The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The occupation is tearing Israel apart. We need the United States’ help to end it.

Israeli border police scuffle with Palestinian demonstrators during a protest in the West Bank village of Soreef, near Hebron, on Friday. (Abed Al Hashlamoun/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Ami Ayalon is a former commander in chief of the Israeli Navy and former director of Israel’s Shin Bet security service. This article is adapted from a speech given at the J Street National Conference on Oct. 26.

As someone who has spent almost my entire adult life working for the security and best interests of Israel, I’m glad to see that a serious and robust discussion has broken out in American politics about the future structure of the U.S.-Israel relationship. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent assertion about the legality of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories merely underlines the urgency of the need for a rethink.

Israel today faces tremendous challenges that threaten not only our security but also our democracy, and our national future. The simple truth is that we cannot surmount these challenges without the United States’ help, and without our ally speaking out honestly and unapologetically.

Today, to advance any peace initiative that will ensure a Jewish, democratic and safe Israel, we need partners. Of course, we must have partners among the Palestinian leadership and the wider Arab world. But the most important partners on this tough journey must be our friends in the United States who care about Israel’s future as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people.

I was part of Israel’s defense community for decades as a combatant, as commander of the navy and as head of the Shin Bet security service. I lost friends in battle. I sent soldiers to war — some of whom never returned. These experiences are what lead me to clearly state: Continuing the occupation is the single greatest threat to Israel’s safety, and to our existence as a democracy.

For many of my compatriots, this is difficult to recognize. The reality that they see is that Israel is in an ongoing war, one that began when the first Zionist pioneers came to the land in the late 19th century. They see Israel locked in a permanent struggle for our very existence as an independent country, fighting enemies who do not accept our right, as a people, to live in a nation-state. They see the occupation as only one front in this just war of defense.

But with the different perspective that sometimes comes from distance, Israel’s true friends in the United States are able to recognize a different reality. What the United States is able to see, from the outside, is that we Israelis are fighting two different, separate wars.

The first is indeed a just war of defense — a war for the establishment and protection of Israel, within the 1967 borders, based on international resolutions, in the spirit of our Declaration of Independence. The United States can see that while we still face very real threats, we have almost won that war. We reached peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, and secured official Palestinian recognition of the state of Israel and its right to exist. In 2002, the Arab League put forward a Peace Initiative that ended its long-standing refusal to recognize our right to a country.

Despite this incredible progress, we in Israel continue to fight a second war — a war that threatens to sabotage all of the other sacrifices and gains we have made. It is a war in order to expand our border to the east, to build more settlements and to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state next door. This is an unjust war, predicated on denying the Palestinians their legitimate right to self-determination in a state of their own.

I represent the views of the vast majority of the Israel Defense Forces’ top command, past and present, who believe that this second unjust war cannot be won through military means alone. If we do not bring it to an end via a two-state agreement, it will continue for generations to come. It will lead only to more violence and terror. If allowed to continue, it will ultimately be the end of Israel as the founding fathers of Zionism envisioned it.

That is why we need the United States to speak out, and to tell us the truth as our ally sees it. We need the United States to ensure that the relationship between our two countries is guiding us down a path toward peace, stability and the maintenance of democracy — not empowering or abetting a slide toward disaster.

The United States must not simply look the other way when out-of-control, irresponsible politicians show contempt for the shared democratic values that bind our two nations. Don’t listen to those who hysterically charge that it is “anti-Israel” for American leaders to oppose the occupation or warn against annexation. Today, it is among the most pro-Israel things the United States can do.

In times of crisis, when the United States sees the writing on the wall — and when we do not or cannot — it is its duty as a good ally to stand up and tell us the truth. This is the real meaning of mutual responsibility, friendship and alliance.

Read more:

Hanan Ashrawi: The latest shot in the Trump administration’s war on Palestinian rights

David Ignatius: America is now implicitly endorsing a one-state solution

Robert Kagan: Israel and the decline of the liberal order

Daniel Pipes: How Trump put Netanyahu in an untenable position

Mohammad Shtayyeh: Palestinians want freedom, not Trump administration bribes

Hanan Ashrawi: I am a Palestinian negotiator. I was denied a visa — and I think I know why.