Ami Ayalon: An unlikely peacemaker's long journey from commando to prime ministerial hopeful

A Shin Bet chief turned politician does not mince words about past errors, writes Donald Macintyre
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Retired Admiral Ami Ayalon is very far from being your typical peacemaker. He steps purposefully from the 4x4 he has driven to the meeting, a short, wiry, shaven-headed man in open-necked shirt and shades, looking every inch the much-decorated military officer and Shin Bet director he used to be.

Retired Admiral Ami Ayalon is very far from being your typical peacemaker. He steps purposefully from the 4x4 he has driven to the meeting, a short, wiry, shaven-headed man in open-necked shirt and shades, looking every inch the much-decorated military officer and Shin Bet director he used to be.

When the former commando who rose to lead Israel's navy - in which he served with distinction in the Six Day and Yom Kippur wars - as well as the country's domestic intelligence agency, leans over and emphasises: "Write this down, it's important" you tend, reflexively, to do as he says.

But then Mr Ayalon is suddenly a player in mainstream Israeli politics. He joined the Labour party late last year and will surely be a Knesset member after the next election.

He has been refreshingly honest about his ambition - in time - to be prime minister and stands to inject a badly-needed touch of charisma into the left in Israeli politics. He also passionately believes that events have vindicated his long-held belief that a lasting agreement with the Palestinians is now possible.

For someone new to party politics, he has a notable line in realpolitik. He acknowledges that the present undeclared truce is "very fragile" but adds that, for several reasons, "the chances that it will hold are much higher than they have ever been before.

"For Ariel Sharon it's very important that Abu Mazen [the new Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] is successful because if Abu Mazen fails it means Arafat was not the problem. In order to prove Arafat was the main obstacle Abu Mazen has to succeed. They will do almost everything, much more than before, to help Abu Mazen."

What Admiral Ayalon was so keen to see written down was a "message to your Prime Minister" - which is that Tony Blair should use the London conference on 1 March that he has convened between the international community and the new Palestinian leadership to "add another page to the road-map" by setting out what Admiral Ayalon sees as the key principles of a "final status" Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

These are the very "People's Voice" principles which Mr Ayalon so shocked his colleagues in the Israeli security establishment back at the peak of the conflict in 2002 by agreeing with Professor Sari Nusseibi, the prominent Palestinian intellectual who runs al-Quds university. Both men will argue in a joint lecture this week at St Antony's College, Oxford, that the principles' time has come.

Under them, Palestinians would forgo their historic claim for refugees from 1948 to return to Israel as a quid pro quo for a two-state solution based on 1967 borders in which any territorial adjustments would give Palestinians equal amounts of new land in compensation. There would be no Jewish settlements in the new Palestinian states and both would have Jerusalem as their capital.

The reason he wants those principles - which he says command majority opinion poll support among both Israelis and Palestinians - spelt out by Mr Blair and the rest of the international community is that he doesn't believe that progress is possible until an endgame, "the main piece missing from our regional puzzle" has been identified. "If people will see a political horizon, it will change almost everything."

He isn't, for example, surprised that Hamas did so well in last week's local elections in Gaza. While acknowledging that its reputation for political cleanness helped, he says: "If Palestinians are asked who will lead us in a war with Israel, then Hamas will prevail. But if Palestinians have a political horizon, and believe 'we can get our freedom, less humiliation, a better economy, a Palestinian state, less corruption' if they ask themselves who will get a better political deal, then the forces of pragmatism led by Abu Mazen may prevail."

In answer to the view of many around Mr Sharon, that an "interim agreement" could last for many years, perhaps indefinitely deferring the "final status" issues, Admiral Ayalon says he accepts that the "execution" of a final agreement could take anything between three and 10 years, but "unless we define in a very clear way what will be the principles on final status we shall not have security and stability. You have to listen to the Palestinians.

"The Palestinians will not be able to in the long run to fight terror and deliver the security we expect unless they understand what it is for.

"And it's the same for us. We can't just evacuate settlers from the West Bank, uproot Jewish people from their homes with their children and grandchildren, and the dead they have buried. But what for? They deserve an explanation. They might even say, we'll do it, but who will promise us the Palestinians will not come back later and demand the right of return?"

It was he says, the mistake of Oslo, and indeed of most political efforts up to now, even including the road-map in its present form, to suppress all the most difficult issues until the end rather than agree, as he and Professor Nusseibi did in their advance of principles.

These should be clear enough to rule out the ambiguity which "in the Middle East is the beginning of conspiracy" and flexible enough to allow true negotiations.

Admiral Ayalon's self-confessed optimism is based partly on his conviction that each side has broken its taboos - the Palestinians by starting to contemplate the idea of substituting internationally funded compensation and a return of refugees who want it to the new Palestinian state, for a right to return to Israel - and the Israelis through the ending, by Ehud Barak at Camp David, "the taboo" of Jerusalem as an undivided Israeli capital - an advance which he insists about half the Likud Knesset membership now accept.

But it is based, too, on an assumption - by no means a universal one - that the US, having failed to achieve by its "decisive military victory" the more stable Iraq it dreamed about, was now reassessing its Middle East policy. The Americans needed international allies and regional coalitions, from Europe to Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to handle Iraq and Iran.

It had finally begun to recognise, as the Europeans had been telling them for some time, that "the roads to Baghdad and Tehran go through Jerusalem." The Israeli-Palestinian issue was the "one common denominator" if such coalitions were to be struck. "You have to have a two-state solution, you have to be much more active."

That's why, he says, Condoleezza Rice has made them a priority. And why, he confidently expects, George Bush will now "balance" the notable concessions he gave Mr Sharon in Washington in April - including on the right of return - by publishing a vision for the Middle East which will "say something to the Palestinians, something about the swap of territory, something about Jerusalem. And he will bring the American vision closer to our set of principles".

Acknowledging that he has a "lot to learn" he is clear that he is not going to stand for the Labour leadership in the coming primaries. But he also freely admits "that, finally, my goal is to be as high as possible, if possible to be prime minister".

As a very fit 59-year-old, he has never, he says, suggested that wouldn't take time. "It should take time. We paid a painful price because people reached the position too early."

The examples he cites are the first - though not of course the second - premiership of Yizhak Rabin and the "huge failures" (Mr Ayalon does not mince his words) of the premierships of Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak.

But he is something of a heretic on the decision of the party under Shimon Peres to accept jobs from Ariel Sharon in the new "unity" government. He was - and is - in favour of joining the coalition to see through disengagement from Gaza but sees a real danger that the party will hang on to its ministries whatever follows.

If that is to be followed by a return to the road-map and the clear subsequent possibility of withdrawals from the West Bank, then fine. If it turns out that the brutal explanation given last year by Mr Sharon's most trusted lieutenant Dov Weisglass that withdrawal from Gaza was a means of putting the peace process in "formaldehyde" and hanging on to the West Bank settlements, then Labour should walk out.

With all the authority of a former intelligence chief, he is scornful of the idea Mr Sharon's separation barrier will preserve security. "The wall alone will not save us." Palestinian militants, he says, will be able to dig tunnels below it within 12 or 18 months - as experience in Gaza shows.

In the meantime, however, he retains an unshakeable conviction that peace is possible.

"We are Siamese twins. And to create each one's identity we have to separate. But you cannot cut them apart in one day."