In Israel’s defence

By Lawrence Bailey

"During my youth and during my military service I had many questions about being a Jew, about being an Israeli," says a nostalgic Amir Maimon. "But when I saw those two airplanes approaching landing, I felt very proud as a Jew and very proud as an Israeli. And I knew that there is only one country in the world that would look after its natives the way the state of Israel is doing."

A former officer in the Israeli military and the current Counsellor at the Embassy of Israel in Toronto, Maimon holds the state he serves close to his heart. Stationed at the Embassy in Ethiopia on the eve of the fall of Addis Ababa in 1991, Maimon helped orchestrate Operation Solomon, an airlift of thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

Ten years after Solomon, Maimon’s homeland is mired yet again in the violence and conflict that has plagued it since its inception in 1948. A veteran of many military and diplomatic campaigns, he is quick to acknowledge the necessity of his country’s current military might.

"Military service is compulsory because of the reality we are living in. It’s unfortunate, but we’ve had to defend ourselves since the first day we were in existence," he explains. "We know that we need to serve in the Israeli Army, because if we don’t defend ourselves, if we don’t have a strong army, we won’t exist."

As a man who was raised in a military family and worked through the ranks to the level of Lieutenant-Colonel, his past is rich with the triumphs and horrors of defending a nation beseiged. The tales of friends lost in battle, some before his eyes, are chilling. He tells them in low tones with a reverence and humility muted by the distance of painful recollection.

Other stories of military triumph, many in the war with Lebanon, bring a smile to Maimon’s face. The pride of jobs done with military precision in foreign and hostile territory stays with him, the glory of victory still apparent.

However, the Counsellor is quick to stress the difference between offensive and defensive units. Even though many of his missions took him into neighbouring nations, Maimon maintains the Israeli Army is a defensive force meant to protect the sovereignty of the nation and upholding the security of its citizens.

"What was once a mandate of peace first and then security," he explains sadly, "has become security first and then peace."

An active advocate of peace, he sees violence as the enemy to the resolution of Israeli sovereignty, the status of Jerusalem and the many other issues plaguing the region. That is not to say he supports a passive approach–there’s a time and a place for everything.

"Let’s assume that we were willing to give up everything. What’s next? Will they recognize and respect us?" he questions emphatically. "I don’t believe so."

He is tired of the violence, but even more tired of the Palestinian refusal to commit to the process. Beginning with the 1990 peace summit in Madrid, a focus on dialogue began to quell the conflict. Various peace agreements and accords have since been reached, but Maimon is embittered with a process he believes is manipulated and held up by Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Authority.

"We just need an end to violence," he explains in a tired and frustrated sigh. "If he would issue the necessary orders and do his utmost in order to stop the violence, we could very easily and quickly resume the peace negotiations."

Maimon points to this past summer when Arafat sought an invitation to the White House. In the two weeks leading up to the audience, violence in the Middle East subsided, only to resume once Arafat had returned. Maimon sees this as an indication that Arafat is in control and has a vested interest in prolonging the conflict.

"Why would he [stop it]? He is a leader of a globally-recognized and significant organization. As the head of the PLO he gets invited to summits, he gets invited to the White House. If he becomes the leader of a Palestinian state he would be the head of another poor and unimportant nothing. He doesn’t want to surrender that prestige, that power."

Maimon is sympathetic with the cause of the Palestinians. "We aren’t that different from them," is a mantra for him.

"I’m not saying that we are right and they are wrong," he states before extrapolating on the benefits of dialogue. "As an Israeli and as a Jew I would like to have full control of Jerusalem and Israeli settlements everywhere, but I am realistic. I know that we will have to compromise–on both sides. If an agreement is reached where one side is satisfied and the other is not, the agreement will not last long. If at the end of the process there is a balanced agreement then we have a chance to overcome the differences."

That is definitely an assertion that no one disputes yet no one can seem to put it into action either. Amir Maimon is an optimistic man. He is a man who loves his country and wants the best for it. Also empowered with education, he has worked all over the world and is familiar with certain realities. This puts him in a position to look at the current crisis in his homeland from afar and assess it with a different perspective. It allows him the luxury of analysis–a luxury many directly involved in the fighting do not have. Maimon claims that the only solution is "the total cessation of violence." While he is right that peace is necessary before any progress is made, taking those steps seems to be the last thing on the minds of the powers that be.