NEW YORK – The idea that Israeli construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem is the main obstacle to achieving peace with the Palestinians is “nonsense,” Israel’s new Consul-General in New York Dani Dayan told The Jerusalem Post in an interview this week.
“It can be proven almost mathematically,” he added. “The Arabs did not recognize Israel before even one so-called settlement existed, that is a fact; Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, removing even the graves of our dead from there, and all we got is a launching pad for new aggression against Israelis is also a well-known fact that cannot be disputed.”
The issue surrounding settlements has been central to discussions about the Middle East peace process. As late as last Monday, it was brought up again during a briefing of the Security Council by UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nikolay Mladenov, who slammed Israel for continuing to build settlements and going against the Quartet’s recommendations published in a July report.
But Dayan, whose background as the former leader of the settlers’ movement has been largely discussed in the media after he was officially appointed to the New York position, said he fully identifies with Prime Minister Netanyahu on the issue.
“Look, settlements can be an obstacle to anything only if you believe that if a Palestinian state is established, it should be ethnically cleansed of Jewish presence,” he told the Post
. “Imagine for a moment Nelson Mandela saying that he wants majority rule, but not only majority rule, also the expulsion of all white persons from South Africa. Would he be the Nelson Mandela we admire? No. But for some reason, when Mahmoud Abbas says that, no one calls him to order.”
Dayan has often said that he does not believe in the two-state solution, but stresses he is not a decision-maker.
“Diplomacy is not about theories or ideology but about practice, about real life,” he said. “And whatever my views on that issue are, I heard very clearly both my prime minister and also many American experts and officials who say that it will not happen during my tenure in New York, during the next three or four years. And it will not happen for only one reason: Palestinian rejectionism.”
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This week marked a month since Dayan arrived in New York City to serve as Israel’s consul-general, a position he believes is “the most important position that the Israeli foreign service can offer a person.”
Dayan has been focusing over the past month on observing his new environment, from meetings with large American media organizations to hosting breakfasts at his residence with representatives of all segments of the local Jewish community.
Even though it is customary for political appointees to bring their own staff members from Israel to their diplomatic posts, he decided not to do so. Instead, Dayan wanted to work with the existing staff left behind by his predecessor, Ido Aharoni, something they much appreciated.
Dayan is still new to the job. The neatly organized and still somewhat empty desk in his office is a testimony to that. Nevertheless Dayan is not new to public life, and said he is ready to take on whatever comes his way.
“I’ve prepared myself for this position,” he told the Post
. “In some sense, I’ve prepared myself for this position my whole life.”
However, Dayan didn’t know he was going to represent Israel in New York until late March. He was originally appointed to serve as the country’s ambassador to Brazil, but Brazil refused to accept his appointment because of his affiliation with the settler movement.
“I already left it behind me,” he said.
According to Dayan, when Netanyahu called him over a year ago to ask him to take the ambassadorship in Brazil, he requested to be sent to New York, either to the United Nations or to the consulate.
“New York is the hub for public opinion-setters of this nation, and ultimately public opinion defines politics and not the opposite,” he explained. “We see it very clearly these days.”
While Netanyahu’s critics have said choosing Dayan for the US job was a testimony to how little the prime minister cares about the US-Israel relationship, the new consul makes it clear that this was no politically strategic move on Netanyahu’s part.
“It’s very hard to reconcile that theory with the fact that Isaac Herzog and Shelly Yacimovich and Yair Lapid fully supported my appointment,” he responded. “They saw me as maybe the most apt person to represent Israel in New York. Israeli politics are highly polarized. I am not sure there are many instances in which all the opposition leaders supported an appointment by the prime minister, but they supported mine. So to theorize that this was a political and not a substantive step by Prime Minister Netanyahu is quite absurd.”
In multiple recent interviews, Dayan has said that he has no trouble at all representing the policies of the Israeli government.
“Yes, I am the real thing,” he said. “I am a person who, if I may for a second take the diplomatic hat off, fully identifies with the current government. I don’t have to act as if I do, I really do.”
But Dayan knows he is also going to have to alleviate the concerns of many Israelis in this regard.
“I will tell my audiences the truth: when they see me, they see a person who fully represents the government of Israel, which is what an ambassador should do. I didn’t come to New York to represent a certain segment of Israeli society. I came to New York to represent all 50 shades of diversity that exist in Israel: I represent the LGBT activist from Tel Aviv and the Orthodox rabbi from Jerusalem. I represent the Muslim Israeli from Sakhnin and the Jewish resident of Hebron.”
Dayan also set himself another major priority for his three or four-year tenure: healing the rift created between US Jewry and Israel in recent years, not just by the signing of the Iran nuclear deal, but also by internal Israeli issues. These include the mikve (ritual bath) bill, the Western Wall praying issue, and unrecognized conversions among others.
“In that respect I will be an ambassador of American Jewry toward Jerusalem no less than an ambassador of Jerusalem toward American Jewry,” he told the Post
. “American Jews, whatever their denomination, are not only a strategic asset, they are our soul and blood. I believe in this from the bottom of my heart. I don’t believe in hyphenated Jews,” he said. “In the concentration camps there were no hyphenated Jews, and neither should there be now, here or in Israel, any hyphenated Jews.”
Dayan has made clear he will allocate a “disproportionate amount of time and effort” to strengthening this relationship. “This is what the consul-general in New York does,” he stated.
As he has said multiple times, Dayan did not come to preach to the choir, or “get standing ovations on whatever [he] will say about Israel. I am here also to answer difficult questions that merit responses, of those who love Israel, who are sympathetic and empathetic to Israel, but are also disenchanted with Israel and have legitimate questions about this policy or that policy, this action or that action.”
Beyond reconnecting the US Diaspora to Israel and discussing issues of religious pluralism, Dayan also aims to engage with the US society at large.
“Whoever will be blind to the changing demographics in the US will not do his job properly,” he told the Post
. “I intend to engage with many ethnic communities, but the Hispanic community in particular because it’s growing, it’s important.”
Dayan, who was born in Buenos Aires, speaks fluent Spanish and plans to “make good use of it.”
“If that’s good for Senator Kaine as VP candidate, it should also be good for me as the consul-general of Israel,” he said with a smile.
Beyond the Hispanic community, Dayan also intends to engage with American millennials.
“They are the future leadership of this country,” he said. “It’s safe to say that the last month of the electoral campaign here revealed that in regard to millennials, we have a lot to do.”
When it comes to the US elections, Dayan sticks to the generic phrase: “Any US president will be good for Israel.”
“You know, Prime Minister Netanyahu told me that even when I am asleep, I have to make sure I don’t speak about Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump and I intend to obey,” he said with a smile. “I can only say it’s fascinating – and I want to stress on the record that fascinating is a neutral word.”
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