Why Dani Dayan’s candidacy for the Jewish Home could mark a turning point in the party’s quest to lead the nationalist camp.
Former Yesha Council Chairman Dani Dayan is one of the latest prominent nationalist figures to throw his weight behind Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party, announcing his intention to run in the upcoming primaries and represent the party as an MK in the 20th Knesset.
It is not the first foray into party politics for Dayan, who for the past several years has served as the foreign envoy for the Yesha Council, which represents the Jewish communities of Judea and Samaria. The veteran oleh from Argentinawas once the secretary-general of the now-defunct Tehiya faction within the National Union party, which recently formalized its own merger with the Jewish Home.
In the last elections, however, Dayan came out in support of Likud; now, his move “back” to the Jewish Home party is seen as something of a coup. It represents a major step towards consolidating the party’s position among the right-wing electorate – in particular among residents of Judea and Samaria, for whom Dayan has been a high-profile advocate – and will likely draw some nationalist voters away from Likud and other rival parties.
“I was not a political activist from day one though,” he qualifies, emphasizing that his experience as a Major in the IDF, as well as a founder of one of Israel’s leading hi-tech companies in the 1980’s (“well before it was fashionable!”)exhibits a breadth of experience which would benefit the party considerably.
Dayan says his move was a “natural” one, and came after Bennett approached him at the recent Saban Forum conference in Washington. The Economics Minister had just been speaking at the conference, where he famously clashed with former US Middle East envoy Martin Indyk.
“After he spoke we had a little conversation and he asked me to ‘come back home,'” Dayan recalls simply. “We had a very good conversation, and when I got back – I landed on Friday at 5 a.m. – at 8 a.m. I called Naftali, and I went to his home and we had a lechaim!”
“The situation now is not the same as it was two years ago,” he continued. “Back then there was only one major party in the national camp (Likud), which if it was weakened too much meant we would lose the reins of government.
“This time the situation is completely different. There are two big parties, the Jewish Home and the Likud, so that tactical consideration doesn’t exist any more.”
With that “tactical” issue resolved, he says he was able to focus on his “purely ideological considerations” – which brought him to the Jewish Home.
“The Jewish Home is the only party that unequivocally opposes the division of the Land of Israel for a ‘Palestinian state,’ while Likud says ‘Yes, but…'” he asserts. “That’s not good enough.”
It’s a journey that will resonate with other right-wing voters, many of whom will have previous opted to vote for Likud despite some ideological reservations about its support for a two-state solution, due to a perception that it was the only major, relevant right-wing political force out there. It is for precisely that reason that Dayan’s candidacy is so significant – he signifies something of a turning point in Bennett’s quest to build the Jewish Home into a viable alternative to lead the nationalist camp.
Dayan says he was partly drawn to the party due to Bennett himself, describing him as a responsible leader and admitting he was somewhat surprised at the political acumen the freshman MK exhibited during his first stint in government – and the Knesset for that matter.
“I watched Naftali during the last two years. I must admit I was a bit worried that he would be too trigger-happy in toppling the government, but he was exactly the opposite,” he remarked.
“Despite the fact that he was the only one who had a real political interest, a real political benefit in advancing the elections, he acted with restraint and responsibility. That for me was a very good sign.”
Dayan – himself a secular, if traditional Jew – is particularly appreciative of Bennett’s drive to widen the party’s appeal beyond its traditional “knitted kippa” support-base, by including more secular candidates in the party list. He estimates his selection as MK could gain the party as many as two seats from non-religious right-wing voters like him, who largely identify with the party’s values but may have felt alienated in the past due to its all-religious list.
And if the 2012 elections were anything to go by, he might not be far off. Despite the fact that back then Ayelet Shaked was the only secular candidate to receive a realistic spot on the party list, studies conducted by the party showed that roughly 5 of its 12 seats came from secular voters.
But what does he make of reservations voiced by some party members, who fear such moves for greater inclusiveness may cause the party itself to move away from its religious-Zionist values?
Dayan denies that would be a problem. All candidates – religious or not – must abide by the Jewish Home’s constitution, which enshrines religious-Zionist ideology as part of the party’s essential platform. Indeed, party members often quip that Shaked is one of their “most religious” MKs in terms of her voting record.
To illustrate, he recounts a recent meeting with prominent religious-Zionist figure and Jewish Home backer Rabbi Chaim Druckman, in which the latter gave his blessing to the veteran activist’s candidacy.
“He received me with exceptional warmth and publicly endorsed my candidacy. He told me that it’s a natural candidacy and that he hopes very much that I will be an MK for the Jewish Home.”
“We had a long discussion on matters of religion and state,” he recounts. “I am a team-player, and I will always – especially on these fundamental issues – abide by the position of the Jewish Home.”
In fact, one of his central missions as an MK will be to tackle what he says is a lack of Jewish values within secular Israeli society, among other issues. “I am extremely worried about the lack of Zionist and Jewish values in the non-religious education system,” he says.
Dayan also pledges to serve as an advocate for the rights of olim, a topic he is naturally “very attached to” – and particularly for Israel’s Ethiopian minority.
“My wife spent considerable time working with Ethiopian Jews in Addis Ababa during Operation Solomon, so this cause is very close to our hearts.”
But will the Jewish Home’s gain be a loss for the residents of Judea and Samaria, for whom he has been one of the very few effective advocates in international fora? Not so, says Dayan, vowing to do all he can to continue representing the people of the region.
“If I’m elected I will do the same thing – but with the political leverage of being an MK,” he promises. “And much more.”