A Shin Bet Head’s Humanist Approach

The past few years, many senior Israeli security officials, most notably through the nonpartisan Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS) organization, have warned about the dangers of West Bank annexation. They have published numerous reports on the security consequences of annexation, and why, more broadly, preserving the option for a two-state solution is the best way to ensure Israel’s long-term security. However, one notable member of CIS recently took a slightly different approach.

In his memoir, Friendly Fire, which will be released on September 8, former Director of the Shin Bet (1996-2000) Ami Ayalon discusses how he came to see a two-state solution with the Palestinians as the best way to ensure Israel’s security, not just through analyzing numbers and statistics, but through a humanistic approach. He discusses the story of his life, how it parallels with Israel’s story over the past 70 years, and how his humanist paradigm not only allowed him to see how the Palestinians’ grievances and aspirations are intertwined with Israel’s security, but also how he still acknowledges and sympathizes with the narratives of those in Israel whom he may disagree with.

Ami begins his story the way most people begin the story of the State of Israel. His parents and other family members fled from Romania to Palestine in the 1930s where they participated in the Zionist Kibbutz movement. His father was one of the original founders of Ma’agan, where Ami was born, and he talks about life growing up on a Kibbutz in Israel’s early years.

Ami then describes his experiences while serving as an elite commando within Israel’s Navy Seals (Flotilla 13), such as during the War of Attrition and the Yom Kippur War. Perhaps his most notable war story was Operation Green Island Raid, where Ami and his comrades in Flotilla 13 successfully neutralized an Egyptian early warning station. Spectacularly, Ami provided cover for his comrades after being hit in the leg with a grenade, and would receive the Medal of Valor, Israel’s highest military honor.

Ami also talks about his relationships with and sympathies for the Jewish settler community in Judea and Samaria (West Bank). Indeed, he emphasizes throughout the book that, though he endorsed the idea of a two-state solution, he still considers the Jewish settlers to be a valid part of his story and the story of the State of Israel. Hence, Ami sought out conversations with prominent members of the Jewish settler community to further understand their perspective.

One interesting conversation he includes is with Pinchas Wallerstein, a leader of the Jewish settler movement. They discussed how the Jewish settler movement learned from the original Kibbutz movement and the parallels between them. They both built settlements on land they believe rightfully belong to the Jewish people and built them with passion and hard work, putting their “sweat and blood” into them. Ami not only acknowledges the similarities between his parents’ Kibbutz movement and the Jewish settler movement, but also says that “If I hadn’t been fighting (for over twenty years in Israel’s navy) I would have joined my friends in establishing new settlements.”

However, beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, Ami’s perspective began to change. Perhaps his most significant life changing experience was his tenure as the Director of the Shin Bet from 1996-2000, where he realized the need to take a slightly different approach on addressing terrorism: to suppress terrorists, he had to understand the psychology and roots of terrorism as well.

While discussing about his upcoming book during a podcast with the Israel Policy Forum, Ami explains that, “In the Shin Bet, you have to know everything about (your) enemy…you have to know everything about his mother, his father, his children, with whom he prays at the mosque, who are their friends, because otherwise…you don’t understand him, you don’t understand his motives.”

Ami took this initiative to better understand the Palestinians by reading Palestinian literature and poetry and discussing Palestinian public opinion polls with Director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research Khalil Shikaki. He concluded, among other things, that the hardships the Palestinians encounter as a result of the bureaucracies of Israel’s military rule and their lack of hope for peace contributes to their willingness to engage in violence.

Ami brought the lessons he learned to his discussions with Israeli prime ministers while he was the head of the Shin Bet during the Oslo Accords. He talks about some of the private meetings he had with then Prime Ministers Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, imploring them that continuing the peace process and preserving the Palestinians’ hope that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank will end through negotiations and security cooperation was essential to maintaining Israel’s security. (Many make a similar analysis today with how the possibility of Israeli annexation has led Palestinian President Abbas to cease security cooperation with Israel).

Even after his tenure as head of the Shin Bet, Ami has continued to advocate for a two-state solution. He discusses his activism at the grassroots level, such as when he collaborated with prominent Palestinian philosopher Sari Nusseibeh to launch The People’s Voice movement in 2002 and restart the peace process. They went around asking Israelis and Palestinians to sign their petition that detailed the final status issues of a two-state solution and ended up collecting about 275,000 Israeli and 200,000 Palestinian signatures.

Yet, at the same time, Ami argues that many within the Israeli Left are hypocritical for calling the settlers “cancers” or “weeds,” and that, instead of alienating the Jewish settlers, Israelis who support a two-state solution should embrace the settlers as heroes and thank them for their sacrifice when they return home.

Towards the end of his memoir, he writes, “If the Left hadn’t been stuck in a fog, they would have seen that settlers, the vanguard of frontier Zionism, were a latter-day version of the kibbutzniks, like my parents, who forged Israel’s settlement and security ethos…Rather than ostracize settlers as aggressive weeds to be plucked by the roots from our carefully manicured secular gardens, we secular nationalists should be carrying them on our shoulders as national heroes returning home.”

As we can see, the uniqueness of Ami’s story is not just that he is a former admiral who came to support a two-state solution, but also how he acknowledges the different narratives of different communities. Ami remains a proud Zionist while empathizing with the Palestinians and acknowledges their narrative. He also supports a two-state solution while referring to the Jewish settlers as “heroes.” Ami’s memoir may not only be appealing to communities that have traditionally supported a two-state solution, but may also be appealing to Palestinians who believe Zionists only respond to force and to Jewish settlers who uphold the dream of Greater Israel.

About the Author
Jonah Naghi is a Boston-based writer and the Partnership Chair of Israel Policy Forum's IPF Atid Steering Committee in the city of Boston. A frequent commentator on Middle Eastern affairs, Jonah has spent extensive time in the region and received his Masters in Social Work at Boston College (2020) and LICSW (2023). All the views expressed are his own.
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