Yesha led the anti-Oslo Accords fervor that many believe set the stage for the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 by a right-wing religious Zionist. In 1996, the Council threw its significant political weight behind Benjamin Netanyahu, whom it considered a staunch supporter, for prime minister. Following his victory, the group openly identified a four-year goal of 50 to 70 percent growth in the settlement population, but Netanyahu, at least publicly, proved to be a less-than-reliable ally. Only months after his election, in the aftermath of Palestinian riots over a new archaeological tunnel under the Temple Mount, Netanyahu met with Yasser Arafat in Washington to express his commitment to the Oslo peace process and froze settlement construction. Two years later, at a summit at the Wye Plantation in Maryland, Netanyahu handed control of 13 percent of West Bank territory over to the Palestinian Authority in an agreement the Yesha Council called “treason” before back-pedaling to the milder “surrender.”
Ariel Sharon, a long-time settler ally, became prime minister in 2001. He regularly met with the Council to discuss its security concerns, praising the settlers “who bravely face Palestinian terrorism on a daily basis.” But in 2003, when Sharon announced that Israel would unilaterally withdraw from Gaza and four West Bank settlements, his friendship with the Yesha Council came to an abrupt end.
Shaken by Sharon’s betrayal, young settlers took to the streets and threatened to close off Israel’s major highways, which would have effectively brought the country to a standstill. Yesha leaders, however, eschewed illegal and violent methods, and also condemned rabbis who called on soldiers to refuse orders to evacuate the Gaza settlements, leaving many settlers frustrated. “There was a feeling among some settlers that if the Yesha council supported calls for conscientious objection, they could have created an uprising that would have prevented the disengagement,” says Chaim Levinson, a reporter who covers settlements for Haaretz.
Why did the council choose a more moderate path, paving the way for a mild-mannered man such as Dayan to become chairman? Its leaders were loath to see the State of Israel, which they had fought so hard to be a part of, slide into civil war. But their moderation came at a price and began the slow—and some say inevitable—process of alienation between the council and the movement’s more zealous ranks. “People began to feel that the Yesha council no longer represented them,” says Levinson. “They saw them as part of the system.”
Dayan was voted chairman in the aftermath of the disengagement when the Council, reeling from its defeat, was in shambles.
He had been devoted to the cause since the 1970s, first as an activist in Tehiya, an ultra-nationalist party founded in 1979 in reaction to the Camp David Accords. It was there he met his wife, Einat—today she is in charge of public relations for the Ariel University Center of Samaria—and early on they made their politics as a couple clear. When they married, they set up their chuppah on the ramp leading to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount—“with more policemen than guests,” quips Dayan. “Yes, it was a statement. We are both political creatures. I think marriage should reflect our beliefs.” His brother, Aryeh Dayan, a prominent left-leaning Israeli journalist, did not come to the ceremony and has never been to Dayan’s home in Maale Shomron.