The Washington Diplomat / August 2003
By Larry Luxner
Is the intifada over? Is peace about to break out between Israel and the Arab world?
Daniel Ayalon, Israel's ambassador to the United States, certainly thinks it's possible — as long as Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas contains radical terrorist groups, Jewish settlers are allowed to stay in the West Bank, Jerusalem remains under Israeli control and Yasser Arafat is kept out of the limelight.
"I don't think it's wishful thinking to say that the new Palestinian leadership understands that terror has not brought them anything. On the contrary, it has set them back," Ayalon told The Washington Diplomat in a recent interview.
As both sides struggle to bring about an end to the Palestinian uprising that has cost over 2,400 Arab and 800 Jewish lives, Abbas and his counterpart, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, have signed onto the Middle East "road map" promoted by President Bush.
Yet Sharon and Abbas have vastly different ideas about how to follow that road map to a lasting peace.
In June, Sharon surprised Palestinians and angered many Israelis when he used the word "occupation" for the first time to describe Israel's military presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories which it has controlled since 1967.
Ayalon says Sharon's choice of words was no accident.
"Occupation is controlling other people," he said. "We do not wish nor do we seek control over the Palestinians. We'd like to live side by side with them, in dignity."
Before being appointed Israel's man in Washington a year ago, Ayalon, 47, was Sharon's deputy foreign policy adviser; he has also counseled former Israeli prime ministers Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu on foreign policy issues.
In addition, Ayalon has also had years of experience in the world of diplomacy, having represented Israel along with other delegates at peace summits in Sharm el-Sheikh (1997), Wye Plantation (1998) and Camp David (2000). Before that, the diplomat was posted to the Israeli Embassy in Panama (1991-93), where he was responsible for political, economic and cultural ties between the two nations.
Yet it is here in Washington where Ayalon — who replaced David Ivry as Israel's ambassador a year ago — thinks he can do the most good for his country.
"It's certainly a moment of hope for Israel, the Palestinians and for the whole region. I also see it as a great success of U.S. foreign policy and this administration in particular," he said. "Both [National Security Advisor] Condoleeza Rice and [Secretary of State] Colin Powell are indispensable for their trust, intimate knowledge and sharp analysis."
In Ayalon's opinion, the biggest dagger hanging over the peace process is PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. The Israeli ambassador makes no secret of his hatred for the man who for more than 30 years has personified the Palestinian struggle for self-determination.
"You cannot underestimate Arafat's potential for damage," he told The Diplomat. "Arafat is an enemy of peace, not just an enemy of Israel and the United States. We cannot sweep this under the carpet. Once we act upon that, we have to be consistent. But we understand the sensitivities. That's why we have to work in different ways in dimensions to keep him at bay, to render him obsolete without causing any humiliation."
The day Ayalon was being interviewed in his office at the well-guarded Israeli Embassy on International Drive, a small, noisy group of protestors picketed the embassy's perimeter, carrying signs demanding the release of Mordechai Vanunu — an Israeli scientist imprisoned several years ago for spilling the country's nuclear secrets to foreign journalists.
The embassy is, in fact, a frequent site for anti-Israel demonstrations of all kinds, which have become more frequent since the beginning of the intifada in September 2000.
But Ayalon says he expects the uprising to die down once Abbas shows "decisive leadership" in front of his own people. "The Palestinians have been betrayed for so long by poor leaders," he said. "Democracy is a new concept for them. Traditionally, they have never been presented with a choice."
Yet when it comes the so-called "right of return" for Palestinian refugees who fled or were forced from their homes during Israel's 1948 War of Independence, Ayalon says there is no choice.
"For me, this is a code calling for the destruction of Israel, he said. "If we create a new Palestinian state, then all Palestinian refugees would have the right to return to that Palestinian state, but not to Israel. I truly believe that, from a moral, historical and even legal point of view, they have no rights in our land."
Another sticking point is the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. Ayalon says the Sharon government is prepared to free "a few hundred prisoners," while the Palestinians are demanding the release of several thousand.
"We see eye to eye with the Americans on overall strategy, and this particular issue is not part of the road map at all," he said. "It is a gesture that Israel is willing to extend in order to show confidence-building measures and strengthen Abu Mazen [the Arab nickname for Abbas]. But there are certain criteria which we are not prepared to breach."
Ayalon also defended the building of a sophisticated security fence that roughly parallels Israel's 1967 borders but at times cuts deeply into Palestinian territory. Dismissing strong U.S. objections over the planned 200-mile fence, Ayalon says the controversial project — which is costing Israeli taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars — will provide Israel an unprecedented measure of security.
"The real danger is the ease with which any Palestinian terrorist can strap 20 or 50 pounds of bombs on his body and explode them in our midst," he said. "Right now, they have a 100% success rate. If they want to cross, they just cross. But no suicide bombers have entered from Gaza, where we have had a fence [since 1994]; all of them came from the West Bank."
He added: "If this new fence prevents even one suicide bombing, it will enable an atmosphere conducive to dialogue, and ultimately this will create trust between people."
Despite his tough talk, Ayalon — who holds an MBA from Ohio's University of Bowling Green — appears far more at ease with the press than did Ivry, a war hero-turned-diplomat who was appointed by Barak and interviewed by the Diplomat two and a half years ago.
Since then, much has happened, starting with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which Ayalon says "further bonded" Israel and the United States in the fight against terrorism.
"I see my job almost as an extension of my previous job, which was foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Sharon. In that role, I kept constant and very close relations with the administration," he said, adding that "furthering understanding between Israel and the Jewish community is one of my most privileged tasks, and I do it very happily."
Ayalon says he feels fortunate to serve as Israel's ambassador at a time when "there is such great understanding" between Washington and Jerusalem.
"The United States is Israel's best friend and ally, and that makes my life as an ambassador very easy. But it's not just a relationship between governments. Everywhere, I see a great affinity for Israel by most Americans, and not just the Jewish community," he said. "No other country has had a more moral basis for its foreign policy than the United States — the champion of freedom and democracy throughout the world. America was always courageous in facing up to tyrants and dictators. These values make the foundations for a good relationship with Israel."
Non-Jewish Americans, he said, generally support Israel because they see it as "a country which stands on its own, the only democracy in a sea of backward, dictatorial regimes. They see Israel as a beacon of hope for the entire region. You should not underestimate the importance of shared values."
Nevertheless, several key issues divide the two countries, the most serious of which is the flourishing of Jewish settlements throughout the West Bank and Gaza. The U.S. government, and a number of Israelis, view those settlements — home to about 200,000 Jews amidst a sea of 2.2 million Palestinians — as an "obstacle to peace."
Yet Ayalon draws a distinction between the larger, populated settlements and small, "unauthorized" hilltop outposts consisting of one or two trailers which are gradually being removed by the Israeli Army.
"All the unauthorized outposts will come down," he promised, "and I don't think it'll spark civil war. We have been tested in the past. Whatever the government decides, the public will follow, no matter how hard it is."
Even so, the ambassador declined to speculate on how Sharon would go about removing much larger, populated settlements — or if it would ever dismantle those settlements at all, given the enormous political and religious uproar such a move could trigger.
"The Sharon government is committed not to expand settlements," he said. "We are willing to give up part of our homeland, and we're talking here about the cradle of Jewish civilization. But the issue of Jewish settlements cuts right to the core of the political conflict we have with the Palestinians, and I wouldn't want to prejudge any of the outcomes."
Another issue that cuts right to the core of the conflict is sovereignty over Jerusalem.
The city, which is holy to Christians, Muslims and Jews alike, was declared Israel's capital in 1948, even though Israel controlled only the western half; East Jerusalem was under Jordanian control.
Following Israel's victory in the Six-Day War of 1967, Jerusalem was reunited under Israeli sovereignty, and in 1981, the Israeli government officially annexed East Jerusalem, which is predominantly Arab.
Asked if the Sharon government would ever allow East Jerusalem to be the capital of an independent Palestine, Ayalon made clear the subject wasn't open to discussion.
"Throughout history, Jerusalem has been the capital of only one people, and that was the Jewish people," he said sternly. "I rest my case."