Israel’s Deputy Minister for Diplomacy Michael Oren joined me this morning:
HH: I’m joined from Israel by Dr. Michael Oren. He is deputy minister for diplomacy, member of the Knesset in Israel. Good morning, Dr. Oren, always, or good afternoon, always good to speak with you.
MO: Pleasure and an honor, Hugh, as always.
HH: Let me begin with a Jerusalem Post story if I can. I quote, “Former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo revealed Wednesday evening on Channel 12 News that he considered to resign during his term following Prime Minister Netanyahu’s 2011 decision to order the army to prepare for a possible attack on Iran with only a 15 day notice. Were you aware of any such threat to resign, Deputy Minister Oren?
MO: No. I knew there was discontent. And if he should have, if he thought he was going to resign, he should have resigned, because even the head of the Mossad, with all due respect to the Mossad, cannot know what the Prime Minister knows. It does not have that global view, that global perspective and see all the pieces of a very, very complex puzzle. And the head of the Mossad, who is very good at intelligence, very good at protecting us on the level of espionage, is not necessarily trained in strategic thinking. So I took strong objection to what he said. What was important back then, and this is during my period as ambassador, Hugh, was that the United States, the President at the time, Barack Obama, said that all options were on the table. Nobody in the Middle East believed that. The only people who believed that were part of the American public who Obama had managed to scare. So it was very important that when Israel said all options are on the table that that threat be credible. And preparations made by the Prime Minister, without going into any detail, were designed also to shore up our credibility that when we said all options are on the table, the Iranians believed us.
HH: All right, now let me turn to the current crisis. Also a story at the Jerusalem Post this morning that this week has seen more rockets launched at Israel from Gaza since 2014, that for four years, it’s been relatively quiet. Now, you’re being barraged. What is, are preparations underway for any kind of incursion into Gaza other than from the air?
MO: Well, we always have contingency plans. We have to. It’s our responsibility as a sovereign state. I can tell you as someone who was responsible for Gaza for the Israeli government for much of a year, and in charge of trying to address the humanitarian situation there, I can tell you there are really no solutions for Gaza. It is controlled by a terrorist organization which is intent on creating a humanitarian disaster there. Now I know that’s very hard for Americans to wrap their heads around, as they say. Why would a government starve out its own people? But these are jihadists terrorists who don’t care about their own people, so they burn the supply lines. They burn the gas lines and deny electricity. Even one of their bombs hit this, one of the very few electricity stations up and running and knocked out all the power for the Gaza Strip. They don’t care, because they are using their population, Hamas is using their Gaza population as human hostages to extort money from the world, to delegitimize Israel and create a situation where they can go to war against us and have legitimacy behind them. That’s a very difficult situation. There’s no easy military solution for us, Hugh. Understand that we could send our army in there and destroy Hamas. We’d lose many hundreds of soldiers. We may kill thousands of Palestinians who are being used as a human shield. But the morning after, we’re going to be stuck holding the keys to Gaza, and no one’s going to take them from us. To my mind, the only long term solution is by deepening the difference between the reality for Palestinians in Gaza and the reality for Palestinians in what we call the Judean-Samaria, the West Bank, where there is economic prosperity, there is security, and create a situation where the Palestinians in Gaza are going to say enough is enough, and they’re going to get rid of these thugs. That’s the only solution.
HH: Now Michael Oren, another story, this from Ha’aretz, is that Abbas, President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, has been hospitalized in Ramallah. One report says it’s an ear infection. Another says he’s deteriorating rapidly. What is after Abbas? What’s AA look like?
MO: Nobody really knows. There are about 8 or 9 contenders. Each one has backers, whether some Arab country or some organization behind him. Israel has literally no horse in this race. We’re not backing anybody. But nobody knows how long the succession is going to take place, if at all, because Mahmoud Abbas, 83 years old, a two pack a day guy, has been in and out of the hospital for now a year, has made absolutely no effort to provide for succession. It’s kind of symptomatic of the entire malaise of the Palestinian politics. And my hope is it doesn’t impact the President Trump efforts to try to reanimate the peace process. I’m supportive of the President’s efforts. And if Mahmoud Abbas is no longer a player, it will certainly complicate those efforts.
HH: So what is the expected means of succession? Is it going to be a gun battle in the streets of the West Bank?
MO: We can’t rule out that possibility. Such gun battles have already taken place between rival factions. And irony of ironies only in the Middle East, the force that intercedes between the shooting rival factions is the Israeli Army.
HH: That is pretty amazing. Back to Gaza for a moment, although you would be left with the keys, and it’s not a situation that Israel wants having withdrawn from Gaza and established the border, at what point to the number of rockets compel the state of Israel for the security of its citizens to re-intervene inside of Gaza?
MO: Well, Israeli society, though it is highly resilient, Hugh, has its breaking point. And there’s only so many days where an entire part of the country can be kept in shelters where kids are experiencing post-traumatic stress syndrome. I’ve witnessed it firsthand. And you know, one of these rockets, Iron Dome is a miraculous system. It’s 92% effective. It’s the only anti-missile system that has proven effective in combat. But 92%, that means out of every 103 rockets, 10 are going to get through. One of those rockets could get “lucky” – hit a school, hit a hospital. And that would bring us past that breaking point very fast. And frankly speaking, Israeli society has had it. Now we’ve had three wars with Hamas since 2008. Both of them have concluded without a decisive victory. Israeli society is ready for a much larger engagement, even at a very high price both for us and the Palestinians. My major concern, again, is going to be the day after.
HH: Would that larger engagement tempt your enemies on your northern border to act simultaneous with an incursion by the IDF into Gaza?
MO: Well, this is what happened in 2008. It began with, in 2008, what we call the Cast Lead Operation in the south began actually with an attack by Hezbollah in the north. And you know, these terrorist organizations are also rivals. Who could be the most terrorist? So if Hezbollah, if Hamas goes to war against us in the south, it could trigger a competitive strike by Hezbollah in the north, and Israel, like any country, doesn’t want to fight any war, but it certainly doesn’t want to fight a two-front war. And Hezbollah is vastly more powerful than Hamas. Hamas has between 10 and 15,000 rockets. And it’s interesting. The rockets that hit us in the last couple of days were not homemade rockets. They were imported rockets, very high quality from Iran and Syria. It shows you who’s behind all this.
HH: How are they getting there?
MO: But Hezbollah has 130,000 rockets.
HH: Are they coming from…how is Gaza getting Iranian and Syrian rockets?
MO: They’re getting them smuggled in. It could be from the Egyptian border. It’s not from our border. And we have a maritime blockade, which by the way doesn’t keep out food and building materials and medicine. It keeps out war materials or items that could be used as war materials. So some of these are getting through probably through the Egyptian border by way of Sudan.
HH: All right, last question for you. I want to switch to the Iron Dome. Has South Korea ever inquired, is Israel willing to sell Iron Dome technology to South Korea which is threatened, as Israel is threatened, by a bristling array of rockets to their north as you are from Hezbollah?
MO: To the best of my knowledge, yes, they are interested. Iron Dome’s a very good system for South Korea, because Iron Dome is designed to take out a stand-off rocket that has a regular trajectory and at a short distance. So if you’re in the city of Sderot, which is along the Gaza border, you have about 14 seconds to get into a shelter, not very long. I’ve run it several times. And Iron Dome can take out that short trajectory. Very, very effective. But we also developed a system with the United States called David Sling can intercept a cruise-guided missile, a missile that’s guided by a joystick. And that is a very sophisticated system indeed. That is also available to our allies around the world.
HH: Deputy Minister Oren, always good to speak with you. Thank you for joining me from Israel today bringing us up to date on the latest in the most important news from that region, and thank you again.
End of interview.