Interview with Israeli ambassador Michael Oren (Part 1)
Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren looks older and thinner than he did when he took office in May 2009. That is perhaps understandable, given that the man renown for his historical scholarship and battlefield exploits had never served as a diplomat before and assumed office during one of the most contentious periods in U.S.-Israeli relations. It was a year that included a nasty public spat with the Obama administration over housing in Jerusalem, an ongoing tussle over West Bank settlements, the resumption and then quick break off of direct negotiations with the Palestinians, the flotilla incident, a devastating fire, the persistent threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, growing tension in the Jewish state's relations with Turkey, venom-filled anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations and more.
When I met him in his modest embassy office this week, aides shuffled in and out, trying to keep him on schedule. But Oren waved them off. He is at heart a historian and at ease providing not simply Israel's position on a variety of issues but the historical context for recent events. I asked him about the impression in the region that American influence is on the decline. His answer began 200 years ago. "For roughly two centuries," he explained, "American influence in the Middle East was on the increase." While America was "by no means the predominate power in the Middle East," he said, from the time Thomas Jefferson sent the first overseas fleet to the Middle East through a period of robust trade, America had a presence in the region. During the Cold War, Oren continued, "America was not the sole superpower." It is "only since 1989, with the fall of the Soviet Union, that the U.S. became the sole, predominate power. Now America is being challenge not by external parties but by Iran, Turkey... especially Iran." And "Islamic extremism," he continued, while not a country is "certainly a power." He spoke precisely, careful not to criticize the current administration, but offering a pointed observation: "Middle East governments are extremely attuned to such challenges and are watching very carefully."
He nevertheless cautioned against exaggerating the extent of any American decline: "Having said all that, no one can challenge American military on the land and in the sea. The Chinese may have a growing economic influence, but they don't have two fleets and 280,000 troops in the region. They can't mediate between Israel and the Arabs. Nobody has that influence. And for Israel, America is an ally par excellence."
In a year characterized by public spats and private pressure largely centering on Israeli construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, Oren prefers to focus on the "multi-faceted" nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship -- on trade, intelligence sharing and development of an anti-ballistic missile system.
Moreover, he stresses the unique benefits that Israel brings to the alliance, being the sole nation in the region able to quickly field an immense military that is loyal to a democratic government, and which is unequivocally pro-American. "That's the alliance," he said emphatically. He then digressed, "I have to wonder, when the 'realists' attack. Who is the U.S. supposed to have this type of alliance with -- Yemen? Who do they have in mind to replace us?" He added, "All alliances come with costs."
The so-called peace process ended recently, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton essentially conceded that what the administration has been doing didn't work. What happened, and what's the lesson to be learned? Oren said carefully: "The administration came into office with a great emphasis on mediation and a focus on settlements. Mr. Netanyahu made an unprecedented gesture in freezing settlements for ten months." But as soon as the settlement freeze ended, the Palestinians "left," he said bluntly. "They are reluctant to negotiate if they can get what they want outside of the negotiations, if Latin American countries, for example, will recognize them." But, he cautioned, "There is no alternative to face-to-face negotiations." (I couldn't help but notice that his language, not coincidentally, matched Clinton's comments last Friday.)
So what's next? Again, he began with some historical perspective. "There are two models [of state building] in the Middle East. In the first, you build from the bottom up. Then you are bestowed or declare independence. The second is that you attain independence and figure out what institutions you will have later. This was the model for Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Israel is the first model. We had more than 60 years to build institutions. We already had coinage, stamps, schools, health care. The big problem on the day of independence was finding a check that said 'State of Israel'. Oslo was the classic second model, and Arafat rejected institution building. We saw how that worked out. It's building an edifice over an abyss."
So does the Fayyad plan, which focuses on building up the West Bank economy and helping to create civil Palestinian institutions, offer the way forward? Oren said he understands that there needs to be a "political horizon" for the Palestinians, just as there was the Balfour Declaration and other "milestones on our political horizon." The Palestinians, he said, "Need to know they're not building up institutions for the heck of it." He said of negotiations and institution-building that "optimally, the two should work in tandem." But, he said, the negotiation track and the institution track need not proceed at the same pace. In essence, Oren is advocating that talks in some form continue, but that institution-building may work at a faster clip.
We shifted to Iran. Again, he stressed the close collaboration between Israel and the U.S. on the Iranian threat. But it's clear there is a difference in perception between the U.S. administration, which repeatedly declares that sanctions are "working," and the Israeli government. "The sanctions are very much appreciated," he said. "They got up and running. They are impacting the Iranian economy." But he emphasized, "They have not impacted Iran's nuclear behavior. Now they are talking about 'ratcheting up' the sanctions. That's good but the ultimate test is whether Iran will cease enrichment on its soil." What about the use of force? He said, "The position of both the U.S. and Israel is that all options remain on the table. But it is important for Iran to take that seriously, to lend that credibility." He declined to offer a specific way of enhancing the credibility of a military option, saying only, "There are ways to communicate that [a military option is real] to the Iranians."
I asked him whether democracy and human rights promotion in the region are important to Israel's security. He responded: "For Israel specifically, we have an interest in ensuring that any Palestinian state on the West Bank be a democratic state -- in the sense that all parties would be bound to the democratic system and its values." In other words, elections without rights for everyone -- "women, people of different sexual preferences" -- are insufficient.
In part 2 of my interview, which I'll publish on Sunday, Oren discusses the United Nations, non-governmental organizations, media bias and what the transition from private citizen to ambassador has been like.
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