Q & A with Ambassador Michael Oren
By Judie Jacobson
As the Israeli and Palestinian leaders prepared for the second round of peace talks in Sharm-el-Sheikh next week, Israel Ambassador Michael Oren reflected on the Washington summit.
WASHINGTON, D.C. – A few days after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met in Washington, D.C. last week, Israel Ambassador Michael Oren discussed the meeting – the first direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians Authority in 20 months – in a conference call with journalists organized by the Israel Project and hosted by the Israel Advocacy Initiative, a joint project of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA). Oren began the conference call with a briefing, after which he took questions from reporters. Here is an excerpt of the ambassador’s remarks.
OREN: I am very glad to be speaking with you in the immediate aftermath of a very successful launching of direct talks between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. For about a year and half now we’ve been calling for the Palestinians to rejoin us at the negotiating table to speak to us face to face. During the course of that period the government of Israel undertook what Secretary Clinton called unprecedented measures to induce the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table. It began with pledges not to create any new settlement or to expand territorially any existing settlement. We removed hundreds of road blocks and check points in the West Bank to facilitate the growth of the Palestinian economy. And, finally, the government decided on the truly unprecedented measure of freezing all new construction in the settlement for a period of 10 months – the so-called moratorium which began last November. Ultimately, these measures proved successful together with intense American diplomacy in bringing the Palestinians back.
The meetings over the last two days were very candid, very constructive. Discussion centered on achieving a framework agreement for peace that will talk in broader terms of the parameters of the peace without getting into the details of the peace. The meeting between the Palestinian president and prime minister Netanyahu went on much longer than anticipated and both leaders were very satisfied with the outcome of that meeting.
En route to the summit quite unfortunately the Prime Minister learned about the terrorist attack in Israel in which two couples were killed. It underscores the continued challenge posed to us by terror and the peace process. These were Hamas terrorists aiming not only to strike at Israel but also at those Palestinians who were willing to negotiate with us. So, we have a common interest, Israel and the moderate Palestinians, in fighting Hamas and standing up to terrorists and remaining at the negotiating table.
As we look back at the previous year – 5770 – we can point to some extraordinary achievements in Israel. We achieved membership in the Organization of Economic Development and Cooperation (OEDC) this year. Israel is one of the top 30 economies in the world. It is a year in which we applauded Congress’ move to apply sanctions to Iran; we saw an unprecedented level of support [from Congress] for Israeli defense. This year, too, we had our greatest tourism year ever..and, the quietest year, the most secure year, in Israel’s history.
Yet we know that looking at 5771, we will face monumental challenges. We have tens of thousands of rockets from Hezbollah’s and Hamas’ arsenals pointed at our neighborhoods, and we are facing the greatest challenge of all – the continued attempt by the Iranian regime to produce and acquire nuclear weaponry.
Our accomplishments, our hopes for peace, our ability to meet the challenges of the future have all been thanks to, not only the resilience and faith of the people in Israel, but the resilience and faith of the Jewish people worldwide, particularly our connection with the American Jewish community. That connection between Israel and the American Jewish community is something of immeasurable, incalculable value to us. I speak for everybody at the embassy and for the government of Israel in expressing our deepest appreciation for all that you do for Israel, your continued support, your backbone and your love. On that note, I wish you all and your families a healthy, happy, sweet, fruitful, fulfilling, and above all peaceful new year.
Q: You mention the terrorist attack on Tuesday. Can you tell us how Israel will reconcile making peace while maintaining Israel’s security needs?
OREN: Pres. Mahmoud Abbas came out and condemned the attacks and we respect that and appreciate that, but merely condemning is not enough. The Palestinian security forces who have done an excellent job in restoring law and order in the West Bank have to do more in combating terror. We are working very closely with them to combat the terrorist threat, which as we’ve seen remains quite serious. Security is a paramount interest for us. It is almost the corest of core issues, and so many other core issues are related to security. The borders, for example, are a function of security. Settlements are a function of security. Israel has to ensure that, in the aftermath of the creation of any future Palestinian state, security issues will be met. We’re not back at the beginning of this process in 1993. Many things have happened since then: The rise of Iran; the rise of Hamas and its takeover of Gaza; the near takeover of Lebanon by Hezbollah. Tens of thousands of missiles pointed at our cities, towns and farms. All of this is new and we have to account for that. We withdrew from Lebanon and we withdrew from Gaza in an effort to create conditions conducive to peace, and we didn’t get peace, we got tens of thousands of rockets fired at our civilian population. So, in withdrawing from any territories we have to ensure that those territories will not become an enclave for Iranian backed terror, like Lebanon and like Gaza.
And so, we will seek assurances that a future Palestinian state will be a demilitarized state. It will not have rockets that can be fired at our cities; it will not have an air force that will shoot down our civilian airliners landing and taking off at Ben Gurion airport. It won’t be able to sign treaties with hostile countries like Iran. And that is a sine qua non of peace; it’s a pillar of peace and it’s something we will insist on. But keep in mind that we’re not making it a precondition. We’re not insisting that the Palestinians have to agree to all that up front before we sit down and talk to them.
Q: How can American people be helpful in moving this process toward a successful conclusion?
OREN: First, by keeping dialogue open. There are a lot of Arab-Americans. If we get these communities together with the American Jewish community in support of peace I think that would be very helpful. Keep your feelings known to your representatives in Congress, that you support this process and the decisions of the Israeli government within the process. There is a spectrum of ideas in the American Jewish community about how we should move forward for peace; and not all of those ideas and positions are exactly consonant with those of the government of Israel. I would only ask one thing: that American Jews, whatever their political orientation, respect Israeli democracy. The people who will bear the most ramifications of the decisions made by the Israeli government will be the people of Israel first and foremost. Respect that. Stick with us; that’s what I ask.
Q: Mubarak and Abbas talked about the 1967 borders. In private, how rigid are they about that and about Jerusalem?
OREN: There were no borders in 1967, there were only armistice lines. We do not like the 1967 border being the reference line. In our thinking, that was not a defensible border. And, as it says in Resolution 242, every state in the Middle East has a right to secure and recognized defensible borders. That was not a defensible border; Israel was only eight miles wide at its most populace, according to the 1967 armistice lines. So we want to create a defensible border. We recognize the Palestinian interest and right to a territorially viable state. But the ’67 reference is one we prefer to avoid.
Q: The issue of the settlement moratorium seems to be hanging over the talks. What are the prospects you see for renewal of the moratorium? And what is your view of the role the roadmap plays?
OREN: Our position on the moratorium is that it was a one-time, unprecedented gesture. It was a gesture that previous Israeli prime ministers did not take – Golda Meir did not take it; Yitchak Rabin did not take it… This government took that unprecedented measure to induce the Palestinians to come back to the negotiating tables. It was not designed to be a precondition for continuing the negotiations. And, the moratorium was an immense imposition on hundreds of thousands of citizens of Israel who were not allowed to add a room or a patio to their home…they couldn’t build anything.
We feel that the Palestinians shouldn’t cherry-pick one issue and make it a precondition; there are many issues that we could pick on the Palestinian side. We could say “we are not going to sit down with you until you say you recognize us as a Jewish state.” But we don’t do that because we want to negotiate and we think that all of these core issues should be negotiated at the table, not stipulated as a precondition.
The same thing holds true with the roadmap. Yes, there is some talk about settlement freeze in the roadmap. The Sharon government had reservations about that particular provision within the roadmap. Even then, there are many aspects of the roadmap which the Palestinians haven’t fulfilled either, not the least of which is that they haven’t been able to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure. Not only do you have a terrorist infrastructure today, today you also have a terrorist mini-state – it’s called Gaza. And we are not saying that we will not sit down with the Palestinians until they solve the Gaza problem. We are willing to sit down with them and negotiate as if Gaza were part of the equation, even though that Gaza right now is not part of the equation.
So, that is our position right now. We are engaged in very close negotiations with the Obama administration on how to get past the hurdle of the closure of the moratorium and, again, once we are past that hurdle we are very confident about being able to move forward swiftly. The most important thing is that the principle be established that over the course of the negotiations we stay at the table and not leave the table every time you don’t get your way.
Q: How does Lebanon – and the presence of Hezbollah and Syria – impact first the talks and the safety and security of Israel?
OREN: We’ve offered to sit down with the Syrians face to face and discuss peace. The Syrians unfortunately are putting a tremendous amount of preconditions on the table. Before they sit they say we basically have to forfeit the entire Golan Heights before they’ll even talk to us. They also refuse to sit face to face with us at this stage. So there’s not much room for moving forward on that front.
On the other hand, the Syrian and Iranian backed Hezbollah poses a very serious threat to the State of Israel. Hezbollah now has four times as many rockets than it did during the 2006 Lebanon War. These rockets are longer range. Every city in Israel is within range right now, including Eilat. They have bigger payloads; they are far more accurate. And we also know that Hezbollah has internalized the lessons of the Goldstone report. In 2006, many of their missiles were basically out in the open in silos and the Israeli Air Force was able to neutralize a great number of them. Today, those same missiles have been placed under hospitals, homes and schools because Hezbollah knows full well that if we try to defend ourselves against those missiles we will be branded as war criminals. So, Hezbollah and the situation in Southern Lebanon is of great concern to us and we’re watching very vigilantly. We know that Hezbollah – in violation of U.N. resolutions – has once again penetrated southern Lebanon and transformed entire villages into armed camps and put in about 15,000 rockets along the Israeli border.