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October 29, 2013

Release of Palestinian prisoners no threat, says former Shin Bet head

http://www.jewishjournal.com/israel/article/release_of_palestinian_prisoners_no_threat_says_former_shin_bet_head

Former Shin Bet head Ami Ayalon in Los Angeles on Oct. 27. Photo by Jared Sichel

Former Shin Bet head Ami Ayalon in Los Angeles on Oct. 27. Photo by Jared Sichel

Ami Ayalon, the former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service, says he’s not concerned, from a security perspective, about Israel’s scheduled Oct. 30 release of 26 Palestinian prisoners who had been involved in terror attacks.

In an Oct. 27 interview with the Journal in Beverly Hills, Ayalon did not endorse the release but said, “It does not present any danger.”

“Most of them are sitting in our jails more than 30 years,” he said. “They are not part of the present terror infrastructure.”

Israel agreed to the release as a pre-condition to participating in American-brokered negotiations with the Palestinians. More than 100 terrorists will be released in four groups over the planned nine-month duration of the talks.

Ayalon, who was also a commander in Israel’s navy and is a former Knesset member for the Labor Party, was in Los Angeles to raise awareness for the University of Haifa as part of the American Society of the University of Haifa’s inaugural gala at the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills on Oct. 27. He serves as chairman of the executive committee at the university.

He and Amos Shapira — former CEO of El Al and Cellcom and president of the university — sat down with the Journal on Sunday afternoon to discuss current events in Israel and their efforts at Haifa University.

Regarding possible upcoming negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the trim, fit Ayalon said he’s neither optimistic nor pessimistic.

 “I’m realistic,” Ayalon said, sternly and directly. “I don’t believe — and I hope I’m wrong — that negotiations will bring us any result.”

[Related: Palestinian prisoner release causes Israeli political stir]

An advocate for a disarmed Palestinian state residing next to the Jewish state, Ayalon has, in the past, said that Israel should stop new settlement construction in the West Bank and in Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem, and should also pay Israeli settlers to relocate out of the West Bank.

Although Ayalon said he sees social disunity as the biggest threat facing Israel — bigger even, than a nuclear Iran — the former navy admiral characterized Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons as a “major military threat.” But, he added, “We have the methodology in which we believe we can contain or we can face this threat.”

As to whether the United States would militarily back Israel in the face of a nuclear Iran, Shapira said, “We cannot expect that the United States will support Israel if it is not in the interest of the American people.”

But he added that a nuclear Iran would threaten America as well, so he trusts having American support.

Ayalon, who also spoke Oct. 28 during a breakfast event at The Mark for Events, hosted by the Southern California-Israel Chamber of Commerce (SCICC), pegged spring 2014 as a possible turning point in Israel.

“The spring of next year will be a very, very crucial moment, because during the spring of 2014, in a way, we synchronized the two ticking clocks or ticking bombs of our region,” he told the Journal, a point he repeated at the SCICC breakfast.

The two “ticking bombs” he referred to were negotiations with the Palestinians and the point at which he said the West will have to decide how to handle Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

Ayalon spoke relatively highly of his former Likud rival, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but cautioned passing judgment on his tenure until after his term, or at least until next spring.

“I don’t think that we can judge a politician before he finishes his term,” he said.

“Nobody can take from him the success that he achieved by putting Iran on the international table,” Ayalon added, referring to what he sees as Netanyahu’s political finesse in making Iran a major topic in America’s 2012 presidential elections.

Ayalon made no predictions as to what will happen in Syria, but said that the opposition to President Bashar Assad is no less dangerous to Israel than Assad.

“It’s several or endless kinds of groups with the ideology of the global jihad and al-Qaeda.”

At the Oct. 28 breakfast, Ayalon described for a crowd of about 40 local business leaders his vision of a somewhat united Middle East, a coalition that he thinks can only be formed if the Israelis and Palestinians are not at war — and one that would assist Israel and the United States in confronting Iran’s nuclear program.

“[The Israeli-Palestinian conflict] is probably the third or the fourth conflict or problem within the Middle East,” Ayalon said. “[But] the ‘Arab street’ believes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the major source of instability and hatred and violence in the region.”

Therefore, he said, Israel should do what it can to reach a deal with the Palestinians, and then form a coalition with Turkey and other Arab nations to face Iran. If Israel faces Iran alone, “the level of violence that we will face on the day after” will be immense,” he said.

“[But if] the attack is made by a regional coalition, supported by America, there will be violence, but we will be able to contain the violence.”

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