Editor's Notes: Riding the waves with Ami Ayalon

The former Navy commander and Shin Bet chief unfurls his claims to the Labor leadership, castigates the current crew, and offers rare optimism about Palestinian winds of change.

Interviewing Ami Ayalon is like unleashing a tidal wave. You posit a question and a great, rolling answer comes pouring out, smashing through the specific inquiry and drenching other, often quite unexpected, areas besides. Early in the conversation, for instance, unprompted by a direct question, Ayalon was to be found advancing the immensely controversial argument that certain Israeli policies had caused murderous anti-Semitism, protesting that Israel had failed to so much as consider how its killing of Hizbullah leader Abbas Moussawi in Lebanon 15 years ago might come to fatally impact Diaspora Jews (with Hizbullah's subsequent bombings in Buenos Aires of the Israeli Embassy in 1992 and the AMIA community center building in 1994). "The State of Israel was established in order to guarantee the destiny of the Jewish people. But there are cases in the world today where Jews are suffering because of Israel's policies," he went so far as to assert. Ayalon moved rapidly on to assault the tendency of Israel's political leaders to marginalize their potential rivals - a case of misconceived self-interest taking precedence over the good of the country. And from there he jumped to a dissection of Israeli society into "five tribes" - Russians, Sephardim, Arabs, Haredim and the rest, a million or so plus per tribe, who "don't read the same papers or literature," and "don't go to the same schools," but "have to live together." Impassioned and intense, it is easy to envision Ayalon having inspired and sustained subordinates during his years as the commander of the Navy and the head of the Shin Bet. But having made the leap into politics, entering this parliament as No. 6 on the Labor list, Ayalon, 61, has higher goals now. He hopes to wrest the Labor leadership from Amir Peretz in the party's primary in May and - asserting that security and management are two of the only three things he truly understands (the other being agriculture) - set about safeguarding Israelis' future and offering us hope. Where so many Israelis despair of the possibility of partnering the Palestinians to a viable two-state solution, for Ayalon that prospect is realistic, and we ignore it at our peril. Along with al-Quds University President Sari Nusseibeh, he has for five years been championing a six-principle path to peace. (In summary it calls for: two states for the two peoples; borders based on June 4, 1967, with the possibility of mutually agreed territorial exchanges; Jerusalem as the capital of both states, with Arab neighborhoods under Palestinian sovereignty, Jewish neighborhoods under Israeli sovereignty, and the "holy basin" under no sovereignty; Palestinian refugees returning only to Palestine and Jews only to Israel; the Palestinian state being demilitarized, and all this constituting the "end of conflict.") And he has collected hundreds of thousands of Israeli and Palestinian signatories to a "People's Voice" petition endorsing this approach. With arms flowing into Gaza and Kassams flying out, with Hamas refusing to relinquish its opposition to Israel and the Palestinian public refusing to relinquish Hamas, dovish Israeli politicians have an uphill struggle. And a dove Ayalon plainly is, albeit one determined to communicate with his ideological adversaries, and one who does not encourage moderation at all costs, as he makes clear here with a moral evisceration of a policy of restraint that prevents the IDF from firing on Kassam gangs. Will Labor Party members prove susceptible to Ayalon's credentials and sentiments, even with ex-prime minister Ehud Barak in the race? It's possible. Some polls in the last few days have had Barak leading the pack, but others - including an Israel Radio survey on Thursday - are putting Ayalon ahead. The wider Israeli public? That's a whole other story. But Ami Ayalon, clearly, is not a man to duck a challenge. So you think you can save the country. What has to be done and how can you do it, if that's not too general a question? No, a general question is fine. It makes it easier for me to say what I want to say. But the real question is not what has to be done. Lots of people know what has to be done. The question is much more about the "how" than the "what." On the big issues, the arguments are small. In the diplomatic sphere, everyone understands that if Israel is to remain Jewish and democratic, it needs a two-state arrangement, and that the path will be very painful and will require us to return settlers. I'm saying nothing new, nothing that is not accepted by 80 percent of the Israeli public... In so far as it depends on us... Okay, so now the arguments begin. The arguments over worldview. I tend to the worldview that the future has not been determined, not been set in stone... We can make a difference... We live in a very complex world. The answers are not simple. I fear that the discussion is so complex that people return to the simplistic answers: "Everyone is against us, stop wasting our time, whatever we do they'll hate us." I don't accept that... I only know how to do three things... I understand security, agriculture and management... In running any major organization you need to create a leadership team that gathers people from different disciplines and backgrounds who complement each other, not just those who think like you, believe in you and only tell you what you want to hear... The same goes for politics. The grave mistake that our political leaders have been making is that on winning power they pushed away everybody who might threaten them. So now we're in a battle [for the Labor leadership] and we must never lose sight of the fact that when it's over, we'll all have to work together... The same goes, incidentally, for the discussion with the settlers of Gaza, Judea and Samaria: Let's not forget, we're all the same people and the discussion about what constitutes a Jewish, democratic state, about what it is we came here to be - I don't have that discussion with myself. I have it with people who have different positions to mine. People who believe in maintaining the whole land of Israel, in a divine promise. After all, we are five tribes here, not all of whom are Jewish, who have to find a way to live together. Five tribes? Russians, Sephardim, Arabs, haredim and the rest - a million or so plus per tribe. We don't read the same papers or literature, we don't go to the same schools, we don't go to the same pubs and yet we have to live together... We measure ourselves in terms of national growth and yes, that's an important barometer. But if we don't recognize that the [low] barometer of agreement is causing an inability to function together, then the growth won't get us anywhere. And if growth only enriches the top 10% and makes the bottom 50% poorer, then that's another rift... [My thinking on this is] different from most of my political colleagues. The same goes for the Palestinians. I claim that most of the Palestinians, like most of the Israelis, know more or less how an accord will look and most of us and most of them are prepared to pay the price. On the Israeli side maybe, but on theirs? Maybe if all of the Palestinians were Sari Nusseibeh... Well, not all the Palestinians are Sari Nusseibeh and not all the Israelis are Ami Ayalon. The question is, what are the trends? Most of the Palestinians want two states for two people, period. I can prove it. In every survey... The most representative survey was surely their elections. No! What are you talking about? Do our election results represent our people's worldviews? One of our problems is that we don't read Palestinian literature, poetry or newspapers and yet we claim to understand the Palestinians. Most of the Palestinians want an agreement. What's the argument about? As with us, the "how." There are those who say "the Jews only understand the language of violence and force and so the struggle is the only way." From their perspective, what caused Israel to withdraw from the concept of greater Israel? The first intifada. They say that it prompted the change that led to the Madrid Conference and to Oslo. What made Arik Sharon carry out disengagement? They say, the second intifada. They say: "We took a historic decision in 1988 - we the PLO - to recognize Israel. And we've been seeking the way forward ever since. In 1993, we decided in essence that we were putting aside the armed struggle. The Palestine national movement split. The 'moderate faction,' headed by Arafat, said, 'Folks, it's two states for two peoples. And the strategy is negotiation.' The second faction, headed by [Farouk] Kaddoumi, stayed in Tunis and said, 'Folks, you're traitors. What about the right of return? What about Greater Palestine? What about 1948?'" There was a split. Not to mention the terrorist opposition - Hamas and Islamic Jihad and so on. Arafat, at the time backed by most Palestinians, entered negotiations. I'm not going to talk now about all the mistakes Arafat made in the negotiations. There is no warm place in my heart for Arafat. But from the Palestinian point of view, it's all one big Israeli conspiracy. After all, in 1993 there were 100,000 settlers in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. And they expected fewer settlements, fewer settlers, fewer roadblocks and bypass roads. Yet by 2000, when [the negotiation process] all fell apart, there were 220,000 settlers. Every day, they saw more settlers, more settlements, more roadblocks, more humiliation. And they said, "What's going on here?" You know when the penny dropped for them? After Baruch Goldstein's murders [at the Cave of the Machpelah] on Purim 1994. They couldn't understand why Rabin didn't take the few Jewish families out of Hebron and move them to Kiryat Arba. Instead, he placed the whole of Arab Hebron under curfew and turned the Cave of the Patriarchs into a place where Muslims have a hard time praying. They said to themselves: "If he can't evacuate a few families after murder, who can promise us that he'll ever evacuate settlements?" You say you have no "warm place" for Arafat. But apparently you don't think there was a genuine opportunity presented to him [by Israel at Camp David] in 2000. Of course there was an opportunity. And he chose not to take it? Absolutely. So why believe that there was a genuine split between him and the likes of Kaddoumi? When the opportunity arose, he didn't take it. He didn't want it. He wanted it, but he was afraid. He was afraid for his fate because he hadn't prepared his people for compromise? Indeed. But you say that most of the Palestinians supported him and he wanted coexistence, and yet... No. Wait a minute. Arafat wanted an agreement. Was the agreement Arafat wanted one we could live with? I can't say. But what was not ripe in the 1990s is, in my opinion, ripe now. We mature by breaking taboos. The Oslo process had lots of failings. But it brought us one step forward. For us, it shattered the dream of Greater Israel. For them, it shattered the dream of Greater Palestine. At the start of the process, in 1993-94, even Rabin didn't talk about evacuating settlements. Let's be straight about this. But that taboo has been broken. At Camp David 2000, with all its failings - and I have a lot of complaints for Ehud Barak - Barak broke the Israeli taboo on Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley. Before Camp David, it was traitorous to speak of [giving] the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem to Palestine. Today, [Prime Minister] Olmert says it. Today, it is part of the Israeli consensus. Things have changed there [among the Palestinians] too. What Barak did for us, Arafat did not do for them. On our side, the taboos are broken. On their side, the taboos are now being questioned. And on the Palestinian side, the deepest, most problematic taboo is the right of return. If Prof. Nusseibeh and I have contributed anything to the historical discussion, it lies here: This [the People's Voice principles] is the first and so far only document that makes utterly clear that Palestinians will return only to Palestine, and the Jews only to Israel. How many Palestinians have signed the document? 170,000. It is your belief that, today, most Palestinians are ready for an agreement that we can live with? Today, yes. On what basis do you make that claim? On the basis of surveys. Surveys that show a readiness to relinquish the demand for a right of return? No, I present this differently [in surveys that I commission]. You'd never ask, in an Israeli survey, "Are you prepared to evacuate settlers?" What we ask is, "You hear on the radio that Israel and the Palestinians have reached an agreement on two states. Are you in favor or against?" And we set out our six principles. Sixty-seven percent [of Israelis] say yes. We also add two more elements: One, in addition to the agreement, that Israel will build a security fence along the agreed border - after land swaps, with settlement blocs on our side, and land that will go to them. And two, that Israel will get security guarantees from the international community and America. And we get to 78% support. On the Palestinian side, we don't add in those two additional elements. We get results between 60 and 65%, depending on the extent to which they feel there is someone to talk to. When they had the sense that Israel was leaving Gaza, and Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] had been elected, and there was a feeling of continuation - after all, the whole question was whether we were leaving Gaza and creating a big Palestinian jail, or leaving Gaza as a pilot for more - the level of support for our view of an agreement [went up]... If you can build a sense of mutual confidence, most of the public on both sides today [is in favor]. No confidence - no process. Yet the Palestinian people elected Hamas. How do you change that? We have to launch a diplomatic initiative. The [summer's] war in Lebanon has paradoxically created an opportunity. It has made plain to the moderate Sunni world around us that we are not the only problem, or even the main problem, in the Middle East. They now recognize that the primary threat to the stability of the Middle East is Iran and its nuclear program. And the second threat, which also threatens their regimes, is the spread of Islamic extremism. The Saudis are terrified. And this is a wonderful basis to launch a pragmatic, realpolitik initiative. We can't try again to divide the world into good and bad, into right and wrong. We can't demand democracy as a pre-condition. The whole approach of the neoconservatives - one of whom learned Hebrew and is named Sharansky - is plain wrong in the Middle East context. In this region, democracy put Hamas into power. In conditions of frustration and humiliation and religious-nationalist alienation. It happened too in Algeria. And look what is happening in the political vacuum in Iraq. Democracy is a much more gradual process. There is an axis of evil - Iraq, Syria, Hizbullah. But there is a moderate axis that balances it. It begins in Morocco and Tunis, passes via Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey, and reaches to the Emirates. This group prioritizes the threats as we do... So I say, create a pragmatic axis that pushes forward a diplomatic process with three aims: one, stop the spreading influence and empowerment of Iran; two, stop the strengthening and spread of radical Islam; and three, enable a diplomatic process between Israelis and Palestinians. Abu Mazen is part of this axis. To do this, we have to give up on the erroneous traditional Israeli position that we have to talk to each party alone and can't negotiate with them all together because they'll be stronger. No, I want to talk to everyone who accepts my world view... If Syria wants to join, by all means: Let it define its priorities in the same way, join the fight against terror like us, and it would be welcome. And I should say, too, that the Saudi initiative is a basis. It's already in the preamble of the road map... Anyone who accepts the fact of Israel's existence, in my view, we should talk with... If Abu Mazen is the representative of a minority of Palestinians, then he's an Israeli collaborator. But if he is part of a wide, moderate, Sunni, Arab initiative, that weakens Hamas. Why did the Palestinians choose Hamas? Because of the corruption in Fatah. And because the Fatah strategy had failed. From the Palestinian perspective, the path of struggle and terror prevailed. Again, from their point of view, we only understand the language of force. After Arafat died, I went to the prime minister [Sharon] and I told him, "Okay, there was an obstacle, but he's gone now. Why don't you go to Abu Mazen and negotiate. Tell him, 'We're going to leave [Gaza]. But if you want the settlements, take them. If you want to house refugees there, fine.'" But this zero-sum game? That if we see smiling Palestinians, it's an Israeli failure? Come on. The Palestinians chose Hamas. But only 15-17% of the Palestinians accept the fundamentalist approach of Hamas. Beyond that, support for Hamas stemmed from anger at Fatah corruption and recognition that the Hamas strategy works, that the negotiated path doesn't work. But we can change that [and negotiate]. By the way, the notion of negotiating with Syria and not negotiating with Palestinian moderates is a dramatic mistake. The axis of evil is not an ideological alliance. The Syrians are not even Shi'ites. What unifies them is the belief that the path to achievement in the Middle East is supporting terrorism. Why? Because, in their view, that's the only language Israel understands. It is the problematic connection between Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hizbullah and Syria that Israel needs to break. What's most important is to make clear that the only language that works in the Middle East is the language of negotiation. Facing those who don't negotiate with us, we're strong enough to survive here for another 400 years and fight. But we'll fight only because we want to negotiate and have no partner. That's not the situation today... An Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic initiative, and the creation of a pragmatic coalition, would also constitute an incredible message in regard to the level of violence against Jewish targets in the Diaspora. There is a connection. And we can impact it. By extension, should we, now, be sticking to the policy of restraint in Gaza because of the possible impact on the Diaspora? I favor the policy [of restraint], but there's a limit. It's appropriate if it enables a diplomatic process and strengthens Palestinian moderates. But when it is transformed into orders that prevent the IDF from opening fire on a gang that is about to fire Kassams, it is unconscionable. What are we saying to the residents of Sderot? With all due respect to our desire to bolster the moderates, this is flagrantly immoral and wrong and must be stopped. Incidentally, statements in favor of a diplomatic process and the parameters of a permanent accord will do much more to bolster Abu Mazen than taking down 40 roadblocks, releasing 20 terrorists or showing restraint that endangers Israeli lives... How do you suggest dealing with Iran? Iran is the ultimate threat. Iran is not only threatening us. The most effective way to stop Iran going nuclear is to create that axis that will make every international action all the more effective. We cannot accept a nuclear Iran. Together with the international community, we need the policy that will stop it. Beyond that, I don't want to discuss this... We don't need to behave as though we have all the time in the world, but still... Some of the apocalyptic declarations by politicians... It's not only politicians who are issuing strident warnings. We live in a complex world. Simplistic solutions don't work anymore. You have to create an atmosphere that enables serious debate. And there's no such atmosphere. Going back to the Lebanon war, [we're currently] a nation that doesn't know how to take a decision to go to war, to ask questions, to discuss alternatives, not to act with undue haste. We need to broadcast determination and power, but we have to be aware of the limits of power. We have to remember that leadership is tested according to the process by which it decides to go to war, and the way it prepares the army to win and, most importantly, by the way it prevents war. Our leadership doesn't understand this. What should have been done differently on July 12? The government of Israel should have summoned the heads of the army and asked for alternatives. As I said on the day, the prime minister should have appeared on TV and told the world's leaders that Israel's sovereignty had been ruptured, soldiers killed and captured, and that "you, the international community, including Fuad Saniora, have four or five days to return our soldiers safely, and then we'll decide whether or not to respond." Then, he should have given the order to call up all the reservists and clean out all the bomb shelters and weigh the options. Think all night. Ask the army, what is the state of readiness? Estimate the Lebanese response. Consider the options. Should I launch a three-day air assault, and cause the collapse of the Lebanese infrastructure, and then, with the international community on our side, and the G-8 issuing an unprecedented decision and Saniora begging for a cease-fire, agree to talks at Rosh Hanikra? Or, should I say, "You wanted war, here's a war?" Do you know how long we prepared for the first Lebanon war? A year and a half. Arik Sharon, Raful Eitan and Menachem Begin, the defense minister, the chief of staff and the prime minister, reached a decision that there was no choice but for a military operation against the terror infrastructure in Lebanon. We spent 18 months preparing until we said, "Okay, we're ready," and then waited for the opportunity. And then they tried to kill the ambassador [Shlomo Argov in London] and we said, "Gentlemen, we're invading Lebanon." What was the hurry this time? Did anyone seriously think that in a military operation we would get the two soldiers back? Nobody believed that for a moment. But the [Israeli leadership] did believe that they would destroy Hizbullah? Then they thought so without asking a single question. Anyone who takes a decision to go to war on the basis of less than two hours discussion shouldn't claim to know anything. In the security establishment for the past four of five years, the IDF had taken a decision: There will be no surprise war. Israel wants an educational system, growth, revenue, and so it reduced its defense budget. And there was an intifada and the need to prepare for the Iranian threat. So the geostrategic situation was assessed: the Americans are in Iraq, we have peace with Jordan, Syria, with all due respect, will not launch a land grab. There'll be no surprise war. [And in the event of a change, the assessment ran,] we'll have months to prepare - to do the training and replenish the supplies and buy the spare parts. To get ready, as we did before the 1982 war. That was the mindset. And in such a circumstance, you can't say, "Guys, let's go, two hours, war." It doesn't work like that. So why did that happen? That's what you have committees of inquiry for. Now they say, "We didn't know the army wasn't ready." How can you say you didn't know? "I'd only been defense minister for a month and a half or two. I'm not to blame." [sighs] Listen, I was head of the Shin Bet. I understood no more about the Shin Bet than the defense minister understands about the security establishment. I knew I had one task: to ask hard questions. That's all. Leadership that doesn't know [the answers], must know to ask the questions. Do you know what is Israel's tragedy? That on July 12, we had a leadership that didn't know to ask questions. And we had a military leadership that didn't know to give answers to questions that hadn't been asked. In the past, it never happened. In the Six Day War, we had a giant of a chief of staff [Yitzhak Rabin], and even though the defense minister/prime minister [Levi] Eshkol was weak, he [Rabin] knew to give the answers to the questions he wasn't asked. There's never before been a situation where the entire apparatus failed: the chief of staff, the defense minister, and the prime minister. That's our tragedy. What's crucial now is determining how the future will look. I come from a place where it is said that if a captain doesn't know his destination, no wind will sail him there. We need to know where we're going. Once you do know, the crew can survive in a stormy sea, without food or water, so long as there is hope. That's the ultimate challenge of leadership today: to create hope.