Ami Ayalon, Friendly Fire: How Israel became Its Own Worst Enemy and The Hope for Its Future

(Steerforth Press, Lebanon, New Hampshire, 2020). By David McDowall.

Something I admire about Israeli society is its ability to produce mavericks, Israelis who turn accepted shibboleths upside down to challenge the received wisdom. There are plenty to choose from. From around 1987, with access to Israel’s state archive, a number of revisionist historians blew apart Israel’s self-congratulatory view of its own history. Some went further, like Shlomo Sand, whose Invention of the Jewish People (2009) argued that ‘the Jewish people’ was a construct: that there was no serious evidence for the Exile of 70 CE and also that most of today’s Jews are descended not from inhabitants of Palestine but from elsewhere, thus undermining crucial ideological building blocks for Zionism’s claim to Palestine.

There has been another, smaller category of maverick, however, of battle-hardened elite leaders whose anxiety has been for Israel’s future. In 1986 (in English, 1988) Yehoshafat Harkabi, one-time head of Israeli military intelligence, published Israel’s Fateful Decisions, an attempt to warn his compatriots of the imperative of making peace with its adversaries, most particularly with the Palestinians, not indeed for their sake but in order to save Israel from catastrophe.  He foresaw that Israel’s inability to hand back conquered land in return for peace would cost it the unquestioning support it had enjoyed in the West and would ensnare ‘Greater Israel’ in a demographic trap, unable to divest itself of its non-Jewish population. He made an impassioned plea for self-criticism concerning Israel’s share in responsibility for the conflict. He could as easily have been asking for the moon. It is difficult to think of a single country apart from Germany which has grasped the nettle to confront its own darkest stories. In 2008 Avraham Burg, ex-paratrooper and ex-Speaker of the Knesset made another impassioned plea in The Holocaust is Over, for his fellow Israelis to let go of their obsession with Holocaust victimhood and recognise the reality of Israeli strength as an opportunity to make a generous and productive peace with a prostrate adversary. And he warned of the dangers of clinging to victimhood, an unhealthy state of mind that risked taking Israel down a darkening path

Now, such prophets have been joined by another member of the elite, Ami Ayalon. Ayalon’s credentials are impeccable: former commander of Flotilla 13 (equivalent to the UK’s Special Boat Service), commander of the navy, director of Shin Bet (the internal security agency), Knesset and cabinet member. In 2012 Ayalon took part in the landmark film documentary, The Gatekeepers, in which he and five other Shin Bet directors discussed the depressing futility of counter-terror security ops since 1967. The futility lay in not in the immediate success of such ops but that they simply intensified the Palestinian determination to resist. To Ayalon’s chagrin, however, the film director omitted what he cared about most, proposing the imperative of making a generous peace as the only viable exit from this impasse. Ayalon’s overriding concern, like Harkabi’s and Burg’s, is the fate of Israel and like them he knows that it is tied inextricably to reconciliation with the Palestinians. If Israel cannot withdraw from occupied territory, a Jewish democracy is unsustainable. (Let’s not argue here about whether there really is such a thing as a Jewish democracy, nor whether with over 20 per cent of citizens Palestinian, Israel is already a bi-national state.)

Ayalon is understandably concerned by the profound moral and psychological damage which control of ‘an archipelago of apartheid-style Bantustans’ will do to the controlling society. He quotes the prophetic Rabbi Yeheshua Leibowitz, a relentless critic of the occupation: ‘The corruption characterizing every colonial regime will also infect the State of Israel. The administration will on the one hand have to deal with suppressing Arab rebel movements and on the other cultivate quislings, Arab traitors.’ In confirmation of Leibowitz’ prophecy, Ayalon remains haunted by a friend’s story who, six weeks after the ’67 war, witnessed a reserve officer casually kick over the barrow of Fanta drinks of a harmless old Palestinian vendor. ‘That was what power could do to us.’  But he experienced it himself in the Gaza Strip refugee camp, in the look of utter hatred on the face of a refugee fifteen-year-old. Thoughtful Israelis must, Ayalon implicitly demands, ask themselves ‘What are we doing to ourselves and to our captives?’

With the realisation by 2000 that the occupation was not likely to end, Ayalon felt ‘Our democracy was, bit by bit, devolving into a tyranny.’ For Palestinians, of course, it has been a tyranny since the occupation began. Ayalon recognises the folly of Israel in ignoring the Saudi peace offer of 2002, a full withdrawal in return for a full peace with the Arab world, and he knew – as did his chosen Palestinian interlocutor, Sari Nusseibeh –  that George W. Bush’s much vaunted Road Map to Peace was a roadmap to nowhere. What happened, however, was that the PA’s ability to govern was eviscerated in the Second Intifada, and it progressively lost the confidence of ordinary Palestinians. Israel’s deliberate overkill simply made things worse. Of Operation Cast Lead (2009) Ayalon admitted Hamas ‘won because they understood the nature of modern warfare better than we did’. The Hamas ‘win’ was to gain the Palestinian street, while Israel disgraced itself internationally.

What’s to be done? Like Harkabi and Burg, Ayalon urges mature self-examination: ‘The fact that we have become a booming economy and the fifth strongest military force on earth, vastly beyond anything our Arab enemies has at their disposal, does nothing to dull our basic insecurity… [which is] whipped up by populist politicians to get elected.’ Ayalon knows what will happen if Israel fails to overcome that sense of insecurity, but lets ex-prime minister Ehud Olmert spell it for him: ‘If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South Africa-style struggle for equal voting rights (also for the Palestinians in the territories) then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished.’

It is not only Israelis who should take note. If a binational state is what Israelis fear above all, Palestinians should obviously think about how they can put this fear to effective use in their struggle for emancipation.