The Man Who Stopped the Freeze
Coupled with the phone campaign—albeit to a government that is sympathetic to its cause—is a public relations effort targeted at everyday secular Israelis, most of whom live on the other side of the Green Line and have few ties, personal or otherwise, to the settlements or historic sites such as the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. More importantly, they have come to accept the inevitability of a two-state solution. “I wouldn’t call it PR,” Dayan says hesitantly. “It’s more like hasbara,” the Hebrew word that has come to mean public diplomacy. “We’ve shifted our focus,” he says. “We’re working to negate stereotypes. The Yesha Council was traditionally involved in promoting the interests of our communities, but we neglected the educational component of our task and failed to reach the Israeli public. The Israeli public needs to understand the historical link we have to the territories.”
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.”
Dayan and Bennett have also spearheaded a social media campaign to bring attention to Yesha. In August, Yesha co-sponsored a Wikipedia-editing course to help incorporate the settler narrative into entries on the popular online encyclopedia and further polish their image abroad. Together, an estimated 100 volunteers learned how to edit entries about Jewish claims to the West Bank, as well as contentious terms like “occupation.” “We have to battle Islamic groups that try to hurt Israel through the Internet,” says Bennett. To that end, the Yesha Council also established Yisrael Sheli [My Israel] earlier this year, a pro-settlement Facebook group with more than 15,000 members, which Bennett says is the largest Israeli online group to focus on national issues. “If you compare us to Peace Now, we are double their size,” he says of Yisrael Sheli.
But Dayan has an even more Herculean task to contend with than persuading Israelis that the settlements are vital. It has fallen on him—a man who prefers his iPhone to a gun––to hold the fractured settler movement together after what was a political and moral catastrophe for Yesha: its inability to prevent Ariel Sharon from uprooting 8,000 settlers in the 2005 disengagement from Gaza. In the settlers’ lexicon, this is referred to as girush—an expulsion—meriting the same term as Spain’s expulsion of the Jews in 1492. The Council’s traditional support base is rife with internal political divisions and includes extremists who believe violence is more effective than lobbying and public relations. Gershom Gorenberg, a longtime observer of the settlement movement and author of The Accidental Empire, observes 30 years after Yesha’s founding: “Dayan has chosen to sit on top of this volcano.”