Thursday, January 20, 2011

The secular leader of the "settlers"

Yesterday I linked to an interview with Dani Dayan, head of the Yesha Council, in the Washington Times.

Moment magazine has published its own interview with him, and it is fascinating:

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.”

...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.”

...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.”

...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.”