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The View from J Street: The Wisdom of a Former Shin Bet Chief

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March 14, 2014
by Alan Elsner 5128078978_0f1e642038_oIn the past week, I had the honor of spending several days with Ami Ayalon, a decorated Israeli war hero, former commander of the Israeli navy, and head of the Shin Bet security service from 1995 to 2000. Ayalon was in the United States to address a series of Town Hall meetings organized by J Street, part of its “2 Campaign” which aims to mobilize support among American Jews for Secretary of State John Kerry’s current peace efforts. Listening to this combat veteran speak of the necessity of peace was a mesmerizing experience. He made it clear that his concept of security went far beyond measuring the threat posed by the weapons of any potential enemy. “We spend a lot of time counting the number of missiles the other side has — but after a certain number it becomes irrelevant. The concept of true security is not just based on military power. It is based on political agreements,” Ayalon said. Israeli’s vaunted security services — the Shin Bet, the Mossad and the IDF itself — became very skilled at detecting risks, Ayalon said, but their very success had become a double-edged sword. “Because of our success in detecting risks, we are losing the capability to seize opportunities." Then there are the risks that cannot be detected by any security service or spy agency, he noted, such as the threat to Israel’s democracy if the country continues to rule over millions of Palestinians in the West Bank. This kind of talk is all the more striking when considering Ayalon’s background. In 1969, he participated in a daring commando raid on an Egyptian island. During the assault, he was hit in the forehead by a ricochet. Brushing off his wound, he stormed one Egyptian position after another, grenades exploding around him. He took more injuries in the leg, neck, and arm but kept on fighting. This is one tough guy. But he is unafraid of confronting the truth as he sees it, no matter how controversial, as was proven by his participation in the movie documentary The Gatekeepers, which comprised interviews with all six of Israel’s living former Shin Bet chiefs. Strikingly all six, in their own words, articulated the need to end the occupation and make peace with the Palestinians. When an audience member in the Town Hall meeting in Boca Raton, Florida asked Ayalon how Israel could possibly trust the Palestinians when their textbooks were full of hatred for Israel, he had an interesting two-part answer: “I raised this with one of the Palestinian partners I negotiated with. He told me, ‘Ami, our children don’t learn to hate from textbooks. They learn to hate from watching their parents being humiliated at Israeli checkpoints. When you stop controlling us, over time we will stop hating you.’” Ayalon’s second point: “I never said we should trust them. This is not what we base our security on. But the Palestinians right now feel they have nothing to lose. If you have a people who feels they have nothing to lose, nothing on earth will stop them. We have to help create incentives so that people in the West Bank do have something to lose. If they have their own state and we can create some economic prosperity and hope for the future, this will begin to happen.” And it’s hardly as if Israel is blameless, Ayalon said. “We send mixed messages to the international community and to ourselves. If we are ready for peace, we have to explain why we keep on building settlements.” It’s becoming increasingly clear that Israel and the Palestinians are approaching a decisive moment. A decision to accept Kerry’s peace framework would lead the parties in the direction of more tough negotiations for sure, but with the possibility of peace at the end of the road. A “no” from either Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or President Mahmoud Abbas leads to a much grimmer future for both peoples. When someone like Ami Ayalon tells us we need peace, we should listen. Alan Elsner is Vice President of Communications for J Street.