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

So if Dayan thinks that the creation of a Palestinian state is both unfeasible and catastrophic, then what is his endgame? The traditional argument for the two-state solution is that, unless Israel withdraws from the West Bank, demographics will one day lead Arabs to outnumber Jews between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea, forcing Israel to choose between being Jewish or democratic. Does Dayan envision a scenario that does not "drive Israel right off a cliff."

Dayan does, in fact, have an endgame, which he professorially explains to me as he sips his coffee. And it is here that it becomes clear that, while he may be breaking from the radical members of his movement over their violent or theatrical tactics, he most certainly shares their extremist vision for the future.

Dayan proposes a "two-stage solution" -- a concept that you more often hear to describe Palestinians who want a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a temporary staging ground to take over all of Israel. Dayan has his own twist on the concept -- "not, of course, like the Palestinians want," he explains with a smile.

The first stage, as he describes it, is "finding an equilibrium on the ground" -- in other words, maintaining the status quo of Israeli control of the West Bank. He acknowledges that "it's not ideal for anyone, not for Israelis, not for Palestinians, but it's, you know, it's satisfying." He argues that the Israeli occupation provides security to the West Bank, relative autonomy for the regions where 98 percent of West Bank Palestinians live, and a relatively booming economy -- all points that are certainly debatable, especially from the Palestinian perspective. Proposing a permanent Israeli presence in the West Bank places Dayan firmly outside mainstream discussion of how to resolve the conflict -- a position that erodes the "moderate" image he is trying to cull.

"Soon the situation will be irreversible, and a Palestinian state would not be able to be established."

Even Dayan admits that the status quo as it exists today is not acceptable to the Palestinians, suggesting that Israel would "have to make improvements, even dramatic improvements, as much as we can, as much as security allows." He highlights "human rights" and the treatment of Palestinians as "the main shortcoming right now" and advocates for removing as many checkpoints as possible to bolster their quality of life.

Before Dayan can engage with the reality that none of his steps would actually satisfy Palestinians, he quickly moves to telling me about the second stage of his end game, which begins with a story from his recent trip to Jordan. "I saw the personality cult, it's pathetic," he says of Jordan's Israel-allied monarchy, as Dayan waves jovially to a former Netanyahu chief of staff who walked into the coffee shop. "They know they need to put everywhere the picture of the king and the heir to the throne, an ugly 18-year-old boy with glasses, in order to promote loyalty."

Dayan believes that the days are numbered for this "primitive way of governing," particularly in light of the Arab Spring. He shares the assessment of numerous right-wing Israelis who predict, improbably, that Palestinians in Jordan (who constitute a majority there, according to some estimates) will overthrow Jordan's government, and turn it into a Palestinian state -- a scenario that analysts consider deeply improbable. Dayan is confident that "the Palestinian majority will take the helm [in Jordan], the control of the country," allowing for "a whole new range of solutions that today are unfeasible."

Dayan envisions two states, but not the two states you might be thinking of: "Israel west of the Jordan River and Palestine east of the Jordan River [in what is now Jordan], with shared responsibility, not sovereignty, responsibility for the Arab population of the West Bank ... and even over the places in East Jerusalem." Israel would retain sovereignty over all the territory west of the Jordan Rover ("because sovereignty means security"), while Palestinians in the West Bank would vote for the parliament in the new Palestinian state of Jordan. Dayan's revival of the "Jordan is Palestine" meme, which resurfaces every few years on the Israeli far-right as a way to avoid establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank, also places him firmly outside the mainstream.

As for Gaza, he thinks the ideal solution is to create an independent Palestinian state there, since "I don't see Gaza and the West Bank linked in any way in the future." He compares it to the establishment of Bangladesh from the geographically separate section of Pakistan. "There are smaller states than Gaza," he says. "Of course it's not smaller I think than Singapore." (It is actually half the size of Singapore.) He sees Gaza already as an independent state today, "whether [the Palestinians] call it a state or not" -- and if they did decide to declare independence there, "I don't think Israel will make any problems about that."

Despite the fact that the Yesha Council (an acronym for Judea, Samaria, and Gaza in Hebrew) still retains the "A" in its name, which stands for Gaza in Hebrew, and to which many settlers in his movement hope to return in the future, Dayan sees himself as a pragmatist who deals strictly in the realm of the possible. "I would like the Gaza disengagement rewinded, but I do not invest my energy in lost causes," he says. "One of the funny things is that people say that we are, I don't know, messianic. But we, the setters, are the most realistic group all over the Middle East."

He believes that these arrangements would address Israel's -- and the international community's -- concerns about demography and democracy. "I am not advocating a one state solution. Not in the first nor in the second stage," he says. "So demography, as much as it is important, is not the crucial thing." To be sure, his conception of a "two-state solution" is very different than what most of the international community envisions for Palestinian statehood in the West Bank. "Realistic" is not a word that most would attribute to his vision for resolving the conflict.

He admits that his solution is "complicated" and stretches traditional conceptions of international relations, sovereignty, and diplomacy. "The conflict here is so peculiar that it will need a peculiar solution," he says. He does not seem concerned that the Palestinians would be unlikely to ever accept such an arrangement.

The big problem, he says, is the rest of the world. He wants to convince the international community that the traditional conception of the two-state solution is just not possible. "The international community [needs to] understand that this is the maximum that we can attain right now," he says, "and shift its position from deploring the status quo to supporting it."

•       •       •       •       •

Dayan is sanguine about the fate of his cause. He believes that his movement is growing stronger, that he is victorious over its internal ideologues, and that both domestic and regional forces are aligning against the establishment of a Palestinian state. "In the overall picture, I am very optimistic about the future of Judea and Samaria," he says, leaning back in his chair, putting his hands on his paunch, and looking up into the air.

The settlers may be their own worst enemies.

To be sure, Dayan is lukewarm at best on Netanyahu. He describes the first 18 months of the prime minister's term -- when he declared his support for a two-state solution in a speech at Bar Ilan University and then implemented a settlement freeze -- as "catastrophic," a period which he blames on Netanyahu being "terrified of Obama."

Now he sees Netanyahu as "a moderate ally," but not necessarily a true believer. "I can't see a situation in which Bibi makes a strategic decision to go towards a unilateral move or an interim agreement with the Palestinians or something like that," Dayan says. "But I cannot go to sleep and say, 'Okay Bibi's all right, you can rest'."

But Dayan is surprisingly optimistic about a second Obama term. He believes that the U.S. president has scaled back his efforts in the peace process, and particularly against settlement construction, not because of "electoral politics" but rather due to a hard-learned understanding "that trying to push for something unattainable in the Middle East will only humiliate him and bring no benefits." He explains, "People say the bad old Barack Obama will reappear the day after the election if he is reelected, but I think that the second-term Obama will be much more similar to the second half of [the first-term of] the Obama administration than the first half."

The irony is that the settler movement, at a time when external factors seem to be lining up almost perfectly in its favor, seems poised to implode from within -- and undermine its own success. "We are standing on the edge of a historic victory against the left, since soon the situation will be irreversible, and a Palestinian state would not be able to be established," Dayan boasts. Centrist politician Tzipi Livni, he told Maariv, "told me she doesn't sleep at night because we are winning. ... But [the settlers] are still stuck with our spikes and our paintballs. There was a time when eviction threatened us, when this was justified. Now we need to know how to break free from this."

Despite Dayan's self-declared victory, the reality is that he is far from consolidating power even over the settler movement. Last month, hardline Likud politician and influential settler leader Moshe Feiglin called for the settlers to break off from the Yesha Council, while Migron's residents recently announced that Dayan no longer represents them. "If Yesha [Council] calls now, people will not answer," Boaz Haetzni, who leads one of the numerous radical settler groups that have recently splintered from the council, told Moment magazine. "Lots of groups are working without the Yesha Council, and avoiding it entirely. Everybody has his own agenda."

As settlers abandon Dayan's organization, they may no longer face the constraints that accompany Dayan's mainstream pretensions. "We don't like extremism, but when the situation is extreme, a moderate response is madness," Haetzni said. Forcing them out of the Yesha Council may have paved the way for the violent "price tag campaign," which Dayan has not been able to curb despite his vocal condemnations. "The problem is that people in our camp actually sanctify violence," Dayan says.

And he may even be losing at his own game of emphasizing politics over protests: Dayan failed to prevent factions of his movement from an attempt to unseat Netanyahu as the head of the Likud party during its primary earlier this year. He blames them for Netanyahu's decision to form a (now-defunct) coalition with centrist party Kadima, comparing it to the settler movement's role in toppling the settler-friendly Likud government after the 1992 Madrid Conference on peace talks. Once again, the settlers may be their own worst enemies. <>

"The pyramid of control cannot be the same when we are 360,000 like it was when we were 20,000," Dayan laments of the splinters within his movement, seeming anxious for the first time in our conversation. "When your power is strong, then you have to be much more responsible in knowing how to use it, and maybe more than that, how not to use it."

Alex Eppler, Noah Nunez-Gross, and Shira Telushkin contributed research.

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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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