AMI AYALON / 1996-2000
was an outsider, brought to rehabilitate the Shin Bet in the aftermath of its most dismal failure—its inability to protect Prime Minister Rabin from an assassin’s bullet. As a young boy, Ayalon was raised on a kibbutz, where he excelled in soccer, even though he was thought to be “too short.” Friends sometimes say that because he was so short he felt a need to overcompensate by being in top physical shape.
Unlike his predecessors, Ayalon came to the Shin Bet directly from the military, where he was a decorated officer. As a young commando in 1969, he received the IDF’s highest honor, the Medal of Valor, for his role in the fabled Green Island Raid against an Egyptian military instillation. Though he was severely wounded in the assault, he returned to his Naval Commando unit and eventually became its commander. During the late 1970s and early 1980s he personally led teams of divers in numerous raids against Palestinian installations along the Lebanese coast. In 1992 Ayalon was made head of the Navy, with the rank of Major General.
The Shin Bet’s reputation was in shambles following the Rabin assassination, so Prime Minister Peres decided to bring in an outsider to help restore public confidence. Ayalon was his top choice for the position. Not only was he a beloved war hero; he was also a resilient and stubborn commander, with a reputation for being a straight-shooter. Forthright and even sharp-tongued, he would “tell it like it is,” regardless of whether he was addressing his subordinates or his superiors. Most of all he was a hard-edged veteran of Israel’s elite Naval Commandos.
Ayalon’s main goal as Head of Shin Bet was to increase security around the country’s leadership. Until Rabin’s assassination, Israel had been a very open society with relatively free access to politicians among all sectors of the population. An assassin’s bullet changed all that. The country’s leaders suddenly became targets and required layer upon layer of protection. Ayalon was charged with implementing this.
During Ayalon’s five-year tenure, he waged a relentless war against terror under three very different prime ministers: Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Ehud Barak. Yet though he is considered to be the most left-wing head of the Shin Bet, it was actually Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak for whom he reserved his sharpest criticism. When the Camp David talks collapsed in 2000, conventional wisdom assumed that Barak had offered Arafat everything, and that it was only the Palestinian leader’s intransigence that prevented them from reaching a peace treaty. Ayalon shattered this myth, claiming that Barak had arrived unprepared and hectored Arafat, instead of negotiating with him. Ayalon also claims that the Intifada was not planned by Arafat. He believes it was a popular eruption of longstanding frustration among the Palestinians.
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