I'm reading
Ami Ayalon bridges the divide
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Ami Ayalon bridges the divide
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Ami Ayalon bridges the divide
Pass it on
Pass it on
“Don’t think about yourself. You do not have the power to change your future. But you have the power to change the future of your children.”
Conversations
6 March 2017

Ami Ayalon bridges the divide

Interview by Berry Liberman
Photography by Yadid Levy

Berry Liberman on Ami Ayalon

Amihai “Ami” Ayalon was once the head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s FBI equivalent. He came to the position directly from the military where he was a highly decorated officer, receiving the Israel Defence Force’s greatest honour, The Medal of Valor in 1969, and later being made head of the navy with the rank of major general.

Ami was brought in to rehabilitate the Shin Bet in the aftermath of its most devastating failure—its inability to protect Prime Minister Yitzkah Rabin from an assassin’s bullet. His role was to restore public confidence and increase security around the country’s leadership, and in his time, became an important leader for peace. Together with Palestinian professor Sari Nusseibeh, Ami created “The People’s Voice,” a civil initiative dedicated to advancing an agreement that would end conflict between Israel and Palestine, and which garnered support from both sides in the hundreds of thousands.

I first saw Ami speak in the now famous documentary The Gatekeepers, a film with a profound and powerful message from some of Israel’s most influential military and security chiefs of the past 40 years. Their message surprised the world, yet is as old as time: that war is no end in itself and that peace must be the goal of all leaders—that war leads only to death, destruction and hopelessness. To sit across the table and negotiate, even with one’s enemies, is the only way forward.

Ami forces us to stop, rigorously assess and maybe reconsider the narratives which make us act and think the way we do. He reminds us that we are not locked into one fixed way of seeing and being in the world; that we can reinvent the narratives we live in and have lived in for hundreds or years, particularly the ones that are inhibiting us from living freely and to our fullest potential. “If our narrative brings us to a point where we cannot live or unite our two identities, it brings us nowhere.”

It’s taken me nearly two years to print this interview, which at the time moved me to tears. I was moved by how single-minded politicians have become, determined to drive home a narrative to everyone that Israelis and Palestinians cannot find a way forward, and that violence and rage will determine the future. I was moved by the power of listening to an elder statesman who knows this conflict better than the rest of us and who is saying: “Listen, talk to one another, find a way to peace.” When a man like Ami speaks, it feels pertinent to all of us to listen, learn and reflect. His message is one of asking questions and reaching out to the “Other,” forging connections that take us beyond fear and into a place of understanding and dignity for all.

This story originally ran in issue #47 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

BERRY LIBERMAN: I wanted to ask you about mistakes. Have you made many?

AMI AYALON: Have I? Of course! But it’s a secret, you know.

[Laughs].

Usually I discuss my mistakes with people I trust. It’s not something we do in our culture. We aren’t used to making mistakes in public.

I think that would be  true for a lot of people?

Less and less. As anyone managing big organisations will tell you, crisis creates opportunities. Some people will even say that unless we face a crisis it is almost impossible to introduce change. Most organisations, and most people, don’t feel secure when they face changes. So there’s this idea that you create crisis to do that, which is very dangerous because once you create crisis you find it very, very difficult to control it. On the other hand, there is the argument that if crisis creates opportunities, the one who will be able to lead the change is the one who owns the crisis. It’s for them to solve. They’re empowered.

A recent example is Toyota. Toyota had a huge crisis. But it was created by a sub-contractor who sold similar systems to other car producers. Toyota argued that it was their problem, and in a way they created the opportunity. They made their brand responsible for solving it. So the idea of telling everybody, “Look, I made a mistake” is becoming increasingly popular.

That gets more complicated when you’re talking about nations and states.

Yes. But when it comes to nations and states in Israel I believe the public debate between us and the Palestinians is, well, in the conversation of blame. We blame each other. We do not take responsibility. I can tell you, “Okay, we have been killing each other for the past 100 years and we feel great because they should be blamed. Not us.” But if you say, “Okay, let’s move to a conversation of responsibility,” then the first question in our example is not whether we have a partner for business or for peace. The question is, what can we do to create a partner? It places us in the centre.

There is a Hebrew term I love, “Kolha kavod,” which in English means, “All respect.” Fundamental to my experience, having lived here now for six months and talking to Palestinians and Israelis, are two discourses: one that is disempowered and one that is empowered. The empowered discourse requires accountability at its core because otherwise you cannot move forward. It’s the dance of the devil. You’re constantly in that blaming rhetoric, as opposed to asking, “What is the future we want to create, and how do we make that possible?”

Exactly. In a way it is both sides blaming each other. There is this mentality that everybody’s against us and there is nothing we can do about it. Some people will say it’s arrogant and some will say naïve to think that we can do something about it. But if you ask me the whole concept of Zionism is about optimism and free will. This is the concept that empowered so many people to do something unbelievable at the end of the 19th century. And it’s something we’re losing on a national level, as a society, as private people. We are a start-up nation.  We are very optimistic. We are very original. But there is a gap between our innovation as private people, or when it comes to business, and our innovation as a society. When it comes to statehood politics we are losing it.

The documentary The Gatekeepers is very famous now. As former head of the Shin Bet, you are one of the main characters. For me it was heartbreaking and also fascinating to see that everything changed for both Israelis and Jews around the world when the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. We realised that when a Jewish man killed the great shining light for peace at a moment of real opportunity, something broke.

Yes. But I think this was the moment we realised it was happening. True, it was a long process. It started, if you ask me, somewhere in ’67. I didn’t realise it then, but I realise it today. It was the  moment that part of Israeli society adopted a kind of a messianic approach. It was the beginning of the…

This story originally ran in issue #47 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #47 of Dumbo Feather

Portrait of Ami Ayalon at his house in Kerem Maharal, Israe.

Portrait of Ami Ayalon at his house in Kerem Maharal, Israe.

The coming of the Messiah.

Exactly. And I think only a minority of Israelis adopted this messianic  approach, but many of our political leaders used our fear of being annihilated to take power. Every society has some kind of a genetic code that explains why they behave the way they do, why they are sitting here and not somewhere else, and what they can expect from the future. I’m not in a position to write the Israeli genetic code or the way we understand our narrative, but I believe that fear is central. Probably fear of annihilation as a group, not as a person.

 

This is the way we understand our history: that in times of crisis, when we face existential threat, nobody will be there for us.

Some people will go back 2000 years ago or to the Inquisition or somewhere during the Holocaust. The problem is that some of our political leaders are exploiting this fear to be elected. When our Prime Minister is telling us every day that we are living in 1939, for example.

It’s not true.

It’s not true. But it is very, very easy to create fear. Much easier than to create hope. Look, you have children.

Yep.

Now as a mother it is very, very important for you, first of all, to create fear, to educate your children that it is dangerous to cross a street, that it is dangerous to touch electricity. Because this is the way you protect them. Hope comes much later. So you give them love and…

A good dose of fear.

Exactly. It’s a survival mechanism. Identifying risk helps keep us alive.

You were a man of the army  and then a man of politics.  Now you’re a man of education. Identifying risk has been at the core of most of your working life.

Right. But I didn’t ask the simple question, “Why am I doing it?”  The Holocaust was too close to our war for independence; the narrative was that we accepted the idea of two states and then they attacked us. Survival was first and foremost. I think it was during the First Intifada that I started to ask this question. The Palestinians were rising up against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. In the beginning it was not terror. It was a popular uprising. Youngsters, women, they used stones. They did not have ammunition or weapons in the beginning. And this  was the first time I asked, “Why are we fighting? What are we fighting for?”

My narrative was the narrative of my parents. My father came as an illegal immigrant from Europe during the ’30s because for him it was clear that there was no future for Jews in Europe. It was before the Holocaust. Almost all his family and my mother’s family stayed in Europe and were assassinated during the Holocaust. He came against the British mandate and my mother came as a child to study in Jerusalem. After the war of independence they created a kibbutz in the Jordan Valley and pushed their kibbutz as far as possible into the Syrian border. They came from a socialist community and they wanted to create a new society of working the land et cetera. But the concept of Zionism was very simple: we are going to build a state for the Jewish people in the land of Israel, and its future borders will be wherever we can build a settlement for the land and defend ourselves. It was a concept of settlement and security. This was my concept of Zionism.

So what changed for you in the first Intifada?

I was a base commander in the navy and I faced part of it when I sailed along the coast and visited my people in Gaza. During the First Intifada  I realised I could not have two different identities. And my narrative does not let me live with two identities. One identity is as a human being. I was raised as a human being to believe that there is a limit to what is permissible. And human rights are very, very important. And minority rights.

My second identity had me believe that this land is mine and I had to fight for it. And I didn’t realise that we were occupying other people’s land, that we conquered this land. So I used to believe that I could be both a human being and a Zionist, and I think that this was the narrative during the late ’60s and ’70s. During the ’80s, when we started to face terror, we said, “Okay, yes, we conquered Judea, Samaria and Gaza, but it is obvious that we have proprietary rights. It was given to us two or five thousand years ago, and we brought them universities and better economy and education et cetera.” We used to say, “Yes, we conquered them, we occupied them, but we are doing something good for them.” Which was totally silly. I realised it only when I understood that they were feeling humiliated to the point they were ready to die. They faced us and thousands of them died when we did not have any other choice but to shoot. This was the first time I realised there was a conflict between those two identities.

How are we still here all these years later?

It’s like I said: fear is much stronger than hope.

As long as we as a society believe we are fighting for our survival, we are less inclined to ask, “Why?” or “What for?”

I didn’t realise this in one day. It was a process. After the assassination of Rabin, which was several months after the beginning of the Intifada, this wave of violence transformed to terror. When you see friends or citizens dying in buses in the middle of the street it’s very easy…

To whip everybody into a frenzy.

Right. In this case it was very easy to feel that, okay, now we  are fighting for our survival. It is not in Hebron. It is in Tel Aviv. In Jerusalem. In Haifa. Mistakes were made on both sides. And I think that I started to speak in the language that I’m speaking today when I was in the Shin Bet, which is the partner of the American FBI. We are responsible for fighting Palestinian terror within the territories and the state of Israel.

People often ask me, “What did you learn in the Israeli Shin Bet?” I learned that if we ever want to feel secure, Palestinians would need hope. This is the equation. We shall not have security unless they have hope. They, in military terms, have to fear they have something to lose. Otherwise the traditional doctrine does not work. You cannot deter a person or a group of people who feel they have nothing to lose. Seventy percent of young Palestinians dream to be a suicide bomber.

Today?

No. During the Second Intifada. I don’t know today. I left the Israeli Shin Bet in May 2000. But after the beginning of the Second Intifada we met a few people in London and a Palestinian friend tells me, “Ami, finally we won. We Palestinians, we won.” Hundreds of Palestinians were dying. And I say to him, “Are you crazy? What do you mean, ‘We won?’ You are losing hundreds of your people. You are going to lose your dream of a Palestinian state! What is victory?” And he said, “Ami, you don’t understand us. Victory for us is to see you suffer. This is all we want. After so many years, we have finally achieved a balance of power. Your F-16 versus our suicide bomber. This is a balance of power. As long as we shall suffer, you will suffer. Finally we are not the only one who suffers in the Middle East.” I told him, “You are crazy. You lost the whole essence of victory.” Victory is to create a better reality! But when I thought of it I realised we are the same. We are fighting without understanding whether or not this war will bring us to a better place. All we have in mind is revenge.

This actually brings me to a strategic point in The Gatekeepers—and also in my husband and I’s thinking. You said, “If you are functioning on tactics alone—revenge, retaliation, the problem in front of you—you cannot see the wood for the trees. There’s no strategic outlay of how we are going to get to a better reality.”  So how are we going to get to a better reality?

First of all it’s never 100 percent clear.  I’ll tell you my answer but the fact that  I’m a very small minority among Israelis suggests that I’m probably not as right as I like to believe. I believe that we have to deal with two layers.

First, we have to look back into our narrative and reinvent ourselves. We have to create a new narrative. Second, I believe that we have to create a new doctoring, the way we understand our reality.

In a way it is the dictionary in which we translate what we see into parameters of actions. And then to create a new strategy.

Victory has two elements. There is the future political reality, which we hope to create after the violence, which will be better than the present. And there is the road we take in order to be there, which is a strategy. Israelis do not have a clear picture of the future reality. We do not agree on what will be the future reality—even the simple question of where the eastern border will be. Now you have to understand our eastern border is not geography; it is identity. And we have the right to influence, to shape or to dictate the values, the culture, the language, the calendar and the narratives that we tell our children.

What happened here during the last 5000, 2000 or 100 years? We have to agree
on this basic question. And we have to agree on the vision for our future. Sailors used to say a captain who does not know where he wants to be will not arrive at his destination. There is no wind on earth that will take him there. It is true not only at sea. It is true in politics, in business, everywhere.

Dumbo Feather Ami Ayalon garden portrait

Dumbo Feather Ami Ayalon garden portrait

What does this new narrative look like to you?

I said something before about the concept of Zionism which creates our narrative. The mainstream of the Zionist narrative was based on a proprietary concept. This land is ours. It was taken from us by force. We were expelled from our home and we are taking back what is ours. This was the concept. Now there is a great book written by Professor Chaim Gans, a philosopher in Tel Aviv University: A Political Theory for the Jewish People: Three Zionist Narratives. In a way, it offers a new narrative. He says, “Look, narrative should be analysed and probably even replaced if you face two problems.” Narrative in a way brings us to behave the way we behave.

If our narrative brings us to a point where we cannot live or unite our two identities, it brings us nowhere. And we have to reinvent it.

In our case, he says, there are even factual problems with history. If you go to the proprietary aspect of the law, you have to understand that to declare, “This is mine,” I have to make sure I can prove that since the moment I was expelled from my house, I did everything to come back. This is not the case for Jewish people. Okay, we were expelled from our home 2000 years ago. But we did nothing for 1900 years to come back. Yeah, we had the dream. But most Jews lived and they did not try to come back to create a state here. The Zionist movement that was created at the end of the 19th century was small. Most Jewish people did not join. My father, for example, was the only Zionist child among his brothers. We cannot claim that we did everything, so our narrative should be reinvented. We have to do something about it. Because it brings us to behave in a way that we shall have no future. This is the alternate narrative Professor Chaim Gans offers. He said, “It is not our property. But we have the right to have our state because during the 19th century and the 20th century, the international community accepted the concept of self-declaration.” People have the right to create their own state in which they will live according to their culture or language. We are a nation and we have the right to declare nationhood.

The other question is, “Why in Israel?” Because this is the only way we can live according to our language et cetera. And the most important question is, “Why did we have the right to do what we did to the Palestinians who lived here—Arabs, Palestinians—for the past 1500 years or so? Gans said, “It is like a person who is dying and knows there is medicine that can save his life. And the pharmacist does not sell him this medicine. He has the right to use violence to get it. And no court will blame him because this is for his survival.” This is what we did, because, since the beginning of the 19th century, we felt that the international community was trying to annihilate us. Especially during the Holocaust. So we had the right to demand our statehood. But this right ended in ’67. Since ’67 we are not a dying person anymore. We have our state and it is secured. And it is recognised by the international community. So since ’67 what we have been doing is against human rights and international law.

How can you have this very robust, passionate belief system and still be a highly respected member of the Israeli community? I know that for a Palestinian it’s actually dangerous to talk against their narrative, because they’re still fighting for survival. A lot of people say, “Oh, Ami can talk like that because Israel is a free and democratic place and no one’s going to kill him for having beliefs.” Is that how you see it?

First of all, we killed our Prime Minister. The Palestinians didn’t. Second, I know a Palestinian who talks like that. He’s a professor. When we launched our initiative he took the risk much more than I did.

What initiative?

People’s Voice. It’s a document that outlined six principles of what a future agreement between Israel and Palestine should look like. We took it to the street and got about 450,000 signatures from both Israelis and Palestinians.

When was this?

It was June 2002 and went for about three years. It ended when we felt that we had enough signatures, when a majority, on both sides, accepted these principles. Principles based on the obvious: two states for two people. We know in retrospect that this was one of the reasons Ariel Sharon pulled out of Gaza. He felt that he was losing the street and the Israeli security elite that was on our side. So the Palestinian professor, Sari Nusseibeh, led the Palestinian side. You have to understand that for me, yes it was about breaking some Israeli taboos. But for Sari to come and to say, “Palestinian refugees shall return only to the future state of Palestine, and not to Greater Israel,” he faced violence. For us, Jerusalem was the ethos which Ehud Barak broke in Camp David. Ehud Barak made many mistakes, but he did break the taboo of Jerusalem when he said in 2000: “Arab neighbourhoods in Jerusalem will be under Palestinian sovereignty.” But Sari was the first Palestinian leader who broke the Palestinian taboo of the refugees.

So how do we view this now? How do we have a moment like People’s Voice that garners so much enthusiasm? People used to be in the streets of Tel Aviv marching for peace. It’s quiet here now. And the government is as right-wing as you get.

Yes, because Israelis believe in a false narrative of their history. This was the huge disaster that resulted from the collapse of Camp David. Both sides made mistakes. But if you ask every Israeli what happened during the last 20 years, they will tell you, “We gave them everything and they responded in violence, in intifada.” If you ask the average Palestinian they will tell you a totally different narrative. They will say, “We wanted the end of occupation and all we saw was more military force.”

More settlements.

Yes. More checkpoints, more humiliation. The tragedy of this is that both sides are right. We wanted security and we were ready to give up our dream of Greater Israel, and we got less security. They wanted a state and they were ready to give up their dream of Greater Palestine, and they got less state and more settlements. Each side sees only part of the reality. We do not see the settlements that destroyed their dream. And they do not see our suffering and the terror that destroys our dream. From a different position, from Australia or America, you can see it. Because when you feel the pain, the pain of the humiliation…

You’re talking about empathy.

Right. When you feel it, you undersand.

If we look at what’s happening globally with the environment: temperatures are changing, the Arctic Shelf is cracking into the ocean. And everything connected to the environment that was predicted is happening. The financial world keeps crashing. Refugees are pouring across borders. It’s an atmosphere of global fear  and panic. Empathy requires you to let go of your narrative and see the other side. You have to let go! I mean I’ve been talking with Palestinians here, sometimes ‘til three o’clock in the morning, and I had to really let go. I had to just be in the room and listen, even if I wanted to shout. How do you get the global community to do that?

Let me make it more complicated.

I wanted you to make it simpler!

No, it’s not. First of all I don’t have the answers. I believe that it is much more important to ask the right questions. I say that because you said something very important about empathy. But it is becoming much more difficult to create an environment for empathy. If we go back 50 years, when my parents were leading a social and political revolution, they succeeded mainly because they felt the danger close. It was real enough for them to decide that they were sacrificing the present in order to create a future not for themselves, but for their children. So in a way, when they joined the kibbutz they gave up their personal identity.

For the greater good.

Right. In our terms today it was crazy. They sacrificed everything. I think of my mother who came from a middle class family—all she really cared about was family, children, culture and music. She didn’t care about equal rights and socialism. She fell in love with my father. And she sacrificed everything. My father believed in the ideology. When she came she was 14 years old and her parents sent her with a box of goods—they understood they were not going to see her again. I still have the container in my room. The porcelain from three generations in her family that she brought to Palestine. She did not bring it to the kibbutz because it was clear that if she did it was not her property any more. It was hand-painted during the beginning of the 19th century. Today we see the self in the centre. Even me.

We live in a culture of individual rights. We shaped a legal system that puts the person first and the community later. For our parents, the community came before the person and the future came before the present.

What will create this change? I have no idea. I also see, from history, the danger that great ideas can bring. Nationalism, communism, crazy religious beliefs. So what will be the balance? I have no idea.

You’ve spent your life devoted to public service. What advice would you give the 18-year-old Ami who’s about to go into the army?

I will start by saying that if I made mistakes in my life, it’s because I didn’t ask difficult questions.   There is a scene in The Gatekeepers where I speak about my great childhood in the Jordan Valley. And I am walking through corridors in Jerusalem and…

Yes. My god [sighs].

There is an old door, and behind the old door is nobody…

Representing you.

Right. Nobody is thinking and making responsible decisions for me. The director actually cut my final sentence. I said, “For most people it is a very, very sad moment.” The moment you suddenly realise there isn’t somebody responsible and thoughtful with the answer. I have always asked questions because I assumed—hoped—someone had the answer. But after the Yom Kippur war I realised nobody was behind the door. For me it was like I suddenly saw the light. I realised the simple concept of democracy. It is me who needs to take the responsibility. I am responsible. Democracy says that each of us has the right to influence. And in the case of crisis we not only have the right, but the responsibility to influence. This is my advice to every Israeli youngster. You have the right and the responsibility to influence. Even if you are in a minority. Don’t assume that a leader knows what is best for you. Because it’s up to you.

But you know what’s lacking? The hard part? And I think it speaks to your hope that a wise old man is sitting behind the door at the end of the corridor.

Yes, mm hmm.

What’s missing is a council of wise ones. Where to go to foster thoughtfulness? It is a very challenging thing. There is a vacuum in the world of wisdom, a disconnect between the experienced and the young. And that vacuum is often filled by religion. It’s about trying to find meaning in life. You actually need to seek counsel. You can’t just turn 18 and be let loose on the world.

That’s right. The world is much more complicated today. A lot of people feel alone and confused. This is why, in times of crisis and confusion, we’re looking for new ideas. And why it’s so important to create new ideas. I mentioned something about the new narrative. That the move from the proprietary narrative to egalitarian Zionism. The fact that we are a small minority is not that important. We just have to make sure that when people are looking around searching for new ideas, we will be there. I think more and more Israelis understand that we are heading nowhere.

 

Portrait of Ami Ayalon at his house in Kerem Maharal, Israe.

Portrait of Ami Ayalon at his house in Kerem Maharal, Israe.

But they are. They are exhausted and frozen in a lack of hope. So it’s how to create pathways of hope.

Right. You know the dialectic process our parents believed in? The worse the better. Meaning, societies will accept change only when the situation is bad enough. [Claps]. That’s it.

Say it isn’t so.

It is. Unfortunately it is. All my life I tried to convince people that we have to get better before we get worse. To avoid violence. But I cannot tell you that I succeeded.

What gives you hope then?

I’m not sure I can prove it, but I believe we have the power to shape our future. That’s it. We can shape the new ideas, and when the situation is bad enough, people will act. It is still a very optimistic approach of saying, “Okay, I’m not going to the street anymore. I’m not going to the media every morning.” We had another terror event this week in Israel—three 16-year-olds were kidnapped—and dozens of people are wanting to ask me, “What should we do?” I’m not doing it any more. I meet youngsters who want to hear my views about the future and what they should do to create a better one for them. I say, “Look, it is not my future. I cannot promise you anything good for the next 10 years. It is a long process. This is why it is your problem, not mine. Forty years from now I know exactly where I will be. So it will be your society, your state, your world. I’m here to ask the questions that I did not ask when I was your age and to force you to think about what you should do.”

Now.

What to do now to create better future for your children. You’re only 18 today.

Don’t think about yourself. You do not have the power to change your future. But you have the power to change the future of your children.

Portrait of Ami Ayalon at his house in Kerem Maharal, Israe.

Portrait of Ami Ayalon at his house in Kerem Maharal, Israe.

Berry Liberman

Berry Liberman, Dumbo Feather’s publisher and editor-in-chief, drives our passion and purpose. While she’s not immersed in the heady scent of old fashioned flowers, she’s also the Creative Director of Small Giants and a mum to the three cutest kids in the world.

Photography by Yadid Levy

I want more things that inspire me to...

Dumbo Feather Newsletter

Let’s be friends. We'll tell you all the good stuff.