Dr. Michael Oren, Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister for Diplomacy, joined me this morning:
HH: To not talk about that tweet, but to talk about how Israel protects its schools, I’ve invited Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister for Diplomacy, Dr. Michael Oren, to join me. Dr. Oren, good morning, it is great to have you with us, Minister.
MO: Always good to be back with you.
HH: We’ve had a few calls, Dr. Oren, in the aftermath of the Parkland massacre that say we need to adopt Israel’s approach to protecting their schools. How, what is that approach exactly?
MO: Well, keep in mind that we have a very different relationship to guns in the state of Israel. Gun ownership in our country is a privilege and not a right. We have a very low level of private gun ownership, less than 3% of the population. It’s difficult to get a gun and difficult to get ammunition, and you’ve got to renew your license all the time. But having said that, we live in the worst neighborhood probably in the world, and we have to defend ourselves. And we have to defend our schools, too. So how do we do it? We do it, first of all, by having guards. It’s not necessary a metal detector, but there is an armed guard in front of every school. And the armed guard also has the ability with a wand to inspect one of their children or anybody else entering the school as carrying any large piece of metal such as a firearm. There’s also one entrance, Hugh. We don’t have multiple entrances to schools. There are multiple exits in case of emergency, but only one entrance. Everybody must pass through that entrance, and again, it’s guarded.
HH: Now the people who are standing guard, are they IDF or are they employed by the schools?
MO: They’re employed sometimes by the schools, sometimes by the city. They’re not IDF.
HH: All right, now the amount of training that they have, do you have any familiarity with that, Minister Oren?
MO: Well, most of them have been through the military. Not all of them, most of them have been through the military. And in the military, we, men will perform at least three years of military service, women at least two years. So we have extensive familiarity with guns. And we are also familiar with defending ourselves. So that is a big advantage Israel has.
HH: Another advantage as has been said from my callers is that the IDF, in fact, helps sort and spot those who might require mental health treatment. True or false?
MO: That’s true. And because it’s a natural process. I mean, you don’t want someone carrying a gun who is not mentally fit. And the Army does a lot of vetting, a lot of vetting of social, mental, psychological vetting, certainly.
HH: So universal service has side advantages besides protecting the nation. I hadn’t really thought that through before, but obviously if that becomes part of the national database on who is profoundly disturbed, you’re not going to forget that and pretend it doesn’t exist?
MO: Yeah, at the risk of going into territory that’s uncharted for me, I would be interested to see the statistics on the amount of people who were involved in gun violence in the United States who are actually U.S. veterans.
HH: Interesting. Now Dr. Oren, if I can switch over to diplomacy, yesterday it was revealed that the Russian mercenary operator checked with somebody at the Kremlin before allowing his troops to operate with Syrian paramilitary or rogue bands to attack an American position. They were repulsed by an Apache gunship and other means, but it suggests that this is a crazed country right now. Damascus is being once again savaged from the air and on the ground. We have Turkey advancing on the Kurds. We have the United States there, Russia flying flights, and Israel having to go in and defend itself against Iranian drones and Syrian airplanes. What is the situation right now of Israel on its northern border?
MO: Tense, very tense. Iran is trying to establish itself militarily in Syria, building bases, airfields, trying to build to, for submarines, and even possibly in the future, nuclear submarines. Imaging having the 6th Fleet deal with that threat in the Eastern Mediterranean. Israel had drawn four red lines in Syria. We aim to stick by them, stick behind them and enforce them. They are: 1) anybody shoots at us, we’re going to shoot back, and we’re going to shoot back at the Syrian Army or the Iranians we view as the most powerful elements in the field. And we did it two weeks ago. Anybody tries to transfer precision weapons to Hezbollah, as the Iranians have tried to do repeatedly since 2010, we will stop them. Anybody such as the Iranians tries to build that airbase or that port, we will stop them there. And then perhaps the most difficult red line of all, Iran has been plotting to build an underground lab in a very densely-populated area of Lebanon that will upgrade the 130 rockets, 130,000 rockets in Hezbollah’s arsenals into precision-guided rockets, very, very dangerous for us. We will deal with that lab as well.
MO: Four red lines, very bright.
HH: The construction of that lab is a red line.
HH: So if that happens, there will be tears. When…
MO: And the problem is, the problem is that they’ve put the lab under a densely-populated area. They are using human shields. Even the 130,000 rockets in the hands of Hezbollah are placed in homes, Hugh. And the roof opens up, the rocket flies out, but the homes have families in them. They want to create a situation where we’ll be forced to inflict major civilian casualties and damage, and then we’ll be labeled as war criminals.
HH: Now in this situation, given that Damascus is a rubble, I don’t know that the same sort of blowback would occur as happened in 2006. But what lessons, Dr. Michael Oren, you’re a historian as well as the deputy prime minister of Israel for diplomacy. What lessons did you take away from the 2006 conflict in Southern Lebanon?
MO: Well, through repeated conflicts with Hezbollah and Hamas in Gaza, we know that we cannot interdict and eliminate the missile threats from the air only. There has to be ground action, and especially since so many of these Hezbollah positions are deeply embedded in civilian areas. So that’s one. Two, in 2006, we made a distinction between the state of Lebanon and Hezbollah. And it was a false distinction, and a costly one, because we said that we were at peace with Lebanon, and we don’t want war with Lebanon, but we’re fighting Hezbollah. Today, there’s no such distinction. Hezbollah and Iran have fully taken over the state of Lebanon. And if there’s war, then that’ll be a war not just between a terrorist group and Israel. It’ll be a war between Israel and a neighboring state, and a neighboring state will pay the price.
HH: If that happens, can you see somehow Syria staying out of it, or is that inevitably going to be a war with both Israel and Lebanon, and Israel and Syria?
MO: Well, even Syria is sort of a misnomer. It doesn’t really exist anymore. There is no more Syria. There are enclaves controlled by the Syrian Army, but the Syrian Army is not controlled by Syria. It’s controlled by Iran. And so the decision will not be Bashar Assad’s. It’ll be the Supreme Leader of Iran, Khamenei, and he may well decide to attack us either from Syria, but Iran also has a middle range missile capacity that can hit our cities. They can hit us from the Gaza Strip where Hamas basically is controlled by Iran as well. So we could be dealing with a multi-front war. And I’ve just met with several bipartisan Congressional groups in Israel, and we raised these concerns to them. And our hope is that not only will America stand by us in the event of such an event, such a war, but to make sure that we have the means to defend ourselves, and the means to defend ourselves not against, not just against bullets and bombs, Hugh, but also against charges of war crimes. We want not just a military iron dome, but a legal and diplomatic iron dome.
HH: That makes sense to me. Now the Russians are, of course, in force in Syria. How many Russian troops do you believe are in Syria, and airplanes, Dr. Oren?
MO: Well, the exact number, I don’t know, but it’s in the thousands. And it’s not just troops. It’s their, as you know, there are Russian mercenaries there, people who aren’t actually official members of the Russian Army. But it’s a significant presence, and I don’t think it’s going anywhere. We have an open relation with the Russians. Prime Minister Netanyahu was just visiting Mr. Putin. He has visited him multiple times to all the time clarify that we are going to defend ourselves. We do not want a war with Russia. We do not want a clash with Russian troops. They, we don’t view them as hostile. But we have to defend ourselves. And even this recent action, which Israel took out almost half of all of Syria’s air defenses, some of these positions were very close to Russian emplacements. We did not get into a firefight with them. That is thanks largely to the open channels of communications which we maintain with the Kremlin.
HH: The American troops, by the way, being confirmed in the Washington Post, did have a firefight with Russian mercenaries, and more on that later in the program. Let me ask you again as a historian, even though you can never stop being the deputy prime minister for diplomacy, we have the Russians and the Iranians, the Syrians, the Lebanese, the Israelis, and up north, Turkey advancing on the Kurds who have linked up with the Syrians, and the Kurds are backed by the Americans. Is this a guns of August situation, Michael Oren?
MO: It’s, I think it sounds more Hobbesian, to me. It is a brutal state of nature, nature, where everyone’s against everybody. And as we said, in our security establishment, we’ve ceased to refer to Syria as an entity. There is, however, this chaos. And among all the other fighting elements you have mentioned, we have to add the many dozens of terrorist groups, of extremist groups, who are armed by different factions, some of them from the Gulf. And that situation, we don’t see any end to it in the future, in the near future, certainly. And we’ve just seen with this terrible massacre of civilians in Ghouta by the Syrian forces, the death toll continued to rise there. We have established a military hospital in the Golan Heights. We have treated many thousands of Syrian civilians, particularly women and children. We don’t ask their names. We don’t take their pictures. We send them back whole. That is the extent of our intervention today. But again, as I mentioned earlier, the four red lines, we’re going to defend ourselves. We’re going to prevent the Iranians from establishing themselves militarily, and giving precision-guided missiles to Hezbollah, period.
HH: And a last question, the relationship between the IDF and the Secretary Mattis-led Department of Defense between President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu, how close is the cooperation and the information flow?
MO: Well, again, here I can speak as a historian. I can’t think of a closer relationship, certainly not in recent memory, and we see eye to eye. We deeply appreciate the support we received from the administration, from the Pentagon during the recent fighting up north. And we are engaged, and as always, an intimate and trusting conversation with our American allies how best to defend our interests, but we believe that by defending our interests, we’ll also be defending American interests not just in the Middle East, but in the world.
HH: Now I have an op-ed in the Washington Post today recounting the upside of the 400 days of Donald Trump, which occurs this weekend. It’s not the 100 days of Donald Trump, it’s the 400 days. One of the achievements of those 400 days was, I said, the American recognition that Jerusalem is indeed the capital of the state of Israel. Has that mattered at all in any practical sense, Dr. Oren?
MO: Well, I think it’s mattered also in a diplomatic sense, in that it’s given Israel a tremendous sense of confidence. We are grateful. We’re appreciative. If President Trump decides to put down his peace plan, the much referred to peace plan on the table, I think that the recognition of Jerusalem will be a major asset, because it establishes his credibility, and credibility not only with us, but with the Palestinians as well. He made the promise repeatedly in the campaign to recognize Jerusalem. He did it. And I’ll tell you as someone who has participated in peace talks, credibility is the most important characteristic that a mediator can have. So yes, on the practical level, there are efforts underway to actually move the embassy and I was told as late as yesterday that this should be accomplished by the end of 2019.
HH: Dr. Michael Oren, thank you for joining me from Israel today. I appreciate it always. Come back soon. Keep us posted, and God protect the state of Israel, and make sure Iran hears that message. Thank you, my friend.
End of interview.