“There is no ideal world, and there are no ideal agreements,” says Ami Ayalon, a former director of Israel’s Shin Bet internal security service. “And let me add that there is no ideal Middle East.”
Given the imperfections in the world at large and the Middle East in particular, the imperfect nuclear agreement that was concluded with Iran this week in Vienna is “the best possible alternative from Israel’s point of view, given the other available alternatives,” Ayalon told me in a telephone interview. He finds the agreement “hard to defend,” but he defends it anyway.
His views are worth listening to because they represent the mainstream of Israel’s security establishment. A decorated commando, onetime commander of Israel’s navy, former cabinet minister and sometime peace activist, he’s often been a bellwether, staking out positions early on that other security chiefs are thinking but haven’t yet said.
And precisely because his views on the nuclear agreement are so at odds with those of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it’s important to listen and find out what the mainstream Israeli defense professionals — in and out of uniform — are thinking right now.
Ayalon’s unhappiness with the agreement doesn’t center primarily on its imperfect inspections regime. That’s a problem for Israeli, American and European intelligence agencies, which have excellent methods for tracking events on the ground and under it.
Nor is it the fact that, at best, it keeps Iran away from a nuclear weapon only for 10 to 15 years. “In the Middle East 10 to 15 years is an eternity,” he said. “And I don’t believe that 10 or 15 years from now the world will stand by and watch Iran acquire nuclear weapons.”
Rather, he’s disturbed by the fact that the agreement is likely to boost Iran’s ability to foment instability in the region. “We live in a Middle East that’s more chaotic than ever,” he said. “Iran is seen as a threat by its neighbors because of its support of chaos, unconnected to the nuclear issue.”
The agreement reached in Vienna doesn’t address that aspect of Iranian misbehavior. In fact, by lifting economic sanctions and giving Iran a huge injection of cash, it makes things worse. “Iran as a negative player is strengthened,” he said. “In this sense, it’s hard to defend the agreement — unless we bear in mind that it was intended to deal only with the nuclear question.”
It was alarm at Iran’s secret nuclear activity that united the otherwise divided world community over the past decade and mobilized the United Nations Security Council to action. It was the nuclear issue, too, that Netanyahu raised as a battle cry from the U.N. podium in his famous cartoon-bomb speech in 2012. His argument was that precisely because of Iran’s penchant for international troublemaking, letting it acquire nuclear weaponry was intolerable. And that’s what the two years of grueling talks in Switzerland and Austria set out to address.
Now, Ayalon said, “the essential task of the world community is to follow this up with a serious discussion of how to deal with the rise of radical Islam.”
Ayalon has been out of the security service for 15 years. After a career in the naval commando, ending up as chief of Israel’s navy, he was brought into the Shin Bet in 1996. His job was to rehabilitate an agency that was reeling in the wake of the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, which it had failed to prevent.
After a four-year term, which overlapped with Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, he retired in 2000 and devoted himself to an unlikely second career as a peace activist. In 2003 he and Palestinian academic Sari Nusseibeh published a one-page proposal for two-state peace agreement and circulated it as a petition, gathering about a half-million Israeli and Palestinian signatures.
That November, he initiated a roundtable conversation with the other three living ex-heads of the Shin Bet that was published in the mass-circulation daily Yediot Ahronot. Stretched over four pages of newsprint, the discussion found the four in forceful agreement that Israel’s continuing occupation and settlement of the West Bank was endangering the country’s future as a Jewish democracy.
The publication was arguably a turning point in thinking within Israel’s defense community. It helped convince Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert to reverse lifelong commitments to settlements. It directly inspired the 2013 documentary film “The Gatekeepers.” And it began what became an avalanche of public support among former security chiefs — and, more quietly, in the uniformed ranks — for a comprehensive peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Ayalon later joined the Labor Party, served a term in the Knesset, including two years as a minister in Ehud Olmert’s cabinet, and narrowly lost a 2007 leadership primary to Ehud Barak. He quit politics in 2009. Since then he’s led a non-profit, Blue-White Future, that explores ways of separating from the West Bank unilaterally without repeating the mistakes of Gaza.
Today, despite disagreements with Netanyahu on a host of issues, Ayalon gives the prime minister credit for effectively putting the Iranian nuclear issue front and center on the agenda of the world community. He “played an important role,” Ayalon told me. “Israeli policy was correct until the talks began.” That was in mid-2013.
“Since the beginning of the talks, Israeli policy has been mistaken,” Ayalon said. “We should have stayed by America’s side. First, to ensure the agreement was as good as possible. And second, to ensure that we remained in the picture, to ensure that intelligence is shared.
“The level of intelligence cooperation is the most important factor in the implementation of this agreement. And you can’t achieve maximum intelligence cooperation without a close relationship of trust between the leaders.”
In the days since the agreement was signed, there’s been considerable discussion in the Israeli media about Israel’s apparent exclusion from the process of shaping the document, despite its enormous implications for Israel’s future. The Obama administration, it should be noted, flatly denies that Israel was shut out at any stage.
Still, there’s a widespread sense that the already shaky Obama-Netanyahu relationship took a serious turn for the worse somewhere in late 2012 or early 2013. And there’s endless speculation as to who started it, and why. Uzi Arad, Netanyahu’s former national security adviser, offered a riveting, scathing analysis (watch here in Hebrew) of his old boss’s “reckless gambling” during a Wednesday night appearance on one of the country’s top television newsmagazines.
Ayalon doesn’t get drawn into pop psychoanalysis, but he’s firm on what should have happened and what must happen now.
“If we’re so convinced that the Iranians don’t keep agreements,” he said, “then what we should have done was not fight with the American administration but work with them on a plan for responding to a violation.”
In that context, he said, “the greatest missed opportunity was not leaving a multinational military option on the table. In the current atmosphere of Israeli-American relations, that isn’t a possibility.”
Moreover, he said, Israel should be removing obstacles to closer cooperation with the countries in the region that share Israel’s interests and outlook, especially Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. That means moving forward in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, as fraught as the topic is in Israel’s domestic politics.
“As long as we don’t advance the Israeli-Palestinian issue,” he said, “we remain a foreign body in the Middle East from the point of view of the Sunni powers.”
Finally, he said, the prime minister should stop “compounding his errors” by continuing to fight with the White House instead of mending fences. “We need to see the agreement as a done deal,” he said, and stop trying to mobilize Congress against the president.
“First of all,” he said, “the United States isn’t the only party to the agreement. With all due respect to Congress, the Russians, Chinese and Europeans made a deal with the president of the United States. If there’s a real chance that 13 or 14 Democrats oppose the agreement, then the United States won’t be party to the agreement and the result will be a truly chaotic situation.”
For one thing, he said, “I don’t think the Russians will decide to maintain the sanctions because the United States Congress doesn’t like the agreement. So what will happen is that Iran will escape sanctions, inspections will deteriorate, nuclear work will go on and we will lose on every front.”
“Reaching the agreement wasn’t a mistake,” he concluded. “It is the best of the available options, even though it strengthens Iran as a troublemaker. We in Israel need to differentiate between, on one hand, the problems in the Middle East and the understanding that we will have to continue fighting terrorism for the next 30 to 40 years, and on the other hand, the need to prevent the entry of nuclear weapons.
“I’m sorry to say this, but this is the price we need to pay to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons.”
“There is no perfect world and no perfect agreements,” he repeated. “The notion of forever in Judaism is not a pragmatic program. When the messiah comes, things will be wonderful. In the meanwhile we need to be practical.”
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).