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Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, on Pollard, fires, Wikileaks and Iran

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HH: Very pleased to welcome back Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren. Mr. Ambassador, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show, great to have you.

MO: Great to be back, Hugh. Thanks for having me.

HH: Can you start by giving us an update on the aftermath of the fires in Israel, and the condition of the people who suffered dislocation during that tragedy?

MO: Well, the fire lasted for about three and a half days, Hugh. It was Israel’s largest national…natural catastrophe in 62 years of Israel’s history. It destroyed five million trees, it displaced 17,000 people, and it took 44 lives. Some people remain very seriously injured. Most of those killed were police personnel who were trying to evacuate a prison in an area that was in the fire’s path. And now we’ve begun the very long and arduous process of trying to refurbish, to replenish the forest that were burned down, to repair the damage. Several villages were very seriously damaged, and to get over the national trauma of this all. We received help from a number of countries around the world, and some of them rather surprising, from the Turks who sent two planes, the Unites States very quickly responded. The administration sent planes and fire retardants, as well as actually firemen came from the United States from your state, from California. And for that reason, what could have been a much greater calamity, it came very close to the city of Haifa, was able to be suppressed after three and a half days.

HH: Now obviously, as a lifelong Israeli, you’re not surprised by much. But were you surprised that there was so little preparation for this kind of a catastrophe? California, it’s rather routine. But it appears to have surprised Israel.

MO: Well, we certainly had never encountered fires like this. And this was a unique combination here of an extended drought in Israel, and then what you would call a Santa Ana wind…

HH: Yup.

MO: …which is very, very unpredictable. And it kept on changing directions. We heard about it all the time. The fire was going one way one minute, the next minute it’s going to a completely different direction. It became very difficult to anticipate. So this is the first fire in Israel’s history that had gotten out of control. Now in retrospect, we’ve done some investigation and found out that we didn’t have enough retardant, and we didn’t have the requisite number of fire trucks. But look at the state of California…

HH: Oh, yeah.

MO: It has more than enough retardant, and more than enough fire trucks, and still has these fires raging for weeks. We came face to face with the awful face of nature there. And we will certainly have enough retardant in the future, and enough fire trucks and some of these planes. But there’s no guarantee that if the weather continues this way, if we encounter similar natural conditions, we may have to put up with fires like this. The interesting think, Hugh, is remember that Israel was created 62 years ago, and we didn’t have many trees.

HH: Right.

MO: And the fact that we suffered this catastrophe is also a sign of our success. We planted those five million trees.

HH: Yup.

MO: And you know, if we hadn’t planted those five million trees, there wouldn’t have been a forest fire. But that is not going to in any way deter us. We’re going to go back and we’re going to plant ten million.

HH: Let me ask you, there were also reports of some surprising help from not just the Turks, but from Arab states. Is that correct?

MO: Yeah, from neighboring Arab states. They don’t necessarily like for us to talk about it, but states with which we have relationships. The Palestinians sent a fire truck or two. It was all, it was very much appreciated, and it can show you a way that in the Middle East sometimes, people can cooperate differently. I think I had a piece in the Los Angeles Times right after that, that talked about the experience of being in this fire, of dealing with the fire, and receiving support from some unusual quarters.

HH: I’ve also been reading with interest the Wikileaks release. And if there’s one upside to the Wikileaks is it demonstrated the reality of the agenda for some of your Arab neighbors when it comes to who they perceive as the threat. Are you surprised at the candor with which that was expressed, Michael Oren, their concerns over Iran?

MO: Well, let me first say that the Wikileaks themselves are very irresponsible and reckless, and caused damage to the world. I mean, the people who are releasing these documents things that they’re helping peace. Well, peace is the last thing you do. One of the great guarantors we have against war is diplomacy. And diplomacy is predicated on confidentiality. Believe me, they did anything but serve the cause of world peace, these people. But no, we weren’t surprised. These are very similar things that the Arabs tell us in confidence. And we know that they are deeply, deeply afraid of a nuclearizing Iran, and they view it as an existential threat to their regimes. Israel faces, itself, the state of Israel, not its government, faces a monumental threat from Iran. But Iran threatens mortality these Arab regimes. And in closed conversations, they make that very much clear. The leaks that have dealt with Israel so far have not been particularly in any way damaging. Our public position is very, very close to our private position. Virtually everything you read about our position on Iran in those Wikileaks, I’ll say to you on this radio program. There’s nothing we’re trying to hide.

– – – –

HH: Mr. Ambassador, before we move off of the fires, if Americans are listening to this, and they want to help in the reconstruction or the aid of the victims, what’s the most effective way to do that?

MO: Well, there’s been an emergency fund set up for replenishing the Carmel forest, and that is through the offices of the Jewish National Fund, the JNF.

HH: The JNF. Okay, people can Google Jewish National Fund and get to that. Now let me ask you about the report in the Jerusalem Post this afternoon, Mr. Ambassador, that Prime Minister Netanyahu will issue a pre-Christmas call for the release of Jonathan Pollard. What can you tell us about that?

MO: Well, I don’t want to comment about the report itself, but I will say that Jonathan Pollard acted for the state of Israel, that Israel takes responsibility for his actions. We don’t shy away from that. It was very regrettable. It happened a long time ago, and certainly, we would…no one would ever think of doing something like that again. But we hope for his early release, and we hope that the United States will show mercy here, because he’s been in prison now for a quarter of a century. It’s quite a bit longer than anybody who was accused of crimes that were spying, for example, for even enemy countries. This was working for a friendly country. So we hope for his early and quick release.

HH: Do you believe he is being treated more harshly because it was an ally, and because it was Israel, than had it been an adversary of the United States? I mean, we just tossed out the KGB deep cover people pretty quickly.

MO: Now I don’t know, and I can’t comment on it. I don’t know why he received the treatment that he did. You know, he was accused of spying, and this was the sentence that he got. And I’ll just reiterate, we really do hope for leniency in this case, and clemency, and that he can be released.

HH: All right. I want to turn now to generally the state of diplomacy in the Middle East. There have been this back and forth with the Obama administration over the settlements. It appears now that that sticking point, or whatever we want to call it, is over. Is that the understanding you have, Mr. Ambassador, that the Obama administration is now withdrawing its objections, or at least the impediment those objections form to the peace process?

MO: Well, I think that there’s been a long standing difference of opinion between the United States and Israel, not just between the Netanyahu government and the Obama administration over the question of settlements. But in practical terms, for the peace process, the United States and Israel now very closely communicating and coordinating, are looking forward to moving beyond that stage, and getting to the point where Israelis and Palestinians are exchanging views on the core issues, and then moving toward direct negotiations where we can begin to resolve these issues.

HH: Now who is being helpful in that besides the Americans? Are the Jordanians, are the Egyptians your genuine allies in this? Or are they on the sidelines saying work it out?

MO: No, no, they’re very helpful. And Prime Minister Netanyahu has had a very constructive relationship both with King Abdullah in Jordan, and President Mubarak in Egypt, and he’s in close communication with them. And they have been helpful.

HH: So what do you see in the new year happening? Because I’ve tried to follow this for years, and I find myself just perplexed at what could possibly be good coming out of this in 2011.

MO: Well, in many ways, the circumstances for moving on the peace process auger well, positively. This is the first time since Israel’s creation where the majority of Arab states view another Middle Eastern state, Iran, as their principal enemy, and not us. Those Wikileaks documents confirm that. The Palestinian economy in the West Bank is doing superbly, 11% growth rate. There’s been a good level of security both in Israel and the West Bank this year. And generally, the Netanyahu government is strong and very representative. You have a Palestinian government that at least on paper, we hope, is committed to the two-state solution. You have an American administration very focused on the issue. And the surveys show that there’s still a strong amount of support for this peace process. So that would seem to auger well. Could I make a prediction at what’s going to happen over the course of the year? I don’t know I could make a prediction at what’s going to happen next week or tomorrow in the Middle East. It’s a rather unpredictable region, as you know.

HH: Is there any good news coming out of signals received from Hamas or from Hezbollah about either of those terrorist organizations in any way moderating?

MO: No. No. That I can answer categorically. No. Hamas regularly calls not just for the destruction of Israel, but for the destruction of the Jewish people worldwide. It’s a genocidal organization. Hezbollah is now waiting to hear the results of the international tribunal set up to investigate the assassination of Lebanese leader Hariri, and it looks quite likely that Hezbollah will be found guilty of that assassination. And there’s a fear that Hezbollah could cause all sorts of mischief to detract attention from its guilt, including the possibility it would actually take over Lebanon. And we’re watching these developments very, very closely. So no, they are feeling stronger every day, they feel that they have Iran behind them, and that the winds are blowing in the direction of Tehran in the Middle East, and not westward.

HH: There are some concerns that the Lebanese government is in effect throwing in with Hezbollah, even before any kind of a coup. Is that widely shared in Israel, Mr. Ambassador?

MO: Well, Hezbollah is part of the government. It’s a dominant part of the government. It has tremendous military presence in Lebanon. It has an independent military communications network. They have very strong connections with the Lebanese army. I think that at this point, trying to separate Lebanon from Hezbollah is very, very difficult.

HH: Is there any official understanding of what the worm has done to Iran’s nuclear capability, the worm that is variously linked in various places to the government of Israel? I know you’re not going to comment on that, but do you have anything that’s publicly said about how badly compromised Iran’s nuclear program is as a result?

MO: Well, they have said that they’ve experienced technical difficulties as a result of this computer worm. But the fact of the matter is the centrifuges continue to spin. And they continue to churn out enriched uranium, now up to 20%. And the leap from 25% to weapons grade uranium is very, very small. And so whatever difficulties they’ve had, it has not been able to stop their nuclear program. And the sanctions, the international sanctions which have been more effectively than many people had anticipated, great cooperation from the Europeans there, some better cooperation from the Russians and the Chinese, again, has had a big impact on the Iranian economy. But we have not seen any modification of Iran’s behavior vis-à-vis their nuclear program.

HH: 30 seconds to our break, and then our final segment. Have you seen any signs after the hike in gas prices this week of any instability in the Iranian people?

MO: No, not yet. And we’ve had reports of heavy clouds of fog over Tehran, because the Iranians are now using their own refineries to refine gasoline. They usually import a better quality of gasoline. There’s no question that there’s going to be, and has been, upheaval in Iran, both on the economic and the environmental level because of the sanctions. But we may have a leadership there that’s willing to starve its people to death rather than give up its nuclear programs.

– – – –

HH: Mr. Ambassador, a couple of quick closing questions, thanks for spending the time with me. As I recall, one time I talked to you, you were on the border with Gaza, and you were in a tank. And I’m curious, as the United States introduces tanks into Afghanistan, what you think the efficacy of that’s going to be?

MO: I actually was in a tank, and frankly as an old paratrooper, I hate tanks.

HH: (laughing)

MO: I try to stay as far away from those contraptions as I can. And so I don’t have any particular expertise on it. I just know that they are frightful things, and if I were a Taliban seeing an American Abrams tank bearing down on me, I would be thinking about heading the other way.

HH: What were you doing in a tank if you’re a paratrooper?

MO: No, the only time I ever…they stuck me in a tank one time to do some joint maneuver, and I vowed I’d never get in one of those things again. And I try to stay as far away as I can.

HH: All right. Now I also want to ask, given your long experience with the Israeli Defense Force, as the United States voted this week to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, how is that worked…Israel is held up as an example both of a nation that integrates everyone into their armed services, women into their armed services, and gays and lesbians into their armed services. How has the latter worked over the years?

MO: It’s been really no problem. We have never distinguished about sexuality or color or even religion. We have a great number of both Muslims and Christians serving in the IDF. Now what works in Israel doesn’t necessarily work in other countries, and we don’t assume that, for example, the way we check people at airports is very different from the way people are checked at airports here. It works for us. I don’t know if it would work in the United States. But no, this has been the decision of Congress, and we respect it, and at times during the course of this debate, people came to us, and came to me personally and asked us what was our view on these things. And I told them just what I told you. It works for us, and I don’t know if it will work for you, but you should know this has been our experience. With Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, it really is never even an issue.

HH: Last question for you concerns a terrible tragedy in Israel where an American tourist was murdered in a hiking park. Any leads on that? Any idea what that was about?

MO: Well, we think it may have been a terrorist attack. And we are investigating it thoroughly. We certainly express regret for the loss of this young woman’s life, Miss Luken, and we’ve been in communication with the family about it.

HH: I don’t think I’ve ever read of that. I mean, there have been American victims of terror before, but never in that circumstance. Am I wrong about that?

MO: Oh, well, a circumstance where people were taken hostage and murdered?

HH: Yeah.

MO: Well, memory serves, there were examples like this in the past. But this should in no way discourage Americans from coming to Israel. We’ve had our world, our all time high of tourist rates this year. Last year was the highest rate in Israel’s history. And this year, we exceeded it by 27%.

HH: Well, I’ll be adding to your numbers in August.

MO: They were hiking in a very, very remote area.

HH: Oh, I didn’t know that. I’ll be there in August, and so I look forward to talking to you before then, Mr. Ambassador. Thank you so much…

MO: Have a great holiday to you and all your listeners.

HH: And to you a great new year.

End of interview.

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