An unconditional withdrawal from the territories is urgently needed

Ami Ayalon, 55 years old, was, from February 1996 to May 2000, the head of the Israeli internal security service Shabak, better known under the name of Shin Beth. Small, lean, dressed in jeans and an open shirt, Ayalon speaks calmly, but forcefully.

Sylvain Cypel (Le Monde): How do you see the state of political debate in Israel?

Ami Ayalon: Israeli society, top to bottom, is sinking into confusion. There are no reference points. People mask this reality with swaggering slogans: “We will vanquish terrorism!” At a colloquium, the army chief of staff declares: “We are winning”; he evokes the “superiority of Tsahal”— the Israeli army — and his “feeling that the nation is finding its strength”. Then he adds “there are today more Palestinian terrorists than a year ago” and says there will be even more tomorrow! If we are winning, how come terrorists are multiplying?

In Israel, no one is in touch with reality. This is a consequence of a misperception of the peace process. “We have been generous and they refused” is ridiculous, and everything that follows from this misperception is skewed. Moreover, our obsession with the Palestinians makes us forget to ask questions about ourselves. What do we want to be? Where are we going? No leader addresses these questions. Thus the confusion and general anxiety.

Sylvain Cypel: The majority of leaders though are convinced that time works in favor of Israel.

Ami Ayalon: Since September 11, our leaders have been euphoric. With no more international pressures on Israel, they think, the way is open. This obscures the consequences of our holding onto the Palestinian Territories.

This is not only a moral matter. Our founders saw a state that provided a homeland for Jews and was a democracy. From both points of view, time plays against us! Demographically, it works in favor of the Palestinians. And politically in favor of Hamas and the settlers. But to fight against Hamas, we must evacuate the settlers, whose proximity to the Palestinians reinforces hatred.

Among the Palestinians, the weight of the Islamists is increasing, and also that of intellectuals who used to favor a two-state solution, but who now say: “Since the Israelis will never evacuate the settlements, well, then, there will be a binational state”. This is something I absolutely oppose. It would not be a Jewish state any more. And if it remained a Jewish state while dominating the Arab population, it would not be a democracy.

Sylvain Cypel: Do you exclude the possibility of an Israeli victory, despite the power differential?

Ami Ayalon: We have had our “victory”! In 1967, we occupied all the Palestinian lands. Once “terrorism is vanquished”, what shall we do? This is absurd. The Palestinians want self-rule. Whoever wants to “vanquish” them, then offer them bread and circuses, understands nothing. The Israeli army is stronger than ever, our secret services are excellent; then why is the problem not resolved? Reoccupying the Palestinian Authority lands, and killing Arafat, what would that change? Those who want victory want an unending war.

Sylvain Cypel: Yet, since September 11, many think that Israel can change the regional situation in its favor.

Ami Ayalon: An illusion! September 11 has changed many paradigms in the U.S., but nothing basic in the Middle East. Whatever Arafat’s errors, the Palestinian people will continue to exist. As long as the Palestinian question is not resolved, the region will not know stability. Only a Palestinian state will preserve the Jewish and democratic character of Israel. We do need international political and financial help to resolve that problem and that of the refugees, because as long as the refugee problem persists, even if a Palestinian state exists, it will poison our relationship.

Sylvain Cypel: But the Israelis are traumatized by the Palestinian demand for the return of refugees.

Ami Ayalon: Let us stop worrying about what our adversaries say and ask what we, ourselves, want. We do not want the return of the refugees. But we can refuse only if Israel acknowledges unambiguously its role in the suffering of the Palestinians and its obligation to help solve the problem. Israel must accept the principle of the right of return and the PLO must commit itself to not question the Jewish identity of our state.

Sylvain Cypel: What do you think of the view put forth by the head of Mossad of Israel in the front line of the “third world war” against terrorism?

Ami Ayalon: Anyone who equals Arafat with Bin Laden understands neither Arafat nor Bin Laden. The latter is the guru of a very harmful sect, but one that is very marginal to Islam; it aims to bring chaos and cares nothing about the international community. But Arafat dreams of being accepted by the international community — since 1993, he has constantly made reference to it, demanding the application of the UN resolutions, while we, Israelis, refuse! If Bin Laden is killed, his sect may disappear with him. If we kill Arafat, the Palestinian people will continue to want its independence.

Sylvain Cypel: Do you fear that the Palestinian Territories may become a quagmire?

Ami Ayalon: We say the Palestinians behave like “madmen” but it is not madness but a bottomless despair. As long as there was a peace process - the prospect of an end to the occupation — Arafat could maneuver, incite or repress violence to better negotiate. When there is no more peace process, the more terrorists one kills the more strength their camp gains. Yasser Arafat neither prepared nor triggered the Intifada. The explosion was spontaneous, against Israel, as all hope for the end of occupation disappeared, and against the Palestinian authority, its corruption, its impotence. Arafat could not repress it. The peace process is what allowed Arafat to be seen as the head of a national liberation movement rather than a collaborator of Israel. Without it, he can fight neither against the Islamists nor against his own base. The Palestinians would end up hanging him in the public square.

Sylvain Cypel: From Oslo to Camp David, did Israel miss a rare opportunity for peace?

Ami Ayalon: Yes. It is not all the Israelis’ fault. The Palestinians, the international community, bear some responsibility, but we missed an extraordinary opportunity: the international situation was incredibly favorable after the fall of communism, the Gulf war, the emergence of globalization, all these phenomena led Israel to reexamine its own assumptions. Now, we are regressing.

Sylvain Cypel: Do you favor a “unilateral separation” from the Palestinians?

Ami Ayalon: I do not like the word separation, it reminds me of South Africa. I favor unconditional withdrawal from the Territories — preferably in the context of an agreement, but not necessarily: what needs to be done, urgently, is to withdraw from the Territories. And a true withdrawal, which gives the Palestinians territorial continuity in a Transjordan linked to Gaza, open to Egypt and Jordan. If they proclaim their own state, Israel should be the first to recognize it and to propose state to state negotiations, without conditions, on the basis of the Clinton proposals, to resolve all pending problems.

This interview was originally published on 23 December 2001 in French under the title ” L’urgence, c’est de se désengager inconditionnellement des territoires”, in the leading newspaper Le Monde. The source of the translation into English is unknown.