London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Perhaps for security reasons, the meeting with Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister David Ayalon was at the Israeli Embassy in a neighborhood across the affluent High Kensington Street in central London. One feels the security measures even before arriving at the big gate to this exclusive area near Kensington Palace, the private residence of the late Princess Diana. You are watched from a distance by a number of British policemen in their traditional uniform, but the untraditional part of the scene is the machine guns they are carrying. As soon as you cross the gate, policemen receive you by asking you where you are going. Once that is done, you wait for an Israeli security man who comes and searches you as you undergo security measures similar to those that you go through at Tel Aviv Airport, if not more stringent. The searching does not end until you arrive at the place of the meeting from the embassy to Royal Gardens Hotel next to Kensington Palace Gardens. The interview with Ayalon began in one corner of the hotel’s halls and was attended by one of his aides and the media affairs consul at the embassy.
The text of the interview is as follows:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Let us begin by what Israeli media outlets have reported about a letter from the British Foreign Office that you carry in your pocket to protect you from arrest by the judicial prosecution in Britain concerning the war crimes in the Gaza Strip.
[Ayalon] It is not a letter in the literal sense.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But your media outlets affirm that it is a letter signed by British Foreign Affairs Secretary David Miliband that you as well as the members of the delegation accompanying you carry in your pockets.
[Ayalon] We hope Britain would solve this problem as soon as possible, as did Spain, Belgium, and other western countries. We have been made promises concerning this. The laws in Spain and Belgium have been amended and we are confident the same thing will happen in Britain so that we would forestall the terrorists that are trying to exploit these laws in the democratic countries.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But who is leading the campaign against the Israeli leaders responsible for the war in Gaza? It is not the terrorists; it is renowned lawyers, including Jewish lawyers like Daniel Machover. I do not think it is your opinion that Machover is a terrorist.
[Ayalon] There are those that are trying to exploit the democracies; we should deter them.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have recently been quoted as saying that peace with the Palestinians is the first priority of the current Israeli government. Are you really convinced of this or are these mere statements to the media? Is this is indeed the case, why is Israel stalling in reaching an agreement?
[Ayalon] Yes, we are convinced of peace with the Palestinians on the basis of the two-state solution as enunciated in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s speech in June. However, everything should take place through unconditional negotiations.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But you are asking for a return to square one, or rather square zero, rather than a return to the point where the negotiations between Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in December 2008. Is this not a precondition?
[Ayalon] Olmert was not authorized to hold negotiations, especially in the last months of his government. He did not even involve his Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni (the leader of the Kadima Party and currently in the opposition) in the negotiations. Furthermore, they were not serious negotiations; Olmert could not have signed anything in his last days as prime minister. I am saying that we as a rightist government or a right of center government can carry out what we sign on. History attests to this fact. The presence of such a government that includes the Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu (Russian Jews), the Labor Party, and Shas (of the religious eastern Jews) is an opportunity that must not be missed to reach an agreement.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you as a government and Yisrael Beiteinu Party accept to discuss all the essential and major issues, including Jerusalem, the refugees, water, the border, and other such issues without setting conditions?
[Ayalon] We do not set conditions as long as the Palestinians do not set conditions, such as ceasing settlement building activities.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Regarding the issue of settlement building activities, why do you not stop it as a sign of good intentions to resume the negotiations if you are concerned for peace? This is especially true since the assumption is that the settlements or most of them will be removed as part of peace agreement.
[Ayalon] This is unfair.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How is it unfair?
[Ayalon] Asking Israel to stop settlement building activities is like saying why do the Palestinians not say that they will concede the right of return of the refugees. [It is unfair] because it is untrue and unrealistic.
[Al-Salih] But there is no room for comparison. In accordance with international law, these are settling in occupied lands, but the refugees were expelled from their homes and the United Nations and UN resolutions admit this fact.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] I believe that considering the settlements as an obstacle to peace is exaggerated. We have shown in the past that settlements do not influence results. Examples of this are the withdrawal from the Sinai Desert; the dismantling of the Yamit settlement that was carried out by Sharon himself; and the decision made by Sharon’s Likud government to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and dismantle the settlements. This decision was made in August 2005.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you saying that the settlements will not be an obstacle and can be dismantled within the framework of peace process as happened in Gaza and the Sinai?
[Ayalon] They will not be a problem if there is a good settlement.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What do you mean by a good settlement?
[Ayalon] I mean a settlement by which the two states (Israel and Palestine) enjoy security and stability and live side by side in security, harmony, cooperation, and coordination.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is not the issue of Israel’s security exaggerated? Are you really convinced that the Palestinians pose a security and military danger to Israel that may lead to its destruction?
[Ayalon] Look at Gaza. We left it completely in 2005 and the Jewish complexes there were dismantled. Then came Hamas with guns and rockets and began to shell us. Imagine such a situation in the West Bank, God forbid.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But even the rocket shelling from Gaza does not constitute a danger to Israel’s security and existence. Why exaggerate?
[Ayalon] We do not wish to give any side the chance to return to such events or even to contemplate such events. We want to reach an agreement to end the problem completely and irreversibly, including the historic demands (the Palestinian demands for a return to historic Palestine).
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In the most recent interview held with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas in December, he literally said and in English: We will drop all the historic demands in Palestine and we will end the conflict completely.
[Ayalon] I am glad to hear that because he will find that we understand and we will make concessions.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some are saying that the statements being made show that the Israeli Foreign Ministry is exchanging roles with the Defense Ministry. Fiery statements are being made by the foreign minister while calm statements are being made by the Defense minister. In other words, the Foreign Ministry has become more radical and militaristic than the Defense Ministry.
[Ayalon] No, no, no; this is not true.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s statements on war with Syria and overthrowing the Syrian regime attest to my words. Meanwhile, Defense Minister Ehud Barak is focusing on the need to negotiate with Syria.
[Ayalon] You should Read Mr. Lieberman’s statement in context; it was in response to radical and provocative statements made by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem. Al-Muallem said: “Do not test Syria’s resolve, O Israelis. You know that at this time a war will reach your cities. Go back to reason and follow the road to peace that is clear and abide by the requirements of a just and comprehensive peace.”
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But Lieberman is known for his radical statements even before he became foreign minister. I recall his threats to destroy the Aswan Dam in Upper Egypt and to bomb Tehran.
[Ayalon] That was many years ago.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But people do not forget and statements cannot be forgotten. It is also said that Danny Ayalon is “the least radical” in the ministry and is an acceptable figure on the international level; that is why he is the one, not Lieberman, that makes these visits abroad.
[Ayalon] (Laughs) No, no, no; that is not true at all; he travels more than I do. He has visited Germany and Poland. We work well together. I would like to quote his words: I am prepared to leave my home (in Nokdim settlement near Bethlehem, south of the West Bank) if genuine peace is achieved. He is a man that keeps his word.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will you – as Yisrael Beiteinu Party – accept the outcome of negotiations regardless of what they are and will work to implement them?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You are saying that the Israeli government is committed to peace?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Peace that includes withdrawal from the West Bank and Jerusalem with the possible of exchange of land?
[Ayalon] I do not wish to talk about specific points because I do not want to pre-judge the Israeli position. At the same time, our position depends on the Palestinian stand also.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But the Palestinian side has nothing to offer more than it is has already offered.
[Ayalon] Let me tell you: In its final statement, the Fatah sixth congress – that we helped convene last summer – talked about resistance (he pronounced it in Arabic) and the culture of resistance. Such words are not compatible with the spirit of peace. We wanted to a clear voice calling for peace, but this did not happen. Moreover, Fatah’s constitution still includes the paragraph on Israel’s removal. There is also the issue of incitement in the books and the mosques. More important than this, if we are to accept the Palestinians’ right to self-determination, they should accept our right to self-determination in a Jewish state.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What do you mean when you talk about a Jewish state? What is the form of such a state? Do you mean expelling the Arabs?
[Ayalon] People should understand that Judaism is not only a religion; it is a national and ethnic identity and a way of life.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You cannot convince me that the way of life of a European Jew is similar to that of a Yemeni Jew or an Ethiopian Jew or an Iraqi Jew.
[Ayalon] It is almost the same way of life.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] I have personally visited Jewish homes, including eastern Jews. I saw that the way of life is different.
[Ayalon] We have the same traditions. If you were to go to Shabat prayers and rites you will see that they are one.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But these are religious matters. The same religious rites exist in Pakistan as in any other Arab Muslim country, but one cannot say that a Pakistani or a Bengali has an Arab identity.
(One of Ayalon’s aides intervenes, saying we all speak the same language)
[Asharq Al-Awsat] That is not true; the language of the Falasha is different from the language of European Jews. That is why an immigrant to Israel goes through intensive language courses.
[Ayalon] Israel’s Jewishness does not mean that non-Jews cannot live in Israel and enjoy all rights and opportunities that are available to everyone.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But your party says that the Arabs in Israel should swear allegiance to Israel or else they have no rights.
[Ayalon] We say that we expect national solidarity like Israelis, Jews or non-Jews. They should also serve in the army. This applies not only on the Israeli Arabs but also on orthodox Jews. We shall not try to compel them using force. But we are saying if you enlist in the army you will enjoy the privileges of enlisting, perhaps a plot of land or free education. This applies to everybody, Arabs, Jews, and others, but if you do not do so you will not receive these privileges.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will this also apply on the orthodox Jews?
[Ayalon] This is what we are demanding; it is a draft decision that we will raise in the Knesset. We respect the Arabs as much as we want them to respect us. We have nothing against the Arabs. There is another thing that makes people call us all sorts of things, which are untrue. We are talking about the exchange of lands. We are saying why should we give the Arabs barren lands in the Negev Desert? Why do we not give them fertile land that is populated? The people will not be forced to leave their lands.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You are talking about the [Galilee] Triangle, the border strip adjoining the Green Line [Israel proper] that includes Arab villages, towns, and cities.
(In his interview, Abu-Mazin said that he it made clear to the Israelis that he totally rejects this idea and that if land is to be exchanged – the settlements in the West Bank – the lands that the [Palestinian] Authority [PA) should receive should not be distant from these areas)
[Ayalon] Yes, why not? If the Arabs in Israel say they are proud of their Palestinian identity, why are they not proud to be part of the Palestinian state? They do not lose anything by joining the Palestinian state. Moreover, this will be in the interest of the Palestinian state.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why?
[Ayalon] Because they are advanced economically and socially and can put their expertise to building the state.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Your call includes Umm al-Fahm, of course. But does it also include the city of Nazareth, the largest Arab city?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] And why not? If you want to get rid of the Arabs in Israel, let this include all the Arabs.
[Ayalon] I am talking about the areas where there is the logic of geographic contiguity. Any area close to the border can be included in this plan.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] And the city of Nazareth is close to the city of Janin (north of the West Bank).
[Ayalon] We do not wish to go into surgical procedures. What is more important is that the acceptance of this idea would send to the Jews messages of good intentions regarding peace. The result will be that the majority of the Jews would live in Israel and the majority of the Palestinians would live in Palestine. This is logical. I am saying this not because we want to get rid of them. We know that states become fragmented and divided on the basis of demographic division. Look what happened to the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. I believe that such a measure will reassure the Israelis about the demographic situation. It will also help the Palestinians without anyone being subjected to harassment. This is something to think about outside what is familiar. As I said, this will help the Palestinian state on the economic level. So, why not?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] I do not believe that the Palestinian state will have a shortage in population if the refugees are to return to it.
[Ayalon] Tell me, why do the people of Umm al-Fahm, the biggest Arab town in the Triangle, not want to vote in a Palestinian state?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] If you are prepared, let your generosity stretch to Nazareth in the northeast and even the city of Lod where there are Arabs.
[Ayalon] In Israel, about 18 percent of the population is Arab. Why does not the Palestinian state accept 18 percent of its population to be Jews?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Arabs are living on their land or on what is left of their lands on which Israel was established. As for the Jews in the Palestinian lands, they are living on lands that do not belong to them. They have no right there. They should leave these lands in accordance with the United Nations that established Israel. Let us move to your undiplomatic treatment of the Turkish ambassador in Tel Aviv. Do you not think that that behavior reflected some sort of arrogance and ingratitude?
[Ayalon] That is not true; but I did not mean to be arrogant and there was no intention to insult the Turkish ambassador. When I felt what I had done and the pain I had caused, I apologized personally to him in writing.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But the pictures were clear and identical to the words. You were sitting on a chair higher than that of the Turkish ambassador. You did not offer him any soft drinks and you did not raise the Turkish flag in accordance with diplomatic protocol. Not only that, but you also called in the press to see the insult with their own eyes.
[Ayalon] What happened with the Turkish ambassador was a technical mistake. It was not meant as an insult.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] If you do not characterize this kind of behavior as an insult, what is your understanding of an insult?
[Ayalon] I invite you to visit my office in the Knesset. You will find that there are two chairs in the office and in the other offices. One is higher than the other that is designed for guests. What happened was at a moment of expressing a protest. It was not intended as an insult and it was not supposed to be for publication.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But it was you that invited the media outlets to see your insult of the Turkish ambassador.
[Ayalon] This is not true. We brought in the cameras to take pictures for the occasion and the tape recorders were supposed to be off. But they were not so. I personally when I make a mistake I bear full responsibility and apologize. I am not afraid of admitting a mistake and I believe that others should apologize and bear the responsibility when they make a mistake.
(Ayalon has been cited as telling Television Channel 10 on 6 February: Israel refuses to be kicked around and attacked by any state without retaliating. If a state harms Israel, we will keep all our options open, including the expulsion of ambassadors. We do not wish to attack anyone or argue with anyone, but we will not be like a leaf blown in the wind.) The crisis erupted as a result of a Turkish Television show that showed men from Israel’s Mosad killing Palestinian children.