TEL AVIV — If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict pushes you to despair, if you think there may be no way out, spend an hour with Ami Ayalon.
A small, hard-bodied man with the sheerest of buzz cuts, Mr. Ayalon has a warrior's résumé: former commando, former head of Israel's navy, and director of the country's internal intelligence service until last May. His security credentials include Israel's highest decoration for bravery.
Today he is a sort of an Israeli H. Ross Perot an intense man with a let's-just- fix-it approach who eschews conventional politics. He's high on the short list of Israelis who could emerge in the coming years, or even months, to lead the Jewish state.
In Ayalon's view, the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is out there, waiting, and the quicker the two sides get to it, the fewer people will die. "The agreement, or settlement, between the two sides is very clear ... to the two peoples. It is not obvious to the leaderships," he says.
A state of Israel and a state of Palestine, each with its capital in Jerusalem, is his starting point. The crux is this: "Both sides have to separate themselves from their dreams."
For Israelis, that means renouncing claims to the "Land of Israel" and removing most of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Palestinians must give up the idea of a Palestine that stretches from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea and accept that refugees will return only to the Palestinian state, not Israel.
After 18 months of open conflict, after more than 12 months of leadership by a hardline former general who seems unable to pacify the Palestinians by force, Israelis are increasingly showing disapproval of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The media is busy with speculation about who could be next.
"This country at the moment is searching for new leaders ... who sort of draw the interest and curiosity of people," says David Kimche, a former Israeli ambassador who is part of a group of former government officials and military officers that Ayalon also participates in. "He comes forward with possible solutions, and that is something everyone is looking for."
"There is a kind of vacuum of leaders," adds Avraham Diskin, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who is in many ways critical of Ayalon. "So a person who is so experienced, so honest, so impressive, so charismatic he definitely has potential."
Ayalon comes under fire for the appearance of turning on the establishment he once served. "I don't find it appropriate to attack the system and the people within it, with whom you worked until a half-second ago," observes Mr. Diskin. Others doubt his political viability and his ability to defend and sell his ideas should he ever mount a campaign for office.
In an interview, Ayalon doesn't get personal. He never refers directly to the incumbent prime minister. But he is unsparing in his criticism of the government's security policies. "The number speaks for itself," he says, referring to the more than 400 Israelis who have died as a result of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the past 18 months. The policy, he adds, "is a huge failure. It's a disaster."
He sledgehammers two pillars of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's strategy: insisting that violence cease before Israel agrees to discuss a final, political settlement with the Palestinians, and holding the Palestinian Authority of Yasser Arafat Israel's erstwhile partner in such discussions ultimately responsible for all attacks on Israelis. By pinning the blame on Arafat and then demolishing the symbols and institutions of his power, Ayalon says, the government does not "fight and ... destroy the right target" the Palestinian groups that are carrying out attacks against Israelis, mainly the Hamas and Islamic Jihad organizations, as well as the armed wing of Mr. Arafat's mainstream Fatah movement.
Government officials "have to kill or to fight each terror organization ... as much as possible. But on the other hand they have to advance a vision, a hope, a political hope at the same time," Ayalon argues. "Unless you do both you will not win."
Ayalon knows the value of "political hope." In 1996, when he took over what is now called the Israel Security Agency, the country's internal intelligence service and frontline antiterrorism force, Hamas gave him a bloody welcome. "We had around 60 bodies in 10 days," he says, reciting the death toll from a wave of suicide attacks. But during his last full year on the job, 1999, not a single Israeli civilian died in a terrorist attack, the first such year in Israel's history, according to the Jerusalem Post.
Ayalon's skills may have contributed to the decline, but the period coincided with a peace process that was moving, albeit fitfully, toward a final agreement. The Palestinian Authority worked hard to protect Israel from attack, making Ayalon's job easier. More importantly, enough Palestinians believed in the peace process to make the PA's enforcement efforts possible.
Such success is impossible today, given the approach of Israel's leaders, Ayalon seems to suggest: "They do not understand the phenomenon they are facing."
As that comment also suggests, Ayalon appears certain of his own interpretation of the situation and its solutions. Along with the even-handedness of his approach on Israeli-Palestinian issues he speaks frequently in dualities, listing reciprocal steps toward compromise his conviction that an agreement is possible is one of the things that makes an hour with him so soothing.
But it's a style that makes some Israelis wary, since they have seen the rise and rapid fall of senior military officers turned politicians. "There is something frightening about these people," says political scientist Diskin. "They have the solution for everything and there are no solutions very often."
Ayalon, who retired from government service in 2000 and is now chairman of the board of Israel's premier irrigation company, is the first to insist that he is not running for anything. "I am not a politician. I am not going to be a politician. I talk to anyone who can listen, and that's it for now," he says. Talking to anyone means just that: speeches, television appearances, interviews, meetings with Palestinian moderates; he is not a member of a political party.
Unlike Sharon and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, both members of Israel's founding generation, Ayalon does not speak about an agreement with the Palestinians as the Holy Grail of Israeli political life. He sees it as an obstacle that prevents people from debating some of the issues that threaten Israel's cohesion: the evolution of Israeli democracy, the divisions between religious and secular Jews, the place of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship in the society.
"We killed our prime minister because of this debate," Ayalon says, referring to the 1995 assassination Yitzhak Rabin, but he draws some solace from American history. "You did the same after the Civil War. Perhaps it is a stage of every nation when it creates itself."