By Ami Ayalon with Anthony David
Foreword by Dennis Ross
Penguin Random House, $27.00, 280 pp.
The Israeli politician Ami Ayalon has been head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, as well as commander-in-chief of the Navy and a Member of Knesset for the Labor Party. Just two years after the conclusion of his Shin Bet service, he played a prominent role in the 2012 film The Gatekeepers, in which six former Israeli security chiefs argued that coming to some accommodation with the Palestinians was an imperative for Israeli security. In this memoir, Ayalon, now 75, looks back on his personal and political journey while stressing the importance of listening and absorbing the way the different sides have experienced recent history. He spoke with Dan Raviv for Moment.
The subtitle seems to be your assessment. But does that mean despair, a lack of hope? You’ve looked at everything happening in your peace efforts for almost 20 years, and you’re not quite giving up?
No, I’m not giving up. It’s not surrender. This book is an alert. I’m saying to my friends in Israel, and in a way to the Jewish community in America, that we chose the wrong way. Not when we created the state, but during the past 20 or 30 years. We are walking in the wrong direction.
You say you’re hurting yourselves.
This is why it’s “friendly fire.” And not everybody will agree with me, but it is our choice. It is our decision. We can change. Is it the enemy shooting at us? Yes, they are, but this is not our major problem. For the first time [in history] we have the power, we are a dominant regional power in the Middle East. We have the power to shape and to influence our future.
You and your co-author, Anthony David, set all of this in the frame of your life story: born in Israel, when it was the British Mandate for Palestine in 1945; seeing how Israel became a success. And now you want to go to the next stage—as though Israel absolutely must recognize their Palestinian Arab neighbors. Is there any progress in your campaign, especially since the Oslo Accords in 1993 let Yasser Arafat come back to the West Bank and Gaza and establish a Palestinian Authority?
It depends how you measure the history. Oslo did not bring us to the place that its [authors] saw. But it did create the parameters of a future agreement, a reality of two states. But Sari Nusseibeh and I summarized eight years of negotiations on one page [in the 2003 Voices of Peace plan, which attracted 475,000 signatures by Israelis and Palestinians]. The parameters are clear, and in some ways they are acceptable by the majority of Palestinians and the majority of Israelis.
This was a huge achievement. But if you measure by the level of confidence, then we have been running backward. There are still conflicting narratives. Ask Israelis, and they will tell you that we want to get security, and we were ready to give up territory, but instead we got less security, more violence and the Intifada.
But there is another narrative which is totally different. And the tragedy is that the other narrative is as right as is ours. If you ask the average Palestinian, he will tell you, “All we wanted was to see the end of occupation. And we accepted getting even only 27 percent of what we believed was ours.”
“We recognize the State of Israel,” they say. “And we even fought Hamas. We fought our brothers who are terrorists!” And personally, I know that this is exactly what they did, because we did it together. “And what we got was more settlements, more settlers, more roadblocks, more military units, etc, etc.”
You repeatedly point out in the book that the cooperation from the PA existed, so long as they believed that Israel was moving in the direction of lifting what they call the boot of occupation off their necks. The Palestinians thought you wanted to find a way to leave the land, but they concluded that Israel doesn’t want that.
That is what I am saying in the book, so I don’t think that it will be accepted by many Israelis. But there is no way to explain to any rational person—maybe from another planet—that we really meant we wanted the end of occupation, but keeping all the power at the same time. Israel kept building settlements, and you’re not moving thousands of Israelis [into the West Bank] if you believe that it will not be Israeli territory.
On a rational level, we did everything in order to try [peace talks], but the psychology is still our narrative – the idea that [the land] is ours. It belongs to us. That shapes the way we understand the reality of what we do every day, as well as the future.
You name names in your book, telling what you heard from prime ministers in private, or your successors at Shabak [the Shin Bet security agency]. You write that you did your part to capture and kill terrorists, but that no one thought about what to do next to end the conflict. You and five other former Shabak chiefs said all that in the  film “The Gatekeepers.” But what was the impact? Most Israelis who saw it probably thought, “It’s true, we would rather keep the West Bank and we just want security.”
Many Israelis did not see it. They did not like the idea that the six of us came out front and described the huge price Israel is paying, as a society, every day to keep the occupation. But most Israelis do not visit the West Bank. Most Israelis don’t care too much about it.
It’s okay with them, as long as there is no terror—as long as people are not dying in the streets—especially when you understand the price of getting out as something very expensive. Because we have a misunderstanding about what happened in Gaza after we left [in 2005].
In a way, we made a mistake in the initiative with former representative of the Palestinian National Authority Sari Nusseibeh. We thought if we presented a better future, all Israelis would have motives to choose a better way. But it is not enough.
I found out that the past is a very powerful factor. Our parents took part in a revolution. The Zionist movement was a revolution. That means you create a new past, a new present, and a new dream for the future.
I did not realize how powerful is “the past” they created: the idea that this [land] is ours, it was given to us. They used to say, “We are a people without land, who came to a land without people.” They did not see the Palestinians. They did not see the family of Sari Nusseibeh that lived in Jerusalem since the 7th century, because they were so full of ideology and their dreams.
But they accepted the [United Nations] partition plan of 1947, and then Israel was attacked. It was a just war. But not today.
Now we have to accept or create or design a different reality: one in which the land is shared. Of course, it is ours, but it is not only ours. We have to create a narrative that will enable us to create a reality of two states.
Egypt and Jordan made peace with Israel, and in 2002 we had our biggest victory when the Arab Peace Initiative recognized Israel along the [pre-]1967 lines in the parameters of two states. They accepted our existence as a Jewish state, by the way, but we did not understand it. We go on building settlements and fighting wars [against Palestinians]. Today, it is not a just war.
A lot of American Jews will ask if you’re just blaming Israel. Are you also putting some blame on the Palestinians, especially their leaders Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas?
The answer is no. Because I am not speaking in a language of blame. If they ask me, “Okay, do they share some responsibility?” I would say yes—and not just some, but at least 50 percent. So there is a shared responsibility.
Yet I remind you that we are so powerful. It is in our hands. I try to explain what we Israelis can do independently. I don’t need permission from Palestinians to say that the east side of the security fence, that [West Bank sector] will not be under Israeli sovereignty, if they will come to negotiate. I don’t need any permission. I’m not giving the Palestinians any present, and they probably don’t deserve it.
But I deserve it, because the tragedy is not that our war is not just. The tragedy is that if we go on fighting this way, we’re not just losing our people—and sending our youngsters, some of whom do not come back. This is not the only price. We are losing our identity. We are losing everything. We will not be a Jewish democracy.
Either we will have Jewish apartheid, or we will lose our Jewish identity. So this is our responsibility, because we have the power to do it.
And for your aspirations, is it good news when the United Arab Emirates agrees to normalize relations with Israel, and other Gulf states are leaning that way? Israel always wanted to be accepted in the Middle East, so does this open the way to peace? Or does it give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu an excuse to do nothing and declare that power is all that counts?
First of all, every recognition is good news. It’s a great achievement. But we have to remember that we never fought against the United Arab Emirates. And in fact, since the mid-1990s we have had normalization. We have had representative offices in Gulf states since the days of [Yitzhak] Rabin. By the way, it started because we reached an [Oslo] agreement with the Palestinians. We tend to forget. But it proved to me that if you are ready to make concessions on the Palestinian issue, you can realize great achievements.
We tend to forget that they [the UAE] made a deal on the condition that Israel will not annex [West Bank territory] and Israel will go to negotiate. So everybody presented it a little bit differently. But the way I understand this agreement is based on the idea that Israel gave up on unilateral annexation.
What I’m saying to my Israeli friends is that it is a great feat. But we shouldn’t forget the core conflict is between us and the Palestinians. And we cannot hide from our future.
We may have normalization with other countries. But unless we sign an agreement, unless we create a reality of two states, Palestine and Israel, we will see the end of Zionism. Israel will not be a real democracy.
Dan Raviv, former correspondent for CBS News and i24, is co-author of books on Israeli security and espionage including “Spies Against Armageddon” and “Every Spy a Prince.”
Moment Magazine participates in the Amazon Associates program and earns money from qualifying purchases.