Ami Ayalon is a living legend. As a former commander-in-chief of the Israel Navy and former head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), there’s no doubting his credentials.
Although he is a well-known figure in Israel, there are some who may not fully appreciate the extent of his dedication to, and influence on, this country.
The Magazine was fortunate to be able to talk to Ayalon about his memoir, Friendly Fire, How Israel Became Its Own Worst Enemy and the Hope for Its Future (a Hebrew translation of which was released in November 2022), particularly in light of the current political upheaval in Israel.
Born in 1945 in Tiberias in what was then Mandatory Palestine, Ayalon grew up on Kibbutz Ma’agan, whose founders included his Romanian-born parents.
He is one of only 40 recipients of the Medal of Valor, Israel’s highest military decoration, which was awarded to him in 1969 for “heroic action” in the Green Island operation during the War of Attrition.
In his book Friendly Fire, Ayalon gives a blow-by-blow account of the IDF’s heart-stopping raid on Green Island in Egypt. Time doesn’t appear to have dulled his memory.
As almost superhuman powers were needed to pull off such a complicated and dangerous mission, I wanted to know what it was like to be involved; how did he keep calm, knowing what lay ahead?
“Twenty-four hours before the operation, you feel the tension or fear,” he told me, adding that there was always a feeling of “fear in specific events or operations that you know are very dangerous.”
Indeed, as with most of the operations in which Ayalon was involved while serving in the Navy commando unit Shayetet 13, the Green Island raid was exceptionally dangerous; he lost friends and comrades during that mission and in many others.
“Many of us did not come back,” he lamented, “but I don’t remember myself thinking... ‘well, probably I will not come back.’ It’s something that you know might happen, but you force yourself to erase it.”
I listened intently as he opened up: “The closer the event, I felt more calm; and once you go into the water, it’s the safest place on Earth. Swimming or diving is safe because you know nobody will see you... First of all, you have to navigate, so you have to be very, very concentrated; and when you are very concentrated, there is no time for fear.”
Doubtless, this level-headed, pragmatic approach aided Ayalon’s rise to the top of the Israel Navy. He served as its commander-in-chief from 1992 until 1996.
Although Ayalon gained vast experience during his lengthy naval service, he believes that today, he – like so many others of his generation – is not relevant.
An Israeli veteran whose advice is no longer relevant
“Nobody needs my advice,” he stated matter of factly. “We become less and less relevant – not because we are old [but] because the war is changing, and our war is not their war. It’s so different,” he explained.
As we discussed this in more depth, he became more reflective and insightful: “What is expected from a warrior…?” he mused. “In my time, [a warrior] was painted in two colors – black and white. They were the bad guys, we are the good guys; they were soldiers, we are soldiers. Even according to international law, our war [was] to kill them, and they tried to kill us. There were no moral issues. Everything [was about] techniques.”
This all changed in 1967, he believes, with the Six Day War, although he readily admits that it took him another 20 years to realize it.
FOLLOWING HIS naval service, Ayalon was appointed head of the Shin Bet after the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995.
Ayalon’s shock over his friend Rabin’s murder is palpable in the book. I could also feel the sadness in the room as he spoke about that heinous event, which took place almost three decades ago. He charts it as one of the seminal moments in his life, shaping his views and actions from that moment on.
“First of all, I knew him,” he remarked wistfully, before adding, “[but] aside [from] the emotions and the sadness, I was astonished. For me, it was the first moment in my life when I understood that I didn’t understand the reality; I didn’t understand the power of our narrative.”
As Ayalon was in the US on naval business when the assassination took place, he had plenty of time to reflect on his flight home.
At first, he was baffled: “How can an Israeli that served in the IDF and studied law at Bar-Ilan [University] kill our prime minister? It’s unthinkable,” he said, hands raised in disbelief as he thought back to that time.
As he progressed in his new job as head of the Shin Bet, however, he gained a unique insight into the situation and a clearer understanding of the country to which he’s devoted his life. “My four and a half years in the Shin Bet shaped the way I see myself and [the way] I see Israeli society; I understand my enemies, and I understand the Middle East, and I understand the world.”
Despite this, he believes that too many Israelis still do not understand the more complex issues behind the ongoing conflict and problems in the region.
“Change started in ‘67, but it took me almost 20 years to understand that we are not liberators,” he stated, referring to the gains that Israel made in the Six Day War. “We liberate the places, but in the places in which we live, millions of Palestinians live, and they do not see us as liberators. They see us as violent oppressors. They feel humiliated, and they hate us.”
Ayalon went further. “We Israelis do not see them [Palestinians] as a people. The Israeli narrative [is such that] we are not fighting against ‘a people.’” This is something that he believes strikes at the very heart of the ongoing strife.
Having had the ear of every Israeli prime minister and senior figure in government for almost 30 years, Ayalon has tried his utmost to use his influence for the greater good. For him, dialogue with the Palestinians is key to finding a solution to the ongoing violence.
Listening to and understanding our enemies is essential, he believes.
This led Ayalon to launch a peace initiative called The People’s Voice together with Palestinian Prof. Sari Nusseibeh in 2003. The goal of the initiative was to collect as many signatures of Israelis and Palestinians as possible for the peace plan guidelines supporting a two-state solution. He also entered politics for a few years in 2006 when he was elected to the Knesset on the Labor Party’s list.
This brought us to the current situation in Israel regarding the judicial reforms and the demonstrations, at which he’s a regular speaker. I was keen to get his view of the situation and to learn whether he was disheartened by what we are all witnessing today.
Until recently, he said, despondency about the state of the country has been uppermost on his mind.
“We are facing a reality in which, unless we dramatically change the course of our behavior, we shall not solve our problems. We have to invent a new narrative for the future, and we have to change the narrative of the past.”
“We are facing a reality in which, unless we dramatically change the course of our behavior, we shall not solve our problems. We have to invent a new narrative for the future, and we have to change the narrative of the past.”Ami Ayalon
Israel's ongoing fight for democracy
Conversely, however, Ayalon believes that the current situation will provide the catalyst for a better and brighter future, as young people take to the streets to fight for democracy.
“Today I am much more optimistic because of what I see in the streets. Today you see young people – suddenly they understand why they are here protesting. They understand that somebody is taking something that belongs to them, and they are angry.”
While, of course, it is important to try to see the positives that have come from the coalition’s five months in power, we all have to live with the recent increase in terrorist attacks which has led to 14 Israelis, including three children, being murdered in 2023.
I asked Ayalon whether he thought the government was responsible for this increase in violence. Although he was quick to point out that there is a difference between blame and responsibility, he was unequivocal on the issue of responsibility.
“First of all, they are responsible... They [the government] started something that was totally illegitimate without understanding the economic impact, the academic impact, the international impact, and the military-security impact – so they are responsible.”
As far as blame goes, however, he does not point the finger at the government.
“I don’t blame them – because it’s a process... started by the weak democracy that we created from the very beginning [of the state]. Yes, I am totally against the government, but they did not start it. Our problems, our conflicts, our divisions are much deeper than the shallow debate of the legal reforms.”
WE THEN spoke about two of the main characters who have been instrumental in causing the current chaos – Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir. Ayalon believes both want to see immediate changes. “The Messiah is coming, and they are ready to pay the price” to achieve their aims, he said.
When I asked Ayalon what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s role was in all of this, he was very clear. “Bibi himself does not believe this... He is totally against it, but he is trapped by his trial and family and too many years in power.”
He likened Netanyahu to King Louis XIV of France, who famously said, “L’état, c’est moi” – “I am the state.”
“He is telling himself a narrative that Israel needs him because without him Israel is a total disaster. Too many years in power means that he’s blind to see the reality,”Ami Ayalon
“He is telling himself a narrative that Israel needs him because without him Israel is a total disaster. Too many years in power means that he’s blind to see the reality,” Ayalon opined, adding, worryingly, that he no longer believes that the prime minister is concerned about his own legacy.
In spite of it all, Ayalon does not doubt Netanyahu’s influence both at home and abroad, citing him as “the only charismatic Israeli leader after [Ariel] Sharon.” The sting in the tail soon followed. “We call it a toxic charisma,” he said, “a toxic leader – which says something about us.”
Although Netanyahu, Smotrich, Ben-Gvir and others of their ilk are still in power, Ayalon is optimistic about the future.
“For the first time, we start to understand the energy in the street, and my grandchildren are studying democracy in the streets.”
That said, in keeping with his down-to-earth, level-headed approach, he added a note of caution.
“For me, it will be a huge missed opportunity if these politicians who are sitting in Jerusalem today agree on something that is not quite democracy. It would be a great step in the wrong direction.”
When I asked him what he thinks will happen, Ayalon replied in his customary direct manner. “I don’t know what will happen. If somebody tells you today that he knows, don’t listen.”
Ami Ayalon’s book Friendly Fire: How Israel Became Its Own Worst Enemy and the Hope for Its Future is available on Amazon.
The writer is a former lawyer from Manchester, England. She now lives in Israel, where she works at The Jerusalem Post.