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Former head of Shin Bet: Hamas’s nightmare is a two-state solution

The former head of Israeli intelligence Ami Ayalon on why Israel is losing the war.

By Bruno Maçães

Kerem Maharal is a moshav, or village, on the southern slope of Mount Carmel in northern Israel. It was built on the site of depopulated Palestinian villages, captured by the Israeli forces during the war in 1948. This is where Ami Ayalon, the former head of Israel’s secret service Shin Bet, lives. When I visited him recently, Ayalon showed me how part of his home is formed from a stone house that once belonged to a Palestinian family. That small structure was later expanded, including by Ayalon himself. The significance of this expansion is not lost on Ayalon. Recognising the spaces around him where history merges with biography has been part of his own political evolution.

Ayalon served as head of Shin Bet from 1996 to 2000. Before that he had been commander-in-chief of the Israeli navy. After leaving the Shin Bet (also known as Shabak), Ayalon embraced a career in politics and at one point it seemed that he could reach the very top. He narrowly lost the race for the Labor Party leadership to Ehud Barak in 2007, but served as a cabinet minister under Ehud Olmert until 2008.

His 2020 book Friendly Fire is indispensable reading for those interested in the inner workings of Israeli intelligence and in Israeli politics more broadly. The book is also the personal account of a political awakening. His work in intelligence forced Ayalon to regard Palestinian leaders and the Palestinian people as historical and political actors in their own right. As he writes in the prologue to his book: “Seeing Palestinians as people changed me. I saw them no longer as abstract targets but instead as people with dreams mostly thwarted because of Israelis’ determination to actualise our own dreams.”

When I met with him, Ayalon was still reeling from the reaction to an interview he gave in March to an Australian television network, where he said that, had he been born Palestinian, he would be fighting the Israeli occupation. He lost a few friends as a result. As he put it to me, his statement was merely the recognition that this is how Palestinians think. “Even if you regard them as the enemy, you need to understand them as they understand themselves,” he said. Anything else would be madness, Ayalon insisted, but he clearly thinks that large segments of Israeli society are in the grip of a kind of madness, which he tries to diagnose in his book.

As he gave me a tour of his house, I asked him if there was a single moment that captured his personal and political transformation. There was. In 1988, while on a patrol in Gaza, he was forced to stop his car at a human roadblock, and his eyes met those of a boy, not older than 15, glaring at him with hatred. In those eyes, he saw himself as something deserving of hatred. It was a shock.

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I asked Ayalon how he could have been surprised by that moment. Was it not expected? But the episode happened shortly after the breakout of the First Intifada. Until then, Ayalon explained, he never thought Palestinians could aspire to something like independence or political freedom. He now knows that was an illusion, not reality.

Bruno Maçães: You are known for having predicted the Second Intifada in 2000, months in advance. What do you think will happen next in this Gaza campaign?

Ami Ayalon: If we enter into Rafah it will be a human disaster. I don’t know how many Palestinians will die. I know that many Israelis [soldiers] will die. We have to assume rationally that Egypt will have to react. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians will climb on the [border] fences. And Egypt will have to reassess the peace process with Israel. [The Egyptian president Abdel Fattah] el-Sisi will have to say he cannot [maintain the peace treaty] until the war stops.

In Jordan most of the citizens are Palestinians. The Kingdom is shaking already [and King Abdullah II] too will have to reassess peace with Israel. He will not be able to control his people unless he acts. Arab states will take the Arab Peace Initiative off the table. Arab states will lose popularity, Iran will gain it. You know that today already most Saudi citizens support Iran, at least when it comes to the Palestinian question. [Iran-backed rebel groups] Houthis and Hezbollah will increase their actions…

BM: Do you think there is a risk with a Rafah offensive that Hezbollah in Lebanon will choose total war with Israel?

AA: Total war will not be a decision. It will be an accident. We have to assume we shall have a war with Hezbollah not because we want it or they want it but because we are losing control. In this highly volatile situation, there are clear limits to control.

BM: What do you think Egypt could do in case of a mass expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza to Sinai?

AA: They have military capabilities. They have a great navy. It’s not the Egypt of the [1973] Yom Kippur War. I think the world will stop us before that, but until now we have spoken only about how states will respond. I will remind you that several days after 7 October, we saw on the websites of the global jihad that they are trying to take advantage of the chaos created here. If you ask me about Egypt, in the Sinai they don’t control all the elements there [in the past Egypt was forced to launch military operations against Islamist insurgencies in the peninsula]. In Sinai they could lose control. We are entering a reality where we won’t be fighting just Hamas. Israel will lose first our security and then our identity.

BM: Do you agree with Israel’s strategy in Gaza? It does not sound like it, but please explain the areas of disagreement.

AA: There is a difference between the way a military commander sees the enemy and the way a statesman sees the enemy. The commander sees a target, a physical target. He never asks why. The statesman, when he sees the same enemy, he sees a person or a group of people he will have to negotiate with at some point. If this is the definition, then we don’t have statesmen in Israel – only military commanders. This is a tragedy. And, by the way, it is the same on the Palestinian side.

BM: Would you have conducted the military operation in Gaza the same way? Is the problem that a political strategy to complement the military strategy is lacking?

AA: I am not saying that. The lack of a political goal shapes the military action. First of all, the time-frame. Our generals asked our political leaders: “How much time do we have?” And they said: “As much as you need.” Which is stupid beyond belief. In all our wars the clock was ticking. And the clock is ticking now. If America decides to stop its support, we have to end the war. I blame our political leadership. And I know why they didn’t do it. To save the political coalition. As long as it continues they stay in power. The military and intelligence community have huge power in Israel. They don’t use it. And in this case that was a huge mistake. I think that they had to put their foot down. The chief of the General Staff had to tell the politicians: “Look, you cannot send people to war without a very clear definition of the endgame.”

BM: What would be the endgame for you?

AA: In 40 years, [there should be] two states. Then you walk back from that. It will be achieved only within a regional coalition. Palestinians should play a major role in this coalition because in one or two years they will have to take over. They cannot do it now. This regional coalition should be created by Egyptians, Jordanians, Saudis, Emiratis. That is, Arabs, Sunnis. Otherwise it will be perceived as a crusade. Palestinians should be part of it but not lead it or they will be perceived as collaborators. The coalition that will rebuild Gaza will gain the support of the Palestinian people. Israel should not be part of it.

BM: This is a coalition to create a new political order in Gaza?

AA: Right. But this coalition will not be created unless it is for the sake of two states.

BM: It should have been announced on the first day of the war?

AA: Yes. Now we need to stop the war immediately. Yesterday. And we need to release as many Palestinian prisoners as needed in order to get back all the hostages. Many of [the hostages] are dead. This is the image of victory for Israel. Victory has to be in accordance with our values. We abandoned our citizens – the hostages. We betrayed them for the first time since the creation of the state of Israel. We have to go on fighting and defeating Hamas but by using politics, statesmanship.

Hamas achieved something. The Palestinian issue is back on the table. But their nightmare is two states, so by returning us to that political reality, Hamas will eventually be defeated. And the power of Iran will shrink. If there is only one state, then it must be understood: it will not be a democracy. It will not be a Jewish state. We are not a majority any more. And we would not be back in 1948 – we will be back in the 1930s.

BM: Ethnic war?

AA: It will be what we saw in Lebanon in the past or Syria [since 2011]. It will be an ethnic war. Ongoing. Lasting forever.

[See also: Joe Biden’s support for Israel hasn’t wavered]

BM: Your opinions about Palestinians have evolved. Have you come to admire them? Their resilience, their national spirit? Does a Palestinian people exist?

AA: The fact they are a young people – so what? I see them as a people. They are not recognised at the UN only because of the American veto. I see them as a people but if you ask most Israelis, I think they are very confused because they are afraid. The main political misconception that took us to 7 October was moving from solving the problem to managing the problem. And in order to do that we created the idea that they are not a people and do not deserve a state of their own. The first government that declared as a policy that there is no Palestinian people was the government of [Yair] Lapid, [Benny] Gantz and [Naftali] Bennett. It is deeper than Netanyahu.

BM: Would you say the deepest source of the conflict is the fact of occupation?

AA: For us it is a very, very painful awakening process. We had a dream of Israel and now we understand we are landing on reality. We believed there were people already living here – but not a people. Until 1967, we did not have borders. After the 1967 [Six-Day] War the old ceasefire lines from 1948 became a perceived border. I would not disagree but the terminology is different. It was not colonialism. It is much more complicated.

BM: It was not done as a colonial project but out of a lack of sense of reality?

AA: It was blindness. We were dreaming. Today we understand the suffering we are causing. And today we understand stability is not just a regional interest. It is a global interest. Finally you see Palestinians are human beings and finally you understand that at a certain point they gave up on their dream. We are giving up on the dream of Greater Israel and they gave up on the dream of Greater Palestine. Or rather, they will go on dreaming and we shall go on dreaming, and when the Messiah comes he will decide things. Until then we have to be pragmatic. The limits of our military power is to achieve a state alongside a Palestinian state, and we shall negotiate exactly [where borders will lie] but it will be based on the 1967 line.

BM: For you it would be in Israel’s interest to have a strong Palestinian leadership?

AA: Of course. I blame my government for shifting from trying to solve the problem. Ehud Barak came back from Camp David saying, “No one to talk to, nothing to talk about.” And I told him then: “Your job is not to tell us if there is or is not a partner, your job is to create a partner. We are players in this.” And when Barak told us proudly he had built more settlements than Netanyahu during the years he served as prime minister, he did not understand the impact on Palestinians. They were waiting to see more independence and they saw more settlements.

BM: Can Israel lose this war?

AA: For me, a one-state outcome is losing the war. Because I will lose my identity as a Jewish democracy. No matter how many battles we win, without the reality of two states, we will lose the war.

[See also: What’s stopping a two-state solution?]

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