When Israel's late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin asked Adm. Ami Ayalon to become the director of the Shin Bet--Israel's internal security agency--Ayalon turned him down.
As commander of Israel's Navy, Ayalon didn't want to switch careers midstream and join what he joked is "this funny organization that gets information on its citizens." But then, a year later, shortly after Rabin's assassination--19 years ago this week--Prime Minister Shimon Peres asked Ayalon once again to lead the security agency, and Ayalon said he could no longer refuse.
From 1996 to 2000, he served as director of the Shin Bet, where he was responsible for internal security issues in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza. He was one of six former heads of the Shin Bet featured in the 2012 Oscar nominated documentary The Gatekeepers, that addressed the challenges of Israeli rule in the West Bank.
He also has served as cabinet minister and as a member of the Knesset for the Labor Party, and received Israel's highest military honor, the Ribbon of Valor, for his part in the raid against Egyptian forces at Green Island in 1969. Currently, he is the chairman of the University of Haifa's Executive Committee.
On Monday, Nov. 3, Ayalon spoke at Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation headquarters on behalf of the American Society of the University of Haifa to a small group of Jewish community leaders active in the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC).
The University of Haifa, one of the leading universities in Israel, has a reputation of coexistence and harmony between Arabs and Jews on campus, with the largest number of Arab students at any university in Israel. He called the harmony an "Israeli mosaic," because it brings together unique pieces to create something beautiful and special as a whole.
It's at the academic level, in the universities--as opposed to in the labor market or in the military--where Arabs and Jews coexist, he said.
Ayalon said he joined the University of Haifa eight years ago to cultivate the school as a world leader in marine research, and deep water research in particular. He stressed the importance of marine research in Israel, "an island by strategic definition" because most of its imports and exports come by sea.
Outside of the walls of the university, he discussed Israel from a military versus societal perspective. He said he's confident in Israel's military, what he called "the most ethical military in the world." On the other hand, he said he frets about Israel's future as a society, one that has become increasingly divided ever since Rabin's death. "I ask myself what will be the future of Israeli society," Ayalon said. "…We jump to security and the military front, but we don't touch on society, on the home front."
Ayalon contrasted the new war on terror with past wars. "It's an ongoing combat, almost a way of life, and we don't know how to define victory," he said.
Israel's biggest political asset is that it's the only democracy in the Middle East, he said. He is hopeful about the future of Israel and said, while at the Federation building for the JCRC meeting, he passed the bust of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. "Herzl's dream," he said, "is in our hands."
For the podcast of Adm. Ayalon's remarks to the JCRC, click here.