At other points in his life, this past month might have found Ami Ayalon at the center of attention. If the international flotilla to Gaza had come while he was in command of the elite naval commando force Flotilla 13, or later when he commanded the navy, or after that, when he helped lead the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) or even later when he served as a government minister, he might have been at the center of the decision-making process.
But it didn’t, and instead, Ayalon found himself in late May in the unlikely – and unaccustomed – position of observing events from the side. After his departure from political life, Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s one-time rival has watched the unfolding of the past few weeks’ events with more than a little concern, stemming from years of experience on both tactical and strategic levels.
The events of May 31, when naval commandos stormed the flotilla’s ships, were neither unexpected nor unavoidable, Ayalon told The Jerusalem Post.
“I was not surprised when I heard the initial reports, because I have participated in an uncountable number of operations in which you know two things: First, there is no military operation that goes exactly as planned, and second, when you send combat soldiers to arrest civilians, and you tell them that is their goal, you must assume that civilians will be killed. If you put those two factors together, it was almost predictable that those would be the results.”
Two days before the navy confronted the flotilla, Ayalon recalled, an interviewer found him participating in a conference at Tel Aviv University, and asked him what he thought should be done to stop the flotilla. “I asked the interviewer why we needed to stop it, and he was horrified,” Ayalon recalled. “We must differentiate between the need to stop entry of heavy weaponry into Gaza, which is a clear interest that nobody questions, and between a situation in which we stand looking at six boats about to come, on board which intelligence knows there is no heavy weaponry – I’m not talking about a few handguns. Instead, this is a struggle for public relations, and so I think from the beginning that the system should work completely differently, involving the international community and only blocking weapons.
“So I say to him, ‘Why do you think that the only option is to stop it? Let’s imagine a situation in which we take a few civilian boats, go out, meet them at sea, during daylight and with huge pictures of Gilad Schalit on our ships and we sail together to Gaza. They bring humanitarian supplies and we demand that Ismail Haniyeh allows us to see Gilad Schalit.’”
Such a move, Ayalon said, would have redirected some of the international attention away from Hamas propaganda and on to the captured IDF soldier.
THE CHAIN of events leading up to the boarding of the flotilla’s ships, complained Ayalon, is the latest example of a series of trends in Israeli administration.
“In an event of this type, there are a number of elements that on a different scale remind us of issues and processes discussed in almost all of Israel’s investigative committees. Ultimately, in two to three volumes of conclusions – some secret, some not – Kahan, Agranat, Shamgar and Winograd all said two simple sentences. First that Israel has no policy, and second that Israel has no mechanism for creating policy. Sometimes they call it problems with conception, with the decision-making process, with preferring politics above national interest, and sometimes massive operational incompetence. But it’s all ultimately interpretations of those two sentences,” Ayalon complained.
“We really like to appoint investigative panels, but nobody really listens to them or to their findings. How many times do they have to say that we need a National Security Council? Only for us to later discover that despite laws, and a state comptroller’s report on the subject and government guidelines, the NSC can’t get IDF people to show up for a hearing? Ayalon said that he welcomes the establishment of the IDF probe into the military response to the flotilla. “I believe it will indicate operative failures, and that the military will be able to learn from the conclusions, and in that sense I believe that the military committee is a correct move.”
Ayalon said that although there are “a number of lessons to be learned regarding how to take control of boats at sea,” he would rather not focus on the military aspects, “because the military aspect of our struggle is not the central topic at hand.” But regarding the Terkel Committee, which is tasked with examining political and diplomatic decisions leading up to the operation, Ayalon is less optimistic, labeling it as “completely useless”.
“It will not provide us with anything more than what we already know regarding the decision-making process, and it will also ultimately not satisfy the international community. We are born into our Israeliness with the understanding that we are not perfect. Each of us goes through that development at a different point – for me it was the Yom Kippur War – but everyone at some point understands that there are quite a number of failures in the Israeli system. But most Israelis still want to believe, almost naively, that when it comes to security, the IDF will solve the problems. And thus every time that it doesn’t happen, when it seems that something unexpected or disorderly happens or that doesn’t really achieve its goal, we are surprised, and it calls into question in a very serious manner our feeling of security.
“In general, Israeli society has a serious problem with the subject of security, the way in which we understand our history and the Middle East situation. In our priorities, the topic of security takes a very high – if not the highest – spot; each time that feeling is called into question, the implications are very problematic, almost at the level of a phobia, not necessarily something rational. It impacts much beyond what we can say immediately. It impacts our political behavior, impacts the way in which we see ourselves as standing alone. It returns us to the feeling of siege, and allows our politicians to return to an ethos of siege and 1939 and the Holocaust and other very problematic elements.”
Ayalon, who during his brief political career cultivated a squeaky-clean image, complained that “there is a serious problem of personal responsibility. We have lost every social and individual sense of personal accountability.”
He said he believes that even on a tactical level, “the military operation was not appropriately planned – without getting into operational issues – to use the military to arrest people when you believe that the whole world is filming and when you assume that there are a handful of crazies who are going to be violent.”
A DECORATED veteran of a number of still-classified operations, Ayalon said that the solution on a military level did not require “inserting 10 Mossad or Shin Bet agents to infiltrate and disable the engines. It was just a question of – in daylight – telling them to stop. If they don’t, you then shoot warning fire over the boats with a 75 mm. cannon. Then you do a flyover. If they don’t stop, you can either pull out a barge and cause a crash or you line up deck to deck, and at midday you go aboard after all of those warnings and with everyone watching it. Even though that is not a great scenario, it is better.”
Ayalon added that he wished to emphasize that “the situation should never have come
to it. We are in a very problematic reality and to change it, we need to change our state of mind. We need to see the Middle East the way I do. We must understand that there are pragmatic factors as well.” He rejects, on principle, Samuel Huntington’s thesis that Israel is on the frontlines of a “clash of civilizations.” Instead, he said, “what we see in our region is a struggle within civilizations, in which pragmatic factors within Islam and Arab states are trying to formulate a pragmatic axis against what the United States calls the axis of evil. There is a struggle between pragmatic and radical trends. We are part of the pragmatic axis, but it must be formulated in a regional coalition so that it can deal with Iran and its nuclear armament process, with radical terror and its deep impact on the Islamic street and with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Israel’s participation in such a coalition may be a strategic necessity for Israel, but it would come with demands. “For this coalition to be created, we must show advancement on the Israeli-Palestinian subject. I think this is an asset, not a liability, for Israel as well, because it is the only way to maintain Israel as a Jewish and democratic and secure country,” he argued.
“For the Arab states this is a basic condition for the existence of the coalition, because they see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the source of instability in the Middle East and of the government instability in their pragmatic states, such as Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Thus to build the coalition which is in the interest of America, Europe and the pragmatic Arab states we must advance on this subject. We don’t understand this. We think that we are the ones who have to pay the price and make sacrifices, but it is actually the best thing that could happen.”
Those pragmatic states, he said, would play a key role in avoiding future flotilla crises. Ayalon would like to see the international community – and particularly neighboring “pragmatic” states – take part in inspecting goods going into Gaza. “It is not that I believe that they have become Zionists, but rather that they too do not have an interest in seeing the increase in power of Hamas. Not [Mahmoud] Abbas, not the Egyptian president, not the king of Jordan. It is a confluence of pragmatic interests. And then, with international bodies in charge of checking ships and goods, even if we get to violent events – say a boat that wishes to break the blockade – it is them and not us. Thus, I argue that we must to do as much as possible to integrate the international community.”
Ayalon also presented his own solution for the peace process that would help Israel discover its allies among the pragmatic Arab states.
Israel, he said, has been repeating the same errors for two decades by framing talks around a “graduated, linear process” involving meeting, trust-building and then core issues at the end. That process, Ayalon argued, has repeatedly failed.
“For such a process to work, you need a lot of time. You need to stop all violent terror activities, and second, you need to stop all settlement activities, because in Palestinian eyes, settlement activity is almost terror. No Israeli government can completely stop the settlements and no Palestinian actors can completely stop terror. And thus the daily friction between Palestinians and settlers does not stop, but leads to events that in the end are what directs the process.”
Ayalon believes that instead, the process should be turned on its head. “We must change the architecture to one in which we put the future on the table and go backward. Only a third party can do that, an international leader. That is, for example, what happened when America put the road map on the table; it was forced upon [prime minister Ariel] Sharon and [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] Abu Mazen. An international leader can say, ‘I have been listening to you for 15 years. Let me tell you a secret; you are much closer to the solution than you think. Now because I know that you know this, I say: This is my vision, take it or leave it.’”
The nameless international leader – whom Ayalon later suggested could well be US President Barack Obama – would then “build a process in which you address the core issues first, with trust based on the conversations on the core issues, a short process.”
Ayalon does not see such a scenario as ultimately requiring a third party to impose a solution, but rather to help both sides to see that they are actually in agreement. “That is the importance of the mediator. He must say, ‘Gentlemen, you don’t see it – the Israelis say that they agree but the Palestinians don’t want it, and the Palestinians say that they agree but the Israelis don’t want it – but in fact, I am looking from another planet and I know that you both want it.’”
SINCE LEAVING the Labor Party in November 2008, Ayalon has remained active, and is involved in the Blue White Future organizations, which advocates the two-state plan as a solution for preserving Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. “We want to make a public change through a civil organization,” explained Ayalon. “Will it become something more than a civil organization? I don’t know. Right now I don’t deal with politics.”
Ayalon does still look back on his former party, albeit in a critical light. “The Labor Party in its current form is not a realistic option to establish a government, and thus I don’t think it interests anybody. Labor had significance when it was an alternative, but as one of 20 small parties in Israel, it does not.”
Ayalon, who served as a Labor minister-without-portfolio in 2007, said
that hope is not entirely lost for the historic party, but that in
order to restore relevance “it must reinvent itself. It’s something
that Labor did in the past, for instance in the ’60s, but the
reinvention is something that Labor can now only do as part of the
opposition. The party must examine who its focus constituency is, what
its ideology is and what is the significance of a social-democratic
party, and of the transition from classical Labor to new Labor.”
On a personal level, while the former Labor MK says that there are
individual Labor MKs, such as Shelly Yacimovich, whose legislative work
he values, “everyone who is currently in the party has a part in the
failure of the party.”
Ayalon, who currently also serves as the chairman of the National
Association for the Habilitation of Children and Adults with
Intellectual Disabilities (AKIM), emphasized that there is one topic
without which his interview would not be complete: Gilad Schalit. “That
is the one thing that must be added,” he insisted. Politics or not, “I
am aware of the difficult dilemmas, but I think that the State of
Israel has a requirement to bring him home. I think that this is not an
emotional decision, but rather that the attempt to differentiate
between rationality and emotions looks pathetic. This is a case of a
state with a tactical decision to preserve the will of parents to send
their children to serve and the will of our children to serve. It’s not
that the prime minister needs to see Schalit as his own child, but
rather as a soldier who fought for us, and thus we will do everything
we can to bring him home.
“I see this not as a father, but as someone who fought terror, and sent
others to fight. If we can’t show thousands of children and parents
that we will do so, we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves in a
situation which we are beginning to see now in which people are not
willing to take chances to fight or to fall into captivity or to die
for the country.”