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Moshe Dayan and the Settlements: A look back

Recently, while browsing through news clips I have collected over the past 30-plus years, I came across a story I wrote when I was a very young reporter for The Jerusalem Post.

“Dayan: Israel needs civilians in W. Bank,” the headline said. The story ran at the top left of the front page of this newspaper on October 17, 1979 – and it was an exciting event for me. Not only did I make the cover, but I also got to hear Dayan, a historic figure who was then serving as foreign minister, speaking in his lovely garden in Zahala surrounded by some of the archeological treasures he had collected over the years.

Time has a strange way of altering perspectives. Dayan could not have known he had but a short time left to live – he died exactly two years later to the day on October 16, 1981. As for those archeological treasures, we later learned that many of them were looted or stolen or otherwise illegally acquired.

Perspective also lends a strange quality to what Dayan actually told the visiting United Jewish Appeal delegation.

Let’s remember the context. Israel had signed its peace treaty with Egypt, which Dayan had done much to help achieve, six months earlier. Now Israel and Egypt were holding Palestinian “autonomy talks” with the Egyptians standing in for the Palestinians.

We should recall also that at the time tens of thousands of Palestinians came from the territories each day to work in Israel in construction, garbage collection and other jobs.

There was sporadic violence in the West Bank and Gaza but this was before the advent of suicide bombings or Kassams. Nobody had heard of Hamas. There were then only around 17,000 settlers in the West Bank and probably around 70,000 residents of east Jerusalem.

What did Dayan say that day? “Just keeping the army in the territories and controlling a foreign people can’t be done any longer,” he declared. “This is not how we shall be in Gaza and Nablus. Our number one priority is to have Jewish civilians up to the Jordan, and then we shall also have soldiers, and then we shall have peace.”

He rejected the notion that settlements were built on Arab land: “We are not taking one acre from any Arab. I never heard one Arab complain that we are driving them out. Jewish settlements bring work and prosperity to the Arabs. They don’t like this policy but we shall do it whether they like it or not.”

Dayan said he had been in contact with supporters of the PLO, which Israel was not to recognize until 1993.

“They say that military conflict cannot solve the problem. They say, ‘We, the Palestinians, want peace.’ They don’t want any barriers between them and Israel and after 11 years of living together, none of them want to go back to the time when they were not allowed to come to Tel Aviv or we were not allowed to go to Gaza. They want to live with us and that there should be free movement, free access between Israel and them so that they can work here and buy here.”

One should not, of course, judge statements made in the past too harshly –20/20 vision is easy as long as it’s applied retrospectively. But it is hard not to be impressed by the sheer myopia and fatal naiveté of Dayan’s viewpoint.

He seemed to have envisaged a future in which Palestinians (a word he was careful to avoid using) would be content to live as a permanent minority alongside a growing settler population in exchange for the right to go shopping and work in Tel Aviv.

Dayan apparently could not imagine a way in which the Palestinians could effectively resist Israel, which held all the weapons and all the power. He seemed not to have envisioned either passive resistance or armed struggle. Instead, he trustingly foresaw Israelis proudly walking down the streets of Gaza, unthreatened by a cowed and compliant local population, while Palestinians would flock to the Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv with string shopping bags.

IT’S POSSIBLE that Dayan’s real opinions were more nuanced and that he delivered this speech for the consumption of his gung-ho audience.

But there’s no doubt he was reflecting government policy and the deeply held views of his boss, Menachem Begin.

Begin’s vision, we now see, was an illusion built on wishful thinking and a willful misreading of the strength of Palestinian national identity.

Under his leadership, Israel began vastly expanding the settlements, helping to bring us to where we are today. Just as this flawed thinking helped create Israel’s current dilemma, the Netanyahu government’s determined defiance of international opinion in building yet more housing units in the territories will have grave implications for future generations. It is already threatening the viability of a two-state solution as well as the future of our Jewish, democratic state.

Dayan’s view was colored by arrogance: “They don’t like this policy but we shall do it whether they like it or not,” he said. Netanyahu seems to be cut from the same cloth.

(Alan Eisner, an author and former journalist, is vice president of communications for J Street, a pro- Israel, pro-peace advocacy group. This article was originally published on