JERUSALEM (AP) — For years, Dani Dayan was the West Bank settler movement’s face to the outside world. Next week, he’ll become the face of Israel to much of North America.
Dayan takes office Aug. 1 as Israel’s new consul general in New York, overseeing his country’s biggest diplomatic mission and serving as its representative to the world’s financial and cultural capital.
He will also be in charge of outreach to the largest Jewish community outside Israel at a time of disagreements over Mideast peace and Jewish pluralism.
Dayan’s appointment reflects the settler movement’s strong influence in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. It’s also a personal victory for Dayan, whose previous appointment as ambassador to Brazil was scuttled earlier this year, apparently because of Brazil’s opposition to his settler ties. The international community, including Israel’s closest friends, opposes Israeli settlements on lands occupied since the 1967 war, saying they undermine prospects for establishing an independent Palestinian state.
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Dayan, a personable and soft-spoken former high-tech businessman, downplayed the blowup with Brazil, saying he only accepted the appointment under pressure from Netanyahu while the New York post was always his first choice.
“I want to be at the forefront of Israel’s diplomacy, and the forefront of Israel’s diplomacy is New York,” Dayan told The Associated Press.
Dayan will be responsible for a five-state territory that is home to some 40 percent of the American Jewish population of 6.8 million. New York and New Jersey alone have more than 2.2 million Jews.
Dayan will find communities that may have a strong affinity for Israel but also strongly disagree with his government’s policies, particularly the younger generation.
“Most Jews are liberal, many are highly liberal,” said Steven M. Cohen, an expert on the American Jewish community at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “Those who are — generally younger, non-Orthodox, highly educated and U.S.-born — are likely to care little about Israel and care even less for the policies extolled … by Israel’s new consul general.”
Peter Beinart, a prominent liberal commentator, predicted Dayan will be welcomed by the mainstream American Jewish leadership and socially conservative Orthodox Jews.
But “for progressive Jews, he’ll be just one more reason to feel alienated from a government they already consider morally alien,” Beinart said.
Dayan said he welcomes the opportunity to discuss the rifts. He said he plans to spend a “hugely disproportionate slot” of time meeting with Israel’s supporters disenchanted with Netanyahu’s policies.
“I don’t come to New York to preach to the choir,” Dayan said. “I definitely intend to engage.”
A 2013 Pew Research Center poll found widespread skepticism among American Jews about Israel’s commitment to peace with the Palestinians and strong opposition to settlement construction in the West Bank.
Also, the two largest streams of American Jewry, the Reform and Conservative movements, have feuded with Israel’s government over what they say are broken promises to establish an egalitarian prayer site at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.
Dayan said his past work as head of the Yesha settlement council and his personal opposition to a Palestinian state are irrelevant. He said his job in New York is to represent all Israelis, Jews and Arabs alike, maintain bipartisan support for Israel and represent his government’s policies — not his personal opinions.
That means defending Netanyahu’s stated commitment to a two-state solution with the Palestinians and resolving the Jerusalem prayer issue.
With religious parties in the government opposed to a liberal prayer area at the Western Wall, Dayan vowed to help find a solution that avoids confrontation and “guarantees every Jew basic rights for worship.”
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest stream of American Jewry, said he welcomed Dayan’s openness and promised a “respectful” relationship. But he predicted tough conversations ahead.
“I think in a majority of North American Jewish communities his views are not anywhere near where our community is,” he said.
The 60-year-old Dayan said his diverse background and record as a bridge builder will serve him well. Born in Argentina, he immigrated to Israel as a teenager in 1971. A native Spanish speaker, he says he will use his language skills to reach out to American Hispanics.
In his youth, Dayan served seven years in an Israeli military computer unit and then founded an information technology company that grew to 600 employees before he sold his interest in 2005. He subsequently led the Yesha settlers’ council. He lives in Maalei Shomron, a settlement northeast of Tel Aviv. In contrast to the stereotypical religiously motivated West Bank settler, he is secular and cosmopolitan.
The only groups he plans on avoiding are those who reject Israel’s right to exist.
“Those are fanatics. There’s no point in engaging them,” he said. “I am a deep believer in putting even the delicate issues on the table as long as we do it in a dignified way, in a way that does not insult.”