jewish history books 80 years from now,” he said. “I am worried that in that history book our children, our grandchildren will read that during the 21st century, the Jewish people split into two unconnected tribes, or, worse than that, that we lost one tribe.”

Raphael Ahren and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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