Book review: Friendly Fire: how Israel became its own worst enemy

November 12, 2020 by Geoffrey Zygier
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I’ve read a lot during the Covid-19 lockdown periods. Obviously, I’ve only selected books that I thought I’d enjoy and largely I’ve been happy with my varied choices.

Bulk reading has reinforced for me the difficulties that writers face and my admiration for them has grown considerably. Their conceptualisation, characterisation, plotting and endurance! However, I still have one concern, namely that so few writers have anything new to say, or even the ability to present an old theme or subject in a fresh way.

However, this doesn’t change the fact that I always commence reading a new book positively with a great deal of anticipation and so it was when I received a review copy of Friendly Fire: how Israel became its own worst enemy. Memoirs are always promising material for a reader seeking something fresh, because all humans have unique tales to share. And its epigraph from Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness bode so well in this regard: “I now believe that all journeys are ridiculous: the only journey from which you don’t come back is the journey inside yourself.” So despite its ‘give away the plot’ title, I began to read hopefully.

Its primary author is Ami Ayalon who wrote this work together with Anthony David, who teaches English literature at the University of New England (Friendly Fire was published first in English, ostensibly because Ayalon wanted “…as many people as possible openly debating issues [regarding the Israel/Palestine situation]).

Friendly Fire is at once a memoir, a history of modern Israel’s creation and perhaps most importantly, a polemic on how to resolve the fraught situation between Israel and the Palestinians.

Ayalon grew up on Kibbutz Ma’agan on the shores of the Sea of Galilee as a committed, even fervent, Zionist. From his youth he was determined to do his military service as a sea commando. This was an elite operational position (the equivalent of the USA’s Navy Seals) in the Israeli navy.

While his father was enthusiastic about this choice, both his anxious mother and the kibbutz members opposed it. His response was blunt: “Imma, if I’m on a mission, yes there’s a chance I’ll be killed. But if I can’t join…because of you, there is 100 per cent certainty you will not see me again.” Clearly Ayalon was a determined person, one who was prepared to be callous to get his way. And equally telling about his nature were his thoughts on his time as a sea commando: “It all came down to the thrill of adventure and danger, the intoxicating adrenaline of the fight – the desire to push our limits. Swimming faster, diving deeper, running farther, and shooting less out of careful deliberation than instinct and intuition constituted the formula for survival.”

This thrill-seeking, driven young man had a very successful naval career. He was decorated numerous times, including the Medal of Valour, Israel’s highest award. In 1979 he became the commander of the sea commandos and after promotion to the rank of major general, served as commander of the Israeli navy from 1992 through 1996.

Following Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, Ayalon took on a radical career change, being appointed head of the Shin Bet (Israel’s internal security service), serving in this role for four years. And it was during this period that he had an epiphany.

“In my first week as the agency’s director, dozens were killed and hundreds wounded in terrorist attacks. Afterwards, the graph began to fall, and in my final year as director, until Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount [in September 2000], only one Israeli was killed. Those results speak for themselves. Along with this, my view of the Palestinians changed on the basis of my experience in the Shin Bet. I understood that there is a Palestinian people that see us as occupiers and aspires to end the occupation on the way to the establishment of a state alongside the State of Israel.”

This profound experience changed the direction and purpose of his life. In the course of his subsequent ‘travels’, Ayalon spoke with numerous public figures, discussions that played a large part in reaffirming his evolving views. These figures included politicians like Shimon Peres and Bibi Netanyahu; author Meir Shalev; Israeli law professor Chaim Gans; and numerous members of the Jewish resettlement movement such as Pinhas Wallerstein. He also spoke to Palestinians such as philosopher Sari Nusseibeh, pollster Khalil Shikaki and PLO President Yassar Arafat and his deputies.

These conservations’ tones varied from uncomfortable to positive, but all were significant and influential – as was the Second Intifada – in confirming for him that a two-state outcome was the only humane and democratic solution to the troubles between two wounded peoples. Consequently, Ayalon has dedicated the last two decades to achieving this outcome. Clearly, he’s not there yet, but he perseveres.

When I finished Friendly Fire, I momentarily thought that I’d read it before. Of course, I hadn’t, but I realised that it’s a very familiar story. Despite Ami Ayalon’s individuality, there are many books about the ‘halutzim’, those Jewish warriors who have transformed a harsh and dangerous land into an economic and military powerhouse. This is not a criticism, but rather an inevitability when Israel’s story is still so new and fascinating.

Friendly Fire is an interesting, particularly Israeli narrative of one person’s philosophical and personal transformation set in the context of a rapidly evolving environment. Ami Ayalon’s change from hawk to dove is hardly uncommon, while at the same time there have been numerous individuals and groups that have made the opposite journey. It would be foolish to dismiss Ayalon’s ideas out of hand, yet high hopes have so often been dashed in the past. Such constant to-ing and fro-ing are factors that make Israel’s story so frustrating and painful, yet dynamic and compelling. Friendly Fire brings many aspects of Israel’s journey into vivid relief and is a straightforward read that moves at fast speed. I’m confident it will find an interested audience.

Friendly Fire: how Israel became its own worst enemy by Ami Ayalon with Anthony David (Scribe, 2020) reviewed by Geoffrey Zygier


2 Responses to “Book review: Friendly Fire: how Israel became its own worst enemy”
  1. Liat Kirby says:

    In regard to your concern that so few writers have anything new to say, it should be realised that to succeed in writing the writer must find her/his own voice in which to express fiction or non-fiction. From there hone the necessary skills to produce the end result.

    It’s true to say that there’s nothing new under the sun and that writing is a building block from all that went before. Just as every human being has a unique fingerprint, every successful writer has a unique voice.

    This is the beauty and wonder of writing.

  2. Leon Poddebsky says:

    Hasn’t Mr Ayalon heard: the Arab Palestinian people do not want “a state alongside Israel.”
    They want all of Israel.
    They see all of Israel as occupied.

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