By Leslie Evans
Ami Ayalon is an insider in the corridors of power in Israel. Until recently he headed Shin Bet (February 1996 to May 2000), his country's internal security service, the equivalent of the American FBI. Before that he was Commander in Chief of the Israeli navy (1992-96). It has created some stir, therefore, that he is now in partnership with a leading Palestinian activist and academic, Sari Nusseibeh, in circulating a petition to both Israelis and Palestinians urging their respective leaders to make peace. Ayalon has joined with Nusseibeh, President of Al Quds University in east Jerusalem and the Palestinian Authority Commissioner for Jerusalem, to found the "People's Voice" campaign, which is circulating a peace petition to both Palestinians and Israelis asking their leaders for an end to armed conflict between them. So far the petition has 153,000 signers. Both Ami Ayalon and Sari Nusseibeh presented their project at a meeting at UCLA October 22.
The two arrived out of breath twenty minutes late, victims of the traffic jams occasioned by the MTA strike. They had recently been in Washington, DC, where their unusual project had gotten extensive media attention. Their UCLA appearance was jointly sponsored by the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations and the Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life.
Sari Nusseibeh explained the People's Voice effort: "This is an initiative we started working on about a year and a half ago. It consists of two components. One is that we are trying to get the respective leaderships on the two sides to focus on the final status issues directly." He summarized the key issues as the borders of the proposed two states, including withdrawal of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank; resolution of mutual rights in Jerusalem; and the refugee issue. "Perhaps the refugee issue is a problem that primarily the Palestinians have to concern themselves with," he said. "The settlements is more for the Israelis. Jerusalem is a question that both sides have to focus on."
Parallel with their appeal to the leaders of both sides is the petition they have been circulating. "We are going back to the people in order to engage them in supporting this initiative and pushing towards achieving it," Nusseibeh said. Their petition drive was officially launched in June. Thus far they have collected some 93,000 signatures on the Israeli side and 60,000 signatures from Palestinians.
Sari Nusseibeh said this kind of direct cross national petitioning was unprecedented in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He added: "We hope that if we are able to develop a critical mass of people on both sides that then it will be possible to impact the formal political players, that is the respective leaderships on the two sides."
He said that both he and Ami Ayalon felt that if the implementation of a two-state solution is delayed much longer that the infrastructure of the territory of both peoples would become too closely integrated to be able to separate it. "So what we will end up with is a single state, probably for many years undemocratic, maybe never democratic, we are not sure. But neither will there be a state addressing the concerns of the Jewish people nor one on the other hand addressing the Palestinian aspiration for having a Palestinian state."
Two Events that Changed Ami Ayalon's Life
Ami Ayalon told the audience that he had spent thirty-eight years as part of Israel's defense and security community. He was Israel's chief counterterrorism officer. He said two experiences had caused him to break from his life path and embark on this effort to bring Jews and Palestinians together. "Two years ago I met a friend and he visited a very interesting museum in London. This was one year after the beginning of the Palestinian intifada. Hundreds of people died on both sides, Israeli and Palestinians. And he told me that he had visited the World Museum in London and the two upper floors are a museum for the Holocaust. When you leave this museum there is a small plaque citing something Edmund Burke said: 'For evil to prevail, it is only necessary for good people to do nothing.' And he said, 'I am a good person. And I am doing nothing. And evil prevails.'"
This was on Ami Ayalon's mind two months later, when he was in London. Several Israelis and Palestinians, including Sari Nusseibeh, met to discuss the situation in their homeland. "All of us understood that it was heading nowhere," Ayalon recalled. "We discussed the situation, and in one of the breaks while preparing coffee a Palestinian whom I knew before approached me and told me, 'Ami, finally we won, we Palestinians.' I told him, how come you won? You have lost so many people, you are losing your state, you are losing your dream of having an independent state. What is the meaning of victory? And he told me, 'You don't understand. Victory for us is to see you suffer. This is all that we want. In the last fifty years we were the only ones who suffered. And finally we are not the only one. We achieved a balance of power. Your F-16 versus our suicide bomber. And this is victory for us.'"
Ayalon was shocked by this. On his return to Israel he was interviewed on television, and he shocked others when he told the interviewer, "I don't want to win this war." She asked him why. He described his reply to the audience at UCLA: "I told her, first of all because of the price that it would take. And second, that victory has no meaning in the Middle East today. . . I came to the conclusion that the leadership on both sides lost control. They are confused, although you don't see it. Television, with suits, formal meetings. Ordinary people don't see how confused they are."
Ami Ayalon became convinced that the leaders on both sides were afraid to break from the pattern of confrontation for fear they would be rejected by their own people. "It is up to us to show our leaders the way. Because the leaders became followers."
Some Hard Questions
After their remarks each of the two campaigners was given a hard question. A young Palestinian woman asked Sari Nusseibeh how he could agree to waive the right of Palestinians to return to the land they had left in 1948, a central demand of the Palestinian movement for more than fifty years and supported by several UN resolutions. Sari Nusseibeh replied:
"The answer to me is very straightforward and simple. We have two rights. We have the right of return, in my opinion. But we also have the right to live in freedom and independence. And very often in life one has to forego the implementation of one right in order to be able to implement the other rights. In this case it is very clear to me that we would have to forego the implementation of the right to return in order that we are able to create the possibility of fulfilling our right to live in freedom. . . . It is not full justice, but it is practical justice, this is what is possible."
He added that "Very often Palestinians talk about return in a very mystical kind of way. They mystify it in the sense that is possible to somehow recapture that blissful moment that existed before 1948. Recapture it, in a sense return to it, and very often the idea of return is presented in terms not only of going back in geography, in space fifty kilometers towards the west, but also going fifty years back in time. And this is impossible. You cannot retrieve times that were lost. We cannot continue to dream about pre-48. We have to dream, yes, but I believe that our dreams have to be different. We should have a dream concerning the future."
Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller of the Hillel Center then asked Ami Ayalon how the Jewish settlements in the West Bank could be dismantled, as they had become so deeply embedded. Ami Ayalon responded:
"It will be very painful. . . I understand that we will be very close to something which I am afraid to call a civil war, but it will not be far from it." He said that Israel is now deeply divided between supporters and opponents of the settlers. "We shall have to accept the settlers as our pioneers, not as our enemy. They are not enemies. They are our pioneers. They made it possible for us to get the recognition of the Arab world. But they, or at least most of them, will have to pay the very expensive, almost impossible price of making peace. So it is up to us to bring them back home. It is up to us to build them their homes, to create jobs, etc. Now I am saying it because you have to understand the Israeli society is divided between people who hate the settlers and people who adore them."
Don't Replicate the Conflict on American Campuses
In closing Sari Nusseibeh urged Palestinians and Jews in America not to replicate the conflict in the Middle East: "Clearly there are differences between the Jews and the Palestinians that can never be resolved. We can go on fighting forever. And it is easy to go on fighting. It is extremely hard to in fact try to build peace. By building peace you have to take in a lot of pain. You have to make a lot of compromises. You have to be brave enough to go into the future. And what I hope is that we will find here friends, both Palestinians and Jews who will work together in order to make this peace possible back home. We do not wish the conflict that we have back home to be exported and multiplied. And it doesn't serve us if it gets exported and multiplied so that it becomes a war on every campus between pro-Israelis and pro-Palestinians. We, the Israelis and the Palestinians who live there, need to live together in peace. We need to have peaceful lives and I hope that you here will help us do it and not make our lives more difficult."
This program was presented as part of UCLA's ongoing commitment to providing a forum for the wide range of views on key international issues for the campus community and beyond. For further information about the petition campaign, see the People's Voice website: