Dani Dayan's War: Can Israeli Settlers Control Both the West Bank and Themselves?

The man who heads an organization of 300,000 settlers is declaring victory in his fight against the two-state solution. But is he losing control of his own movement?

An Israeli flag hangs in what used to be the unauthorized settlement of Migron, demolished by Israeli authorities. (Reuters)

Dani Dayan has decided to come "out of the closet," he tells me as we sit in a coffee shop looking out onto the Judean hills earlier this summer. The head of the Yesha Council, which represents the approximately 300,000 Israelis who live in the West Bank, was not referring to his strident opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state; he's been an out-and-proud critic of the two-state solution for years, prominently showcased in an inflammatory op-ed last week. When we met in Jerusalem, he was actually in the process of coming out as a moderate. He has finally decided to take sides in the warring factions that comprise the settler movement.

"I would even dare to say that the only tangible threat that exists today for the continuing presence of Israel in Judea and Samaria [the biblical names for the West Bank] is our own mistakes," he tells me as he sips a double espresso. "My understanding of the events in the last few months ... is that I have to decide between the two ways, and not try to balance it anymore."

Dayan and I met as the Israeli government was preparing to evacuate the West Bank outpost Ulpana. The incident highlighted the growing rift between those two ways: the pragmatists in the movement, like Dayan, and the hardliners and ideologues who refuse to budge from the smallest amount of territory in the West Bank. "Trying to reconcile between them leads us nowhere -- a zigzag that leads nowhere," he says. "I have to pick a side."

Dayan article.jpg

Dani Dayan. (Wikimedia)

Calling Dayan a moderate is certainly a relative description for a man whose op-ed last week, which argued that "Israel's moral claim to [the West Bank], and the right of Israelis to call [it] home today, is therefore unassailable," earned him labels such as "anarchic," "beyond the borders of reality," "patently immoral and spectacularly unwise," "terrifying," and "dangerously naïve."

The more time I spent with him, the more it became clear that his temperance is only limited to his means, not his ends. Beneath his boardroom-style professionalism and carefully crafted image of "moderation," his ideology is as extreme as those he claims to be eschewing. And beneath his bravado and confidence about the permanence of Israeli presence in the West Bank lies a hint of fear about whether the settler movement is digging its own grave. Radical settler groups are breaking away from Dayan's umbrella organization, moving beyond even his already-extreme agenda and potentially endangering more than just the settler movement.

As the most powerful single force in Israeli politics today, the future of the settler movement may be one of the most significant -- and most overlooked -- factors in whether Israelis and Palestinians will be able to resolve their decades-long conflict any time soon. As Thomas Friedman argued in The New York Times this week, partially in response to Dayan's article, "There are real lives at stake."

•       •       •       •       •

Dayan immigrated to Israel from Argentina in 1971 at the age of 15, founded a successful IT company in Tel Aviv in the 1980s, and moved to the West Bank settlement of Maaleh Shomron. He took over the Yesha Council in 2007, a moment when the settler movement was in shambles after Israel's unilateral evacuation of 8,000 Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip. "It was virtually inexistent," he says in faintly accented English.

Dayan is motivated by nationalism and his view of Israel's long-term interests, but not by the Jewish faith itself. As only the second-ever secular chairman of an organization that is largely driven by religious settlers (Dayan was the only non-religious member of the council's 80-person executive committee), he faced the difficult task of rebuilding the movement and providing a vision for a group that seemed to be investing itself in a failing project.

Short and husky with a jovial personality and a steely gaze that peers from behind sensible, wire-rimmed glasses, his calm demeanor seems more fitting to a boardroom than the hilltop caravans that most people associate with settlers. He has tried to bring a businessman's composure to the movement, focusing on the long view and concrete gains rather than theatrical rabble-rousing.

For the first few years of his tenure, he tried to stay above the movement's internecine feuds in order to keep it from splintering. He never had patience for the symbolic resistance to Israeli soldiers, for which many settlers were advocating in the lead-up to the Ulpana evacuation. "They say, 'We are not friars [a popular Israeli slang word for 'suckers'], let's be like the Bedouins -- when you try to evacuate the Bedouin illegal outpost then hell breaks and then maybe the police is deterred'," he says, trying to explain their rationale.

"But we are not Bedouins," he counters, "in the sense that we have a responsibility to the Israeli society that the Bedouins do not have," he says, in one of the many not-so-subtle jabs he takes at Arabs over the course of our conversation. Dayan thinks these tactics "lead nowhere, gain no benefits," and "alienate the Israeli society from supporting us."

Dayan would rather engage in Washington-style lobbying campaigns, such as deploying thousands of robocalls to politicians and influential figures in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party. He credits this strategy for successfully pressuring Netanyahu not to renew the U.S.-brokered ten-month settlement freeze in 2010, even against the direct beseeching of U.S. President Barack Obama, as well as an American offer of 20 F-35 jets worth $3 billion. He's also launched a public relations campaign that includes wine and organic cheese tastings in the West Bank for Israeli tourists, as well as Wikipedia-editing workshops for settler activists and a Facebook page with over 15,000 fans.

But Dayan's relatively responsible stewardship of the settlement movement has been eclipsed in recent months by his struggles against internal fringe elements that have become increasingly radical and violent. Their rage has culminated in the "price tag campaign," the name given to acts of random violence by Israeli settlers who, according to The New York Times, "exact a price from local Palestinians or from the Israeli security forces for any action taken against their settlement enterprise."

Dayan is quick to condemn the campaign. "It's terrible, terrible, terrible, it's a terrible thing," he exclaims. "First off, from the moral point of view, it's really terrible, a shame," he says with visible annoyance, as if it is a line he has had to repeat numerous times over the past few months. "And it's the greatest damage that I can see today to our cause, and so the people that do these things, if they think that they help our cause, they are both criminals and stupid."

So Dayan has finally decided to take a stand. The same week that he "went out of the closet" to me last month, he gave a bombastic interview to leading Israeli daily Yedioth Aharonot in which he dropped all pretenses of representing the radical fringes of his movement.

"There are those in the community of settlers who need to receive two slaps in order to wake up from this nonsense. We live in the psychology of siege and cannot seem to break free," he told Maariv. "There are those fanatics who are disconnected from reality -- out of touch -- so that according to them [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is Titus [who destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD], [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak is Chmielnicki [who massacred tens of thousands of Jews in the 1600s], and [Likud politician] Benny Begin is Flavius Josephus, the traitor. ... This is total nonsense and idiocy."

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Zvika Krieger is a former editor and writer at The New Republic and a former correspondent for Newsweek based in Egypt and Lebanon, covering most of the Arab world. More

Krieger has received fellowships to study topics including the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, the Kifaya reform movement in Egypt, public health in Bombay slums, religious identity in Kashmir, historical memory in Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank, and the role of religion in Lebanese politics. He has also reported from such places as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Libya, North Ireland, Sri Lanka, Japan, and Korea. His work has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Guardian, Slate, New York, Arab Reform Bulletin, New Stateman, Chronicle of Higher Education, Daily Star (Lebanon), Cairo Magazine, Jerusalem Post, Christian Science Monitor, and various other publications, and he has appeared as a Middle East analyst on NBC News, CNN, Fox News, and Air America. His writings have earned him awards from the Overseas Press Club, the Scripps Howard Foundation, and the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies. He is a fellow at the Truman National Security Project. He has a bachelor's degree in Middle East Studies from Yale University and studied Arabic at the American University in Cairo.

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