One way to determine whether Israeli politicians are serious about wanting to become prime minister is to check how many times they’ve visited Los Angeles.
By that measure, Avi Dichter is very serious.
For Israelis running for office, Los Angeles is an ATM. You come, you speak, you hit up an extensive, deep-pocketed network of expats and Israel lovers.
Many years ago, one of those donors invited me to breakfast with a former minister at the Peninsula Hotel. I said I’d love to meet the man, but wasn’t his political career over? I now keep a picture of me at that breakfast with Ariel Sharon in my office to remind myself how wrong I can be.
Dichter, the former head of the Shin Bet and former minister of Home Front Defense under Prime Minister Netanyahu, has been here at least twice in the past six months.
Late last month, he spoke at a breakfast in the Beverly Hills home of Izak Parviz Nazarian, sponsored by the American Friends of the Citizens’ Empowerment Center in Israel (AFCECI) and IDB Bank. CECI is the only organization working to fix Israel’s dysfunctional and self-defeating electoral system.
There was no overt fundraising at the event. But Dichter spent little time discussing voting reform and much more time laying out the vision he thinks will capture the imagination of Israeli voters.
In person, Dichter is compact and barrel-chested. He has both the dead serious demeanor of a former commando and a penchant for telling some good Jewish jokes. Could it be a coincidence that he looks like a cross between Bibi Netanyahu and a younger Mel Brooks?
Dichter oversaw Shin Bet during the Al Aqsa Intifada and is widely credited with developing the aggressive counterterrorism techniques that put a stop to it.
As tough as that was, the situation Israel finds itself in today is even more complex.
“It’s an earthquake,” he said. “I don’t know what it would be on the Richter scale, but it’s a 9 on the Dichter scale.” Like I said, Mel Brooks.
Syria is shattered; Egypt is in tatters; and Iran is still actively meddling.
Into this steps Secretary of State John Kerry, who is engaged in what Dichter said are quite serious discussions to achieve a framework for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. I asked Dichter why Israel, at this point, should take any risks, given the region’s uncertainty.
“There is no way to solve our problems with another round of fighting,” he said. “There is going to be somehow, someday, a peace treaty.”
That said, Dichter is not optimistic that these talks will conclude positively. What would he do differently?
“In order to go forward,” he said, “you need to build trust.”
The subtext here is that Dichter, who speaks Arabic and has spent countless hours working with his Palestinian counterparts, is the guy to do it.
“Netanyahu and [Palestinian President] Mahmoud Abbas should open a secret channel of negotiations, like Peres did with Arafat under Rabin,” he told me. “That would be a path to building trust.”
Both Dichter and Bibi are in the Likud party, the Israeli “right,” though the left/right debate seems to have shifted from whether there should be a Palestinian state to how best to bring one about.
“You need peace for the sake of Israel,” Dichter told me. “Israel is 66. A country needs a border. When you don’t have a border, it’s not just a physical border you lack, but you don’t have [an] ideological border either.”
I pressed Dichter on what he meant.
“As long as it is not decided by the Israeli people and the Israeli government what the borders are, everyone can try to promote his own ideology. We need to decide on the State of Israel once and for all.”
But, I said, Palestinians think time is on their side. The BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement is squeezing Israel internationally, and Palestinians are achieving population parity between the Mediterranean and the Jordan Valley.
“It’s bull----,” Dichter shot back. International pressure will never convince an Israeli government to act against its own security interests, he said.
A report for The Times of Israel asserted that Dichter was the only cabinet minister to vote against the Sep. 6, 2007, Operation Orchard attack that took out a nuclear power plant in Syria.
If true, that would seem to give Israelis pause about Dichter’s own trustworthiness.
“It’s absolutely wrong,” Dichter told me. “It’s much more complicated. I knew exactly why the reactor in Syria should be destroyed. I was not against it. Israel should have a military option.”
I asked the man who helped crush the Second Intifada whether there could be, as many predict, a third one. He doubted it.
“Each intifada caused them a huge disaster,” Dichter said. “They might lose more assets.”
“Once we agreed to a two-state solution, it’s a dramatic change. They know they will have a two-state solution. They will have it by talking, or another way.”
When a former security chief says things like, “or another way,” you know the first way is better.
So, I asked, finally, is Avi Dichter going to try to be Israel’s next prime minister?
“If you shoot low and miss, you hit even lower,” Dichter said. “If you target high and hit low, you might just hit what you want. I target high.”