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Political newcomer sees Hamas dialogue as crucial

He tracked terrorists, now seeks diplomacy

Part of a series examining candidates for the Israeli election on Tuesday.

HAIFA, Israel -- When Ami Ayalon entered politics last year, the retired naval commander and former head of the Shin Bet domestic security service swore that he would rather do it his way and fail than become another slick politician.

So Ayalon has intentionally retained the brash, direct manner he cultivated during 32 years of military service -- bringing to the Labor Party slate both gravitas on security issues and the freshness of a political newcomer.

''Should we speak with Hamas? They have blood on their hands. I have more blood on my hands," Ayalon said with typical directness in an interview, to explain why Israel should find ways to engage Hamas.

''I killed more terrorists than they killed Israelis, and I say I have the right to lead any peace process," he said. ''We should talk to everyone who accepts a two-state solution and Israel as a Jewish state."

Opinion polls suggest Labor is running a distant second to the Kadima party, whose central plank is that negotiating with Palestinians is likely to be fruitless and that Israel should act alone to draw its final borders.

But Ayalon is spending the final days before Tuesday's vote talking to as many people as he can, using his security expertise to combat Labor's reputation for unrealistic dovishness.

He is convinced that he can win people over, ''if not in time for this election, then for the next one."

A more cynical politician might not have spent two hours at the end of a long day in a cramped Haifa living room with a skeptical group of undecided voters.

But Ayalon thought the pensioners and middle-class professionals might be open to his critique of Kadima's position that the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, is irrelevant and that there is no Palestinian ''partner" for peace.

''You cannot get anywhere without talking to the other side," he shouted at a circle of pensioners who confronted him near the coffeecake after his question-and-answer session.

Standing just over 5 feet, Ayalon literally held his ground, legs planted, chin jutted forward, clean-shaved head gleaming.

''There's no one to talk to!" a woman said, jabbing her finger at Ayalon's face.

''There's always someone to talk to," he replied.

Another woman pushed Ayalon to address what she called the ''demographic threat" -- the 1.2 million Arabs who live in Israel and could some day outnumber Jews.

''You can't ignore reality," he said. ''You won't wake up one morning and find that the Arabs of Umm al-Faham [a large Arab-Israeli town] have become part of Palestine and are no longer in Israel."

Zvi Wurmbrand, a 68-year-old retiree, taunted Ayalon for nearly half an hour, calling Labor corrupt. Afterward, he said he was impressed with Ayalon but would not vote for Labor, because he disdains Amir Peretz, the party's top leader.

''This guy is very clever, an intelligence guy," Wurmbrand said. ''Their strategy is to hide their leader. I might be voting Labor if Amir Peretz wasn't the head."

Afterward, Ayalon philosophically shrugged off the hostility. ''This is a tough audience," he said.

Ayalon is the number six candidate on Labor's list, and is virtually assured of a seat in the 120-member Knesset. Labor is considered likely to join Kadima in a coalition government. Ayalon's name has popped up in the Israeli media as a possible defense minister.

Labor has tried to distinguish itself in the political campaign by focusing on such economic issues as high unemployment, the growing gap between rich and poor, and problems in the social security system. But Ayalon talks little about that, focusing instead on his forte, security.

Ayalon, 61, comes from a classic Labor background. His father emigrated illegally from Romania to pre-independence Israel. Ayalon was born on a small kibbutz in the Jordan Valley, where his father still lives.

He made a career in the navy, eventually becoming its top officer after 32 years. Along the way he persuaded the government to invest in submarines as well as ships, and got a master's degree at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

After decades in the military and Shin Bet, Ayalon spent several years talking with Palestinians in a nonprofit he helped found called People's Voice. There, he said, he had a change of heart, realizing that Israel couldn't achieve security through force alone.

''In moments of pain, we seek revenge," he said, describing the cycle of Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli incursions.

He decided to enter politics, he said, because it's the only way left to change the balance of power.

When he talks of peace and Palestinians, his voice rises. Kadima and its leader, acting prime minister Ehud Olmert, didn't accept a two-state solution and a withdrawal from Gaza and some West Bank settlements until thousands on both sides had died, Ayalon said.

Israel shouldn't pay that ''painful price" once again by cutting off funds to the Palestinian Authority and cutting off conversations with Palestinian leaders.

''The future is not yet determined. We determine the future," Ayalon said. ''We are the most important factor. We influence. We are still using a dictionary of blame, instead of a dictionary of responsibility."

Ami Ayalon

Age: 61

Party: Labor

Education: BA in economics and political science from Bar-Ilan University, MA in public administration from Harvard University.

Family: Married, with three children and a grandson.

Background: Naval commando, admiral of Israeli Navy. Took over Shin Bet Security Services in 1996 after assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Ran agricultural company Netafim from 2000-2005. First run for office.

Quote: ''Israel should not ask itself who not to talk with. We have to ask ourselves with whom to talk. We should talk to everyone who accepts a two-state solution and Israel as a Jewish state."

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