Q & A With Daniel Ayalon

The mid-August Israeli pullout from Gaza is fraught with risks and unknowns, but the Israeli government remains committed to “unilateral disengagement,” says Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to the United States. Ayalon spoke with The Journal about the reasons for disengagement, a policy he characterized as virtually inevitable and worth the sacrifice of the Israeli settlers who will have to leave their homes.

Ayalon, age 49, has served as Israel’s top diplomat in the United States since July, 2002. He played a leading role in negotiating the blueprint for a two-state solution known as the “Roadmap for Peace.” Prior to his U.S. posting, Ayalon was chief foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. From 1997 to 2001, he was deputy foreign policy adviser to former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Jewish Journal: To what extent was the government prepared for the protests and resistance to the pullout from Gaza?

Daniel Ayalon: The government has been prepared and, I think, is prepared. It wasn’t something that we did very cheerfully. We did foresee objections. We do empathize with the people. We’re talking about three generations, 8,000 people who made their lives there. It is very difficult to uproot.

But the prime minister had to make the decision because he knew this was the best course of action to take and the best way to strengthen Israel — politically, securitywise, economically and I also would say socially. And understanding that Gaza is not an asset but a liability.

JJ: What do you mean when you speak of Gaza as a liability?

DA: Everybody realizes that there was no future for a Jewish presence in Gaza. You have 1 million or 1.2 million Palestinians and 8,000 Jews. The numbers talk here. And from a historical or biblical point of view, I’m not sure that Gaza was part of our land in the past.

JJ: What history are you talking about? History covers a long time in this part of the world.

DA: The past of the Jewish people. Gaza as I recall was Philistine land. Back in March 1979, during the negotiation of the second Camp David accord between President Carter, Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, at that time Begin offered Gaza to Sadat and Egypt together with the rest of the Sinai peninsula.

So there was no great attachment to the Gaza, ever.

JJ: But there was a Jewish presence.

DA: Right, although strategically you cannot compare Gaza to Jerusalem, the Judean Hills, the Jordan River valley and all these areas.

JJ: Yet the Israeli government did allow and encourage these settlers to go to Gaza.

DA: Totally. They were sent by successive Israeli governments.

The first settlements there were built before the peace treaty with Egypt. So on the southern front we still had all these threats when Egypt was still the enemy. Egypt is no longer an enemy and the demography is also a factor. After all these years we have 8,000 people surrounded by these 1 million Palestinians.

[Years ago] you couldn’t really foresee the [future] developments. I can guarantee you: Had we had 1 million Israeli settlers in Gaza, we wouldn’t have left Gaza. If we had 500,000 Israelis, we wouldn’t have left Gaza.

JJ: How much does it cost Israel to protect the settlement region, Gush Katif, on an annual basis?

DA: Well, listen we had to keep there a division, about 20,000 troops. I would say it was quite costly. But the cost is not the factor. Protecting other areas is very costly as well. Strategically there is just no merit in staying there.

JJ: Of course, you could allow the settlers to stay, but inform them that they may soon become citizens of a Palestinian state.

DA: This is not realistic. No one was even contemplating this.

JJ: So you’re saying the settlements are a dead-end vestige of policies that, in the past, seemed to make sense. That doesn’t exactly make things easier for the settlers.

DA: We are very proud of the settlers’ achievements. I believe that their effort, their endeavors, were not in vain. And we applaud the achievements of the settlers over there. We do understand their pain.

It is incumbent on us, the government, to make sure the people who are losing what they’ve spent all their lives building will feel the least pain possible. And for that there are packages of compensation and other services that will be rendered and offered to the population there, from economic help to professional advice and placement, to psychological treatment as well. We try to prepare all of this.

JJ: You’re saying that all this upheaval is justified for the greater good of Israel.

DA: By doing the disengagement, by leaving Gaza, we have much strengthened our position in Judea and Samaria. Sometimes you come to a juncture when you have to make a choice and you have to look ahead. And you have to think of the global picture.

Disengagement is a very timely thing to do, the right thing to do for the people of Israel, and I hope for the region.

One more thing: This pullout did not follow an agreement with the Palestinians, but it followed something which is much more important, an agreement with the United States. Disengagement has to be viewed in the context of Israel-United States relations. It was enthusiastically endorsed by President Bush, and most in the international community are also accepting and endorsing it. Disengagement is something that creates a common agenda between us and the United States.

In support of disengagement, President Bush wrote a letter to Prime Minister Sharon reiterating his commitment to Israel’s security, and his commitment to strengthening Israel’s defense and deterrence capability. And President Bush went to an extent that no other president did talking about Israel living in recognized and defensible borders.

Not to mention that the American government now supports the realities on the ground. They do not expect us to return to the 1967 or 1949 lines, which is also a great asset. They don’t expect the Palestinian refugees to ever go back to Israel. That also is a great benefit that we have received because of the disengagement.

And we have received the political reassurance that the only road ahead is the roadmap to peace. The United States will not accept any other initiatives that are undesirable from any other quarter of the world. And there’s also a commitment to strengthening the Israeli economy. So all these factors are also very important in the decision to pull out from Gaza. Israel will be much stronger after the disengagement.

JJ: To what extent does the success of the pullout depend on the Palestinians?

DA: We would expect two things. First of all, during the disengagement, we would like to see that they make sure that terror doesn’t erupt. Toward that goal we have allowed them to move 5,000 security troops of the Palestinian Authority from the West Bank to Gaza. And we would expect they would create a perimeter or a buffer for our own troops, who would mostly be engaged with our own population, dealing with them and pulling them out — something that is not only excruciatingly painful but also very complicated.

If we encounter enemy fire and terror we will have to respond. And we will have to respond in a very decisive way because we will not allow them to pursue us as we move out. We will not allow even the perception of terror winning.

Secondly, we would expect the Palestinians to coordinate with us all the economic and civil affairs. For instance, we intend to leave most of infrastructure intact for the Palestinians to use, to create value for the Palestinian economy. For instance, there are greenhouses that could employ 8,000 to 10,000 people, which could sustain 100,000 or more Palestinians, about 10 percent of the population of Gaza.

After the disengagement, they will have to dismantle the terror infrastructure. They will have to disarm Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other terror organizations. They will have to arrest the fugitives and the known terrorists, break their cells and do it on a sustainable basis, so they can really come with us and negotiate on the roadmap. But the ticking bomb of Hamas is re-arming, re-grouping, recruiting new terrorists on a daily basis, and nothing is being done about it. The Palestinian Authority will have to take it head on if they want to be a viable partner for the future.

JJ: Isn’t there an argument for leaving intact the houses once occupied by Israeli settlers? Or at least letting the Palestinians make that decision?

DA: They have conveyed to us that they would prefer for those houses to be demolished because they are not suitable for Palestinian living because they are very expensive on land consumption. With the density of the population in Gaza, I think they would prefer high rises. Instead of 8,000 Israelis, they can inhabit this same area with tens of thousands of Palestinians.

We would like to see Palestinian refugees settled over there. It’s very unfortunate that throughout all these years, and certainly since the Palestinian Authority was created with Arafat in 1993, that they have not done anything to help their own refugees. Certainly they can move those refugees out of very miserable and inhumane conditions to new housing. Also by creating this housing, by building new housing, it can give a lot of immediate employment to the citizens of Gaza.

JJ: So how will the demolition be handled?

DA: The houses will be demolished by Israel. And the debris will be taken out by the Palestinians, who would not have to bear the costs for it. Israel is willing to participate in that cost. The international community should as well.

JJ: Some critics characterize disengagement as a defeat, as a retreat that will just encourage more violence and bring enemies who will never accept Israel’s existence closer to Israel’s doorsteps.

DA: I don’t think this is the case. We are leaving Gaza quite triumphant. Hamas was on the run. If you recall, we have taken on all its leaders, including Abdel Aziz Rantisi and Sheik Yassin. [Israel forces killed Rantisi and Yassin.] We really demolished all the infrastructure.

The reason the Palestinians have voted in a massive way for Abu Mazen is because he offered them a strategy of quiet and of doing away with terror. He has not really performed yet, but the terrorism did not further the Palestinians’ national interest. They have lost militarily. They have lost economically. They have lost in international legitimacy. And they have not done what they wanted to do, which is break the Israeli spirit.

Will terror spring out of Gaza? I doubt it. If it does, we will have all the legitimacy to respond in a very decisive way. And the Palestinians would want to see Gaza as a showcase. If they can govern Gaza in a responsible way, without terror, then they may have a case to start the roadmap and talk about other areas. If not, then nothing will be moving ahead.

JJ: Critics on the left say that even while Israel is withdrawing from Gaza, it is entrenching itself elsewhere in the territories and even expanding areas of control.

DA: Everything always depends on the performance of the Palestinians. If they will make good on their obligations in the roadmap: to dismantle the terror organizations, to complete their reforms, to create a viable entity with one rule of law and a monopoly over the military and the guns — then we can negotiate in good faith.

We cannot move forward to the second stage before the first stage is completed.

JJ: Is anything nonnegotiable, such as the status of Jerusalem, for instance?

DA: I repeat to you what Prime Minister Sharon said: Jerusalem is the one indivisible, united, eternal capital of Israel forever and ever.

JJ: Do you have a particular message for the Jewish community of Southern California?

DA: There is great compatibility between the American economy and Israel. In Israel, we’re talking about a very developed high-tech economy with a very well trained labor force that is also excelling in areas like entrepreneurship. We are proud to be the United States’ largest trading partner in the Middle East.

There are many American companies that are represented in Israel. And we would like to see more. I would like to see them look into business opportunities for joint ventures and investments. Now is the time to invest. Equity is still cheap in Israel. The growth is up and tourists are back. The economy is moving in the right direction. We are deregulating, changing the tax code, privatizing — so I think now is a good time to invest in Israel.

Also in your area I have met with many leaders in the entertainment industry. I have invited many of them to Israel and many of them did come. I would take this opportunity to [invite] actors and actresses to come to Israel, to discover Israel, and also to promote it.

JJ: Is there anything that could derail or postpone the pullout?

DA: I hope not. We are prepared to do it. And we are going to do it. We understand the demonstrations. We are a democratic country and they have the right to do it. But Israel also is a country with the rule of law. D-day will be Aug. 16, and we would expect the settlers to leave voluntarily. I hope most of them will. And those who will not, we will have to deal with them, very compassionately and with great patience. And just bring them back one by one.