Interview: Daniel Ayalon
As Israel’s ambassador to the United States from 2002 to 2006, Daniel (“Danny”) Ayalon, 52, was one of the architects of Israeli-American friendship and cooperation that flourished over those years. He has also served as foreign policy adviser to three Israeli prime ministers. To help promote aliya, in 2007, he became cochair of Nefesh B’Nefesh, the organization that has sparked a threefold increase in North American aliya over the past five years.
Q. Now that the constraints of diplomacy are behind you, what is your frank take on President Bush?
A. I really admire him. I see him as a personal friend but also a real friend of the Jewish people and of Israel. I know it’s not very popular to praise him but I think history will be kinder to him than many imagine today. He acts upon principles and sound policies and has the courage and the vision to carry them through. We live today in times of great conflicts and crises where any euphemism or political correctness is dangerous. Just think: Had Churchill been politically correct in the ’30s, where would we be today, where would Europe be?
Q. How does this relate to global terror?
A. I tie it tightly to international terrorism. The Western world has endured two major catastrophes in the past 70 years. One was the war against Nazism and the second was the war against Communism. Now we face the war against terrorism, which is inspired and carried out by extreme Islamists—extreme Sunnis such as the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia and Al Qaeda [and] extreme Shi’ites, including the ayatollahs in Iran, and Hezbollah. Though theologically somewhat different, they have the same aim—to convert the world to Islam…. The president was one of the first to realize this threat, and he stood up courageously [and tried] to arrange an international coalition. As time goes by, more and more countries will understand and join this. Look at the sea change that happened only this year in France.
Q. What about Bush’s prosecution of the war in Iraq?
A. If you look back to March 2003, the major danger in the Middle East was Saddam Hussein, not only because of all of the data by most intelligence services in the world but also by his actual track record. Whether it was in the 1980s at the start of the eight-year war with Iran and the invasion of Kuwait or his documented support of terrorism, he was the primary destabilizer in the Middle East. I believe the decision regarding Iraq [in 2003] was correct.
I have an issue with how it was carried out. The initial military campaign was brilliant, but later on there were many mistakes. First and foremost was disbanding the Iraqi Army. We are all living through the mistakes and paying the price even now. Some say that by taking on Iraq, we missed the real [threat], which was Iran. Not at all. Not taking care of Iraq, the president would have had twin problems, Iran and Iraq, which would have made it a much more complicated situation…. And Iraq, we know, already had nuclear know-how in 1981, so it would have been much more dangerous and much more complicated.
The situation in Iraq must be stabilized, which I think can be done more effectively with a coalition of regional powers who have a great stake in stabilizing that country. Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region must help play this role.
Q. Can a nuclear Iran be prevented?
A. Absolutely…. I tell you it is not ordained by God…that Iran will become nuclear. There are many ways to stop them—economically, through political isolation and other pressures….
Q. Do you believe Iran is the emerging power many people make it out to be?
A. Iran is not a very strong country. In many ways it reminds me of the defiant Soviet Union during the final years. It was thought to be invincible, yet it collapsed from within. With 40-percent unemployment, with no sophisticated economy to speak of—true they have some cash because of the windfall of the oil revenues, but that is not enough—[Iran’s] crunch is coming. You see how greatly they are affected by the sanctions that have already taken place. Not enough, but you can see it clearly.
Q. Will political persuasion do the trick?
A. I am not sure how much political isolation they can survive. It is vital to continue to delegitimize the ayatollah regime in the eyes of the population that lives there.
Q. What if isolating them doesn’t work?
A. There is a lot that can be done if the international community really works together in concert. Will the drive toward nuclearization be stopped? I think so. I believe that with new revelations coming on a daily basis from Iran, from [President] Ahmadinejad, more and more of even the strongest skeptics understand the danger. I look at France’s new foreign minister [Bernard Kouchner], who recently stated that Iran should stop, and if they don’t stop, a military operation [might] have to take place to stop it. Just a few years ago, there were many who believed Iran could not be stopped and therefore there was little choice but to work with them, using the model of the cold war. Mutually assured destruction with an evil empire was perhaps the path that rational Western people needed to adapt. Yet the Soviets were not die-hard ideologues who viewed death and suicide as acceptable ways to advance their goals. Moreover, there are so many other ramifications that would arise from a nuclear Iran controlling oil prices and the free flow of energy. They could start a nuclear arms race; it would be the end of the world order as we know it.
Q. You had many options open to you—business, politics—after you concluded your term as ambassador in Washington. Why did you decide to join Nefesh B’Nefesh?
A. Out of real concern for Israel’s future. The future lies with the genuine alliance between our Jewish state and Jewish communities worldwide, especially the one in America. The challenges are weighty from many points of view: demographic, economic, national interest, cultural. Yet, all these lead to aliya, which is not only the essence, the epitome of Zionism, but it’s also the best insurance policy we have for Israel’s security, well-being and, indeed, the nation’s future. [And] not just Israel’s future, but also that of the Jewish people.
Q. How has Nefesh B’Nefesh achieved such dramatic results so quickly?
A. The most important thing is reigniting the spark of aliya. Nefesh B’Nefesh and its founders Tony Gelbart and Rabbi Joshua Fass…understand that Zionism is…alive and well in the most flourishing Jewish community in the world [outside Israel], which is the United States. And once they understood that…they created a winning formula to combine this idealistic dream with the pragmatic steps required to make the complicated aliya process successful [because there are] many challenges when they consider moving themselves and their families [to Israel].
Q. So what do you do to make it all work?
A. We alleviate almost all the key pressures. We help the newcomers in terms of employment and education for the kids and minimizing red tape. We help them build a network and support system socially and economically. In a few brief years, we have brought 12,500 people; 20,000 more are already on the waiting list. We are confident that in very few years, 100,000 North American Jews in Israel will be a reality.
Q. What is impeding a larger aliya?
A. [Lack of funding] is the only thing that is holding it up. The question is, will it be resolved in one or two years or longer? The 20,000 on our waiting list we could readily bring in the next two years, even less time. Our infrastructure [in Israel] can effectively handle 10,000 olim a year. If we bring only 3,500, it is because we only have money for 3,500. When we raise more money, we can bring 10,000 a year.