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Israeli ambassador Daniel Ayalon faces challenging times ahead
The Washington Diplomat / March 2006


The Middle East has always been unstable, but 2006 is bringing more than its share of unpleasant surprises for Daniel Ayalon, Israel's ambassador to the United States.

The year began with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon hovering between life and death, after a Dec. 18 stroke that had incapacitated the 78-year-old leader and threatened the entire Middle East peace process.

That process has since ground to a halt, following the recent Hamas victory in Palestinian elections, which has sent shock waves throughout Israel and the entire Arab world. As if that's not enough, Iran's president has vowed to "wipe Israel off the map," threatening a confrontation at the UN Security Council over its controversial nuclear weapons program.

In the midst of all this, Israel is gearing up for its own parliamentary elections, in a race likely to be won by the current acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert.

"We are all praying for a miracle," Ayalon said of Sharon's struggle to survive. "I had many sleepless nights as I was monitoring the prime minister's health and hoping against hope that he would recover. At the same time, I was very encouraged by the outpouring of love from the thousands of Americans from all walks of life Jews, Christians and Muslims who called the embassy to offer their support."

Before being appointed Israel's man in Washington three years ago, Ayalon, 49, 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 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, Ayalon was posted to the Israeli Embassy in Panama (1991-93), where he was responsible for political, economic and cultural ties between the two nations.

Ayalon is personal friends with Olmert and with Tzipi Livni, Israel's new foreign minister.

Immediately following the Hamas landslide victory over the Palestinian Authority's ruling Fatah party, Olmert and Livni both declared that Israel would not cooperate in any way with a Hamas-led government, given the fact that Hamas has openly called for Israel's destruction and has participated in dozens of terrorist attacks against Jews.

"With Hamas, there is nothing to talk to them about," Ayalon told the Washington Diplomat last month. "Hamas has vowed to destroy us, and is perpetuating its activities, which include suicide bombing. They are against all the political agreements Israel has signed with the PLO. They are against President Bush's vision of a two-state solution. Rather, they support one Islamic Palestinian state. They are terrorists, designated as such by the State Department."

Asked whether the Hamas victory stemmed from disllusionment with the ruling Fatah or Palestinian anger against Israel, Ayalon said he hopes it's not the latter.

"This could easily be a protest vote against Fatah, which was ineffective and corrupt. Hamas was heavily funded by Iran, and Fatah even though it got more votes than Hamas was split in so many ways. The message it sends me is that by not showing good governance and by not leading, the situation can easily slide into chaos and lawlessness."

Ayalon said Israel has been warning the Palestinian Authority for more than a year that it had to take charge or else face the consequences.

"It's very unfortunate, but in January 2005, there were elections for PA chairman, and Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] won with 63% of the vote," the ambassador said. "Abbas ran on a platform of ending the violence. At that time, he had the authority, the power and the mandate to immediately outlaw terrorist organizations. But he negotiated with Hamas, and you see the results now."

Ayalon says Hamas is illegitimate, not only from a legal point of view but also from a moral one.

"You do not talk to someone who wants your destruction, who kills babies, who sends suicide bombers into discotheques. On Sept. 9, 1993, the PLO sent a letter to the entire international community renouncing terror, recognizing Israel's right to its homeland and committing to solve any disputes at the negotiating table, without violence. It's not just a piece of paper. They changed their charter regarding Israel's right to exist."

Until Hamas does the same, Ayalon vowed, "not a penny will be passed to the terrorists" via Israeli tax payments to the Palestinian Authority.

On Feb. 19, Olmert's cabinet voted to stop the monthly transfer to the PA of tax levied on its behalf by Israel, to step up scrutiny over crossing points into the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and to prevent entry into the Jewish state by members of Hamas. The measures are to go into effect immediately.

"It is clear that, given the Hamas majority in the Palestinian parliament and the fact that Hamas will form a government, the Palestinian Authority is effectively becoming a terrorist authority," Olmert told fellow ministers.

Veteran Israeli statesman Shimon Peres agrees, telling reporters that "Hamas is a disaster for the Palestinian people. They have no solutions. They spell anger and trouble. Like this, it is impossible to lead a nation into the 21st century."

To a certain extent, the Hamas upset actually makes Ayalon's job easier because it only highlights the contrast between Israel, which has always promoted itself as a peace-loving nation, and the Palestinians, whose parliament is now dominated by a terrorist group.

"Certainly, things are much clearer now. It proves the point we have been making for some time: we do not have a credible partner to talk to," he said. "We know that most Palestinians would like to live side by side with Israelis. They would like to have good jobs and opportunities, and to maximize the fullest life can offer. The fact they don't have this is because of a very corrupt regime.

"From 1994 on, Arafat and the PLO received billions of dollars from the international community. On a per-capita basis, the Palestinians have received more aid than the Europeans did under the Marshall Plan. All this money was squandered on ammunition, weapons, corruption and looting," he said.

"In these 10 or 12 years of Palestinian self-rule, nothing has changed. The PA didn't take these people out of the refugee camps, they didn't build any normal housing for them, they didn't build any industrial base, and they didn't create jobs. I think there's now a backlash of frustration against Fatah. I would like to believe this is the case, because if the vote is really a bona fide support of Hamas ideology, then I think there's nothing to talk about for a long time."

In the meantime, Ayalon said Israel will continue building its controversial protective barrier, which roughly parallels Israel's pre-1967 border with the West Bank, though the fence takes in a number of Jewish settlements much to the despair of Palestinian villagers who have been separated from their farms and ancestral lands.

"The fact that we don't have buses exploding in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is not because they've stopped the terrorists' attempts. Just last week, we stopped 12 suicide bombers belonging to Islamic Jihad," he said. "We don't stop all of them, only 90% of them. It all boils down to a science. Wherever we have the fence, there have been no infiltrations of suicide bombers."

With terrorist attacks declining and voter sympathy still running high for the stricken Sharon, the party he created last year Kadima is likely to emerge the winner in Israeli parliamentary elections scheduled for Mar. 28.

The latest polls suggest that if the election were held right now, Kadima, led by Olmert, would grab 42 seats in Israel's 120-member Knesset, followed by the Labor Party with 22 seats and Likud with 15.

"Ehud Olmert is a natural-born leader," said Ayalon. "Besides being very intelligent, he has a lot of common sense and can make decisions. He's very experienced in government and political life for the past 30 years, and is very well-known around the world. He does what he thinks is right, and what will best serve Israel's interests."

At the top of Ayalon's priority list is maintaining Israel's strong ties with the United States. Traditionally, Israel has been the world's No. 1 recipient of U.S. economic and military assistance. With 7.2 million people and a booming economy, however, Israel no longer needs economic aid and that is expected to end in 2008. Military assistance, meanwhile, comes to around $2.4 billion a year, most of that spent on American weaponry.

"Our relationship is special not just because our governments see eye to eye, but also because of grass-roots support," said Ayalon. "Americans have always admired our democracy, and the fact that when under attack, we always knew how to defend ourselves, without ever asking for American soldiers to protect us. On top of that, Israel is the largest U.S. trading partner in the Middle East, even larger than Saudi Arabia. We buy 33% of all American goods and services sold to the Middle East.

"Everywhere I go in this country, I see people understanding that connection with Israel Jewish communities, Christian communities, Hispanics and Asians. They see Israel as a solid, dependable ally of the United States in a very volatile region," he said. "We really don't just talk the talk, but we walk the walk. We will also do so in the future, provided we have a Palestinian partner who is committed to peace."

In the meantime, Ayalon says Israel will continue to pursue ties with Islamic nations such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Indonesia.

"We have always tried reaching out to Muslim countries," he said. "For example, we have very strong strategic relations with Turkey, which is a Mulsim country, and good relations with Egypt and Jordan, as well as Albania, Nigeria and other Muslim countries. We helped Indonesia after the tsunami disaster. Once there's contacts in the government, it legitimizes the relationship."

Boosting Israel's ties with moderate Muslim nations also has the effect of neutralizing the more radical regimes such as Syria, Libya and of course Iran.

"As I look into the future, I see an attempt by Hamas to build an Iranian model. It's no secret they are sending delegates to Iran to find out how the ayatollahs run the country and keep somewhat of a civil face to the rest of the world. This is very worrisome, this connection between Hamas and Iran, and I think it's a major danger and not just for Israel."

So is Iran's nuclear ambitions, which have captured the world's attention in recent months as Tehran openly defies the United Nations and pursues its strategy of acquiring material for the production of weapons of mass destruction.

"Iran is relentless in its pursuit of nuclear weapons," Ayalon said. "Right now, time is on their side. The Security Council is capable of turning the table on the Iranians by stopping their efforts. I believe that Iran has not yet reached the point of no return."

He said that "it is now universally understood and accepted that Iran must be stopped," but that this is not Israel's problem alone. In 1981, Israeli warplanes destroyed an Iraqi bomb-making factory, sparking international outrage.

Ayalon played down suggestions that Israel might take similar, immediate action against Iran, suggesting that "Israel in no way is in the business of meddling in other countries' affairs. We will wait for the right time."

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