Reflections on leadership from a past interview with former security chief, Carmi Gillon
By David. E. Kaplan
While overtures of peace were reverberating around the Middle East last week with the announcement of the Israel-UAE normalisation deal, closer to home – literally the Prime Minister’s home – it was quite the opposite. Contrast the positive sentiments expressed in the statements of the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, who at a press conference in Berlin said “Any efforts that promote peace in the region and that result in the holding back the threat of annexation could be viewed as positive”; and that of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi “I appreciate the efforts of the architects of this agreement for the prosperity and stability of our region,” to the anger of Israelis congregating in their thousands, outside the PM’s residence in Jerusalem. Rather than upbeat by the Israel-UAE deal they were beating down on the Prime Minister to resign over corruption charges and his government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout.
No wonder the Prime Minister’s neighbours too are protesting! They want his residence moved to another area in Jerusalem – ASAP! They are demanding peace not in the region but in their street!
A far cry from the visual spectacle of the Hollywood Oscars, Balfour Street, Jerusalem is nevertheless proving entertaining to see the list of esteemed folk pitching up on the ‘proverbial red carpet’ to protest. Last Thursday’s celebrities included MK Yorai Lahav from the Yesh Atid party, and MK Moshe Ya’alon, a former Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces and Defense Minister under Netanyahu who said:
“The protests on Balfour and across the country are just, legal and democratic. No one will prevent the protests from taking place. On the contrary – they will only get bigger. “
The name that most caught my attention was Carmi Gillon – a man whose job once included protecting the Prime Minister. Gilon was Director of Israel’s Security Agency, the Shin Bet also known as the Shabak at the time of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
Gilon’s participation in the protest was not without highly-publicized drama with the former security chief handcuffed and reportedly injured by police when he was dragged away from the protest tent.
On seeing his photograph on the weekend edition of The Jerusalem Post defiantly holding his handcuffed arms above his head, my thoughts went back to my interviewing Carmi in his office in 2004 following his election as Mayor of Mevaseret Zion, a town on a mountain ridge 750 metres above sea level, 10 kilometres from Jerusalem.
Why the interview back in 2004 was as interesting yesterday as it was now in 2020 because here was a principled man taking a stand on issues he believed of critical importance to the security and soul of the country. My further interest was his South African pedigree, a country I emigrated from in 1986.
Carmi’s father, Colin Gluckman, immigrated to Palestine in 1936, armed with little more than a degree in law an imbued with Zionist ideology. He was one of the founders of the youth movement – my youth movement too – Habonim in South Africa. After his service in Europe during WWII, Colin was sent back to Europe by the Jewish Agency to track down displaced Jews and bring them to Israel. As a major in a British uniform, he could travel freely throughout British controlled Italy. In this way, Colin found many Jewish refugees sheltered in monasteries throughout Italy.
In 1946, he returned to Palestine and joined the Haganah, serving as an officer. He was appointed the first Governor of the Israeli-Arab town of Abu Ghosh ( أبو غوش) Abu Ghosh. “In my book, says son Carmi, “I have a photograph of him as governor taken together with the Muslim Mukhtar as well as a monk from the local monastery. The picture was printed by the Israeli government in 1949 as a Christmas card and showed how the three religions can live together.” Colin became Israel’s third State Attorney and at Ben Gurion’s insistence, changed his surname from Gluckman to Gillon.
In 2017, Abu Gosh was described as a “model of coexistence.”
Earthquakes and Aftershocks
Recently elected Mayor in 2004, I interviewed Gillon in his modest municipal office on the foothills of the Kastel, where a decisive battle took place during the 1948 War of Independence that determined the fate of Jerusalem. Fifty-six years later, it was no less the fate of his nation that brought back Gillon again into the public eye with his stand in 2003 joining three former colleagues – all past directors of Israel’s security service – Yaacov Perry, Ami Ayalon and Avraham Shalom – in a stinging attack of government policy. In an interview at the time with the Israeli daily, Yedioth Ahronot, they forewarned Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that “he was leading the country to a catastrophe by failing to pursue peace with the Palestinians.” Such outspokenness by Israel’s former security chiefs was totally unprecedented and was covered by all major international TV news networks. Gillon expressed his concern that “the government was dealing solely with the question of how to prevent the next terrorist attack, ignoring the more fundamental issue of how to extricate the country from the mess it was in.”
“It was like an earthquake at the time,” he said.
Political aftershocks inevitably followed.
While criticism of their action was not unexpected, Carmi was proud of his public stand and felt vindicated by the events that had subsequently unfolded . “We were locked into a stalemate where there was no positive movement on any front.”
Capitalising on their high-profile status with respected security credentials, “We realized our ideas could not be ignored.” This was born out when “our action was soon followed by other extra-parliamentary initiatives such as the highly publicized and no less controversial, Geneva Accord. The government was put in a position to come up with their own initiative or appear to be left behind.
Cloak & Dagger
For most of his professional life prior to becoming Mayor of Mevaseret Zion in 2004, Carmi operated in the furtive world of espionage and security starting from the time of the Munich Massacre in 1972. He ran through a chronology of terrorist activity that gripped the world of the seventies – skyjackings, an assault on an Israeli embassy in Bangkok, the attack on Israeli passengers at Paris’ Orly Airport, the murder of a Mossad agent in Paris and other attacks in Brussels and Rome.
“Those days were full of action. Very different to today where Israel’s vulnerability is internal.” He concluded that chapter in his life through the heady days of Oslo, “where I used to frequently make trips after midnight to meet Arafat in Gaza.”
Pressed to comment on the character of Arafat, Gillon replied:
“Wonderful host, but an incorrigible liar!”
As to predicting back in 2004 on a future political landscape, Gillon said:
“Over the years, I have dealt with many of the top people in the Palestinian political echelon and there are many moderate and pragmatic people under Arafat whose turn will come in the post-Arafat era.”
This has not happened – yet!
Instead, following the death of Yasser Arafat in 2004, Mahmoud Abbas was elected President of the Palestinian Authority and has clung on to power despite telling the Palestinian media after his first year in power, that he would NOT seek reelection at the end of his four year term:
“I will just complete my remaining three years in office; I will not run again. That is absolute.”
Absolute? If ever a misnomer!
It seems that in the words of Carmi Gillon, Arafat’s successor is also “an incorrigible liar.”
As today in 2020 – with Israelis protesting over their economic situation as a result of the Corona pandemic – Gillon in 2004, newly ensconced as Mayor, lamented that a third of his city residents of of 23,000 were over the age of fifty living in economically unfavourble circumstances. “We have far too much unemployment and not having our own industrial area, exacerbates the problem. Sixty percent of our workforce communities to Tel Aviv, the balance to Jerusalem.”
Reflecting back to that interview all these years later, it was his next line that was so ironic.
“If you hang around a little longer after the interview, there will be a demonstration taking place outside my office!”
And today, it is Carmi Gillon who is protesting outside the Prime Minister’s residence, also over mostly economic issues.
I recall when concluding the interview noticing that surprisingly there was only one photograph in his office. It was of himself taken with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
“He was not only my boss; he was my friend.”
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