Meet Dani Dayan, candidate who wants to bridge the Israel-Diaspora rift

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: New Hope politician Dani Dayan wants to foster unity, both within a fractured nation and with the Jewish world.

DANI DAYAN (left) is seen with New Hope Party leader Gideon Sa’ar. (photo credit: NEW HOPE PARTY)
DANI DAYAN (left) is seen with New Hope Party leader Gideon Sa’ar.
(photo credit: NEW HOPE PARTY)
In Dani Dayan’s worst nightmarish vision, the Jewish people split into two tribes, one of which is then lost because the State of Israel failed to prevent a fissure with its Diaspora communities.
The weight of world Jewry did not always hang so heavily on his shoulders.
Emigrating from Argentina at age 15, Dayan created a hi-tech company and then sold it, ditching the business world for politics with the then-singular mission of saving the settlement movement and preserving the Land of Israel.
Elected to head the Yesha Council in 2007, Dayan inherited a movement that had sunk to one of its lowest points in the aftermath of the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza and the destruction of the settlements there.
Soft-spoken, secular, with fluency in Spanish, Hebrew and English, Dayan was successful in building bridges between the council and mainstream Israel, as well as with the international community. As a result, a special envoy post was created for him on the council, even after he left his leadership role in 2013.
Still, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed Dayan to New York to be Israel’s consul-general in 2016, he raised many eyebrows. Sending a top settler advocate to represent Israel before left-wing Jewish communities, politicians and media in the Big Apple did not make sense to many people.
But, by all accounts, Dayan served Israel well, winning many friends for his respect for political and religious pluralism during a sensitive time in American politics and amid a rise in antisemitism that peaked with the worst antisemitic attack in American history at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh.
Dayan, 65, says he returned in 2020 a changed man. After representing Israel to US Jews, he is now ready to be the face of world Jewry in the Knesset and, he hopes, with the party that will lead the next government.
At the request of prime ministerial candidate Gideon Sa’ar, Dayan is entering national politics, seeking a Knesset seat with Sa’ar’s New Hope Party, and he is determined to use the post to advocate in Israel for American Jews and for world Jewry in general.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post conducted by Zoom, Dayan explained why he did not enter politics because of Netanyahu or in spite of him.
Why did you enter reenter politics when you had such a good life?
I have had a wonderful life. I didn’t intend to enter politics. But in my last months in New York, I felt uncomfortable with there being a bloated government, a Norwegian law and no state budget. I thought it was outrageous. It completely contradicted how I believe a country should be run.
Then Gideon Sa’ar announced he was forming a new party. I felt I finally had a party I could vote for without compromising my ethics. I knew I’d vote for him to make things better in Israel.
When he called me to ask me to be a candidate, we had a family consultation and we decided that when the country is in a dire situation, if I could make the situation better, I should.
It is the first time since Tehiya that I have a party I could vote for without hesitation, which suits my national, liberal and ethical beliefs. I consider myself a disciple of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir.
Why are you running in an anti-Netanyahu party after he fought to get you a diplomatic posting?
I have no personal quarrel or dispute with Prime Minister Netanyahu. He nominated me as consul-general, and I filled my position the best way I could, and I heard from the Right and Left that I did it with success.
But if Netanyahu would have told me I have to harm the vital interests of the State of Israel, I wouldn’t have taken the job. Those who believe I have to subjugate my integrity are part of the problem.
I have strong differences of opinion with Netanyahu on the Foreign Ministry. He drained the Foreign Ministry of budgets and brought it to a poor situation.
We have strong disagreements on the non-Orthodox Jewish communities in the US.
To use a diplomatic understatement, I wasn’t thrilled by his abandonment of the Democratic Party and his blind adherence to the Republican Party. He didn’t understand what I believe is vital in reaching out to minorities – African-Americans and Latinos – instead of just Evangelicals.
I could have stayed longer. My replacement hasn’t even been named yet.
During the last decade Netanyahu was seen, rightly or wrongly, in Washington as almost a card-carrying member of the Republican Party. [It was the same with our] embassy in Washington [when] I was in New York reaching out to the Democratic officials.
I doubt there is an Israeli at all, but for sure on the Center-Right, that has more cellphone numbers of Democratic senators and congressmen than I have on my personal iPhone, My staff knew that for every Republican that I meet, I should meet at least five or six Democrats.
Sa’ar will come to the Prime Minister’s Office without that burden of being considered almost a member of the Republican Party. For him it will be much easier to deal with a Biden administration than Netanyahu.
Were you promised a portfolio? Do you want to be Diaspora affairs minister?
I entered the political arena humbly without demands or expectations of one job or another. There is no doubt that I have been completely taken over by the issue of relations [between] Israel and world Jewry, especially American Jewry. It is in my blood now.
When I arrived in New York I had a feeling of déjà vu, of remembering what it means to be a Jew outside of Israel, [a feeling] that I had not experienced for almost 50 years.
I entered the political sphere almost as a one-issue person, the issue of the Land of Israel, but immediately in New York I was taken over by the Jewish people. I will be involved in those issues in the Knesset. It will be high on my agenda. Yes, I would support a bill requiring consulting the Diaspora on key issues.
People talk about the fissures between Israel and American Jewry. What bothers me is not next week’s headline in The Jerusalem Post in Israel or The Forward in New York on Israel-Diaspora relations. What keeps me awake at night is what will be written in a hundred years in the history books – that the Jewish people split into two unconnected tribes, or, worse, that we lost one of the tribes.
It is the responsibility of the Jewish state to work to prevent that. We are today the big brother in the relationship. I don’t feel that Israel fulfills its commitment as a Jewish state in that respect. I told Netanyahu that what he did to bridge that divide was not nearly enough.
How seriously would your party take antisemitism and what would you do to combat it?
When I arrived to New York, I wasn’t very concerned about antisemitism. I naively believed that violent, virulent antisemitism was a thing of the past.
But then reality hit me in the face. It started gradually. I remember flying spontaneously to Rochester, New York, to visit with the mayor there a Jewish cemetery that was desecrated, and then [there were] swastikas in a shul [synagogue] in Manhattan.
Then came Charlottesville. Charlottesville was a wake-up call for me. Virginia was not in my jurisdiction, but I made a point of going immediately. I was appalled by the stories I heard there.
No doubt, [however,] the most indelible event in my term was Pittsburgh.
I arrived in Pittsburgh that same day of the shooting. I spent the week embracing and shedding tears, participating in the funerals and paying shiva calls. From that day on everything changed. I arrived to the Tree of Life shul when the bodies were still laid out in the sanctuary, and I stayed for the whole week.
The following Shabbat there was a service in a huge synagogue, Rodef Shalom. It was a very long service, with speeches, chanting, singing. It ended with one anthem, only one anthem; that anthem was “Hatikvah.”
When people talk about the disconnection of American Jewry from Israel, I always remember that at their lowest, most tragic point, in order to reinforce themselves, they sang “Hatikvah” and only “Hatikvah.”
For Israel any antisemitic event, anywhere in the world, even if it happens thousands of miles from the shores of Tel Aviv, is a domestic issue. Antisemitism in Pittsburgh, in Ukraine, in Argentina, in Morocco, is a domestic issue for Israel, the Jewish state.
Even though we do not have authority to act, that does not mean we do not have responsibility. It’s true that it’s more challenging to apply that responsibility when we do not have authority, but we are not free from trying to fulfill that responsibility. That means in every meeting with [foreign] officials, the issues of antisemitism and protecting the Jewish communities should be raised, and raised forcibly.
Aren’t you compromising your integrity by supporting a candidate who may need to form a coalition with Meretz over a right-wing government led by Netanyahu?
It’s very clear Netanyahu can’t form a government, unless he forms one with Mansour Abbas, which is part of the problem. Abbas is the leader of the United Arab List, which is [the political wing of the Southern Branch] of the Islamic Movement in Israel. It will be clear that only Gideon Sa’ar can form a government, because Meretz and the Joint List are the only parties that rule him out. The reason we are going to our fourth election in two years is that Netanyahu can’t form a government.
Would New Hope annex West Bank settlements?
The question of sovereignty, unfortunately, is not relevant anymore, because of the commitment of Netanyahu not to do it.
We are in favor of applying Israeli law and jurisdiction over the Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria. I, for sure, am, both as a former chairman of [the] Yesha [Council] and as a resident of [the] Ma’aleh Shomron [settlement].
But we will have to honor the commitment that Netanyahu made to the US and other countries not to do it in the coming years. That commitment was marketed to the Israel public as something vague but is a very clear and strong international commitment on Israel.
Would New Hope support the legalization of settler outposts?
I, personally, have been involved in that matter of authorizing the young settlements since 2012. I was very instrumental in bringing the government to form the Edmond Levy committee, which was the first to deal with that issue.
I remember demonstrating in a sit-in in front of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office in 2013, calling on him to implement the Levy Report recommendations, unfortunately to no avail.
We are totally committed to the implementation of those recommendations and to the legalization of the young settlements [outposts].
Would your government build in Judea and Samaria despite US President Joe Biden?
You can rest assured that in a Sa’ar government, there will be not be a freeze of construction in Judea and Samaria.
Do you support the creation of a Palestinian state?
It is part of Sa’ar’s platform that no additional Arab state will be created between the Mediterranean and the [Jordan] River.
As in you would not support the creation of a Palestinian state?
That’s right.
What if Biden wants to move forward with a peace process?
We would explain why that is not the feasible solution to the conflict.
I don’t expect President Biden to jump-start negotiations soon. He understood the great mistake that most of his predecessors made.
Most of his predecessors, the moment they entered the Oval Office, they took us on one hand and they took the Palestinians on the other and jumped into the swimming pool of the peace process. The problem is that they neglected to check if there was any water in the swimming pool, and we cracked our heads, including the president’s head.
I think President Biden understands that in order to renew negotiations with the Palestinians, due to many reasons, most of them Palestinian internal issues, the time is not ripe to do it.
I believe that no president since World War II has entered the Oval Office with so many overwhelming problems on his agenda. Even if he has to deal with international topics, I believe that we are fifth or sixth on his priority list.
What is your plan to resolve the Palestinian conflict?
Unfortunately, Palestinian intransigence continues, and we do not see a viable solution to the conflict in the short term.
What about your long-term plan for peace with the Palestinians?
We always advocated that we would take steps to improve the quality of life, the dignity, of the Palestinians.
Under the current leadership, extremists and more extremists, I do not see that the situation allows for a rapid solution of the conflict. It’s a tragedy, but it’s also a fact.
I will tell you when the peace process will really start. The people think the peace process is about bridging the difference between us and the Palestinians on the so-called core issues: borders, security, refugees, Jerusalem, settlements, water. That is wrong. Those are technicalities. What prevents a peace process is the fact that the Palestinians continue to see us as illegitimate in this region.
There are some Palestinians who recognize that we are strong and therefore we are a fact on the ground, but that provides for a ceasefire, an armistice, not for a peace deal.
In order to achieve peace, they have to internalize that we are legitimate here, that we belong, that we are indigenous; and, unfortunately, I see the Palestinians going in the opposite direction.
A personal story. I was in the Park East Synagogue in Manhattan on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The keynote speaker was UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. He said in his speech something apolitical, a historical fact. He said that the Temple that was destroyed by the Romans in Jerusalem in the year 70 was a Jewish Temple, something obvious.
The following day the Palestinian envoy to the UN presented a strong letter of protest; he demanded that Secretary-General Guterres retract his statement. He said it was offensive to the Palestinian people.
As long as they continue see us as illegitimate colonizers in Tel Aviv and in Ma’aleh Shomron, the peace process did not start.
That is the reason the most important person in the peace process is the minister of education for the Palestinian Authority. The moment they will start educating that we belong, that we are legitimate, then that day the peace process will start, and then we will work hard to breach the gaps in the core issues.
If you do not believe in a Palestinian state, aren’t you also delegitimizing them?
I am not delegitimizing them. I understand what Israel’s security threats are. I understand perfectly that a Palestinian state – its sole intention will be to eliminate Israel.
From the window of my Ma’aleh Shomron home I see Tel Aviv as though it were in the palm of my hand. I know what will happen, from previous experiences, from Gaza and other events, if from that window, instead of me and my family and the IDF will be watching, a Palestinian state will be there.
We gave Gaza to Mahmoud Abbas, and we found there Hamas. Even if we sign a deal with Mahmoud Abbas, or his successor in Fatah, by ballot or by bullet, we know that Hamas is the ruler of that state.
Yes, the security of Israel is above all.