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Israeli govt not interested in peace with Palestine – ex-Israeli domestic intel chief

In our previous program, we talked about Israeli-Palestinian tensions, hearing the Palestinian perspective. Are the prospects of lasting peace fading? This time, we ask Admiral Ami Ayalon, the former head of Shin Bet security service and commander-in-chief of the Israeli Navy. 

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Admiral Ami Ayalon, former head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service and Commander-in-Chief of the Israeli Navy, welcome to the show, it's great to have you with us. So, the Israeli-Palestinian tensions are rising, and people are killed during Gaza protests almost on a weekly basis, and the U.N. Middle East envoy warned just recently that the risk of war continues to loom large. Is a new Gaza war is looming?

Ami Ayalon: If you ask me, we are heading to violence, and we are heading to a war future. The level of violence is very difficult to predict, because finally, as I understand the Palestinian side, they are not united. There is a lot of energy among the Palestinians, but until now, it was not directed only against Israel. It is a combination of humiliation, a feeling of humiliation and despair. So in the immediate future, I'm not sure that we shall see violence, but for the long run, yes, for sure, whether it will be on the... Yes, sorry.

SS: So at this point, the Palestinian leadership seems to have lost trust in Americans as mediators, and it stands against Trump's upcoming, so to say, deal of the century, as he puts it, even before it's unveiled. Will the deal be dead on delivery?

AA: The support to Abu Mazen among Palestinians is less than 30 or 25 percent. In addition, of course, the gap between the American administration and the Palestinian Authority is huge, they do not speak to each other. So on top of the lack of confidence of the Palestinians in their leadership, they do not have any confidence in the international community. So they are heading to a state of despair, which is becoming very-very dangerous, by the way, both in Gaza and in the West Bank. In addition, of course, the Israeli government, the Israeli administration does not help, not to Abu Mazen, in order to get his power again, because it seems that my government, the Israeli administration, does not have any interest in creating any kind of peace process, or any kind of negotiations that will lead to a better future for the Israelis and for the Palestinians. So when we shall face violence, what kind of violence, whether it will be led by Hamas or by the Palestinian Authority, or whether it will be a kind of a popular uprising that we here call Intifada, no one can predict.

SS: Okay, but I want to ask you a few more questions about this deal. Former U.S. Ambassador to United Nations Nikki Haley actually lifted the veil a little bit and said that Palestinians are set to benefit more from this deal, and the Israelis would risk more. What do you read in this? Does this mean that the Israeli won’t love Trump’s ideas as well?

AA: When I listen, especially, to American voices during the last 20 years, they do not understand the Middle East, they do not understand Palestinians, and, if you ask me, they do not understand Israel the way I believe Israel should be. So if you ask me about the future deal, my assumption is that Israeli administration will not be too happy. Palestinians will not be able to accept it, because, again, if I understand, it is not based on the usual assumptions. You have to understand that during the last 25-30 years the international community accepted the assumptions of future agreement between Palestinians and Israelis will be based on international resolutions, Security Council Resolutions 242338, and, since 2002, the Arab League peace plan was added. But if I understand Trump, he cannot promise this kind of promise. Not because he does not believe that it is a rational promise or a rational process, mainly because he is trapped by his base in order to be elected again in less than two years. So he can not deliver any plan which is based on these assumptions. This is my prediction.

SS: So, after recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital, Donald Trump said that Israelis won a very big thing. Now Palestinians will get something good, because it's their turn, as he puts it. If the United States now recognizes East Jerusalem as Palestine's capital, what will the Israeli reaction be?

AA: If the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem will be or will become in the future the capital of future Palestine, but it will be one issue in a package in order to create a future of two states along the lines of 67 with exchange of territory, swap, and, in addition, that will ensure the Israeli security, I believe that it will be acceptable... And, of course, it will be accepted by the international community, I believe that it will be accepted by many Israelis. If you ask me whether it will be accepted by our political community, I am not sure, we shall have to see.

SS: You know, I spoke recently to President Mahmoud Abbas’s adviser, and he told me that Israel needs to accept two-state solution, or it risks slipping into a one state reality and de-facto apartheid state. Is this where Israel is heading right now?

AA: Look, again, if you ask me, what he told you is exactly what I see around me. We Israelis, we have to choose whether we want to see Israel as a Jewish democratic state based on the ideas of our Declaration of Independence. We can achieve this kind of future only within the context of two states, because the precondition in order to see Israel as a Jewish democratic state is us, Jews, being majority in our state. If we are not majority in our state, we do not have the power and we do not have the right to dictate the public space, to dictate the language, the calendar or the stories and narratives that we tell our children at schools. So our only choice is two-states agreement or solution.

SS: But can I ask you something, Admiral? The two-state solution, though, has been more or less accepted scenario for a long time now. But the Israeli settlements in the West Bank continue to grow in number and criss-crossing the Palestinian territory. How can Palestine have a separate state when it has all the settlements dotting its map?

AA: Because if we shall achieve this agreement, settlers, most of them will have to come back to Israel. And I believe that when we shall negotiate with the Palestinians, we shall have to negotiate on the future of those Jews, Israeli settlers, who prefer to stay in Palestine. We shall have to negotiate whether they will have to accept Palestinian citizenship or any kind of solution, or, unfortunately, they will have to come back. It will be very painful. It will be very painful.

SS: So the Palestinian problem with settlements is an important block to peace. But it's obvious that no politician in Israel has the power to uproot them, like it happened in Gaza, even if someone wanted to. What is the way out of this situation?

AA: In the past, we brought back settlers from Egypt, and we brought back settlers from Gaza in different circumstances. So in order to create this new reality, which does not exist today, we have to convince Israelis that when we bring back our people, when we bring back settlers, we shall not get violence and terror, but we shall get peace. Because you have to understand, the Israeli narrative is, every time when we broke back, when we uprooted settlements, the Palestinian response was more violence and more terror. More than everything, the Israelis want to feel secure. And as long as we shall feel that when we bring back our people, we shall get more terror, the chances to see this kind of move are decreasing every day.

SS: Admiral, President Abbas’ adviser also told me that the Netanyahu government was pretty much unwilling to make any progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace. Now the Israeli public figures, generals, advisers, all of them tell me that it’s the Palestinians who don’t want to make progress. Does neither party really want to move forward then?

AA: Look, I believe that the tragedy of this region is that the gap between the two narratives. If you will ask the average Israeli he will tell you: “All what we wanted is security and we gave them everything and we gave them territory and and what we got back was more terror, more violence and intifada.” And we are right. This is exactly what happened. On the other hand there is a contradicting Palestinian narrative that tells you: “Look, all what we wanted is to see the end of occupation and to get our freedom and our state and all what we saw is more settlements, more roadblocks, more military units and everything was a conspiracy - American Israeli conspiracy in order to build more settlements to gain more time and to come to us and to tell us “listen, it's too bloody late you know, so we we we cannot bring hundreds of thousand of settlers back to Israel.” We do not see their narrative. They do not see our narrative. And what we really need is someone from outside. In the past we had the Americans. We lost them because they lost the Palestinians. So they cannot intermediate between us and the Palestinians. So somebody from outside should come and tell us: “Look, from outside this is exactly what I see.” And the international community could care less. So I'm afraid that we are heading to a very bad future - whether it will be a kind of intifada or whether it will be our kind of sanctions... I don't know what will happen on the day after Abu Mazen.

SS: Whoever wins April’s elections in Israel, will an elected leader be in any position to make any concessions to the Palestinians without a broad public outcry?

AA: Look it's very difficult to predict because if you really listen to the voices today of all political leaders it is not very promising. If we really listen to Yair Lapid or Benny Gantz who probably prefer to create coalition with the Likud even without Netanyahu. So I can tell you that probably we shall have the same policy but without corruption, so it will not it will not save us from ourselves and we should not change the political direction. So I'm not very optimistic when I really hear the voices among Israeli politicians today.

SS: There is a tension between Hamas and Fatah and there is no united Palestinian front for Israel to talk to. But do you even need one? I mean why not reach a deal with, for example, the West Bank right now and deal with Gaza later?

AA: Look, I believe that most Israelis would accept your offer. I think that it will not work. It will not work because finally, you know, in Gaza about two million people are living, and we tend to forget that they are human beings. Many of them are starving. But in addition to starvation they feel that they are living in a prison. So even if we prefer to deal with the Palestinians on the West Bank and to delay any solution on Gaza (on the side of Gaza reality) will not let us this luxury. Second, whether we like it or not, and I'm not sure that all the Palestinians like it, but the Palestinians see themselves as one people with all the gap, with all the differences between the people who are living in Gaza and the people who are living in the West Bank. After so many years of separation there are many differences - cultural, ideological, political - between them. But they see themselves as one people no matter what you or anybody else really think or want. 

SS: I want to talk to you a little bit about America's withdrawal from Syria, which as far as I understand for now we'll see only two hundred peacekeepers stay in the country. Now, the mood in America is to disengage from the region. Can Israel stand its ground and this potential new Middle East?

AA: I do not understand the American policy. On one hand they are trying to shape the Middle East, they are trying to create this so-called pragmatic Muslim states which Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and, on the other hand, they say couldn't care less as they are leaving the region. And the way we see it from Israel, the future of the region will be decided not in Washington but somewhere between Moscow, Tehran and Ankara. And the new Sykes-Picot on the future of the next hundred years of the Middle East is discussed mainly in Russia. So the idea that you can influence without being there... Probably, this is an American interest. Probably, they do not depend on the energy that comes from the Middle East. Their economic and political interest is in the Far East, India, China or South America. I do not blame the Americans but I don't understand their aspiration to shape the new Middle East by trying to create this coalition and by pulling out all the forces from the Mediterranean and from Syria.

SS: You know, there has been turmoil in the United States recently with some of the freshman Democrats facing backlash over statements that weren't too friendly towards Israel. All this time Israel enjoyed American support no matter which of its parties was in power. Should Israel now be afraid of the Democratic Party becoming a lot less friendly towards it?

AA: I do believe that although not many Israelis understand or agree to my language but they agree to the same assumptions that, yes, America is a great friend, but America or at least most Americans do not support our second war which means all what we do on the eastern side of the 1967 lines. So I don't see that we should be afraid of a Democratic president or a Democratic majority in the Senate or Congress because this is a way I understand the American voices.

SS: So tell me something, do you think the international pressure on Israel ever gets strong enough that it will actually influence its Palestinian policies? In other words, does Israel even care what the Americans or Europeans think really?

AA: I think that international pressure can be positive only if it comes with irrational plans. The idea of a two-state solution is accepted by Israelis. But but we have to be very confident that we shall get peace and we shall not get more violence and more terror. If this will be the combination, yes, I think that international intervention is not pressure, it will be very helpful.

SS: Admiral, thank you for this interview. We were talking to admiral Ami Ayalon, former head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service and commander-in-chief of the Israeli Navy, discussing the future of the Israeli-Palestinian standoff.

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