Sunday, March 12, 2006

I killed many Arabs, probably more than Hamas fighters killed Jews

Israel’s new iron man plans ‘axis of hope’ in Middle East
Uzi Mahnaimi
The Sunday Times
March 12, 2006

THE man likely to become Israel’s next defence minister does not shy away from talking about his past.

“I killed many Arabs, probably more than Hamas fighters killed Jews, and more than anybody else, but all in order to secure Israeli lives,” said Admiral Ami Ayalon, the Labour party’s candidate for the most difficult portfolio in Israeli politics.

There are two weeks before the general election, and victory for either Labour or the Kadima party is expected to ensure that the former commando and head of Shin Bet, the internal security service, will take over from Shaul Mofaz, the incumbent, in a coalition.

Ayalon is considered a dove despite his 32 years of military service and his near five-year stint at the helm of the intelligence agency. He is a straight talker, and wants a comprehensive peace settlement with the Palestinians even under a Hamas leadership.

“I’d be willing to negotiate with Hamas if the organisation accepts the idea of a two-state solution,” he said in an interview last week.

Ayalon, 61, is regarded as a fresh thinker: he believes Israel should establish an “axis of pragmatism” with the regional countries that have full diplomatic relations with Israel — Morocco, Egypt, Jordan and Turkey.

“This is the whole idea — to create this pragmatic axis which will be supported by the European Union and the international community,” he said. It is part of his strategy to woo the Palestinians from the more extremist policies of Hamas. “Seventy per cent of those who voted for Hamas were not Hamas believers but voted against the corruption in the Palestinian authority,” he said. “If we establish this axis it will break Hamas and we will see the pragmatist forces among the Palestinians.”

Ayalon is also open-minded on the controversy over the division of Jerusalem, which he envisages as an “open city” and capital of two states. Jerusalem should be shared between Arabs and Jews. “Arab neighbourhoods will come under Palestinian sovereignty, Jewish ones under Israeli sovereignty,” he said. He has even suggested that if a common solution could be agreed with Hamas on the future of the West Bank, the hated security wall currently under construction could be taken down.

The latest poll predicts that the centrist Kadima will win 37 seats in the 120-member parliament, with Labour on 19 and the right-wing Likud 15.

The figures mean that Kadima — headed by Ehud Olmert — would have to form a coalition. Olmert would become prime minister and Ayalon frontrunner for the defence job.

The wiry former frogman commando has spent most of his adult life defending Jews.

Born in 1945, he grew up in a kibbutz on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, the only son of European parents. He joined the Israeli navy’s commandos in 1963.

Twice injured in commando operations, he rose to head the navy and founded the country’s nuclear submarine fleet before directing Shin Bet between 1996 and 2000.

Ayalon’s doveish credentials became clear three years ago, when he and Sari Nusseibeh, a Palestinian professor, proposed a solution to the Palestinian conflict based on two independent states and a declaration of an end to hostility.

Since then he has been disappointed by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president. “I like the music of Abbas, his words, but not his actions. I think he is a weak leader,” he said. “He’s unable to disarm Hamas and Islamic Jihad.”

When it comes to his best advice on the Palestine question, however, he admitted it was a family affair. “If I learnt something about the conflict with the Palestinians, it is what my wife understood 30 years ago and tried in vain to teach me: Jews will only be safe when Palestinians have hope.”

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