Ami Ayalon’s Political Journey

The Two Narratives

Ami Ayalon’s political journey

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Ami Ayalon’s Friendly Fire is a book that sits uneasily between two narratives. In one, Ayalon, a former director of the Israeli security service Shin Bet, repeats the story that Israel tells the world: that the failure to achieve peace in the region is due to Palestinian terrorism and the refusal to accept Israel’s existence. In the other, he offers a personal account of how his understanding of that story—and of the Palestinians themselves—has changed drastically over time.

In telling the first story, Ayalon gives the impression that all would have been well if only the Palestinians hadn’t refused to come to terms with the Jewish state. But what makes Friendly Fire a unique contribution to understanding what is taking place in contemporary Israel, and what needs to be done to achieve peace, is its author’s audacity and readiness to confront the myopia of this narrative and consider its shortcomings.

Who is Ami Ayalon? For a long time, he was a loyal member of the Israeli military and security services, someone who had eagerly bought into the assumptions on which the state is based and its history narrated. For 20 years, Ayalon served in Flotilla 13, the Israeli version of the Navy SEALs, and he describes himself during this period as a person for whom “the Palestinian militants were mere targets which [he] took without flinching.” He then served as a commander of the Israeli Navy before being appointed chief of the Shabak, also known as Shin Bet.

Born in Tiberias in 1945, Ayalon currently lives in the northern moshav, or settlement, of Kerem Maharal. The moshav, he tells us, was once the prosperous Palestinian village of Ijzim, and he in fact lives in a house that belonged to a Palestinian. Yet even though the Galilee has a large Palestinian population, he admits that he rarely sees any Palestinians on a daily basis.

For Ayalon, the fact that his moshav was built on the ruins of a Palestinian village is merely one episode in a long history of displacement. Throughout the region, he writes, “you can’t dig a hole without turning up some trace from eight strata of time. Canaanites, Israelites from the First and Second Temple periods, Persians, Greeks, Byzantines, Arabs, and Ottomans all established settlements in our area.” He tells us this so that we won’t worry too much about this pattern of displacement—and yet, of course, the Palestinians of Ijzim lived there only 72 years ago, not thousands of years earlier. Their displacement is not ancient news but part of an immediate reality. They, along with their entire nation, are deprived of not only their homes but also a future.

To Ayalon’s credit, part of the story of Friendly Fire is the way in which he eventually comes to terms with this fact. By the end of the book, he acknowledges that Israel’s salvation will only be achieved when it confronts this past. But before doing so, he gives us a history of why his myopia persisted for as long as it did.

Fighting in the War of 1967, Ayalon and his comrades subscribed to the Jabotinsky doctrine of the “iron wall”: They had to continue fighting until their strength forced their enemies to accept Israel’s existence as a fait accompli. This sense of righteousness persisted after the war: Traveling through the occupied West Bank, Ayalon failed to see the Palestinians living there, just as he had failed to see the Palestinians living in the Galilee. Instead, all he saw were rocks, trees, and empty land to settle. In fact, he admits that the only thing that kept him from becoming a settler himself was his military service. “Someone,” he explains, “had to defend all that liberated land.”

For Ayalon, the new settlements represented a continuation of the idealism that he’d been raised with. Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land was part of a larger historical project of settlement, not unlike the earlier kibbutz movement. One of the common assumptions that his book dispels is that the settlement of the West Bank was primarily a Likud party project. As Ayalon tells us, while it was true that Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin couldn’t say enough about Judea and Samaria, the biblical names for the West Bank, the establishment of settlements in the region was not a project of the Israeli right but rather of the Labor government that preceded Likud’s rise to power. The first settlements were inaugurated by Labor immediately after the occupation in 1967. Under the administration of Levi Eshkol, with the secular Moshe Dayan as defense minister, Israel “quietly created the space for settlements in direct violation of international law explicitly forbidding an occupying power from building on conquered territory,” Ayalon writes.

The settlements drew support from the left as well as from the right. Early settlements, such as Ofra, received guidance from members of the Labor kibbutz Merom Golan, people who knew “how to create facts on the ground.” Ofra, which is not far from Ramallah, where I live, was built mainly on privately owned Palestinian land, not only in violation of international law but also of many Israeli rules.

Ayalon admits that had he been in the government then, he would have done the same thing: “The more settlements, the less likely a future American president would force us to hand back the land of our forefathers to our enemies like Eisenhower had done in 1956 with the Sinai Peninsula.” But even so, he reminds us that his own involvement in the settlement movement would not have been motivated by “Zionist-socialist New Man ideology nor the post-Holocaust ethos of Never Again.” Rather, “it all came down to the thrill of adventure and danger, the intoxicating adrenaline of the fight—the desire to push our limits. Swimming faster, diving deeper, running farther, and shooting less out of careful deliberation than instinct and intuition constituted the formula for survival. In our line of work, if you hesitated, your target would drop you.”

One exceptional feature of Friendly Fire is that Ayalon, by charting his own transformation, articulates the range of attitudes many Israelis have toward their Palestinian neighbors. For example, before the first intifada, the author, like many Israelis, only saw satisfied, contented people in Gaza and thought that the occupation was benefiting them. “Unlike the French in Algeria, we weren’t colonists; we were liberating land that had belonged to us since antiquity. As for the Palestinians, we were ‘enlightened conquerors.’ We built them universities and roads and introduced modern agriculture.” Only later did he come to realize how mistaken he was, how his prior view of the occupation was an example of colonial wishful thinking.

So, with time, Ayalon’s position began to change. In Gaza during the first intifada, he was riding in a military jeep that came under a hail of stones as it drove through a camp. Later that night, he reflected on what had happened. He remembered a boy not older than 15 gazing at him with hatred: “His look which felt like a declaration of war struck me harder than the shrapnel.” It was then that he saw himself through the eyes of this youngster. “On the kibbutz I was raised to hate the oppressor and to value human dignity and freedom above all else, and according to those values I had to agree with the boy in the camp: I was a hateful occupier and oppressor of millions of Palestinians who aspired to political independence,” he writes.

Later, his experiences “in and out of the Shabak interrogation room” shattered his “lifelong preconceptions about the Palestinians.” His time in the Shabak forced him to realize that for peace to be truly achieved, Israel needed to stop dehumanizing the Palestinians. His reckoning with this fact was so total that he insisted to his peers that the Palestinian militants he’d once described as “mere targets” must be seen as human beings, even if he still situated their humanity within the context of Israel’s struggle “to end terrorism.” As Ayalon observes, if Israel wanted to end terrorism, “we couldn’t continue regarding them as eternal enemies, and we needed to stop dehumanizing them as animals on the prowl. They are people who desire, and deserve, the same national rights we have.”

Specific incidents during his time in the Shabak only deepened this view. When Ayalon visits the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and talks to their leaders, what he hears worries him. “Reading about the settlers and their mindset was one thing,” he discovers; sitting across the table from the likes of Noam Livnat, “who truly believed that God had given him power over Arabs,” was something entirely different. It was the first time, Ayalon writes, that he had ever heard anyone defend what can only be described as apartheid: two sets of laws, rules, and standards and two separate infrastructures. “If Arabs behaved themselves and acquiesced to our dominion, we’d allow them access to water and a bit of electricity,” he recalls Livnat saying. “The fact that we hadn’t yet driven them over the Jordanian border was, to his mind, a sign of our benevolence.”

Yehuda Etzion, another settler, tells Ayalon that he wants to destroy the Dome of the Rock, Islam’s third most holy site, and replace it with the Third Temple. But it was Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira’s theocratic plot to change the laws of Israel that left the strongest impression. Shapira hoped to “turn an Arab living in the Land of Israel into a ger, or resident alien,” a plan that Ayalon feared would undermine Israel’s legal system. After hearing from these settlers, he could only conclude that “these are the people we should be really afraid of.”

As shocking as their pronouncements were, what finally led to Ayalon’s change of heart was the Oslo Accords and their aftermath. He came to agree with former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Dan Shomron, who, at the beginning of the first intifada, told Israeli politicians that “Palestinian terrorism wasn’t a military phenomenon and as such the army couldn’t defeat it. All the army could do was fight back the flames to create breathing room for the politicians to launch a political process.”

After Oslo, Ayalon repeated Shomron’s message whenever his advice was sought: “Ultimately, ending terrorism depends on politics.” In his view, the accords had made Al Fatah, the old enemy, into a partner. Now Israel’s enemies were the Islamist groups, primarily Hamas. And yet even here, despite Israel’s military might, it would become clear that politics, not force, was the only thing that could lead to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. In the end, Ayalon believed, only the leadership of Yasir Arafat could defeat Hamas. Moreover, if the Palestinian Authority worked with Israel to fight Hamas, then Israel would have to follow through on the terms of the Oslo Accords and withdraw from over 90 percent of the occupied territories. While the Shabak was stuck in the past, the rest of Israel was ready for a new era of politics—perhaps even peace.

In the course of his awakening, Ayalon began to wonder why it had taken so long. “Why hadn’t we officers been handed translations of [the Palestinian declaration of independence] in 1988?” he writes. And what if Israel had “recognized Arafat’s strategic shift ten years earlier?” Might the country “not be facing Hamas’s suicide bombers”?

One answer is telling. Writing about the uncertain years of the late 1980s and early ’90s, Ayalon discusses how then–Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, through the military government in the occupied territories, secretly supported Hamas in the hope that the religious group would undercut the nationalists in the Palestine Liberation Organization. The Israeli establishment was not ready for the politics of peace, including its members who later claimed such a mantle.

Once Ayalon left the Shabak, he became outspoken about the failure of Israel’s establishment to understand the conflict and provide Israelis with security. Often making himself unpopular, particularly in interviews conducted during the second intifada, he told the Israeli public what it did not like to hear.

In one interview with TV news host Shelly Yachimovich, Ayalon insisted that “our instinctive resort to disproportionate force…has created the opposite of what we want to achieve. We jeopardize our own security each time, in the name of security, our soldiers gun down Palestinian stone-throwers, and our actions fuel calls for revenge.” He added that “when Palestinians felt that preventing terrorism would lead to the end of our occupation and the establishment of their own state, they cooperated with us. What most Palestinians sought, more than anything, wasn’t our blood—they just wanted to trust that the Israeli government would end the occupation and allow them to be free. And we’ve given them little reason to trust us.”

Yet despite all his efforts, Ayalon admits, his advice “had little long-term institutional effect on the Shabak and none on the army.” The killings continued. This led Ayalon to venture into politics himself. Once he became convinced that the Israeli government, and in particular the Shabak, would continue as before, he joined up with the Palestinian academic Sari Nusseibeh to launch a new initiative: a pair of organizations, the Palestinian People’s Campaign for Peace and Democracy and its Israeli counterpart, the People’s Voice.

The twin groups’ strategy was to change the direction of the conflict by taking diplomacy out of the smoky back rooms and into the streets. Their platform included the following principles: There would be two states, for two nations, based on the June 4, 1967, borders, with selective acre-to-acre land swaps to benefit both peoples. Palestinian refugees would mainly return to the demilitarized state of Palestine, while the Jewish settlements that remained in Palestinian territory would be evacuated. Israel would explicitly acknowledge its role in the suffering of the Palestinian people and participate in an international fund to compensate Palestinian refugees for their 1948 losses. Once a peace deal was signed, both sides would renounce all other claims. Jerusalem would be the open capital of both states, with the Arab neighborhoods under Palestinian control and the Jewish neighborhoods under Israeli control.

Reading Ayalon’s revealing book, one can see that he has come a long way. Perhaps his most commendable conclusion is that Israel will never achieve peace until “we change the narrative about the past and admit to ourselves that the Palestinians have a right to their own country alongside Israel, and on land we claim as ours.” And yet while Ayalon has revised his beliefs, he also remains unwilling to take responsibility for his role in the conflict between the two peoples in the first place, whether through his work in the Shabak or his participation in the murder of Abu Jihad, a cofounder of Al Fatah, in 1988.

At one point in the book, Ayalon shrugs at the possibility that the International Criminal Court in The Hague will try people like him for the crime of torture—a practice often used by the Shabak, even though Ayalon personally believed “that torture produced bad intelligence [and] dehumanized the torturer.” This makes me wonder whether a man who has made such a huge shift in his perspective toward Palestinians and their history is really willing to take responsibility for his past in an organization that he calls “the sewer.” On one matter, Ayalon is certainly right: For peace to be achieved, we need politics. But for politics to be achieved, we also need contrition from those, like Ayalon, whose crimes still haunt the Palestinian people.

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