Ami Ayalon spent most of his life defending Israel against its Arab enemies. Born in a Galilee kibbutz to Romanian Jewish parents who fled the Nazis, he rose to become commander of Israel’s navy and spent four years as head of the domestic security service, the Shin Bet, or Shabak to use its Hebrew acronym. Palestinian
And that is exactly why his memoir is attracting attention – and controversy. The clue is in the book’s title: “Friendly Fire: how Israel became its own Worst Enemy.” (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Friendly-Fire-Ami-Ayalon/dp/1586422588) Ayalon’s argument is best summarized in his own words. ”We will never make peace until we change the narrative about the past and admit to ourselves that the Palestinians have a right to their own country alongside Israel, and on land we claim as ours.”
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,” which erupted in 2000, months after he left his post as director of the Shin Bet, responsible for counter-terrorism in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
He was appointed to that sensitive position in the wake of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish extremist in 1995 and tasked with improving the agency’s performance. Later he took part in a remarkable film called the Gatekeepers (2012), which featured him and three other Shabak chiefs talking about the perils of occupation, 45 years after Israel’s victory in 1967.
The most striking feature of Friendly Fire is that its author’s career embodied the Zionist movement’s dream of creating a “new Jew.” He was awarded the Medal of Valor, Israel’s highest military decoration, for the courage he showed in a raid on Egyptian army positions on the Suez Canal in 1969. At that time he was a staunch supporter of his country’s policies.
Ayalon did have a revelation around the time of the first intifada in 1987 when he encountered a Palestinian teenager in a refugee camp in Gaza staring at him with sheer hatred – and that reminded him vividly, and uncomfortably, of being the same age on the kibbutz where he grew up.
A decade later, as head of the Shabak, he was forced to try to understand the motivations of Palestinians for the first time – and gained unusual empathy for what he had hitherto seen as “the enemy.” He learned during a period of deadly suicide bombings that when Israel pursues its own security in the context of hopelessness, Palestinians often support violence – in their own terms defined as resistance – “because they have nothing to lose.”
Ayalon also repeatedly uses the concept of a “sewer” in that job and asks: ”How would I have responded to a brutal foreign army capturing and occupying my country for fifty years?”
After a short stint as a government minister he established the People’s Voice peace initiative in 2002 with the renowned Palestinian philosopher Sari Nusseibeh. That was designed to build grassroots support allowing cooperation between the two peoples who live – in roughly equal numbers – between the river (Jordan) and the (Mediterranean) sea, albeit with vastly unequal rights.
Ayalon wants to “reimagine” Israel in a very different way from Binyamin Netanyahu, now the country’s longest-serving prime minister, and facing a new election this month. Netanyahu’s political needs were prioritized by his friend in the White House, Donald Trump, with his “deal of the century” plan approving unilateral annexation of large parts of the West Bank, while the Palestinians were simply ignored.
“I had begun to see,” as Ayalon writes, “that more bypass roads, military outposts, and settlements would eventually destroy the hope of a two-state solution. If we kept up the building, before too long Palestinians would conclude we had no intention of ending the occupation and allowing a Palestinian state alongside Israel. This would inevitably lead to the loss of hope and the triumph of terror.”
Ayalon’s argument will not convince those who believe, especially younger Palestinians, that the only just solution to the world’s most intractable conflict is one state with equal rights. But he does define the occupation, and the greater rights for Israeli Jews as apartheid: “two sets of laws, rules and standards, and two infrastructures.”
He is especially critical of Ehud Barak, prime minister at the time of the failed Camp David negotiations in 2000, and Barak’s repeated accusation that in Yasser Arafat he had no partner for peace: “Partnership evolve out of a process of building mutual trust,” he writes. “Since Rabin’s death and (Shimon) Peres’s electoral defeat, neither Netanyahu nor Barak had lifted a finger to build such a partnership.”
Nusseibeh’s endorsement of this book speaks volumes: “How can a staunch Zionist who was raised on one of Israel’s earliest settlements and trained as a kill-or-be-killed elite commando spearhead a campaign for peace with his enemies? The answer, in Ami Ayalon’s captivating narrative, is an eye-opener for Palestinians and Israelis alike.”
The principal takeaway from this thought-provoking work is summarised in just one sentence: “Hope, Palestinian hope, was essential to Israel’s security.” That remains the case.