Talking Politics with the Israeli Settler Leader Turned Diplomat

By | Jul 13, 2017
2017 July-August, Interview

Dani Dayan has an unusual background for an Israeli diplomat. The Argentinian-born secular Israeli and successful tech entrepreneur was Israel’s chief advocate for the settlers from 2007 to 2013 as chairman of the Yesha Council, the umbrella organization of municipal councils of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Upon stepping down, he took the settler cause to the world stage as its foreign envoy. After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to appoint him ambassador to Brazil ran into resistance in Brasília, Dayan was assigned to be the consul general of Israel in New York City in 2016. Below is an excerpt from an interview with Dayan conducted by Moment editor-in-chief Nadine Epstein.

What do you tell people who say settlements are the obstacle to peace?

That that’s a factual mistake. There is one obstacle to peace. All the others are technicalities. The obstacle to peace is the Palestinians’ adamant refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist. And the most important word is “right.” There are Palestinians who recognize Israel’s de facto existence, but that makes for amnesty. That does not make for peace. You don’t compromise with someone you continue to believe stole your land. As long as the Palestinians continue to see Israeli Jews as non-indigenous to the land that we call Israel and they call Palestine, there’s no chance for the compromise that is needed. That’s why, from 1936 to 2014, every instance in which a peace deal was offered we accepted and they rejected.

So what can be done?

The most important person in the peace process is not the president of the United States, not the prime minister of Israel, not even the president of the Palestinian Authority. The most important person in the peace process is the minister of education of the Palestinian Authority. And I’m not even talking about the glorification of terrorism and the incitement. But the fact that they teach that Jews are not indigenous to the land but are similar to the Crusaders who came from elsewhere to grab the Palestinians’ land—I would go so far as to say that this is the only impediment to peace, that all other issues can be solved the moment this is solved.

Earlier this year, President Donald Trump made reference to a possible one-state solution. What does a one-state solution look like?

I don’t think there is a one-state solution. By the way, I’m not sure we can reach a two-state solution either. I think the good thing in what President Trump says is that, for too many years, we had a rigid way of thinking: We thought only one way could advance peace. And maybe the fact that now we say, “Let’s explore other venues, let’s explore other roads”—maybe that can prove beneficial. I think that to arrive at peace we need intellectual audacity. And maybe, in that sense, the words of the president were important.

If there’s no one-state solution and there’s no two-state solution, what is there?

Under the adamant rejection of the Palestinians of Israel’s right, with capital letters, to exist—I don’t know.

Today, the notion of a nation-state is becoming unfashionable. But Israel is a nation-state for all the right reasons.

Is Trump good for Israel?

America has always been good for Israel, at least in the last 50 years. The unbreakable alliance that we speak so much about between Israel and the United States was forged, actually, by two presidents: one of them a Democrat from Texas, Lyndon Johnson, the other a Republican from California, Richard Nixon. One of them alone wouldn’t have been enough to create the alliance.

Why those two?

Truman recognized Israel, but there was an arms embargo. Israel had no alliance with Eisenhower’s U.S., nor with Kennedy’s. The alliance between Israel and the United States started in the late 1960s and was completed in the early 1970s. Today we think that it existed forever. It didn’t. And it’s not a coincidence that those two did it, that we needed both. We needed a Democrat and a Republican to make that alliance. And that’s the reason it’s vital for Israel to be bipartisan in American politics—but that’s very difficult. Not because of Israel, but because of America.

Why is it difficult for Israel to remain bipartisan in American politics?

Despite the fact that I am a foreign diplomat, may I comment on domestic issues? What’s happening in America is amazing. Everything is partisan. Everything is political. Abortion is partisan. Healthcare is partisan. Guns are partisan. Capital punishment is partisan. And, lately, even the weather is partisan. So to maintain Israel as virtually the only bipartisan issue in American politics is very challenging, but it is necessary for Israel if we want the alliance to be with every administration.

What can be done to prevent Israel from becoming a partisan issue in the United States?

I think Israel has all the merits of being a progressive cause in American politics. Not long ago, I heard Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York say that his support for Israel stems from his progressive values. It’s not in spite of his progressive values, but because of them.

Israel’s democracy is not perfect. No democracy is perfect. Still, Israeli democracy is incredibly robust. Israel has a Palestinian Supreme Court judge. Israel has a Muslim-Arab deputy commissioner of police. I agree that the current situation, in which two million Palestinians in Judea and Samaria, the so-called West Bank, do not have full civil rights, is problematic. I agree with that completely. But it’s not our fault. We didn’t initiate that war. We made every effort to solve that conflict. We cannot do more than what we did.

The other thing is people say, “Look, Israel is a nation-state! Why is there a Jewish state?” Today, the notion of a nation-state is becoming unfashionable. But Israel is a nation-state for all the right reasons.

How do you define a Jewish state?

It’s not that Jews have more privileges than others. Not at all. All citizens are equal in a Jewish state. And it doesn’t mean that Jewish religious rules are the law of the country. Only the secular can actually legislate. A Jewish state means one thing. The best way to understand it is by an example. When the Jewish community of Ethiopia was endangered, the prime minister of Israel called the CEO of its flight carrier El Al and told him, “Sir, in 24 hours we are going to paralyze all your commercial flights in order to make more room for Jews. Send your fleet to Ethiopia to rescue 20,000 Jews in danger.” That is a Jewish state. No more than that. No less than that. We don’t need to consult anyone to send our aircraft to rescue Jews.

But what about the many cases in which rights are not the same for Arabs and for Jews?

I know only of one, the law of return, that Jews have the right to become citizens. Yes, that’s a difference. But the law of return is not about the co-citizen. It doesn’t mean that the Jew who comes to Israel and becomes a citizen will have additional rights over the Arab or non-Jewish citizens of Israel. The moment he becomes a citizen, he joins the family of citizens of Israel with exactly the same rights.

But you have to agree that it’s harder for an Arab to get along in Israeli society?

I don’t buy that. Look, I didn’t say we don’t have social problems. What country doesn’t? But did you know that in the number of students in the freshman class in the Technion, Israel’s MIT, Arabs are overrepresented relative to their percentage of the population?

Another pressing issue in Israel today is pluralism—or the lack of it—in Israeli religious public life.

The question of pluralism is, in my view, the heaviest burden that we have these days in the relationship between Israel and the American Jewish community. There are attempts by the prime minister to change that. There are political obstacles. In some ways, I equate it to the attempts of President Obama to change the gun control laws in America. He very much wanted that to happen, but he did not succeed for political reasons. I would compare this to the situation of Prime Minister Netanyahu. He tries to do it gradually because of political constraints.

I always say to my Reform and Conservative friends, the way to change laws in Israel is to become involved in Israeli politics. Sometimes I cite the huge success that the LGBT community has had in Israel. I don’t think that ultra-Orthodox Jews are more sympathetic toward the LGBT community than toward Reform Jews. But they know that if they offend the LGBT bloc, they will pay a political price.

Why wasn’t the U.S. embassy moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem?

There is nothing hidden here. I think that President Trump wishes to advance the peace process, and he thought that it would be counterproductive to move the embassy—we regret that. We think that it would have been productive to make clear that Jerusalem is an integral part of Israel. But it’s an American decision. The fact that all the embassies are outside of our capital is an anomaly, an anomaly that has existed for too long. We believe that it should be corrected, and the sooner the better. And we really wished—still wish—­that the United States of America will be the leader in that process.

That being said, we are not in a position to demand that from the United States any more than from any other country. The commitment to move the embassy was not given to Israel. It’s not the case that the president came and said, “If Israel does A, then we will move the embassy.” No, it’s not the case. It’s a pledge given to the American electorate. Maybe more specifically, to the American Jewish community. And they are in a position to demand that, to ask for that, not us.

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