This Is Israel's Greatest Enemy, According to a Former General and Shin Bet Chief

A new book by former navy and Shin Bet chief-turned-politician Ami Ayalon aims to decipher the collective DNA of Israel, Zionism and Judaism

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Ami Ayalon (center)  at the Great Bitter Lake in Egypt.
Ami Ayalon (center) at the Great Bitter Lake in Egypt.Credit: Courtesy of Ayalon
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

“At some point between 1973 and 2002, we were victorious. The victory lay in the decision of all the Arab League states to recognize Israel’s existence based on the United Nations resolutions. That decision was the reason we fought, and we aspired to it from the day the state was established. Our enemies accepted the fact of our existence in this land, based on the conditions we had demanded for years. The continuation of the war, after we were victorious, makes it unjust and immoral; but beyond that, the continuation of the war after we were victorious will bring about the end of the Zionism that envisions a Jewish, democratic state in the spirit of Israel’s Declaration of Independence.”

About a week before his book “Friendly Fire” (in English) is set to be published, Ami Ayalon is sitting with me in his home in Moshav Kerem Maharal. The irony of the venue is not lost on either of us. At a certain stage in his life, Ayalon, the bold fighter and security hawk who killed no few soldiers and terrorists, underwent a transformation and became a fighter for peace. During his stint beginning in 1979 as commander of Shayetet 13, the naval commandos, he and his wife Biba, from Kibbutz Merhavia, bought a small house (38 square meters, or some 400 square feet) and a storeroom for chicken feed in the moshav. Kerem Maharal had been established by Holocaust survivors from Czechoslovakia on the ruins of Ijzim, the second-largest Palestinian village in the Haifa District, whose residents were expelled in 1948. Ami and Biba connected the small house and the storeroom and created the home in which they still live. Adjacent to it, they have an olive grove, a manufacturing plant and a store where they sell the olive oil they produce.

“I am aware of the complex reality of our existence here,” he says in a tone that betrays the remnants of a gritty military style. “I am not a post-Zionist. For me, the War of Independence is a formative event for Zionism, and for them [the Palestinians] it’s the Nakba. I sit here in this house and assert that until 1973 all the wars were just wars. We were attacked.”

But the subtitle of his new memoir – “How Israel Became Its Own Worst Enemy and the Hope for Its Future” – immediately indicates a different approach. In Ayalon’s view, Israel’s greatest enemy is neither Iran, Hamas nor Hezbollah. It is “the policy direction that the state has taken since the second intifada,” in 2000. If Zionism is indeed to come to an end, Ayalon maintains, the reason will not be a handful of Jewish terrorists or rabbis who believe in a messianic vision – the cause will be government policy that kowtows to minority groups.

Ami Ayalon was born in 1945 in Tiberias and grew up on Kibbutz Ma’agan, on the shores of Lake Kinneret. His parents had immigrated to Palestine seven years earlier from Romanian Transylvania. The formative experiences of his childhood and adolescence were marked by “the feeling of the Syrians along the border, the shelling of the Jezreel Valley communities, being confined in bomb shelters, the Kinneret and the poems of Rachel” [Bluwstein]. And there was also his military service, of course.

“To be frank,” he writes in the book, “we were motivated neither by Zionist-socialist New Man ideology nor the post-Holocaust ethos of Never Again. It all came down to the thrill of adventure and danger, the intoxicating adrenaline of the fight — the desire to push our limits. Swimming faster, diving deeper, running farther, and shooting less out of careful deliberation than instinct and intuition constituted the formula for survival.” That description is only one example of many of the book’s macho narratives, whose style manifests the considerable contribution of Ayalon’s co-author, Anthony David, who teaches English literature at the University of New England.

This is not an autobiography in the usual sense of the word. Ayalon’s book is more of a personal, intellectual and philosophical journey into his life’s different realms, interspersed with encounters with people through whom he sets out to decipher the collective DNA of Israel, Zionism and Judaism. It’s not by chance that he takes the book’s epigraph from Amos Oz’s autobiographical novel “A Tale of Love and Darkness”: “The only journey from which you don’t always come back empty-handed is the journey inside yourself.”

Ayalon, as commander of the Israel Navy in the 1990s.
Ayalon, as commander of the Israel Navy in the 1990s.Credit: IDF Spokesman’s Office

On his journey, Ayalon meets, among others, with the writer Meir Shalev; the former physician of the Shayetet, Yehuda Melamed; Chaim Gans, a professor of law; Pinhas Wallerstein, a leading figure in the settlement movement; Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira, author of the racist book “The King’s Torah,” who advocates killing non-Jewish babies, if necessary; senior Fatah figure Jibril Rajoub; and Khalil Shikaki, a leading Palestinian pollster, whose brother Fat’hi Shikaki, the first secretary general of Islamic Jihad, was assassinated in Malta in a joint naval-Mossad operation, at a time when Ayalon was the commander of the Israel Navy.

Drawing the lines

In July 1969, at the height of the War of Attrition in Sinai, Ayalon, then a young officer, was sent with fellow naval commandos and fighters from the elite Sayeret Matkal special ops unit to raid Green Island, in the southern Suez Canal near Suez City. The British had fortified the small island during World War II in order to protect the canal’s shipping lanes. Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Haim Bar-Lev and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan ordered the operation in response to the crossing of the canal by Egyptian commandos and their raid on an Israeli outpost. Eight Israeli soldiers were killed, one was taken captive and several tanks were destroyed. Although it was not presented as such, the raid on Green Island was also a showcase operation.

In Ayalon’s view, Israel’s greatest enemy is neither Iran, Hamas nor Hezbollah. It is “the policy direction that the state has taken since the second intifada,” in 2000.

“The resounding message would be that no matter how well fortified, no Egyptian position was beyond our reach,” Ayalon writes. “No enemy soldier, not even elite commandos hidden away in the Pyramids of Giza, could go to sleep or take a piss without the nagging fear that we could show up, guns ablaze.”

Ayalon and his comrades-in-arms were spotted as they advanced toward the fortifications, and a fierce battle ensued in which another six IDF soldiers were killed, among them three naval commandos. The Egyptians’ losses were far higher: an estimated 70 to 80 troops. Ayalon, who was seriously wounded, received the Medal of Valor for his excellence and bravery in the battle. He remembers a Dr. Slavin who treated him as he was being evacuated from the island on a Zodiac dinghy muttering two words, “The bastards.” Slavin was referring to the IDF High Command, which had dispatched them on their almost-suicidal mission. But for his part, says Ayalon, “We didn’t think then that the battle was unnecessary, and I don’t think so today, either.”

In the 1970s, the Israel Navy ratcheted up its involvement in anti-terrorist operations, and Ayalon found himself plying the Mediterranean to carry out assassination missions in almost every Arab country, including the April 1988 killing of Abu Jihad, the deputy of PLO leader Yasser Arafat, in Tunisia. In another operation, after being promoted to commander of the Shayetet in 1979, Ayalon and his fighters set out to assassinate a PLO sector commander who was perpetrating terrorist attacks nonstop in Lebanon, whose plans included a sea-based raid on one of Israel’s beaches in order to kill civilians indiscriminately. Ayalon’s force planned to situate themselves on the breakwater in the Lebanese harbor of Tyre, pick out their man in a café on the jetty, and cut him down with sniper fire from afar.

However, during the final operation briefing, when the boat was already on its way to the target, Ayalon got into a stormy argument with Chief of Staff Rafael “Raful” Eitan.

Ami Ayalon in the documentary "The Gatekeepers."
Ami Ayalon in the documentary "The Gatekeepers."Credit: AP

“Raful added a twist to the plan,” Ayalon recalls in his book. “After ensuring we’d hit the target, he wanted us to mow down everyone else in the café with guns and machine guns and set explosive charges on the breakwater. ‘Sir,’ I told him, ‘that’s not happening.’ ‘What’s that supposed to mean? It’s an order.’ ‘Sir, this operation is about killing a terrorist, not families in a café or kids running around on the breakwater… if we open up with massive fire, everyone in the entire region will know we are there.’”

Eitan continued “to insist on an indiscriminate slaughter” in order “to secure the retreat.” But Ayalon stood his ground: “Sir, if you want everyone dead, you don’t need us. Dispatch the air force. They’ll drop a one-ton bomb on the pier and it’ll all be over.” Eitan was forced to back down and the operation proceeded as planned.

I’ve cited this example from the book as it shows the budding of Ayalon’s worldview, which would guide his path in the IDF, in the Shin Bet security service – which he headed between 1995 and 2000 – and in politics in the decades to come: a fearless war against terrorism, while maintaining humanity and morality.

Out of the ‘Dark Ages’

One of Ayalon’s important decisions as commander of the navy from 1992 to 1996 was to establish a fleet of modern submarines as a strategic arm. This was the period after the first Gulf War, when Israel received two submarines as a gift from Germany, as compensation, intertwined with post-Holocaust guilt feelings, for the fact that German firms had sold equipment and components to Iraq for its chemical and nuclear warfare plans. Ayalon aspired to enlarge the fleet, for which partial financing by Israel was required, and pushed for a decision on the issue, to the displeasure of Chief of Staff Ehud Barak and most of the IDF General Staff. However, he had the backing of Prime Minister and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Ayalon believes that his approach should still be adopted today, despite the indictments filed against former senior navy officers and the allegedly improper conduct of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the procurement of an additional four vessels from Germany and in giving an Israeli green light to the Germans’ sale of submarines to Egypt. As such, Ayalon did not hesitate to sign an affidavit appended to the petition submitted this summer to the High Court of Justice by former senior figures in the defense establishment, calling for Netanyahu to be investigated in the affair and for the establishment of a state commission of inquiry.

Prime Minister Shimon Peres’ decision to appoint Ayalon head of the Shin Bet after the November 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the resignation of the security service’s director, Carmi Gillon, was not a bolt from the blue. Ayalon reveals in his book that Rabin himself first broached the idea, about a year before he was murdered. Following a decisive meeting about the submarines, Rabin asked Barak to leave the room and then proceeded to astound the naval chief. Ayalon describes what happened next. Rabin: “Ami, I’d like you to take over the Shin Bet… Listen, you’ve completed your stint as commander of the navy, and the issue of the submarines has been settled. I need you at the Shin Bet.” Ayalon “sat there too stunned to respond.”

Ami Ayalon receives the Medal of Valor from Prime Minister Golda Meir in 1973.
Ami Ayalon receives the Medal of Valor from Prime Minister Golda Meir in 1973.Credit: Courtesy of Ami Ayalon

It made no sense to ask someone like him to head up the Shin Bet, he felt. On the other hand, Ayalon writes, “Rabin didn’t need to explain why the Shin Bet needed fresh blood. In the year and a half since he had pumped Arafat’s hand during the signing ceremony for the Oslo Accords at the White House, a legion of demons had descended upon the Land of Israel, in the form of Hamas and Islamic Jihad on the Palestinian side, and Baruch Goldstein [who perpetrated a massacre of Palestinians] on ours.”

By the time Ayalon entered his office in Shin Bet headquarters, the gates of hell were already wide open. One suicide attack followed another in swift succession, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat did very little to stop them. Ayalon found himself in a double bind: He had to eradicate Palestinian terrorism, which was out of control, by means of a hapless security service – and at the same time fight Jewish terrorism, in light of the fact that Rabin had been assassinated by a Jewish law student with ties to the settlement movement and its radical rabbis.

But here, once more, Ayalon’s distinctive personality came into play. At his first meeting with the heads of the service’s divisions and units, he writes, he told them in all sincerity, “Gentlemen, I do not know this organization, don’t know how to recruit agents, and I don’t have a clue how to gather intelligence. But paradoxically, I am responsible for everything that happens here, and all of us will have to work together to bridge the gap between my lack of knowledge and experience and the degree of responsibility I have. If you think I am wrong about something, I want you to tell me.”

The chief need is not to understand the Palestinians’ anger, but the need to reformulate the Zionist narrative in order to ensure Israel’s future as a secure, Jewish and democratic state.

Ayalon

At the same time, he added, “‘But old strategies have failed.’ We were no longer fighting the PLO, I reminded them, stating the obvious: Our enemy was now Islamic terrorists. More specifically, to prevent Hamas from murdering Israeli civilians, we needed to infiltrate its military wing, the Qassam Brigades. Our failure until then was the consequence, I was convinced, of not having the right sensors. ‘So we’ll examine everything: the methods of intelligence collection, the methods of recruitment, the methods of prevention. We’ll question every single convention and axiom. What works, we’ll keep; what doesn’t, we’ll ditch. The one thing I’m not willing to hear,’ I went on, ‘is, This is the way we’ve always done things.’”

Shabak, the Hebrew acronym by which the Shin Bet is known, “seemed to be stuck in the Dark Ages,” he writes. “To quote Yuval Diskin, the man I appointed to direct counterintelligence for the West Bank [and afterward Shin Bet director], Shabak had plenty of ‘muscle’ and an ‘underdeveloped brain.’”

Indeed, by the time Ayalon concluded his tenure, the brain had developed and was operating the muscles effectively. The methods improved, the technological capabilities were upgraded, the database had undergone digitization, and above it all hovered a spirit of daring and refreshing, out-of-the-box thinking. To this must be added the good cooperation between the Shin Bet and Mohammed Dahlan, at that time the head of the Palestinian security forces in the Gaza Strip, and his counterpart in the West Bank, Jibril Rajoub. In the end, Jibril and his people arrested more Hamas terrorists than Israel did, Ayalon notes in the book.

Ami Ayalon with President Ezer Weizman.
Ami Ayalon with President Ezer Weizman.Credit: Ofer Lefler

Question of credibility

One of the Shin Bet’s major successes during the Ayalon period, which ended in 2000, was the killing of the brothers Adel and Imad Awadallah, in 1998. Adel was the commander of the Iz al-Din al-Qassam military wing of Hamas; Imad had escaped from a Palestinian Authority prison. They were both assassinated near Hebron by a force of the Yamam, the Israel Police antiterror unit, on the basis of intelligence supplied by the Shin Bet. Hamas was convinced that Rajoub had staged Imad’s prison break and had then passed on the information to the Shin Bet.

Ayalon sheds light on this, relating that Rajoub and his colleagues wanted to apprehend the brothers, but that the critical intel was finally obtained by Diskin and his staff. Surprising opposition to the operation, which aimed to capture the brothers alive, came from Netanyahu. The prime minister was apprehensive that their arrest would spawn revenge attacks. “Let Arafat deal with them,” he demanded, and berated Ayalon for two hours over his stand on the issue. But Ayalon was insistent and eventually had the upper hand; Netanyahu accepted his argument.

Ayalon writes that he found no little resemblance between Netanyahu and Arafat: They were both excellent actors and given to making theatrical gestures. In this connection, he provides an interesting anecdote. After the assassination operation, he informed the prime minister that he intended to issue a statement to the press about the events on the farm near Hebron. Netanyahu objected: “Let’s say it was another work accident” – i.e., that the Palestinians blew themselves up. Ayalon said he was not going to lie, adding “This is a matter of credibility for the State of Israel and the Shin Bet.” “‘Credibility is not your department,’ said Bibi. ‘You stick with security,’” besides which, he added, “You do not understand the media.”

Ayalon observes that it was not only the Shin Bet that changed during this period – so did he. “In my first week as the agency’s director, dozens were killed and hundreds wounded in terrorist attacks. Afterward, the graph began to fall, and in my final year as director, until Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount [in September 2000], only one Israeli was killed. Those results speak for themselves. Along with this, my view of the Palestinians changed on the basis of my experience in the Shin Bet. I understood that there is a Palestinian people that sees us as occupiers and aspires to end the occupation on the way to the establishment of a state alongside the State of Israel.”

As commander of the Shin Bet, Ayalon grasped the power concentrated in his hands. “Shabak, by the nature of its design, is an organization that is intended to protect democracy by means of systematically violating the most sacrosanct principles, privacy and due process of law.” Reflections of this nature led Ayalon to formulate the Shin Bet’s code of ethics, which deals with the restraint of force and underscores a statesmanlike approach.

‘Politics is not for me’

Gradually, particularly over the course of the second intifada, Ayalon came to realize that in order to foment change in Israel he had no choice but to engage in public and political activity. Thus, in 2002, he and his good Palestinian friend (to this day) Prof. Sari Nusseibeh, former president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, drew up a peace initiative containing very general principles for an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Its basic tenets remain today: the principle of two states for the two peoples, based on the 1967 borders and with territorial swaps; Jerusalem as the capital of both states; Palestinian forgoing of the right to return to Israel (Palestinians would be allowed to return to the Palestinian state only); and demilitarization of the Palestinian state. Concurrently, Ayalon and Nusseibeh established public movements to promote the initiative (“The People’s Voice” and “The People’s Campaign for Peace and Democracy”). By 2005, a quarter-of-a-million Israelis and 160,000 Palestinians had expressed their support for it.

In 2006, Ayalon entered politics and was elected to the Knesset on the Labor Party ticket. He served as a minister in the government of Ehud Olmert and lost to Ehud Barak in the contest to lead Labor in 2007, after which he served in a ministerial position. Afterward, he left the political arena.

Ayalon with Khalil Shikaki and Saed Erekat.
Ayalon with Khalil Shikaki and Saed Erekat.Credit: Courtesy of Ami Ayalon

“Politics wasn’t for me,” he admits. “In retrospect, I think that Rabin made a mistake by not giving Arafat an ultimatum to stop turning a blind eye to the terrorism. Netanyahu and Barak erred by failing to understand the pressure Arafat was under because of the continuation of the occupation and the expansion of the settlements, a situation which could not lead to the creation of a horizon. On the Palestinian issue, it is our duty and responsibility to take the first step. We have not yet done that.”

At the same time, he remarks, “The chief need, as I see it, is not to understand the Palestinians’ anger, but the need to reformulate the Zionist narrative in order to ensure Israel’s future as a secure, Jewish and democratic state in the spirit of Israel’s Declaration of Independence.” The intention of recasting the narrative “is to continue to strive toward the goal – as it was framed by the founding fathers. It’s like setting out in a sailboat when the wind shifts. Sometimes you have to change course in order to reach the destination you set yourself.”

Finally, I asked Ayalon for his thoughts about current events in Israel, and in particular about Netanyahu’s comportment. Even though he has been unsparing in his criticism of Netanyahu (and Barak) in the past – as well as in this book – this time he declined to comment. However, he did consent to express his opinion about the recent agreement with the United Arab Emirates, which in his view has three aspects:

“1. Every arrangement that creates a process toward peace and a transition from normalization to peace – and that looks to be speedy at the moment – is positive and will improve Israel’s economy and its standing in the Arab world. There is no doubt that this is an important diplomatic achievement, but we must also remember that the UAE is not Egypt and Jordan. We did not have a war with the emirates. It’s certainly not comparable to Egypt and Jordan, and any such comparison is beside the point and looks to me like an effort to reap immediate political dividends.

“2. The agreement strengthens those who think, as I do, that concessions on the Palestinian issue can bring us significant achievements. The emirates, and also the U.S. administration, are saying explicitly that the annexation [plan for the West Bank, advocated by Netanyahu] is no longer on the agenda, and no Israeli believes Netanyahu when he says that it’s on the table, certainly not the settlers, whom he betrayed.

“3. We must understand – and this is given expression in the book – that even if we have a peace agreement with the whole Arab and Muslim world, if we do not reach a settlement with the Palestinians, Israel will not be a secure, democratic, Jewish state. Not democratic, because we will not be the majority in the land. Not Jewish, because neither Islam nor Judaism has passed the stage of separating between religion and state. And not secure, because the terrorism of the Palestinians as a people – not of the terrorist organizations – will accompany us in the future.”

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