January 17 2013 / New Statesman
One morning late last year in Tel Aviv, I had coffee with Danny Dayan, the chairman of the Yesha Council and leader of Israel’s settler movement. It was warm and sunny and, because I had to catch a flight back to wintry London later that afternoon, I asked if we could sit outside on the café‘s terrace. He pulled up a chair and then, looking straight at me, said in English: “The settlements are a fait accompli.” There was no preamble or attempt at contextual explanation; it was as if, before our conversation could begin, he wanted there to be no doubt over just where he stood on the issue of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, which the settlers refer to as the old Jewish lands of Judaea and Samaria.
Dayan is a resonant name in Israel. Danny is distantly related to Moshe Dayan (1915-81), one of Israel’s most uncompromising Sabra (native born) military leaders. Born in Argentina, he was 15 when he moved with his family to Israel in 1971. An economist and software entrepreneur, he likes to beguile, even to charm, sceptical reporters.
In manner and appearance he was not what I expected of an unyielding defender of the settler movement. Clean-shaven, urbane and wearing a casual, open-necked pale blue shirt, he seemed less like a religious or poli - tical zealot than a metropolitan intellectual who wouldn’t be out of place among the café cultural elite of Buenos Aires. His heroes were less surprising: the messianic “revisionist” Zionist Vladimir Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin, a leader of the militant Irgun and founder of Likud.
On 8 January, Dayan announced that he was resigning as chairman of the Yesha Council so that he could campaign for Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu party during the election period. When we met, he described as “magnificent” Netanyahu’s expansion of settlement-building after a ten-month freeze but, unlike the prime minister, he does not profess to support a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine stalemate. A one-state solution was also obviously anathema to him – as it is to most liberal Jews, for whom an Israel with a majority Arab population would imply either the end of the democratic Jewish state or the emergence of a de facto apartheid state, with the Arab majority deprived of full citizenship and democratic rights.
“My conscience is clear on the settlements,” Dayan said that morning in Tel Aviv. “Before 1994, I would have nothing to do with South Africa . . . Israel is not like apartheid South Africa. [The war of] 1967 was an unforgivable act of aggression . . . [The Arabs] did not want us to exist. It’s their own fault there’s no Palestinian state.”
Home for Dayan is the hilltop settlement of Ma’ale Shomron, 20 miles from Tel Aviv, in the occupied West Bank, where he went to live in “an act of unity” during the first intifada. He hurried me through a brief history of the Israeli-Arab wars of 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982 and on into the present. His conversation was annotated and footnoted with references to various failed international initiatives: the 1937 Peel commission, the Arab League’s rejection of the 1947 UN partition plan for Palestine, and so on. The object was to demonstrate Arab intransigence.
When Ariel Sharon ordered the unilateral evacuation of the settlers from Gaza in 2005 (Israel had disbanded the settlements in Sinai after the peace accord with Egypt in 1979), 8,000 people were uprooted. But there are now as many as 600,000 Jews living in East Jerusalem and the occupied territories of the West Bank. Ever since Israel began building on the land seized from Egypt, Syria and Jordan during the 1967 “six-day” war, the remorseless logic of the carve-up and occupation of the West Bank has been that the settlements will harden into something permanent and immovable. As a result, the creation of a Palestinian state will become incrementally more difficult, until one day it is no longer viable.
Yet for Dayan, though he thinks there is “no solution” to the Israel-Palestine conflict, the “status quo is also not acceptable”. He expects the Hashemite dynasty in Jordan to crumble from within like a rotten tooth or be toppled in an uprising before too long. Jordan will become an ethnic-Palestinian-majority controlled state and this, in his account, will change the dynamic of the conflict.
“That there is no solution is the bad news. But what we can do is improve the status quo. We must improve the human rights of the Palestinians and give them freedom of movement. The barrier [or security wall] is a disgrace and should be dismantled. Eventually we should try to reach agreement with Jordan on joint responsibility [for the West Bank], with the River Jordan as the dividing line of sovereignty. The solution will be peculiar because the conflict is so peculiar: there’s no other example of a people returning to their homeland after 2,000 years.” With that, he chuckled, shook my hand and was gone.