The Spooks Speak: Former Shin Bet Chiefs Talk of Peace

Published November 21, 2003, issue of November 21, 2003.
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Following are excerpts from a round-table discussion among four former directors of Israel’s Shin Bet General Security Service, published November 14 by Yediot Aharonot. The participants: Avraham Shalom (director 1980-1986), Yaakov Peri (1988-1995), Carmi Gillon (1995-96) and Ami Ayalon (1996-2000). All rose through the ranks, except Ayalon, a former Navy commander. The meeting was moderated by Yediot reporters Alex Fishman and Sima Kadmon.

In my opinion, said Ayalon, we are marching steadily toward a place in which the State of Israel will not be a democracy and a Jewish national home. All the rest is commentary.

I agree entirely, said Gillon. And that’s what brought me here. I am very worried about our future. I look at my daughters, who are still young, and it’s clear to me that we are heading toward disintegration.…

Up to this point, said Gillon, the only diplomatic plan formally on the table is the road map. The problem is that all the plans in the last 10 years have been staged plans. The stages were intended to build trust between the sides, and it didn’t work. The change that Ayalon and [Palestinian academic Sari] Nusseibeh offer, and likewise, Yossi Beilin’s Geneva plan, is to say: Okay, this way failed. Ten years we’ve tried it, and it hasn’t built trust. Now, instead of building trust, let’s build agreements. This is a different way to deal with the dispute. Instead of trying to build trust and afterward reach agreements, you reach agreements now, and then you roll the rug backward and start to deal with stages toward reaching an accord.

You’re wrong if you think it was a mistake, said Shalom. It was an excuse. An excuse not to do anything.

Yediot: But Sharon accepted the road map.

Yes, said Gillon, but he put conditions in front of the road map that turned the matter of terrorism into the be-all and end-all. Behind the terrorism you can’t see the road map.…

Yediot: The Ayalon-Nusseibeh document speaks of evacuating the settlements. How would you do this?

Ayalon: … We made a mistake in our public discourse in the last 10 years. If we were to come to the settlers and say to them: You’ve been Israel’s pioneers in the last 30 years, you enabled us to reach a situation where a settlement with the Arab world is possible, but you are also the ones who must pay the painful price of this settlement. And therefore we, Israeli society, have the duty of seeing to your housing, your employment, to bringing you home. If this was the language of public discourse, we would in my opinion neutralize 75% to 85% of the settlers.…

Peri: I think Ami is saying wise things, but they’re out of date. Today, 85% to 90% of the settlers would go home with a simple economic plan. There’s an ideological hard core of 10% or 12% who will have to be confronted. And I say Arik Sharon is perhaps the only one who can do it. As the founder of the settlements, he can be their dismantler.…

I don’t believe that those 10% are so brave, said Shalom. Not long ago, at a closed meeting [of the Shin Bet], I heard the ‘Hilltop Youth’ compared to Hamas. I asked how many there were. They told me there were about 100 activists, plus 400 followers and 1,000 sympathizers. So I said: If they were Arabs, you would know how to solve the problem? They said yes. So I said: Let’s solve the problem as if they were Arabs. Take 15 of them, put them in administrative detention and watch how the others do nothing.

And one more thing I said: … Are they ready to die? The answer was unequivocally “No.” So I’m optimistic about this. When we leave them there by themselves, they’ll come along.…

I think, said Peri, that perhaps there’s a painful confrontation coming, and if I could avoid it I would certainly like to. But I don’t think there’s any way to avoid it.…

They all reject firmly, almost indignantly, the “leftist” label. Peri said: Some day someone should study this sociological phenomenon. Why does everyone — heads of the service, chiefs of staff, former security people — after a long security career become a standard bearer of reconciliation with the Palestinians? Why? Because they’ve been there. We know the people, the landscape; we know both sides.…

Yediot: Are you saying that the current Shin Bet chief, Avi Dichter, with his views on tightening closures and strengthening roadblocks, could leave the service tomorrow and present the same positions as yours?

Absolutely, they all said. There’s no doubt.…

You have to remember, said Shalom, that as director of the service you are apolitical.… If you can live with the basic guidelines of the war against terrorism, then you do your job the best you can, with all the resources at your disposal.…

The strategy today, Gillon said, is how to stop the next attack, period. Dichter’s task is to say how best to prevent the next attack. So it’s true that there’s justice in the words of the chief of staff [Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, in an October 28 interview], that it’s good to think more broadly and ask how you prevent attacks down the road and not just the next attack. The problem at this point is that the political agenda has become a security agenda.…

When there is no political direction, said Peri, then senior security personnel withdraw into their own little zones. The job of the Shin Bet is to fight terrorism, period. The job of the army is provide Israel with security, period. And this little zone, in today’s reality, is very narrow. It’s not strategic; it remains tactical.

And I must tell you, we should take off our hats to the security establishment, which has managed within this narrow framework to do what they’ve done.…

Ayalon: Yaakov Peri claims that one of the great mistakes of the political leadership today is the fact that debate centers around the question of whether or not we have a partner. And I think this is a mistake. In these terrible circumstances, when citizens are slaughtered in restaurants and on buses, I don’t think there’s any other path but to take unilateral steps. If the State of Israel would get up tomorrow morning and get out of Gaza, and seriously begin dismantling illegal settlements, then I believe, from my years of familiarity with our future partners, that the Palestinians would come to the table.

Yediot: Avraham Shalom, do you agree with Peri?

Yes, he said, 100%. Gillon and Ayalon agreed as well.

And so, Peri continued, it’s a mistake of the first order that most of what we hear in the news is about whether Arafat is relevant or not, whether to expel him or not, whether or not we have a partner.…

Our dealing with Arafat is an anachronism, said Shalom, because we don’t decide who is relevant or not. In my opinion it was the mother of all errors. Just as they don’t dictate to us whether Bibi comes after Sharon or Sharon after Bibi, we can’t decide who has influence over there. So let’s look at the political map of the Palestinians. The fact is that without Arafat nothing moves.

Yediot: What you’re saying is that it doesn’t bother you if Arafat is the partner.

In politics nothing bothers me if I can gain something, said Shalom. Arafat or not, one bright day he won’t be there and somebody else will take his place. But meanwhile the Palestinians live in conditions that are more and more terrible.

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