- The Washington Times - Monday, January 17, 2011

JERUSALEM | With a clean shave and no yarmulke, Dani Dayan defies the popular stereotype of a Jewish settler. But as head of the Yesha Council, the largest organization representing the 300,000-plus Jewish residents of the West Bank, he stands at the forefront of efforts to prevent the world’s vision of a Palestinian state from becoming reality.

“The aim [of Yesha] is to make sure that Judea and Samaria are kept as an integral part of Israel,” he says in an interview with The Washington Times, using the names of the Biblical lands that make up the West Bank — the territory that would comprise the heartland of Palestine.

Yet in the same breath, Mr. Dayan says he opposes bringing the disputed area under Israeli sovereignty.

“I don’t think that annexation is an option right now,” he says. “It’s not an option because of the international arena, because of constraints that we are well aware of. Also because of the question of citizenship for the Arab population and other practical questions. I think that every person that watches the developments understands that annexation is not within the range of realistic options Israel has.”

Though the proposition of annexing the West Bank has lost ground with Israeli voters in recent years, largely because of fears that a formalized “Greater Israel” would imperil the state’s Jewish majority, it retains support among many settler activists and several right-wing Knesset members.

Mr. Dayan says that though he theoretically supports annexing the West Bank “in the long term,” any such move would have to be preceded by a shift of “one of the major geopolitical parameters.”

“For instance, I can foresee that if some day there is a regime change in Jordan, which is a country with a predominantly Palestinian population, that will be a major change that will open a whole range of solutions that today are not viable and suddenly will become viable.”

He quickly emphasizes that he does not advocate Israeli action to precipitate such an outcome.

Because the West Bank was never annexed to Israel after it was captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War, it is not subject to a new Israeli law that requires a thumbs-up from Israeli voters — or a Knesset supermajority — for any Israeli withdrawal from areas under state sovereignty.

A unilateral Israeli withdrawal from large swaths of the West Bank would not trigger a referendum, but a final-status agreement would. Any deal is widely expected to involve Israeli concessions in East Jerusalem, which was annexed after the war and “land swaps” whereby Israel would cede its territory to a Palestinian state in return for annexing certain West Bank settlement blocs.

Mr. Dayan prefers not to entertain the thought, saying “101 percent of my time and my thoughts are dedicated to the question of how to avoid that day.” He says he welcomes the opportunity to vote against a proposal that would necessitate the evacuation of tens of thousands of Israeli settlers.

“We, of course, will do everything in our power to win the referendum if we think that the agreement is bad,” he said.

While Mr. Dayan stops short of saying he would accept defeat, he acknowledges that the magnitude of a loss would matter.

“I think if the referendum is carried out in a fair way — without manipulations and without dirty tricks by the government — the larger the majority, the more people will abide by it,” he says.

Given that roughly one-fifth of Israeli citizens are Arabs, Mr. Dayan indicates that a Jewish majority — or lack thereof — would have symbolic importance.

“If it’s a majority that derives from the fact that Arab citizens of Israel use their legal right to vote in the referendum but their hidden agenda was how to weaken Israel, that is a problem,” he says.

Mr. Dayan took a lobbying trip to Washington in September, when the White House presided over the launch of direct Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Palestinians bolted the talks weeks later in protest of Israel’s refusal to extend its 10-month moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank.

On his flight back from Washington, Mr. Dayan recounts that he found himself seated across the aisle from Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator. After some hesitation, he introduced himself.

“We chatted for 30 minutes,” Mr. Dayan says. “I suspect that he tried on me the speech he has prepared for Jewish communities in the United States, full of empty slogans and cliches, and after some 30 minutes, a British guy that was sitting in the row beside us told us, ‘Guys, it’s very interesting, but I want to sleep.’”

“And so, once again, Great Britain damaged the prospects of peace in the Middle East,” he says.

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