Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Man Who Stopped the Freeze

by Ilene Prusher

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.”

Coupled with the phone campaign—albeit to a government that is sympathetic to its cause—is a public relations effort targeted at everyday secular Israelis, most of whom live on the other side of the Green Line and have few ties, personal or otherwise, to the settlements or historic sites such as the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. More importantly, they have come to accept the inevitability of a two-state solution. “I wouldn’t call it PR,” Dayan says hesitantly. “It’s more like hasbara,” the Hebrew word that has come to mean public diplomacy. “We’ve shifted our focus,” he says. “We’re working to negate stereotypes. The Yesha Council was traditionally involved in promoting the interests of our communities, but we neglected the educational component of our task and failed to reach the Israeli public. The Israeli public needs to understand the historical link we have to the territories.”

To convince Israelis that holding on to the West Bank is in their interest, Dayan recently hired a new director-general for Yesha, Naftali Bennett, another high-tech veteran with a law degree who served as then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief of staff from 2006 to 2008. It is notable that he does not live in the West Bank, but in the rather bourgeois Tel Aviv suburb of Ra’anana. “Our main challenge in the next couple of years is to move public opinion,” says Dayan of his selection, which was approved by Yesha’s executive committee amid some controversy. “And in that, Naftali knows the client best.”

Bennett, who refers to the settlements as “suburbs of Tel Aviv, and beautiful ones, at that,” has polished and near-perfect English—thanks in part to his American parents and five years spent working in New York. In an effort to give influential figures a first-hand view of a West Bank that is decidedly different from the one they see on the nightly news, the Council treats Israeli celebrities to tours of the settlements, complete with wine and organic cheese tastings. The organization’s Hebrew website has a section on local cafes, restaurants and vineyards to attract Israeli tourists to a part of the country they’ve never cared to explore. “They come to Yesha and see the peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs,” says Bennett. “They see the vast amount of land available for Jews and Arabs. And they can only see all of this from being there—not from talking about it.”

Dayan and Bennett have also spearheaded a social media campaign to bring attention to Yesha. In August, Yesha co-sponsored a Wikipedia-editing course to help incorporate the settler narrative into entries on the popular online encyclopedia and further polish their image abroad. Together, an estimated 100 volunteers learned how to edit entries about Jewish claims to the West Bank, as well as contentious terms like “occupation.” “We have to battle Islamic groups that try to hurt Israel through the Internet,” says Bennett. To that end, the Yesha Council also established Yisrael Sheli [My Israel] earlier this year, a pro-settlement Facebook group with more than 15,000 members, which Bennett says is the largest Israeli online group to focus on national issues. “If you compare us to Peace Now, we are double their size,” he says of Yisrael Sheli.

But Dayan has an even more Herculean task to contend with than persuading Israelis that the settlements are vital. It has fallen on him—a man who prefers his iPhone to a gun––to hold the fractured settler movement together after what was a political and moral catastrophe for Yesha: its inability to prevent Ariel Sharon from uprooting 8,000 settlers in the 2005 disengagement from Gaza. In the settlers’ lexicon, this is referred to as girush—an expulsion—meriting the same term as Spain’s expulsion of the Jews in 1492. The Council’s traditional support base is rife with internal political divisions and includes extremists who believe violence is more effective than lobbying and public relations. Gershom Gorenberg, a longtime observer of the settlement movement and author of The Accidental Empire, observes 30 years after Yesha’s founding: “Dayan has chosen to sit on top of this volcano.”

In the spring of 1968, a rabbi named Moshe Levinger requested permission from the Israeli government to spend the week of Passover with 40 or so of his followers in Hebron, newly acquired by Israel through its victory in the 1967 War with Egypt, Jordan and Syria. The group rented rooms in the Park Hotel, held their Seder and then stayed; Levinger sent a note to Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s Labor-led government announcing that approximately 30 families would be settling the “lands of their forefathers.” Caught off guard, the Israeli government moved the “settlers” to the Hebron military base for protection and eventually granted them permission to create a Jewish neighborhood on the outskirts of Hebron, in a move that then-Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan labeled “blackmail.” Called Kiryat Arba, another name for Hebron in the Bible, Israel’s first government-sanctioned West Bank settlement was born.

Levinger’s move led to the 1974 creation of Gush Emunim or “Bloc of the Faithful,” a movement founded by students of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook. Kook and Gush Emunim’s other leaders believed that territory won in the Six-Day War had been brought into Israel’s hands for a purpose: to settle the bibilical homeland with Jews returning from the Diaspora, which would, in turn, hasten the coming of the Messiah.

That some of these territories—such as the West Bank and Gaza—were inhabited by more than a million Palestinians was viewed by Gush Emunim as a temporary, even irrelevant, state of affairs: The local Arabs would leave, be absorbed, or be outnumbered, much as they had been prior to 1948. Regardless, withdrawing from the territory was unconscionable, and settling it was declared a national duty, Israel’s own Manifest Destiny.

In 1980, Yesha was established as the practical arm of the settler movement, which was closely identified with the dati leumi [religious Zionism] movement—an Israeli hybrid of modern Orthodoxy with right-wing Zionism. Yesha—which redefined Gush Emunim’s goals in secular, political language—aimed to reposition the movement as one guided by hawkish realism rather than religious duty. Yesha attracted secular as well as religious Israelis, although most of its leaders have been religious.

Its founding coincided with the first right-wing government in Israel’s history. Between 1977 and 1983, Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s administration considered settlement expansion a kind of raison d’ĂȘtre. According to one U.N. report, Begin pledged in 1981 “that as long as I serve the nation as prime minister, we shall not abandon any area in the territories of Judea, Samaria, the Gaza District and the Golan Heights.” Indeed, his support was not just lip service; funds flowed to establish new settlements and existing ones were expanded.

In 1984, the new National Unity government led by the Labor Party’s Shimon Peres reversed course, announcing a freeze on all new settlement activity. Nevertheless, expansion continued unabated: By the end of 1985, the settler population in the West Bank and Gaza stood at 42,000, a 100 percent increase from just two years earlier. Growth continued, even under the administrations of subsequent Labor-led governments, in large part because Israeli leaders are forced to make deals with parties supporting the settlers in order to forge coalitions.

Yesha led the anti-Oslo Accords fervor that many believe set the stage for the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 by a right-wing religious Zionist. In 1996, the Council threw its significant political weight behind Benjamin Netanyahu, whom it considered a staunch supporter, for prime minister. Following his victory, the group openly identified a four-year goal of 50 to 70 percent growth in the settlement population, but Netanyahu, at least publicly, proved to be a less-than-reliable ally. Only months after his election, in the aftermath of Palestinian riots over a new archaeological tunnel under the Temple Mount, Netanyahu met with Yasser Arafat in Washington to express his commitment to the Oslo peace process and froze settlement construction. Two years later, at a summit at the Wye Plantation in Maryland, Netanyahu handed control of 13 percent of West Bank territory over to the Palestinian Authority in an agreement the Yesha Council called “treason” before back-pedaling to the milder “surrender.”

Ariel Sharon, a long-time settler ally, became prime minister in 2001. He regularly met with the Council to discuss its security concerns, praising the settlers “who bravely face Palestinian terrorism on a daily basis.” But in 2003, when Sharon announced that Israel would unilaterally withdraw from Gaza and four West Bank settlements, his friendship with the Yesha Council came to an abrupt end.

Shaken by Sharon’s betrayal, young settlers took to the streets and threatened to close off Israel’s major highways, which would have effectively brought the country to a standstill. Yesha leaders, however, eschewed illegal and violent methods, and also condemned rabbis who called on soldiers to refuse orders to evacuate the Gaza settlements, leaving many settlers frustrated. “There was a feeling among some settlers that if the Yesha council supported calls for conscientious objection, they could have created an uprising that would have prevented the disengagement,” says Chaim Levinson, a reporter who covers settlements for Haaretz.

Why did the council choose a more moderate path, paving the way for a mild-mannered man such as Dayan to become chairman? Its leaders were loath to see the State of Israel, which they had fought so hard to be a part of, slide into civil war. But their moderation came at a price and began the slow—and some say inevitable—process of alienation between the council and the movement’s more zealous ranks. “People began to feel that the Yesha council no longer represented them,” says Levinson. “They saw them as part of the system.”

Dayan was voted chairman in the aftermath of the disengagement when the Council, reeling from its defeat, was in shambles.
He had been devoted to the cause since the 1970s, first as an activist in Tehiya, an ultra-nationalist party founded in 1979 in reaction to the Camp David Accords. It was there he met his wife, Einat—today she is in charge of public relations for the Ariel University Center of Samaria—and early on they made their politics as a couple clear. When they married, they set up their chuppah on the ramp leading to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount—“with more policemen than guests,” quips Dayan. “Yes, it was a statement. We are both political creatures. I think marriage should reflect our beliefs.” His brother, Aryeh Dayan, a prominent left-leaning Israeli journalist, did not come to the ceremony and has never been to Dayan’s home in Maale Shomron.

Although Dayan describes himself as essentially “an urban guy,” he and Einat preferred the hilltops of Judea and Samaria—the biblical terms for the West Bank—to the hip neighborhoods of Tel Aviv. Although many Israelis buy homes in settlements for a higher quality of life and lower cost of living made possible by financial incentives, the Dayans’ decision was an ideological one. “There are more important things in life than being near good restaurants and the opera house,” says Dayan. “We thought that the best thing for the State of Israel and its security is being here. So we decided to move to Samaria.”

They chose Maale Shomron, founded in 1980 and now home to about 150 families, in part for its mix of religious and non-religious Jews. “Our way of life is almost completely secular,” he says, “but we didn’t want to live in a secular ghetto.”

But it is, in other ways, quite isolated. For years, residents of Maale Shomron had to drive through the Arab city of Qalqilya as well as several Palestinian villages. The bypass road—which was built in the mid-to-late 1990s and passes the Arab village of Azoun—has for several years had the third-highest rate of stone-throwing incidents in the West Bank, Dayan says. But there was never a time—even during the height of the second Intifada—when he wouldn’t go out on the roads. He refused to get his car outfitted with bulletproof glass on principle, he says, so as not to give in to fear. But like most kids in settlements, his 17-year-old daughter, Ofir, who has two years left of high school, takes a bulletproof bus to school. Dayan calls this “an infringement on human rights” as much as anything Palestinians endure.

Dayan, who serves as chairman without pay, is passionate about why he devotes his time and energy to the settlement cause. A Palestinian state, he says, would be a “launching pad for attacks on Israel” and would essentially spell the end of normal life in the Jewish state. Dayan believes that the territories are crucial to Jewish identity, religious or not. As he puts it, “King David never walked in Tel Aviv, but he did reign in Hebron.”

Dayan has been praised for his leadership of Yesha. “He is leading Yesha to become again a major factor in the Israeli political scene,” says one colleague, “and it hasn’t been easy.” Adds Chaim Levinson: “Dayan is very popular and people are satisfied with his leadership.”

That said, some settlers are vocal about their concerns. “After the terrible failures in the disengagement, our expectations of Yesha are very low,” says Boaz Haetzni, who lives in Kiryat Arba, the original settlement on the outskirts of Hebron. “Yesha will not be able to lead another popular campaign like Kfar Maimon,” where masses of people came out, night after night, to demonstrations against the disengagement plan in 2005, Haetzni says. “If Yesha calls now, people will not answer. Yesha can concentrate on lobbying and getting their message across and building settlements, because this they know how to do. Lots of groups are working without the Yesha Council, and avoiding it entirely. Everybody has his own agenda.”

Indeed, a growing number of radical settler factions have effectively split off from the settler mainstream in the wake of the disengagement and are no longer taking marching orders from the Yesha leadership. These are the fringe groups that create shocking headlines when, for example, they go out on rampages, burning down a mosque or cutting down Palestinian olive trees—incidents that are on the rise, according to B’tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. It doesn’t much matter that Dayan himself says this behavior is “terrible and flawed morally.” The “price tag” policy, so dubbed by settlers who have vowed to exact a price from Palestinians (by attacking them or destroying their property) every time Israeli soldiers attempt to dismantle so much as an illegal settlement outpost, has continued unchecked.

Although Dayan and the settlement leadership have not condemned such behavior, they have distanced themselves from it, further alienating the splinter groups. “I think the reaction of Yesha to the settlement freeze is too weak and inappropriately calm,” says Haetzni, 53, who moved to Kiryat Arba in 1973 with his parents; his father, Elyakim Haetzni, was a major activist in the post-1967 settlement movement and served in the Knesset. “We don’t like extremism, but when the situation is extreme, a moderate response is madness.”

The younger Haetzni is one of the leaders of a settler group called Homesh First, which has been sending young activists to Homesh, one of four small West Bank settlements that were evacuated along with all of those in Gaza in 2005. Some young settlers have succeeded in returning, living in caves and wooden shacks. During the day there is a small yeshiva functioning there, Haetzni says. The army has tried to remove them, but has more or less relented.

Another sharp Yesha critic is Daniella Weiss, the mayor of the Kedumim settlement. Although it’s not far from Maale Shomron as the crow flies, it is quite a distance, ideologically speaking. Weiss, a firebrand figure in the settlement movement for decades, has a renewed following among young people disenchanted with the establishment—and delighted with the thought of taking over an uninhabited hilltop just as Zionists did in the 1930s. They call themselves Neemanei Eretz Yisrael—those loyal to the Land of Israel. Their handiwork may look to the rest of the world like a naked land grab—the settlement watch project of Peace Now has documented the existence of nearly 100 outposts outside of the 121 recognized settlements in the West Bank, some bearing no more of an official name than “Hilltop 836”—but many settlers see Weiss’s foot soldiers, who sometimes live without basic amenities such as running water, as a rare example of Israel’s waning pioneer spirit.

“The only thing that matters now and that is worth talking about is building new outposts,” Weiss says. “The most important thing today is to initiate new outposts all over Judea and Samaria.” She, too, says Yesha has become irrelevant. “The Yesha Council lost their right to be the head of the communities of Judea and Samaria after the destruction of the Gaza settlements. They haven’t regained their credibility, and I don’t think they ever will.”

The willingness of Weiss and others to flaunt the law is a symptom of a larger problem. “The settler ideology is fractured now,” says Gershom Gorenberg. “There’s a dissonance, and either you pretend it isn’t there, or you decide which side of it you’re on. For people on one side, any means are kosher,” he says, adding, “Dayan is a leader who doesn’t know if he should disavow the radicals or not, because he needs their support.”

Can Dayan keep the increasingly powerful tide of a two-state solution at bay? After all, the Palestinian Authority, the Obama administration and even Netanyahu, according to the historic speech he gave at Bar-Ilan University in June 2009, believe in the inevitability of a two-state solution.

As he sits in his living room, with a modern painting mounted on the wall behind him, Dayan insists that a peace agreement that requires some form of Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank is inconceivable. “I refuse to answer the question of how such a withdrawal will be received by our public,” he says. “I put 200 percent of my thoughts into how to prevent such a withdrawal.”
Instead of pursuing conflict resolution, he says, “Israel should opt for conflict management.” By that, he means improving conditions for Palestinians and encouraging economic growth. The Palestinian refugee camps, he says, need to be rehabilitated so that “fourth-generation Palestinians aren’t kept in squalor as a bargaining chip.” Stability will also draw business to the area, so that an Israeli taxi driver from Tel Aviv can bring his car to a mechanic in Ramallah, he says.

Dayan’s vision includes economic integration but not Palestinian statehood. “The ones to blame for that are the Palestinians themselves, so my conscience is clear,” he says. “We are on solid moral ground. We took control of those areas in a defensive war intended to annihilate Israel.”

The raw demographic figures that worry so many other Israelis—that by 2020 Arabs will outnumber Jews from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea—don’t interest Dayan. “This conflict does not have a solution in real numbers,” Dayan says. “If security prevails, we can achieve economic prosperity and human rights. We need security and it must be in Israeli hands.”

To hear Dayan speak, it sounds like a zero-sum game, but some observers believe that Yesha is relying on the tried and true strategy of “facts on the ground,” should Israel give up most of the West Bank in a final status agreement: The highly populated settlements, which are costly and difficult to dismantle, are more likely to be kept. Already the effects of this strategy have been profound. Vast areas beyond the Green Line have become part of the consensus position on what land Israel will keep and what land will be returned. In December, The New York Times reported “a settlement-building boom” that had produced 2,000 new housing units in the three months since the freeze was lifted, with 3,000 more units “in the pipeline,” largely in territory outside the “consensus” settlements.

From Dayan’s point-of-view, anything remains possible: Settlers will return to Gaza someday, which is why Yesha continues to keep the ayin in its name representing Aza—Gaza. And he wants his daughter Ofir to be among the “hilltop youth,” as they’re known, but still be a woman of the world. “I would like her to establish an outpost on a very distant hilltop in Judea and Samaria, but I would also like her to know the road to the cultural centers of Israel well, and to be able to enjoy a trip to London or Paris,” Dayan says. “You don’t have to choose between Hebron and Tel Aviv. You can have both.”

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Ilene Prusher

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