Interview

Not Settling For Less

Foreign Policy speaks to Daniel Dayan, a leader of the Israeli West Bank settler movement, about holding Benjamin Netanyahu to his word, and how if Barack Obama were any worse he’d be Bill Clinton.

YEHUDA RAIZNER/AFP/Getty Images
YEHUDA RAIZNER/AFP/Getty Images

Only three weeks after the fragile Middle East peace talks kicked off, they could easily run aground over the thorny issue of Israeli settlement construction. And it is little surprise that, in this struggle for territory, there is little common ground among the advocates and detractors of Israel’s settlement project in the West Bank. The settlements are either a violation of the Palestinian right to a sovereign state and an increasingly daunting obstacle to a lasting peace, or the natural expansion of the Jewish community into their ancient homeland of Judea and Samaria.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s partial moratorium on settlement construction is set to expire on Sept. 26. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has demanded an extension of the freeze — a position supported by President Barack Obama’s administration. Netanyahu, however, has remained adamant that construction will resume when the moratorium ends.

What has caused the Israeli prime minister to risk the ire of his powerful American ally? In part, it is the Yesha Council, an umbrella organization of Jewish settlements in the West Bank that presses the communities’ case with Israeli leaders. More than one-third of the Israeli Knesset is a member of the Land of Israel caucus, which supports the settlement enterprise. The movement is led by Daniel Dayan – the organization’s first secular leader and a resident of the Maale Shomron settlement in the northern West Bank, which is the home to approximately 600 people.

Foreign Policy spoke with Dayan by phone about what he expects to happen after the settlement freeze expires, how his organization can put pressure on Netanyahu, and why he considers Obama "the most hostile president toward Israel that I can remember."

Foreign Policy: What do you believe will happen when the moratorium on settlement construction expires? What are your plans?

Daniel Dayan: You have to understand that the expiration of the moratorium is a precondition for the ability to build, but it is not a sufficient condition. In order to build at full pace we need the government to publish tenders for construction, mainly in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank], and these are questions we have to deal with.

Not extending the moratorium but not publishing new tenders for construction will mean a de facto prolongation of the moratorium. In the cabinet decision of November 2009 [that imposed the freeze] there were two parts: The first part was the moratorium itself, the ten-month freeze. The second part was a clause that said, at the end of the moratorium construction will be renewed as it was in the former government. We expect the government to stand by this commitment as meticulously as it enforced the first part of the resolution.

Otherwise, of course, we will exert our political leverage in the Israeli political system to make sure that the expiration of the moratorium is not just de facto but that it means proper construction.

FP: Obama has engaged in a very public outreach to Jewish leaders in the United States as these negotiations got off the ground. Have you seen any shift in his tone in the past months?

DD: I would say that we have seen a more polite attitude toward Prime Minister Netanyahu. We still remember the shameless, ugly picture the White House released a year ago with President Obama speaking with Prime Minister Netanyahu by phone with his feet on the table. I still remember the ugly treatment Prime Minister Netanyahu, as a representative of the people of Israel, got during several of his previous visits to Washington.

Unfortunately, I think that President Obama is the most hostile president toward Israel that I can remember. You have to understand that [Obama’s rhetoric] has political significance. I think that the fact that President Obama, with his cold attitude toward Israel, raised expectations on the Palestinian side so high that it will create frustration when those expectations are not fulfilled. And you know, unfortunately, frustration in the Middle East usually leads to violence.

You know who is the American president that caused the most damage in the Middle East? It was Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton took office in January 1993, when the Middle East was relatively calm, by Middle Eastern standards. And he stepped down from office in January 2001, when the Middle East was in a completely chaotic and violent situation.

I think it is not a coincidence that happened during President Clinton’s administration, because he was the president that advocated most actively and most aggressively [for] the establishment of a Palestinian state. He raised expectations that he could not fulfill, because the demands of the Palestinians are unfulfillable.

I pray that President Obama does not break President Clinton’s record in worsening the situation in the Middle East. But I fear that he will.

FP: On the settlements in particular, what do you object to about the Obama administration’s approach?

DD: The Obama administration is supposed to be a morally driven administration — an administration that advocates fair play. And we see here one party, the Palestinians, blatantly putting preconditions on negotiations [by requesting a settlement freeze for talks to continue]. What I would expect from an honest broker is to tell that side: Look, this is a direct negotiation without preconditions — please don’t put any preconditions whatsoever. But amazingly, instead of doing that, we see the administration pressing [Israel] to accept it.

As a matter of fact, Mr. Abbas and the Palestinians’ attitude of threatening to leave the negotiations if their precondition is not accepted is really a sort of blackmail. And the way to treat blackmail is not to appease the blackmailer, but to reject his threats. That’s what the [Obama] administration should do.

FP: Do you believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s rhetoric has changed since he took office? Had you believed that he would be a different type of prime minister?

DD: I do not judge statesmen by their intentions or their tactics, but by their decisions. And during his tenure, since he came into office, he took decisions that are completely opposed to the things he preached during his whole political career. Namely, that a Palestinian state ten miles from Tel Aviv and four or five miles from Ben-Gurion Airport would pose an existential threat to the state of Israel. You know, in his book, Prime Minster Netanyahu says that freezing construction is a code word for drowning out a community and ultimately eradicating it.

I think he has entered into a process that is dangerous to the very existence of Israel. There is a legend that the Palestinians residing in the West Bank are more moderate [than the Palestinians in the Hamas-governed Gaza Strip]. In fact, in the last parliamentary elections, Hamas won both in the West Bank and in Gaza. Therefore, the moment Israel leaves — we hope it will never happen — but the moment Israel leaves [the West Bank], the clock will start to tick for the end of the political life, and maybe also the end of the biological life, of the Fatah leader, Mr. Abbas, and his colleagues.

And Hamas may take over in weeks or months, exactly as happened in Gaza. The difference of course is that in Judea and Samaria, the surrounding areas are the most populated metropolitan areas of Israel. Therefore, the establishment of a Palestinian state could be an existential threat for Israel.

Ultimately, it will also endanger America and Western interests in the Middle East because, in a matter of in a very short period, [the West Bank] will become a proxy Iranian enclave between Israel and Jordan, two allies of the United States.

FP:< /b> Assuming that the Netanyahu government does not let settlement construction resume after the settlement freeze expires, what can your organization do to bring pressure on the government?

DD: Well, we are an NGO, we do not have our hands in the parliament. But look, we are a democracy, and in the elections of February 2009 the decision of the Israeli electorate was crystal clear in favor of continuing natural development for our communities and against the creation of a hostile Palestinian state in settlement area. Therefore, yes, we have political leverage in the Knesset.

Ultimately, the extension of the moratorium will bring about the collapse of the Netanyahu government. Netanyahu cannot hold together a government that builds less than [former Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert’s in settlement areas. I think that pressing Netanyahu too hard to extend the moratorium, which is not feasible politically in Israel, will bring new elections — and of course, that will interfere with the negotiations.

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