Several hundred thousand Jewish settlers live in the West Bank, the area between Israel and the Jordan River that Israel conquered in 1967’s Six-Day War. Of course, to Dani Dayan, an influential spokesman for the settler community, the region is known as “Judea and Samaria.” (He makes air quotes whenever he says the words “West Bank.”) The negotiations of the last 20 years, ever since the signing of the Oslo accords between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, are based on the idea that the West Bank will make up most of any future Palestinian state.
One of the primary questions about whether that state will ever exist is: Where will the settlers go? If you were to ask that question to Dayan, he might talk at length in his excellent, heavily accented English about various conferences he has attended and ways that Palestinian life can be improved. And his answer would be clear: The settlers aren’t going anywhere.
Born in Argentina, Dayan defies many of the stereotypes of the Israeli settler movement. While many of the most driven settlers are religious and insular, he is secular and worldly. He had a previous career as a technology executive and calls himself a “liberal.” Until recently, he was the chairman of the Yesha Council, a lobby representing Israeli settlers. (His title is now chief foreign envoy.) In professorial discourses he expresses sympathy for many aspects of the Palestinian situation and condemns violence committed by Jewish settlers. But this should not be mistaken for support of the Palestinian cause. His position might be more accurately summarized this way: Palestinians will live better once they abandon their dream of political autonomy.
This week Dani Dayan visited Salon’s office to speak with senior writer Andrew O’Hehir and news editor Alex Halperin. Among much else he discussed why he doesn’t think the current peace talks will work, his admiration for President Obama and what he would tell the Palestinian leadership. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The negotiations will collapse in one week, two months, exactly like the previous one, and the previous one was not under the auspices of the secretary of state, but the president himself. I was here in September 2010, the negotiations began, with the ceremonies, the White House, etc., etc., I heard people saying two things that annoy me very much: One is, “Let’s try … if we succeed, we succeed. If we don’t, nothing happens.” That’s not right. A lot happens.
Two main things will happen with this. The first one is that, when there are elevated expectations, and then frustration, usually violence comes with it. So, it could be damaging on the ground. And the second thing that happens from the U.S. perspective is another foreign policy failure by the Untied States. An additional failure of American foreign policy could be one too much. It would be noticed very carefully in Tehran, Moscow and places like that.
The second thing people say that annoys me is that the process is important for the sake of the process. I think saying that is terribly insulting for the Palestinians. It reminds me of a little child that cries incessantly, and you throw them a broken toy just to keep him busy. If I were Palestinian, I would totally be insulted by that statement
I think the current process, that only started in Oslo 20 years ago, prevents us, all of us — Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, Europeans, everyone — from doing things that really matter. Everyone is busy with the [peace] process that touches the lives of the diplomats instead of doing things that touch the lives of millions. We can do those things but we cannot do both simultaneously.
I am very much in favor of a fair, orchestrated offensive, of improving living conditions on the ground for Palestinians. This would mean the removal of checkpoints, freedom of movement, the ultimate removal of the security barrier that Israel erected, more or less along the green line. The most ambitious project I dream about is the complete revamp of the refugee camps. It is 65 years after the creation of the refugee problem, the fifth generation. A situation like that is not humane.
I’m not only talking about the Palestinians; I’m talking about Israel. The fact that my daughter had to ride to school in a bulletproof bus is also an infringement of her human rights.
The British do infrastructure projects, beneficial projects that people say really improved their lives, but they do it on a minor scale, again because everything is just linked to the political process. And Americans waste their time in closed doors with the leaders.
AH: Why can’t this kind of human rights work coexist with a political process?
Because the moment it is attached to the political process, instead of considering its intrinsic benefit, you consider what influence it has in the political process. The political process between Palestinians and Israel is a zero-sum game. The humanitarian is not.
Shiloh [a Jewish settlement in the West Bank] or Samaria , will be either Israeli or Palestinian. If it’s Palestinian or Israeli — those are politics. We cannot make an effort to renovate the refugee camps to give modern, normal living conditions for the refugees: The Palestinians oppose it because they say the refugee [issue] should be resolved in the context of a final peace.
The two cannot coexist because every move that happens, we see what the implications it has on the political process, and we judge it, not according to its intrinsic value, but according to its influence, whatever marginal, on the political process.
AOH: You’re arguing that the really contentious issues on which there is very little ground for agreement right now — be that the fate of the settlements, the ultimate size of any Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, the right of return for Palestinian refugees — all those things that are unsolvable at the moment should be set aside so we focus on what can be changed on the ground. The thing is that all of those unsolvable issues are being decided in your favor. The settlements are there, the Palestinians have no right of return. Jerusalem is a unified city under Israeli control. All of those things that the Palestinians would like to revisit are settled in one direction. The situation on the ground is what you want it to be, therefore, you’re happy to think about improving plumbing for Palestinians, because that ultimately may serve your interests.
First of all, I don’t agree that the issues have been resolved on the ground. The largest settlement that is being made now is the Palestinian city of Rawabi.
But suppose you are right and the fact that we do not [resolve the hard issues] makes it easier [for Israel]. So what’s the alternative? No political solution and no humanitarian improvement. I don’t think anyone benefits from that, for sure not the Palestinians.
I was in Washington for an event in December. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was there. And I had the opportunity to ask her questions.
I told her, Madame Secretary, one of your famous quotes is that the status quo is unsustainable. But when you the secretary of state of the United State tells the Palestinians that the status quo is unsustainable, that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe we should see where we can improve the situation for the sake of real people until we reach the conclusion that the conditions are right to renew the political process.
AOH: If you had a few minutes to talk to the leadership on the Palestinian side — Abu Mazen or someone else, and nothing you said was going to get back to his or your people, what would you say to him? What should they be doing?
I would try to accelerate the process of getting rid of the illusions. For many years, the mantra, the conventional wisdom was that we all know what the solution is going to be, the only question is when. Now, I think that we all know what the solution is not going to be. It’s not going to be a Palestinian state. The Ohlmert experience proved that there is no direct point in the geopolitical space where the two sides meet. Therefore, we have to think of more out-of-the-box solutions to the conflict.
AH: The things you’re talking about, like bringing down the fence on the Green line and removing some of the checkpoints, these are things that, as far as I know, don’t have any momentum behind them right now. Even ordinary Israelis who might favor a two-state solution, still want that fence —
OK, so let Secretary Kerry, with his incredible stamina, give those things momentum. Let President Obama come to Jerusalem and Ramallah again and explain to the Israelis and the Palestinians why those things should be priorities. When Obama made that speech in Jerusalem, it was a wonderful speech, except for that part of the two states. I think that Obama wants the states but he doesn’t believe we will have them. Maybe John Kerry does. I suppose he does.
President Obama is too intelligent to believe that this is close. He said it because that is what the president of the United States should say. But I have too much respect for his intellectual capacity to believe that he really thinks that that’s possible. By the way, I’m sure also that Hillary Clinton understood that as well.
AOH: As you’re aware, the Israeli settlers as a group, and I realize that that encompasses many different people with many different views, have a public relations problem in the United States. There have been incidents from time to time where settlers have committed acts of violence or harassment against Arab civilians. What can you and your movement do specifically to address both the public relations problem and the substantive issue of some settlers trying to take the law into their own hands?
I agree that we have a problem. It’s morally abhorrent to attack innocent Palestinians, as retaliation for something the government is doing. It’s appalling. Whoever thinks that it helps our cause, or the cause to get Samaria, is both a criminal and an idiot; it is the single most damaging thing that you can imagine for our cause.
But, first and foremost, it’s immoral. Thank God it hasn’t raised to the calamities that the Palestinians have committed but that’s not an excuse. When I heard President Obama say in Jerusalem, that settlers’ violence against Palestinians goes unpunished, I didn’t like the settlers either. I was ashamed that he could say that without utterly lying, OK.
Now, regarding what you referred to as the image problem and P.R. problem, I think that [settlers] are the most stereotyped and demonized population in the world. I don’t recognize the vast majority of my fellow settlers, when I look at that twisted mirror that we see in the media.
Whoever wants to understand the issue has to visit our communities. I met Tony Blair once and I invited him to visit our communities, and his answer was, “I see it from my helicopter.” From the helicopter, you do not see the faces, you do not hear the voices. You do not touch the souls of the people. Do you know who is the only dignitary that visited one of our communities? It was very surprising: Jimmy Carter. And the amazing thing was, when Jimmy Carter left the community, he said I do not envision that this specific place will leave Israeli hands.
We invest enormous energy and efforts exactly in that — in bringing those Israelis, not only foreign and foreign business, to see our communities, to feel the ground, to feel what really is a settlement, to understand what we want, to meet people. It’s important.
AH: For you it seems easy to scapegoat a few violent settlers. The hardship experienced by average Palestinians in the West Bank isn’t due to a couple of settler thugs, it’s because of the security and support given to so many Israelis living in this area.
I don’t think so. If a Palestinian believes that the presence of a Jew in a nearby community is a crime, then OK –
AH: That’s not what I said.
I have no problem living near the Palestinian community of Azun. I don’t see why the Palestinian guy from Azun has to be bothered by the fact that I am his neighbor. I think that there is ample room for many, many Jews and many, many Palestinians and coexistence between them. I think it is a psychological matter.
Regarding security, I will tell you two things. I am sure that the security measures applied in order to prevent attacks of terrorism are appropriate for the day-to-day life of Palestinians, I am sure. Yesterday, I flew from Washington to New York and the security line was excruciating. The real solution is [for the Palestinians] to abandon terror. There is no other real solution for that.
I think that the current choice should be to make life in Judea and Samaria normal. For all of us. Normal is that, yes, there are Palestinian villages and Jewish villages.
You asked about what I would say about a Muslim in a closed-door meeting. It’s this: The illusion that some Israelis maybe had, that if we would be tough enough to the Palestinians they will leave to South America or to Kuwait, was nonsense. And the illusion that they have, that they will kill us on the road or throw stones on the road for us, that we will leave to Tel Aviv or elsewhere – that is also illusion. We have to cope with that and make the best of this really complicated situation: the peculiarity of history that we were expelled from our home and then came back to live in it.
AH: The New Yorker quoted you recently saying that without the settlements in the West Bank, “We are a shallow people.” What did you mean by that?
Look, Yair Lapid, the Israeli finance minister, had the previous career of TV personality. He had a program where he interviewed all kinds of people, and every interview, he finished with a question: What is Israeli to you. There were a lot of answers. But in a way, the common answer was to sit on the Tel Aviv promenade facing the Mediterranean and the sunset with cold watermelon and a glass of beer. That’s really fun; I have tried it. But this is what I meant by a shallow experience. It cannot sustain the Zionist revolution.
We came to this specific land and not to any other to establish a homeland because we have the land – the roots that are given by Jewish history, by Jewish civilization, by Jewish tradition. From my home, I see a 2,000-year-old stone on which my forefather pressed grapes for wine. And that’s a huge comfort.
I am completely sure that if we leave Judea and Samaria, it will create great dissonance. I think we’ll have to stop learning Jewish history. We’ll have to stop teaching the Bible. You will not be able to reconcile the two. And ultimately, Israel will become a shallow society.
In other places in the world, you may be able to sustain a shallow society. In the Middle East, with enemies that want to uproot it, the shallow society has no chance to survive.
AH: How do you reconcile that view with your lack of religious observance?
It’s a question I haven’t settled with myself yet. (laughs) I am, I believe, a completely rational person. I consider myself a liberal.
Maybe the religious people do not need the roots and the strength that the land of Israel gives. We who do not have the religious beliefs and the religious commandments in order to link every day to our religion and our roots – we need it more badly.
I am a person full of complexities, and believe me, only complex persons will contribute to solving this conflict.
Persons that say, “Let’s put an international border here and that will solve the problem.” They have tried that for 20 years, for 40 years, for 100 years, and fail again and again. Yes, ultimately, the resolution of the conflict will be a complex one. I’m not saying I will do it, but maybe it will be done by complex Israelis and complex Palestinians.