Dani Dayan, head of Israel’s settler lobby, Yesha, has successfully kept another settlement freeze—and peace talks—off the table. But can this mild-mannered former software tycoon stop the settler movement from imploding?
On a clear day, Dani Dayan can look out the bedroom window of his two-story home and see the skyscrapers of Tel Aviv, just 20 miles away. But as we sit in his open and airy modern living room on a chilly winter day, with a eucalyptus tree swaying in the breeze and an ancient-looking wine press in the sprawling green yard, Tel Aviv seems a world away. The neighborhood’s serenity belies the fact that Dayan’s home is in the settlement of Maale Shomron in the northern West Bank, far beyond the separation barrier and deep in territory that may very well someday be part of a Palestinian state.
At a time when settlements are perceived as a major obstacle to a two-state solution by much of the world—and by many Israelis eager to resolve the long-standing conflict—Dayan insists that Israelis will rue the day, if it ever comes, when his home and community are not part of the Jewish State. “It’s either me and my family or a belligerent Palestinian state,” says Dayan, a clean-shaven, bareheaded secular Israeli who speaks in an accented English that reveals his roots in Argentina, where he lived until he was 15. A two-state solution, he continues, “wouldn’t improve the situation for a single Israeli or Palestinian.”
As the very public face of the Yesha Council, what Dayan thinks matters. Yesha, an umbrella organization of muni-cipal councils of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and formerly the Gaza Strip, is one of Israel’s most influential lobbies. Known by the acronym for Yehuda, Shomron and Aza, the Hebrew equivalents of Judea, Samaria and Gaza, it is made up of 15 elected settlement municipal leaders and ten community leaders. Its mandate is to assist Jewish settlements in every possible way, working, for example, to acquire bullet-proof ambulances and buses, and pushing the Israeli government to provide roads, electricity and water to the settlements.
The Council serves as the political arm of the estimated 300,000 Israelis living in West Bank settlements and wields power far beyond what its relatively small numbers would suggest: The group was instrumental in exacting a public promise from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the ten-month settlement building freeze that expired in September would not be renewed, in defiance of U.S. President Barack Obama’s efforts to restart Middle East peace talks. So far the Yesha Council been successful in preventing the freeze from being reinstated, which is likely to remain the case now that Obama’s foreign policy hand has been weakened by the Republican takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives. The Israeli government even turned down America’s hefty December offer of 20 F-35 jets, worth $3 billion, in exchange for reinstating the freeze.
How did the Council stave off a seemingly good opportunity toward what many believe is the only path to peace? Not by amassing messianic-looking armed men wearing sandals and kippas—the dominant image of the Yesha Council in the past and the most persistent picture of the Jewish settler movement in the eyes of the world—but with a high-pressure campaign that included thousands of pre-recorded, computerized phone calls targeting members of the Knesset, central figures in Netanyahu’s Likud Party, and other political movers and shakers.
This new approach is the influence of Dayan, a former IDF major and secular high-tech tycoon who sold his software company in 2004 and threw himself full time into settlement politics. Since becoming chair in 2007, he has worked to transform the council into a Washington-style lobby armed with the latest marketing tools. “We carefully timed a surgical campaign,” says Dayan of the Council’s efforts to prevent the freeze extension. “It was very effective and quite unprecedented. I know for sure that it influenced the prime minister. We showed that we still have political leverage and capabilities.”