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The former head of Israel's domestic intelligence service on its security challenges


Security has been at the core of Israel since it was founded in 1948 as a refuge in the world for people who have been targets of oppression and genocide for centuries. The Hamas attacks of October 7 shook that view.

Ami Ayalon began his military service in 1963. He led Israel's navy and then Shin Bet, its domestic intelligence group, after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He joins us from Jerusalem. Thank you for being with us.

AMI AYALON: Thank you for hosting me.

SIMON: The attacks of October 7 were savage. Did they also represent an intelligence failure?

AYALON: It's a political failure. It's an intelligence failure. And it is operational military failure. I can give a lecture of about - I don't know - one week on all these subject. But I think that, in a nutshell, Israel, after the 7 of October, is a different Israel - and in every aspect.

SIMON: How so, sir?

AYALON: First of all, the level of fear - you mentioned the fact that, you know, Israel was created on the basic assumption that we are looking for security. And you mentioned the fact that this was one of the cornerstones of this building since '48. No, it was the cornerstone of the Zionist movement - since the end of the 19th century. And if you ask an Israeli, he will tell you that we are fighting for 140 years and not only during the last 75 years. So I think that the main debate among Israelis is how to fight Hamas, and what should we do in Gaza?

SIMON: Well, let me turn the questions on you, and let's begin with Gaza. Do you have concerns about an Israeli ground operation in Gaza?

AYALON: All what I can say, from my experience, when we speak about war, we know when and how it start. We shall never know how and when it will end. This is not another round of violence - you know, the rounds that we used to see during the last 15 years since Netanyahu came to power. This is a war. And Netanyahu promised us that he will destroy Hamas.

Now, the way I understand Hamas - and I studied Hamas for many years - Hamas is not only his military capability and not even his political leadership. Hamas is an ideology. And the only way to destroy an ideology is to present another ideology. And in my case, I think that the only ideology that can compete and can even prevail when they will face the ideology of destroying Israel - this is the ideology of Hamas - is to present a political horizon, which means, finally, we should say that the way to see Israel safe and maintaining our identity as a Jewish democracy is to create a reality of two states - Palestinian state and a Jewish state.

SIMON: Are you concerned that all the civilian casualties in Gaza - will that just create more sympathy for Hamas?

AYALON: Yes, of course. Hamas is perceived - and this is a major, major problem. Hamas is perceived as the only ideology that is fighting for Palestinian freedom and the end of occupation. Since diplomacy failed - and when I say failed, you know, Oslo agreement collapsed. And the responsibility is on the shoulders of all of us. We made many mistakes. Palestinians made many mistakes. And I can elaborate on it, but it is history.

So unless we shall create a political horizon - that Israelis and Palestinians will believe that although, in the past, we did not succeed with the support of the international community led by America, it is possible. The reality today enable America to take a leadership role and to lead Saudi Arabia and the Arab countries to put the Arab Peace Initiative on the table and to tell all the players, look, we can and we want to change the reality in the Middle East. It will take years. But finally, the goal will be to create a reality of two states. This is a precondition in order to bring Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Jordan and all the axes that will face Iran, terror and instability in order to shape the new Middle East.

SIMON: Ami Ayalon, former head of Israel's domestic intelligence service, Shin Bet, thank you very much for being with us.

AYALON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.