Ambassador Danny Ayalon is an Israeli diplomat, columnist and politician. He served as Deputy Foreign Minister and a member of Israel’s Knesset. He served as Israel’s Ambassador to the United States from 2002 to 2006. He frequently writes in Israeli and international newspapers, notably in The Jerusalem Post and The Wall Street Journal. In the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Amb. Ayalon worked to expand Israel’s social media diplomacy by helping the ministry maintain over 100 Facebook pages, including “Israel speaks Arabic.” inFOCUS Editor Shoshana Bryen spoke with him recently.
inFOCUS: Israel is turning 70; it’s also 3,000 years old. How do you as an Israeli, particularly one who represented Israel abroad, feel aboutPresident Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital?
Amb. Danny Ayalon: Israel is 3,000 years old as a nation, starting when King David established sovereignty over the land of Zion – Judea, Samaria, and of course Jerusalem. We are 4,000 years old as a people, starting when Abraham came to the land and started us as a people. Every inch of the land shows 4,000 years of rich Jewish culture, civilization, and presence. Israel was reestablished as a modern state 70 years ago. The terminology is very important in the age of political warfare that the Palestinians are waging against us.
We are very proud. We have a thriving, dynamic country in so many fields: agriculture, high tech, education, now even energy. Israel is very strong militarily and economically – and culturally as well. But there was always this travesty – that our historical, natural capital was not recognized by the other nations. We are the only country that is discriminated against in this area.
President Trump not only did the right thing, the moral thing, the politically correct thing, he made a very historic move. For that he will forever be appreciated by the Jewish people.
I believe that following this, many other countries will join suit. We already know that Guatemala is going to put its embassy in Jerusalem on the same day, Israel’s Independence Day. I hear also some other countries in Latin America, and hopefully the other continents will do the same. This is very, very significant. As the president said, it just recognizing the obvious. When people ask why President Trump moved the American embassy to Jerusalem, it’s the wrong question. The question is why did it take so long?
iF: President Trump also cut funds from the U.S. contribution to UNRWA. Essentially, he told the Palestinians, “You have to make changes in how you do things in order to have this money.” That’s new for the United States. Would you talk about how negotiations – if there are ever going to be any with the Palestinians – could be structured; what the Palestinians would have to do to make it worth doing; and whether or not you think it’s possible to talk to them at all?
Amb. Ayalon: That’s a very good question; especially given the very intractable Palestinian position. Not only of Hamas; Hamas openly says that its goal is to destroy the Jewish state. The Palestinian Authority (PA) and its parent organization, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), do not say in so many words, but when you check and judge their actions in terms of glorifying terrorists, financing them, and encouraging them to kill Jews – and look at their school curriculum, where they teach their children that they must claim the entire land. Not just Judea and Samaria, but also the Negev and the Galilee and everywhere else – they are refusing to accept and recognize Israel as the Jewish State.
All these things, of course, are very, very troubling. They are not prepared for peace; basically, they’re not even prepared to build their own state. More than they want to build their nation, they want to destroy ours. Of course, we will never let them do that. In terms of whether they are capable of running their own affairs in a responsible, accountable way, I’m not sure at all. If it wasn’t for the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] presence in Judea and Samaria, I am not sure that the Palestinian Authority would even last one day. What happened in the Gaza Strip in 2006, 2007, after their elections? Hamas overpowered the Palestinian Authority in one day.
The same thing would happen in Judea-Samaria without our presence there. It is clear they are not ready. And running prematurely to set up some kind of independent entity for the Palestinians would end up with the same terrorist state – prey to ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Hamas. And, of course, to Iranian influence as well. Then, it will become a launching pad. Not only against Israel, but also against all the other Arab countries. I’m not sure that there is much desire among the Arabs for a Palestinian state. Of course, the rhetoric is, for obvious reasons, different.
As for UNRWA, it is unique. All refugees – we’re talking about millions of refugees in the world today – are all handled by one organization, UNHCR [the UN High Commission on Refugees].
But there is one organization, UNRWA, specifically dedicated to Palestinian refugees. This is part of the political war against Israel, the result of the automatic Arab majority in the UN, which really renders the organization a rubber stamp for the Palestinians. UNRWA, unfortunately, unlike UNHCR, does not help any refugees resettle. Quite the contrary. UNRWA has perpetuated refugee status through the generations – which is contrary to international law. According to international law, second generation displaced people who are born in a host country are to have all the civil and human rights, naturalization, and everything else that enables them to become a citizen of their new state.
iF: Which is why Arabs who remained inside the state of Israel are not refugees; they’re citizens of Israel.
Amb. Ayalon: Absolutely. The outrage here is that we’re talking about third and fourth generation “refugees.” They’re not refugees. When you talk about the “right of return,” in reality, there is no right and there is no return. The refugees are kept in really inhumane or poverty-level conditions in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and others. The outrage is that even under the control of the Palestinian Authority in Judea and Samaria, or whether it’s Gaza under Hamas, they still keep them in refugee camps.
Palestinians keep those Palestinians in refugee camps, although they receive billions of dollars to rehabilitate them. It is obvious that they keep these poor refugees as pawns and use them to delegitimize Israel; to claim what’s euphemistically called the “right of return.” As I said, there is no right in terms of return. And it shows you again the irresponsibility of Palestinian leadership. In order to further their objective of destroying Israel, they’re willing to subject their own people to that misery.
iF: You are a diplomat. You’ve worked to establish good relations with Israel’s neighbors. I want to ask you first about two with whom you have peace – Egypt and Jordan – and then about countries that you work with where you don’t have formal recognition – such as Saudi Arabia and Oman. Can you talk to me about how Israel operates today with Jordan and with Egypt?
Amb. Ayalon: Yes. relations have never been better because of our mutual interest in security, in fending off terror attacks, which are designed to destabilize the sitting regimes in Cairo and in Amman – turning them into extreme ones, under the Muslim Brotherhood, which is, of course, the umbrella organization of Hamas. We work very well with the Jordanian and Egyptian governments. Also, these two countries now are getting Israeli natural gas. The gas arrangement has been in place with Jordan for quite some time. A few weeks ago, a major deal – $16 billion – for energy supplies was signed between Israel and Egypt. Israel supplies Jordan with water also. Relationships are developing very, very well. Unfortunately, the population there still is still quite hostile to Israel because there is incitement in the media and in schools.
iF: Do you see any chance that a country like Saudi Arabia will ultimately have open relations with Israel? Peaceful relations?
Amb. Ayalon: Unfortunately, no. The Saudis are very mindful of what we call “the sentiment of the street.” This is what the Palestinians have been doing through the years; they very much control the sentiment of the Arab street through their incitement. Just as they tried to topple of the regime of King Hussein in 1970 and Lebanon in 1980, they threaten any regime that would openly recognize Israel. I am afraid that the Persian Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia will be very careful before they move and bring this relationship into the open. But, the Middle East is changing as we speak. What was unimaginable five or ten years ago may be imaginable today. I do hope that the Saudis and other countries will realize that they can gain much more than they lose.
iF: You mentioned Iran as the reason that the Persian Gulf countries see Israel as part of the solution, and part of their security. Can you talk about Iran in Syria?
Amb. Ayalon: First of all, Israel was right to draw its two red lines. One is against the Iranians allowing their proxies in Syria to establish their military outposts, and military bases, near Israel’s borders; and, of course, weapon and missile arsenals. The second is delivering to Hamas weapons that we will not tolerate, including longer-range missiles with much more accuracy and heavier payloads than they have now. Iran, contrary to what we were told by all the supporters of the Iran [nuclear] deal in 2015, did not become more tame or responsible, or more open to the international community. Quite the opposite.
Since the deal and lifting sanctions, Iran is much more bold and brazen. It has much more money and has opened relations with many more countries. This allows it to pour money into its illegal missile program and into terrorism throughout the Middle East and beyond. Iran has to be watched very carefully. Iran is a threat, first and foremost, to its neighbors, the Gulf countries. Iran wants to become the leader in the Middle East of all the Arab countries and, of course, to control the Gulf oil. Second, it is a threat to us. The mullahs have said openly that they would like Judaism to be destroyed.
And they have not given up their nuclear ambition. The Iran deal contains a sunset clause – which means that eight years from today the Iranians are no longer obligated by the agreement. This is something that has to be corrected. The other thing that has to be corrected and interjected into a new deal is that they will not be allowed to continue ballistic missile testing.
iF: If you’re Iran, you’re happy today because you have burgeoning trade with the Europeans, and money, and all the rest. But if you’re Iran, when you look at Israel and red lines in Syria, do you believe Israel? Or do you think you’re safe?
Amb. Ayalon: If I were them, I would believe Israel without question.
They’re coming closer, very close, to our borders, to our airspace. You know how we responded to the intrusion into our airspace. We will continue to do that in a very effective way. Iran, you know, is very, very smart and, in a way, cautious. They would fight to the last terrorist, to the last Afghan, to the last Hamas terrorist. But they are very careful not to engage their own forces. They know that unlike perhaps most of the Arab countries in the region, Israel has the ability to defend itself by itself, and the repercussion for Iran from an open and direct confrontation with us would be devastating for them. My take is that they will continue to encroach, especially with proxies, but they will not do it themselves. If they make that mistake, they will leave us no choice but to defend ourselves.
iF: Russia seems to have a pretty good sense also of Israel’s red lines in Syria and seems to agree with them generally. Can you talk about Israel’s relationship with Russia, which seems to be much stronger now than it used to be?
Amb. Ayalon: Absolutely. I think Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deserves all the credit. The relationship he has developed with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is very instrumental; Putin understands our red lines. Also, from a geopolitical point of view, Russia and Iran’s interest diverge when it comes to post-civil war Syria. Certainly, Russia would not want to see Syria fall prey to Iranian influence entirely. Russia has too much to lose, and too many investments. In that respect, I don’t think it should be too surprising that they acknowledge our interest there, and that they look the other way when we do what we need to do in Syria.
iF: I was recently on The Truth About Israel website – where you figure prominently. I watched the videos and they’re really wonderful. Can you talk about ways, both through that website and other ways, that you can reach people so they understand the fundamental truths about Israel? Are these videos well seen? Are there other things Israel needs to be doing?
Amb. Ayalon: I’m very proud of The Truth About Israel (www.TheTruthAboutIsrael.org) because the videos have been seen by millions and millions of people. I didn’t realize how fast they move. Today, most people get most of their information through social media. In that respect, it’s very important to have not only a presence, but to level the playing field for information dominance. A while ago, the Palestinians, with their collaborators, controlled the social media. Now we give them a good fight.
My objective is that anyone who Googles the words Israel or Jewish State or Palestine, arrives at our website. The more shares, the more likes, the higher our website will go. People will get ours, not a Palestinian website. So, if I can ask your readers – the more they share and ask their friends to share with others – the better we become at countering the lies of the Palestinians, keeping the record straight, and basically telling the truth about Israel and the Jewish people. The more we do that, the closer we are to winning the political war.
Thetruthaboutisrael.org. Go there. Look at different sections. There is the truth about Jerusalem; the truth about apartheid; the truth about refugees; the truth about the West Bank; the truth about settlements; the truth about the UN and many, many other core issues.
Israel and its friends have to be present on American college campuses and in the classic media, but that was actually the driving force to begin using social media. I realized that I would never have the resources to be present on 4,000 campuses. So, I thought, why not reach students on their keyboards? Or on their iPhones and iPads? Before even they get into the campuses. It has been very successful.
iF: At the same time, I know that you are present on a lot of campuses, and in a lot of places, speaking about Israel. What are the two or three questions that are most often asked of you? First, by Jewish audiences. What do they want to know? Secondly, what are the questions most often asked by non-Jews?
Amb. Ayalon: Non-Jews ask, “Why don’t you free Palestine?” Here I have to bring up BDS [the boycott, disinvestment, sanctions movement]. Unfortunately, many, many, I think misguided Jews joined BDS thinking it was a way to influence and change Israel’s policies on settlements or whatever. This is not the aim of the BDS movement. It was formed by Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian activist. The aim is not to change Israeli policy, but to destroy Israel. The battle cry of BDS is “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.
When I’m asked by non-Jews, “Why don’t you free Palestine?” I answer, “What do you mean? Was there ever a Palestinian state?” “Of course,” they say. Then I ask them, “If you think there was a Palestinian state in history, can you name a Palestinian king, or president, or ruler? Or any Palestinian leader before the age of television, or 1967?” Of course, they cannot.
Very basic facts are not known. Of course, not only are they not known, they are being manipulated and erased by the Palestinians. By university faculty, also. There’s a lot of very bad history in American universities.
From Jewish audiences, the question is more in the field of human rights. Are we not infringing on Palestinians’ human rights with roadblocks and taking their land, and all that? Here, of course, the answer is really very simple. There wouldn’t even be one check point or roadblock had it not been for Palestinian terrorism. We can show, in a scientific way, that every time we remove a roadblock, there is terror in that place.
I’m asked a lot about the security fence. Some call it, of course, the “apartheid wall.” This is again Palestinian propaganda. I tell them, “This extra defense was put there only after our presence there for 40 years. We put it there as a response to the suicide bombings. And it works.” The fact is that since we have the fence, we keep most of the terrorists out. Again, we have very, very good answers to all the questions.
iF: Maybe the best way to learn about Israel is to go to Israel. I understand that there is, first of all, increased tourism in general in Israel this year over last year. But also, a great many more tourists coming from places like China. What does that do for Israel’s relationship with China?
Amb. Ayalon: It is a great asset – for Israel, and for the relationship with any country, including China. Anyone who visits Israel, certainly for the first time, finds it an emotional experience. The Chinese have very deep respect for Jews, and the Jewish culture. Theirs is an ancient and cultured civilization just like ours, so, they respect us very much for our Nobel prizes and other achievements. We have many, many delegations from China, from Korea, from Japan that are looking for economic cooperation with Israel.
iF: What’s the best thing a tourist can do in Israel?
Amb. Ayalon: Tel Aviv was selected by Vogue magazine as one of three most fun cities in the world. When people come to Tel Aviv and they can enjoy culture, and music, and the beautiful beaches. By the way, National Geographic magazine also selected the beaches of Israel and Tel Aviv among the 10 best in the world. You can come to Israel for culture, for food, for recreation. But also, very important, you come for a spiritual experience; especially in Jerusalem.
iF: The beach first – spoken like a Tel Avivian. As we come to Israel’s 70th birthday, what is the most important thing that you want Americans to understand about Israel? About your life, your politics, all the wonderful things that Israel is? What do you want us to know?
Amb. Ayalon: What’s important to understand is that Israel, with all it great achievements, still faces an existential threat. And what people should know is that we will defend ourselves by ourselves; nobody will do the job for us. We know what happened to our people in 2,000 years of exile, when we were not home. This is not unique to us. Any people that does not have the capability to defend itself – whether it’s the Syrian people, or in Rwanda, or Bosnia – those people are afraid of aggression and there is no remedy or help from the “international community.” The international community is very hypocritical, it is cynical, it is ineffective. If it gets there at all, it is too little too late.
This is the most important thing; defense. That we have a home now, back in our homeland.
Second, the fact that Israel is vibrant and thriving is an asset for Jews all over the world. I don’t think any Jewish community, anywhere in the world, would be able to live as securely now without the State of Israel. This has to be understood. All of us, whether we are Jews who live in Israel, or Jews who live anywhere else, we all have a stake in a very vibrant, and successful, and secure Israel.
But finally, we are vulnerable on the political front. Palestinians understand that they cannot win militarily. Thank God. They know that they cannot win through economic pressure; they tried and failed. So, they’re trying politically to isolate Israel and render it a pariah state. That’s a danger. Here, I believe, every friend of Israel everywhere can be an ambassador for the truth; an ambassador for Israel.
iF: That’s a great answer. Thank you for your your insights, on behalf of the Jewish Policy Center and the readers of inFOCUS Magazine.