It’s like coming home," Daniel Ayalon told the hundred or so Jewish National Fund supporters gathered on Sunday at the Tenafly home of Diane and Barry Honig.
Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, now co-chairman of Nefesh b’Nefesh, told the crowd that he lived in Cresskill for four years during the 1990s while serving as a member of Israel’s permanent mission to the United Nations.
At a JNF parlor meeting on Sunday are, from left, former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Daniel Ayalon, hosts Diane and Barry Honig, and David Margules, co-president of JNF’s Delaware Region. Photo by Danny Tzour
Barry Honig, first president of the newly formed JNF board in Bergen-Passaic, introduced the speaker, noting that during Ayalon’s four-year tenure as ambassador, U.S.-Israel "strategic, political, and economic ties were deepened and expanded across the board."
Honig credited Ayalon with helping to secure the agreement for $10 billion in U.S. grants and loan guarantees to Israel and noted also that the ambassador who served as foreign policy adviser to Prime Ministers Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak and as chief foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon helped bring about an exchange of letters between President Bush and Sharon.
Ayalon said the situation in Israel today "is not that bleak," adding that "the Lebanon war dealt Hezbollah a heavy blow," killing about ‘5 percent of its forces and destroying many of its missiles "in the first 34 minutes" of the war. "We made the mistake of continuing without a strategy," he said.
Noting that "perception is stronger than reality" in the Middle East, Ayalon said, "We missed a golden opportunity to crush Hezbollah." Calling Dan Halutz, former chief of staff of the Israel Defence Forces, a "tragic figure," he said that Halutz who had previously served as commander of Israel’s air force had been named to the defense ministry by Sharon specifically for his air force expertise, which would be helpful should conflict arise with Iran. Halutz, criticized later for his handling of the Lebanon war, subsequently resigned.
"We lost the opportunity to send a message, to clip the wings of Iran," said Ayalon, adding that a different outcome would have changed the dynamics in the region, where it is now perceived that the United States and its allies are in retreat while Iran is expanding its sphere of influence. "In that sense, " he said, "the war was a failure."
Ayalon, who worked with Sharon to accomplish the disengagement from Gaza, said that the ongoing firing of Kassam rockets into the city of Sderot is the result of the "lack of deterrence" of Katyusha rockets during the Lebanon war, not a result of the disengagement. But Israel can deal with the terror in Gaza, he said, because "it is a well-defined area. We can control it."
The ambassador said he doesn’t see a real chance to make peace during this generation because the parties on the other side are either unwilling or unable to do it. Pointing to the "chaotic infighting" between Palestinian groups, he said, "We left Gaza so they could prove they could govern themselves . But they’re not doing it."
Calling Syria a "weak country," he noted that the rhetoric and saber-rattling from that nation have increased since the Lebanon war. He added, however, that "we can meet the challenge" posed by Syria. If that country were to provoke war, he said, it would be one that Israel could win "mano a mano" not like wars where terrorists are scattered among the civilian population.
Ayalon said that Iran, which he called "the most serious challenge to Israel and the entire Jewish people," must not be allowed to become a nuclear power. And despite that nation’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s contentions to the contrary, "it can be stopped," he said. While Iran is years away from having the ability to make a nuclear missile, he said, "we can’t let them reach the point of no return," when the country is independently able to produce the needed materials.
According to Ayalon, Iran might respond to harsh economic and financial sanctions. Pointing out that the country suffers from high inflation and a high rate of unemployment, he noted that "Iran is unpredictable" and that an unhappy populace could pressure the government to curtail its nuclear program. The U.N. resolutions have "worked somewhat," he added, "telling the world that Iran is ‘under watch,’" and causing countries looking to invest in that nation to have second thoughts. "It’s incumbent upon world leaders to ratchet up the pressure," he said.
In addition to confronting outside challenges, Israel must also strengthen its own society, said Ayalon. "There is fatigue in the political system and the social structure," he noted. Now in its 60th year, Israel needs a new vision of the future that "will rejuvenate her ideals and make people proud again," he said, adding that he would like to see an American-style government replace Israel’s "dysfunctional political system," where, he said, "we don’t give our leaders a chance to succeed."
In addition, he said, pointing to the increasing gap between "the haves and have-nots," developing the Negev and the Galilee should be a priority, and the government should allocate more funds to this effort.
"We must also rejuvenate aliyah," he said. "We have exhausted the potential from the former Soviet Union," which yielded 1.’ million new immigrants. Since the Israeli government cannot do this alone, he added, he would like to see the government help finance those organizations that are able to increase aliyah.
In a private interview with The Jewish Standard, Ayalon speculated that the result of the Lebanon war would have been different had Sharon still been at the helm of the Israeli government. "He was a statesman and a strategist," he said. "He would have handled it differently in terms of the military, goals, and strategy."
Repeating his assertion that the Gaza pullout was not responsible for current attacks on the area, he said that the Palestinians had clearly "failed the test" of self-government. "If they had succeeded, " he said, "then someday we could have talked about the west bank." But for now, he said, it would be "an absolute error to pull out" of that area.
Ayalon said the criticism of President Bush for not doing more is unfair, since "there was no one there [on the Palestinian side] to work with." He noted that even President Clinton, who put so much time and energy into the Camp David summit of ‘000, was not able to achieve peace in the region.
Despite his involvement in several failed peace initiatives, Ayalon remains an optimist. He is particularly hopeful that the Americans and Canadians he helps bring to Israel through Nefesh b’Nefesh will begin to make their voices heard in that country.
"Americans have never had a political voice in Israel," he said. "This could be a beneficial side effect of their making aliyah."