Former Shin Bet Chief Has Plan to Navigate Way to Middle East Peace

Maritime metaphors come naturally to Ami Ayalon, especially when describing the stormy seas of Middle East peacemaking.

“If a captain doesn’t know his destination, even the most favorable of winds will not get him there,” Ayalon, a retired Israel Navy admiral and former Shin Bet chief, told a group of left wingers in Tel Aviv last month.

The group was there to hear Ayalon and Sari Nusseibeh, a veteran PLO official, discuss the People’s Voice for Peace, a grass-roots campaign they hope will complement the “road map” peace plan in ending 32 months of bloodshed.

“The road map gives us a path. The People’s Voice gives us an objective,” Ayalon said in an interview with JTA.

Similar civil society efforts in Northern Ireland and Cyprus met with success, yet political analysts on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide remain skeptical.

“This is a personal initiative which I don’t think will fly,” said Ali Jarabawi, a political scientist at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank.

Trim at 57 and grizzled by decades in Israel’s defense establishment, Ayalon could not be more different from the urbane, tweed-jacketed Nusseibeh.

That, perhaps, is why he packs Israeli auditoriums: the sense that he is no less security-savvy than Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, but much more willing to take the plunge for what Sharon calls “painful concessions.”

The People’s Voice works on the idea that — despite their mutual hostility and distrust — Israelis and Palestinians still largely favor a return to peace talks that stalled at Camp David in the summer of 2000. Polls bear out that assumption.

The solution Ayalon and Nusseibeh offer is a complete Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which would then become a Palestinian state.

Palestinian refugees dispossessed in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence could choose to settle in the new Palestinian state, but not in Israel proper. Israelis, similarly, would renounce their right to settle in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Jerusalem would be the capital of both Israel and Palestine, its holy sites controlled jointly by Jewish and Muslim authorities to avoid the trappings of sovereignty.

The ideas are recognizable from the reams of discussion on the Middle East conflict, though the People’s Voice petition is unique in forcing the Palestinians — and, by extension, the entire Arab world — to recognize that the Jews also have a historic claim to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“I am a proud Zionist, and I know that relinquishing the dream of Greater Israel will be very painful,” Ayalon said. “The territories are ours by right. But as a proud Zionist, I believe Israel must be both Jewish and democratic, and with the Palestinian population in the territories expanding exponentially, that will not be possible only a few years from now. The time has come to act. Pragmatism must take over from quarreling over historical claims.”

The People’s Voice did not have an official launch; rather, Ayalon and Nusseibeh quietly formed public committees to collect signatures for their plan.

Petitions are making the rounds in Israel. Efforts in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been held up by Israeli closures, and activists there are still weighing how to go about gathering signatures.

Ron Dermer, a Jerusalem-based political consultant and pollster, anticipated that Palestinian petitioners also would encounter internal difficulties.

“In non-free societies such as what we see with the Palestinians, there is a double question of whether people will sign on to a poll or other initiative — and if they do so, whether this truly reflects their views,” Dermer said.

“But then again, this lowers the threshhold for the petition to make an impact,” he said. “A million Israeli signatures is a big deal, while a smaller number of Palestinian signatures could be expected to have the same effect.

Ayalon and Nusseibeh do not discuss figures, speaking enigmatically of garnering “enough” support from the 10 million denizens of the Holy Land to present the petitions to Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

“We believe” Palestinian Authority President Yasser “Arafat and Prime Minister Sharon are in a rut not only because of their own positions, but also because of the sense that they lack the constituencies to make real change,” Nusseibeh told JTA in a phone interview. “This document, we hope, will take care of the latter and put the necessary pressure on them to enact the public will.”

Ayalon and Nusseibeh command respect in Jerusalem and Ramallah, but officials are circumspect about how far the People’s Voice will carry.

“At the very least, this could prove a useful gauge to the public mood as the road map gets under way,” one source in Israel’s Prime Minister’s Office said.

Ironically for a grass-roots movement, the People’s Voice runs the risk of opening a rift among the people it purports to represent, political analysts say.

The urbane Nusseibeh is a different breed than some 4 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants whose demand for a “right of return” to their former homes inside Israel he would abjure.

Ayalon, meanwhile, comes across as a stalwart of the old liberal Ashkenazi elite. That could irk the working-class Sephardi constituents at the core of the ruling Likud Party.

“Ayalon’s plan may be more positive in terms of long-term security and Zionism than the road map, but if he is seen as more left-wing than the majority of Israelis, he’ll be sunk,” said Ephraim Yuchtman-Yaar, head of the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University.

The People’s Voice was born last year when Ayalon, now the chairman of the Netafim irrigation conglomerate, approached Nusseibeh, the Oxford-educated president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem who was then an official with the Palestinian Authority.

“I had long called for non-violent social action on the Palestinian side of the conflict, and with Ami this became bilateral,” Nusseibeh said. “He is honest and dedicated, and he has that security background that Israelis consider so important in their public figures.”

Ayalon makes no apologies for his military pedigree, which includes a decoration for leading a daring 1969 commando raid on Egypt’s Green Island radar base.

“Fighting and killing are a necessity sometimes, on the pre-emptive Torah principle of ‘Arise early and kill he who seeks to kill you,’ ” Ayalon said. “The question is whether they are carried out with proper discrimination, and with peace prospects pursued in parallel.”

Neither criterion has been satisfied in Israel’s handling of the Palestinian uprising, Ayalon maintains.

The inspiration for the People’s Voice came from other conflict zones. A series of confidence-building polls among republicans and loyalists helped push along Northern Ireland peace negotiations in the late 1990s.

A similar mechanism was mooted last year for Turkish-Greek talks in divided Cyprus.

“In many ways, the age of leadership is over. This is the age of civil society, when the people must constantly monitors and make demands of their elected officials,” Ayalon said.

But Ayalon — who held many secret meetings with Arafat when he served as Shin Bet chief under Prime Ministers Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak — avoids criticizing political leaders personally.

Though he agrees with left wingers that Sharon lacks any real peace plan, his misgivings over Israeli policy go much further back — to the Oslo accords of 1993 that fostered Palestinian ambitions to statehood without defining them in terms of territory or timeline.

“Oslo was based on the false premise of interim settlements, whereby neither side had a clear idea of where it was all leading and therefore withheld full trust,” Ayalon said. “The Palestinian leadership promised a state in the West Bank and Gaza, while the Israeli leadership was afraid to trigger a civil war by vacating settlements to let that state happen.”

The People’s Voice is predicated on transparent public peacemaking, with Israelis and Palestinians agreeing, from the outset, what the ultimate vision of coexistence is.

But what if the petition doesn’t gain enough signatures, or if the People’s Voice goes the way of other peace initiatives, leaving its mark only on a few T-shirts and posters?

Such questions elicit an enigmatic smile from Ayalon.

“In the Shin Bet, I saw things from the Palestinian side that many consider unthinkable — their security forces rounding up thousands of Hamas terrorist suspects, coordination with our personnel that was really exemplary. The Palestinians cooperated because they believed they were on the way to statehood, and they can do so again,” he said.

“As for us Israelis? I think deep down we are not afraid of making major sacrifices for peace, but that our interlocutor is incapable of being trustworthy,” he said. “The People’s Voice must be heard to disprove this.”

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