Ami Ayalon’s new memoir/manifesto was published on Sept. 8, just a few days after President Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a peace accord between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Not great timing for a book titled “Friendly Fire: How Israel Became Its Own Worst Enemy and the Hope for its Future.” Ayalon, the former director of Israel’s Shin Bet, or Shabak, internal security service now has the task of arguing for the reinvigoration of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process at a time when many insist it has never been less relevant to Israel’s future prospects for peace.
But Ayalon insists that Israel’s warming ties with the Gulf states do not change the conclusion he came to after leading the Shin Bet and suppressing Palestinian terror with an iron fist from 1996-2000: that Israel needs to make a strategic retreat from most of the West Bank and cede control there to the Palestinians in order to remain a liberal, Jewish democracy. It was an argument he made in the “The Gatekeepers,” the 2012 documentary in which he and five former heads of the Shabak essentially agreed that Israel could not fight itself out of its conflict with the Palestinians. Earlier, in 2003, in the waning days of the bloody Second Intifada, he and Palestinian academic Sari Nusseibeh launched a “People’s Voice” campaign in favor of two states, a shared Jerusalem and the return of Arab refugees only to Palestinian territory and Jews only to Israeli territory.
Seventeen years later those principles seem further off than ever, but Ayalon, retired from the military, the security establishment and politics, still sees compromise as Israel’s best hope for maintaining its security and its Zionist and Jewish identity.
Ayalon spoke to The Jewish Week from his home in Israel.
What is the significance of the UAE normalizing relations in light of what you have written about Israel’s failure to capitalize on various diplomatic victories, like recognition in the Arab world. Does this kind of normalization make Israelis more or less inclined to consider risks in solving the Palestinian conflict?
Yes and no. Yes because every piece agreement or process that will bring normalization is great, and really improves our economy, our relations and our place in the region. But there is nothing behind it in a way. There are different versions. One is my version. This is what we have been saying for 27 years at least: We should make some concessions on the Palestinian issue so we can make a better reality to be accepted by our neighbors. If you listen to the version of the UAE leadership – it’s when Israel stopped annexation that they approved normalization.
[Netanyahu’s] version is different – we only agreed to “suspend” annexation and we shall do it in the future. And of course in Israel nobody believes him, but this is another issue.
I prefer my version, and if my version is the right version it will improve our position in the Middle East, but it will not solve our problems when it comes to Palestinian terror and that is much more important for our identity as a Jewish democracy. Until we find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel will lose our identity as a Jewish democracy.
You have been saying as much for a number of years. Why write a memoir now, for an English-speaking audience. Do you expect it push the dial?
I have been saying something similar for many years, but at the end of the book you understand the theoretical framework I gained from reading Chaim Gans. [Gans is an Israeli philosopher and author of “A Political Theory for the Jewish People,” in which he argues that Israelis have constructed a version of history that makes it difficult to also acknowledge Palestinians’ rights to the land.] I admit I read his book only five years ago, and only then I understood the mistake we made with Sari Nusseibeh. When we launched our initiative, we said, “let’s forget the past. The past is too painful. Our Jewishness, our relationship with this piece of land, our settlements, our borders, etc. Instead, let’s jump 40 years ahead and describe a better future. We’ll create this bottom up pressure.”
Today I understand the challenge that we are facing is greater, more difficult—we not only have to create a better future than our leaders are trying to present us, we have to redesign our narrative – redesign our past. For example, “Yes, the land is ours, but it is not only ours.”
I came to understand that a good book can influence the way people understand the reality much more than rational lectures. It can be much more influential than a good article. I saw the impact of “Gatekeepers.” The world said “wow,” but it was exactly what I’ve been saying for 20 years.
You write that your parents, when they immigrated to Palestine in the 1930s, ignored the immediate Jewish past in Europe and felt Jewish history had been interrupted with the exile and they were returning to the land that was “stolen from us.”
My parents came as immigrants, and told me, Ami, you don’t have a family tree. Ours was a generation without grandparents, assassinated during the Holocaust. But my history – I have no idea.
Sari Nusseibeh’s family tree starts in the 7th century. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem needs a Muslim family to keep the key, and that family has been the Nusseibehs for centuries. Can I tell him, “This is mine”? It is mine but not only mine.
Only when you understand the past can you understand how heavy the past is on our shoulders. If we believe this is only ours, so we can build settlements anywhere. But if this is not only ours, we have to come to an agreement.
In the book you write about wanting to reach American Jewish leaders, which is why in part you’ve published the book first in English rather than Hebrew. Many Israelis would say Diaspora Jews have no voice in what happens in Israel.
People have to understand that there are other voices that should be heard. It is important for me to start this discussion. Many will read it and not agree, which is ok. I remind myself, the Zionist concept was not invented in Israel. It was invented by people in Europe. Israel was the center, the core of the vision, but the thinking was by people who knew nothing about Palestine and Israel. They did not live here. Israelis will not love me saying this, but we Israelis do not have the right to bring Zionism to the end. We have inherited a precious treasure which is a state of Israel that was created by our parents but was envisioned by people who suffered in Europe. We have only the right to keep it and secure it.
Israelis will not love me saying this, but we Israelis do not have the right to bring Zionism to the end.
The way we are going, the policies that we choose – I think they will bring Israel as a Jewish democracy to a dead end. It will not be the Jewish democracy that was envisioned by the founders at the end of the 19th century, or as written in our Declaration of Independence.
That should not only be an Israeli issue. In a way I am trying to convince people abroad, mainly Jews. Because Israel is a very, very unique concept. It is the only state of a people who are not its citizens, but a state of the Jewish people. Every Jew can decide that he will become a citizen and we Israelis have nothing to say about it.
You write that the Bible should not be read as a deed to the Land of Israel, and Israel needs to acknowledge the Bible doesn’t give Israel license to settle anywhere it wishes. But to ask a famous question: How is the Jewish claim to Judea and Samaria any less legitimate than the claim to Tel Aviv and Haifa?
The wars until 1967, in my case until 2002, were just wars. We fought for our existence. We fought against states and organizations that did not accept our existence as people and did not accept our right of self-determination.
But somewhere between 1988, when the Palestinians accepted the concept of a Jewish state and an Arab state [implied in the Palestinian Declaration of Independence] and 2002, with the Arab League Initiative [calling for normalization between the Arab world and Israel in exchange for a full withdrawal by Israel to the 1967 lines], we achieved victory. Once we achieved victory, our tragedy is that we are still fighting. All the Arab world recognizes Israel along the lines of 1967 based on UN Security Council resolutions, with an exchange of territories in which we keep the major settlements which are 85 percent of the settlers. They say in this initiative that Right of Return will be negotiated with the government of Israel. This is victory. Victory is to bring your enemy to accept your terms These were our terms: You have to recognize us. But we are still fighting, in order to secure the settlements, to expand our eastern border, and to deny the option of Palestinians to build their own state on the other side of the border.
There is a very, very clear difference between the settlements of my parents, that were created in order to build this state, which were recognized by the international community and came after achieving victory, and the settlements that are on the other side of the fence, not recognized by the international community, which force us to go on fighting an unjust war.
But most important: The expansion will bring us to the end of Zionism. The end of Zonism is to lose our identity as a Jewish majority. If we are not a majority in our state, we do not have the right to dictate the culture, language, symbols and the story that we tell our children. If we are not a majority, there is more than one narrative. I want to tell my children and my grandchildren my version, my narrative. If we don’t divide this piece of land, we shall face terror, for hundreds of years. Today we are fighting the Palestinian people, not a terror organization. I came as a professional on security issues to understand that in this kind of war, they will not raise a white flag. They will not surrender.
You suggest grimly in the book that it might take a catastrophe to change what’s happening on the ground. Do really believe that?
I saw how easy it was during the Second Intifada when hundreds of people were dying on both sides of the border – when Nusseibeh and I came out with our initiative during the intifada, between 70 and 85 percent supported our parameters. Because they were desperate and would sign on any piece of paper if they believe that by signing they are doing something. On both sides.
I am optimistic. I am not a historian, a philosopher or a scholar, but I have lived here for 75 years. I know something about the region and the people who are living here. If I learn anything about history, it is that it is not advanced in a linear process. There are ups and downs. And unless people feel the pain, they don’t see and don’t understand the implications of losing an identity. Identity is not a philosophic issue – it is the way we decide our priorities and budgets, what we can say and not say. People are too busy with jobs, salaries, and yes, corruption, but while I hate to deal with apocalyptic scenarios, unless we solve the Palestinian conflict, we shall face violence. I don’t know what level—maybe Jerusalem four or five years ago [with stabbings and car rammings] – but a popular uprising. I know that Palestinians, once they believe this is the only way to bring an occupation to the end, this is what they will do.
The prime minister and others say Israel doesn’t have a partner for peace, and you recall your disagreements with Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2003 when he said the same thing. But if leaders like Mahmoud Abbas or Yasir Arafat appear too worried about their own survival to make bold decisions, or the opinion polls show Palestinians unwilling to accept a permanent two-state solution, who is the partner?
I’ll rephrase the question. Our challenge is to create a partner, not identify a partner. This is exactly what I told Barak – he invented the idea that we have no partners. I told him, “Ehud, I am no longer director of the Shin Bet, so I say this a citizen: Your job is to create a reality in which they will see us as partners and you will see them as partners.” I know why Palestinians lost hope and came to understand that we are not partners. The tragedy is they do not see us and we do not see them.
Our challenge is to create a partner, not identify a partner.
While I am in a minority, I see both narratives, because I had the unique chance to see it as the director of the Shin Bet, and see Palestinians not as enemies but as human beings.
Take Jibril Rajoub, a terrorist arrested during first intifada. He was sitting in our jail and released in a swap. I met him as a commander of the Palestinian security forces in the West Bank. And I came to know him and he became a friend and I can tell you that if you want a partner…. Rajoub told me, “Ami, we are fighting together against terror. But you have to remember – you are not paying our salary. We are not your collaborators. We are doing it because we believe that we are freedom fighters and we believe at the end of the day this way will bring us to the end of occupation. The moment we no longer believe that, forget about it.”
You write in the book that Palestinians did lose hope, because even despite cooperating with Israel on security matters, they came no closer to ending the occupation. But then at the end of book you tell Chaim Gans, who asks how many people in Israel agree with your views, “not many. I can count them on my nine and half fingers.” Have you lost hope too?
At the end of the book I say what should do in order to create Palestinian confidence, and that we should never forget we are the powerful side in this conflict. That is why I am an optimist, not because I know tomorrow something great will happen, but I think that for the first time in our history we have the power to shape our future by ourselves. And when I say I know exactly what we have to do in order to inspire confidence among Palestinians and Israelis, it will be painful, yes. Because I was educated to believe that Hebron was mine. A greater Israel was the dream of my parents. But if we are not to lose our identity as a Jewish democracy we have to divide this piece of land.