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(photo credit: AP [file])
Former ambassador to Washington Danny Ayalon impacted the American presidential election when he wrote an article for The Jerusalem Post in January entitled "Who are you, Barack Obama?" that challenged Obama to clarify his stances on key issues in the Middle East.
The article resulted in a backlash of criticism from Obama's pro-Israel supporters who defended him. But it also led to him fleshing out opinions on issues like Iran and the need for maintaining Israel's comparative military advantage that he articulated later on in key speeches that helped him win the votes of 78 percent of American Jews.
Now Ayalon is hoping to make an impact on this country's election as well by entering the political fray and running for the Knesset with Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu. Lieberman decided on Monday to give Ayalon the realistic 7th slot on the party's list.
The decision of the mild-mannered diplomat to join a party led by the burly Russian-speaking rightist raised eyebrows in Washington and Jerusalem. It made sense for Lieberman, who has always surrounded himself with professionals who can market him to mainstream Israelis, such as former deputy police commissioner Yitzhak Aharonovich, who downplays the multiple criminal investigations against him.
Ayalon's role is to serve as Lieberman's de-facto foreign minister, explaining and justifying his diplomatic plans to the world in a way that only a respected, seasoned diplomat can. As the head of Israel Beiteinu's new international division, Ayalon will open branches of the party around the world and help make Lieberman into the international statesman he wants to be.
Joining Israel Beiteinu seems set to allow Ayalon to enter the Knesset without having to undergo the rigors of a political primary that some of his former colleagues have endured in Labor, Likud and Kadima. But in a briefing for Post editors and writers last week, Ayalon said he believed Israel Beiteinu was a natural fit for him and he explained why he thought Lieberman should be prime minister.
Ayalon said he entered politics, or as he puts it "jumped into the frying pan," because he saw many problems and he wanted to use his skills and experience to help fix them. This was especially true of foreign policy, which he describes as "terrible."
"Given my record and my worldview, I thought I could help better the system," Ayalon said. "Politics doesn't have the reputation of the foreign service or the fringe benefits of private life, so in many ways it will be a struggle, but after retiring and seeing all the challenges here and the lack of an adequate response from the government, I would have cringed had I not gotten involved."
Ayalon's main goals in the Knesset will be to change the political system so it will be more governable, using the American system as a model, and to help develop a clearer foreign policy that respects Israel's positions "without subservience."
"Even our best friends in Washington say that we have no red lines," Ayalon lamented. "We have at best pink lines that are very easily erased. They will respect us more if we stand up and explain our policies. They won't agree on everything but such disagreements can be managed."
AYALON, 53, is a native of Tel Aviv who holds a degree in economics from Tel Aviv University and an MBA from Bowling Green University in Ohio. As a diplomat, he was stationed in Panama and at the United Nations before serving as deputy foreign policy adviser to prime ministers Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak and as prime minister Ariel Sharon's foreign policy adviser.
When he retired from the foreign service after a four-year stint in Washington, he became chairman of Nefesh B'Nefesh, an organization that helps facilitate aliya from English-speaking countries.
Ayalon revealed that he was approached by more than one political party. He said his decision to join Israel Beiteinu was based on "really deep beliefs," as well as a personal connection to Lieberman, who got his career going when he hired him in 1997 as Netanyahu's deputy foreign policy adviser. Lieberman was the director-general of the Prime Minister's Office at the time.
"I could have joined a wishy-washy party, but I have been politically correct enough in my life," Ayalon said. "I found Israel Beiteinu a natural home for me and there was no hesitation about going there. I think Lieberman should be prime minister, because he is a man with vision, who says things as they are, and if you don't say things as they are, you cannot achieve the right solutions."
Ayalon said the most important reason for him to support Israel Beiteinu was its backing for aliya, which he said should bring it votes from English-speaking immigrants. He said he realized that selling Lieberman to Israelis and the world would be a challenge, but he is undaunted.
"I think I can break stereotypes about him," Ayalon said. "He's stigmatized, but he's brilliant, insightful and courageous, and most of all, he's a doer. I'm not in politics for the glory or the power. I really believe Israel needs change, and Lieberman represents that change. He doesn't have the sabra accent, but Israel Beiteinu will prove in this election that it is no longer sectarian and it is now an all-Israeli party."
To obtain his place on the list, Ayalon went through a process of interviews with Israel Beiteinu's standing committee, which aims to find the right balance of candidates for the party who could contribute in different fields. While the party's system is criticized as undemocratic, Ayalon said it beats the alternative of primaries that are susceptible to corrupt political deals.
He also denied perceptions that Israel Beiteinu was a one-man show led by Lieberman, who is seen as deciding everything on his own. He said there was plenty of room for dissent in the party, noting that Lieberman's new No. 2, former Likud minister Uzi Landau, opposes the main plank of Lieberman's diplomatic platform.
The platform calls for dividing the country according to demographic lines and an eventual land swap when there is a Palestinian partner for peace. According to the plan, Israel would keep more of the West Bank and would give the Palestinians land in the Triangle that was part of the state before 1967 and is heavily populated by Arabs.
Ayalon said he agreed with the land swap, because he believes the demographic issue is the main problem and that the way to solve it is to draw the eastern border according to demographic lines. He stressed that under the plan, Arabs would not be removed from their homes as they moved from Israeli sovereignty to that of a Palestinian state.
"We don't want there to be two Palestinian states or one and a half," Ayalon said. "Instead of giving them open land in the Negev, enlarging Gaza and bringing it closer to Israel, we should trade populated areas."
Ayalon revealed that when he explained the plan in his informal talks with the highest echelons of the outgoing administration of US President George W. Bush, "they didn't fall off their chairs." He predicted that Bush's successor would also be open to the idea.
"It can be explained to Obama and Hillary [Clinton]," Ayalon said. "They are both very intelligent, and they both have the capacity to think outside the box. You can reason with them and they would like to see more creative ways to end the conflict."
However, Ayalon admitted that implementing such a plan was merely theoretical at this stage, because of the internal problems inside the Palestinian Authority. He said he opposed talking to Hamas, which he equated with Iran, and he questioned whether PA President Mahmoud Abbas represented anyone outside his own office.
"I don't see any point right now in negotiations with the Palestinians, which would be an exercise in futility," Ayalon said. "They need to get their house in order, and while they do that, we should change our political system."
If Ayalon succeeds in bringing about electoral reforms, then he will have impacted not only last month's American election and the upcoming election in February, but also many more Israeli elections to come.
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