Ami Ayalon: Netanyahu wouldn’t annex West Bank, prefers status quo

Ami Ayalon is worried. The former Shin Bet chief believes that a two-state solution will shape the future of Israel, but is concerned that Israelis will pay a high price to reach that destination. His hope is for an Israel that’s a Jewish and democratic state, living in peace and security with its neighbors.

“The way see it, my children will live in a two states reality, the reality I believe we should hope for. The only question is how much we will suffer on the way,” Ayalon, co-founder of the Israeli NGO Blue White Future, a non-partisan pro-peace group founded in 2009, told Jewish Insider in a wide ranging interview in New York this week.

Ami Ayalon talks with Jewish Insider’s Jacob Kornbluh at the New York Hudson Hotel on April 2, 2019

Just days before Israelis head to the polls and the possible rollout of President Trump’s Mideast peace plan that could determine the makeup of the next Israeli government, Ayalon, a former member of the Labor Party, is not optimistic. Israeli society is afraid of changing the status quo, he explains, telling us why offering solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian was not an election issue this cycle. “It is too painful and too complicated. We are in a state of denial. We want to believe that the status quo is sustainable. But it is clear that it is not.”

But Ayalon, who served as head of Israel’s security agency in Netanyahu’s first term (1996-1999), is not as concerned about Bibi, in some ways, as his Labor confederates. Ayalon doubts Netanyahu would seek to annex the West Bank if elected to a 5th term as head of a right-wing coalition government. “Bibi will do everything in his power not to annex. He does not believe in annexation,” he opined. “I spent probably hundreds of hours with Netanyahu. I saw him in a very unique moments. So I believe he will do everything to sustain the status quo. He is very careful when it comes to using military power. On the other hand, he will do everything possible in order to make sure that Hamas and Fatah remain divided between Gaza and the West Bank to proclaim there’s no Palestinian partner. And he will do anything to remain in power.”

The only indication that Netanyahu would be ready to change the situation is if he seeks to form a government with the center-left, a move that former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon undertook when he decided to disengage from Gaza.

In 2004, Sharon, then the head of  Likud, invited Labor leader Shimon Peres to join a national unity government to pursue a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza strip. At the time, several peace initiatives were released, including the Bush speech that created the conditions for a shift in public opinion about a peace settlement with the Palestinians. Sharon later left the Likud and created the Kadima Party. “Netanyahu does not have the political courage to do it,” Ayalon told JI. “For Sharon, the party was just a tool to achieve his political goal. In Bibi’s case, he never left the Likud and he will never leave the Likud. So practically, he could have created another platform, but today he is too weak, and his legal problems will not enable him to push for change that is necessary for Israel.”

Despite the mutual denials from both sides, Ayalon believes that Netanyahu’s wish is to create a government with Kachol Lavan (the Blue and White party), headed by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid. He predicts, however, that it won’t happen because of the political environment Netanyahu himself has created — even if President Trump releases his peace plan immediately after the April 9 election.

Asked if he thinks Netanyahu has changed in recent years, Ayalon said: “No, he is the same, but the time is different. He cannot control anymore the reality of fear that he created.”

Regarding Trump’s peace plan, Ayalon believes that while Trump lost influence over the Palestinians, he has “great leverage” over Israel “probably more than any past American president.” If the plan will be based on international resolutions—338, 242, and the Arab peace initiative — “I think it will be a great opportunity.” Netanyahu, according to Ayalon, cannot afford a battle with Trump the way he fought with President Obama. If the plan fails to meet international standards, he said, Trump will find support amongst Republicans and get Netanyahu’s backing, but will face opposition from the West and Arab countries in the region and it “will lead to more instability and violence.” Nonetheless, any plan will lead to a situation in which Israel “will have to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian issue.”

On Tuesday, Trump joked that he could move to Israel and run for prime minister due to his popularity among the Israeli public. But Ayalon appears to place himself into the unsatisfied camp despite the recent moves on Jerusalem and the Golan. “I can claim that he is not hostile to Israel, but he is doing everything against the future of Israel the way I see the future of Israel,” he explained. “I do not believe in unilateral actions because it did not bring us to a better reality.”

According to Ayalon, Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and U.S. recognition of Israel’s rule over the Golan Heights should not be regarded as consensus issues. “I remember I was in Washington immediately after the Camp David summit in 2000 and I met with the leadership of AIPAC. They asked me, ‘Who gave you Israelis the right to discuss Jerusalem? Jerusalem belongs to the Jewish people.’ So I said, ‘Look, if our prime minister decided to negotiate the issue, I believe that it is in his responsibility to do everything in order to see Israel as a Jewish, democratic and secure state.’ So yes, our dreams of Jerusalem are in consensus. But if you ask me whether I would be ready to give away Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem in order to achieve a peace agreement, I will tell you yes. And I will tell you that more than 50 percent of the Israelis would support it, if we should believe it will give us peace and security.”

Ayalon also maintained that Netanyahu negotiated the division of Jerusalem in his talks with the Palestinian Authority during his first term.

By Jacob Kornbluh in New York. Jacob is the national politics reporter for Jewish Insider. Follow him at @jacobkornbluh

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