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Israeli Ambassador To The U.S., Michael Oren, on the flotilla raid, and Turkish involvement in it

Thursday, June 3, 2010
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HH: Joined now by Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren. Ambassador Oren is the author as well of Power, Faith and Fantasy: America In The Middle East – 1776 To The Present. Welcome back, Mr. Ambassador. Last time we spoke, it was before you were the ambassador, and I believe you were on, had been called up to duty in the IDF, and were on the border of Israel and Gaza.

MO: It was true, Hugh.

HH: Welcome back.

MO: Now on a different border, a different front. Let’s put it that way.

HH: Well, I want to begin with this afternoon, the Carter Center issued a statement that “expresses regret for loss of life, and condemns the unprovoked and illegal Israeli assault on the humanitarian Gaza aid flotilla in international waters.” It then goes on to quote former President Carter as saying directly, “these tragic deaths are a terrible reminder that the failed policy of besieging Gaza mainly hurts civilians.” President Carter goes on to say, “there is no way to realize the goal of a two-state solution as long as the people of Gaza remain isolated and deprived of their basic human rights.” And then the Carter Center closes after a direct quote from Carter by saying, “the frequent use of indiscriminate and disproportionate force against civilian targets with impunity must end for peace and justice to prevail in the Middle East.” Your reaction, Ambassador Oren?

MO: Well, it’s quite extraordinary, Hugh. Let’s see. We have in Gaza an organization called Hamas, which violently overthrew the legitimate Palestinian leadership there, killed 350 of them, threw them off the top of roves, an organization that states in its covenant that its goal is the destruction of the state of Israel, and the destruction of the Jewish people worldwide, which proceeded to fire 10,000 rockets into Israel, forcing Israel to put a naval blockade to deny Hamas further rockets. And we are the aggressors? Let me get this straight. I think you have to be, you know, I’m not a psychologist, so I can’t talk about the psychology behind this, the pathology. But I think you have to be deeply, morally corrupt and distorted to issue a statement like that.

HH: Earlier tonight, Larry King spoke with President Obama, and asked him about the Jimmy Carter statement. Here’s that exchange.

LK: Former President Carter has condemned the Israeli raid against those ships in the flotilla trying to break the blockade of Gaza.

BHO: Right.

LK: Where do stand on that? A former American president has condemned it.

BHO: Well, the United States with the other members of the UN Security Council said very clearly that we condemned all the acts that led up to this violence. It was a tragic situation. You’ve got loss of life that was unnecessary. And so we are calling for an effective investigation of everything that happened, and I think the Israelis are going to agree to that, an investigation of international standards, because they recognize that this can’t be good for Israel’s long term security.

LK: Premature, then, to condemn Israel?

BHO: Well, I think that we need to know what all the facts are, but it’s not premature to say to the Israelis, and to say to the Palestinians, and to say to all the parties in the region, that the status quo is unsustainable. We have been trying to do this piecemeal for decades now. And it just doesn’t work. You’ve got to have a situation in which the Palestinians have real opportunity, and Israel’s neighbors recognize Israel’s legitimate security concerns, and are committed to peace.

HH: Ambassador Michael Oren, he did not condemn Jimmy Carter’s center’s condemnation of Israel, but he also did not join with it. What’s your reaction to the president’s response?

MO: Well, the president’s response, needless to say, is far more measured. And we agree that the status quo in Gaza is not to our liking as well. We are struggling mightily to try to reconcile our desire to meet the civil needs of the civilian population in Gaza with our right and our duty to protect our citizens from thousands of Hamas rockets. And it’s not an easy call, as we’ve seen this week. But we’re committed to it, and we’re engaged in a conversation with the Obama administration of possible means of changing the status quo. I can’t say right now whether I’m sanguine about the success of such measures. We’ve certainly tried in the past. But we have committed to try to seek a better status quo. Ultimately, the only solution is peace.

HH: Was it…

MO: If there’s a peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, then people like Hamas become irrelevant. But that peace is the last thing that Hamas wants.

HH: Was it appropriate for the United States to join in Monday’s statement from the Secretary-General and the Security Council?

MO: You know, we appreciated the administration’s efforts to try to mitigate some of the language in that statement. The statement was not entirely to our liking, needless to say. But we understand that a major diplomatic effort was made so that the outcome could have not, was not far worse.

HH: Would it have been better if we had vetoed it?

MO: Well, it wasn’t even a question of veto, because it was what’s known as a Security Council presidential statement, which is a consensual statement. It doesn’t require a veto, or even enable a veto.

HH: Would it have been better if the United States had declined to agree with the statement?

MO: I think you’d have to ask the president that.

HH: There…Charles Krauthammer last hour on this program said that this administration’s failure to stand by Israel is empowering the enemies of Israel to be even more bold than usual, Ambassador Oren. Your response to Charles Krauthammer’s assessment?

MO: Well, I won’t get into that argument, Hugh, but I think one thing we’ve seen over the last year, year and a half, is that when our enemies in the region see daylight between the United States and Israel, they will exploit that daylight. They’ll exploit it either by not joining peace talks, or they’ll exploit it by undertaking violence. And therefore, it is exceedingly important that our enemies in the region know and understand that they cannot get between the United States and Israel.

HH: It was said yesterday by Secretary of State Clinton that the boycott, the embargo, is unsustainable in the waters off of Gaza. Does Israel agree with that, Mr. Ambassador?

MO: We agree that we’d like to find a better way of denying Hamas rockets. If the Secretary of State has ideas about how that might be done, we would be very, very happy to hear them. And we’ll be anxious to hear her suggestions.

HH: Unsustainable is code, though, and not very hard to decipher code, this can’t go on, this has to end. Will Israel abandon this boycott if Hamas remains in power in Gaza?

MO: We will not.

HH: Is that an absolute commitment that they will not walk away and allow ships that have not been inspected to land there?

MO: We will not.

HH: Let me ask you about the idea…

MO: Hugh, we cannot. We cannot. You have to understand that missiles coming, rockets coming to Gaza through the tunnels can come in one at a time. And that’s bad enough. They now have missiles that can reach downtown Tel Aviv. But if ships are allowed in, they can bring in thousands of rockets. We have intercepted three of these ships already, massively laden with munitions. If you want Hamas to become an Iranian state on the Mediterranean, not only will it mortally threaten Israel, it will kill any chance of peace, because the Palestinian Authority will also crumble. I don’t think any administration wants to see that happen.

HH: Well, that’s why I understand that. But I’m surprised you’re being so restrained, Mr. Ambassador. And you’re a diplomat, obviously, you speak for Israel. But a lot of us who support the state of Israel are amazed that this boycott creates any controversy at all. They can’t, you can’t allow ships with potential weapons of mass destruction or rockets to dock uninspected. I don’t know where the Obama administration is on this.

MO: Well, I think in closed sessions, not in front of the press, they understand that we have a very legitimate security need to prevent these ships from reaching Gaza shores. Keep in mind this is also an Egyptian blockade. And in many ways, they are more, they are stricter than we are. They let trucks in once every couple of days. We let a hundred trucks laden with food and medicine into Gaza every single day. The Egyptians do not do that. But the administration understands that we cannot have unimpeded, unchecked cargoes arriving in Gaza via the sea.

HH: Has anyone said that publicly by the administration in a senior position?

MO: Yes, Vice President Biden said it on the Charlie Rose show last night.

HH: All right, we referenced that. But is that the only example thus far?

MO: Of senior members? Yes.

HH: All right, now Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey said Israel is going to lose its oldest and strongest ally in the Middle East region today because of this event. What’s your response to that, Mr. Ambassador?

MO: I think that in the last few years, you’ve seen a stark turn in Turkish policy. Israel’s policy have remained exactly the same. There’s been no change. And it’s the Turkish government, the Turkish government has changed. It has become an Islamic-oriented government. It has turned away from the West. It has positioned itself as a friend of Iran, a friend of Hamas, both of which have sworn to destroy the state of Israel. They have canceled our participation in joint maneuvers, military maneuvers that have been held for a great many years. And they canceled it well in advance of this issue, of this episode. Now we do, we value our relations with Turkey. We do not want to see a further deterioration. But it is Turkey that has changed, not Israel, and we look forward to Turkey reaching out to us and saying you know, you want that relationship, we’re still your friends.

HH: Thirty seconds, Mr. Ambassador. Has the American media reported this incident fairly?

MO: I think there’s been, for the most part, it’s been fair. But just, you know, in a way, just the obsessive focus on it in itself creates a gross imbalance. Israel defending itself against a flotilla organized by a radical Islamic group linked to al Qaeda, and our commandos doing the utmost to avoid inflicting casualties, landing on these boats with paintball guns, and somehow, this has become the focus of what basically is a media frenzy. I would call your attention to the fact that this week, 27 Afghan civilians were killed in fighting in Afghanistan, and it made the back page of the paper.

– – – –

HH: Continuing the conversation with Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren. Mr. Ambassador, when we went to break, you were saying that the American media have been fair in the coverage of this to a certain extent, but that the obsessive coverage is distorting the situation. Can you expand on that?

MO: As I said, it’s just been a major media story all week long, Hugh. I’ve been on dozens of interviews. And it makes you wonder. So many other things are going on in the world. I gave one example before the break, I don’t know if you heard it, that earlier this week, there were 27 Afghan civilians that were accidentally killed by the U.S. forces in combat. It made the back page of some paper. There’s no call for an international investigation of it. Where’s the balance in it? Why is it when Israel has to take steps to defend itself, and in the most legitimate way in full accordance with international law, why then does that become a media frenzy for more than a week?

HH: Now Mr. Ambassador, that which gets rewarded gets repeated. Since this generated so much criticism of Israel, and so much attention, do you expect another convoy soon to leave from Turkey or other parts of the Middle East to attempt to run the blockade?

MO: Well, there are two boats now en route to Gaza emanating from Ireland. We are in discussions with the Irish government. The Obama administration is in discussions with the Irish government, offering these crews, these boats, the same offer we had made to the Turkish flotilla, that is if you turn over your cargoes to us, we will vet the cargoes, make sure there’s nothing in them that could prove harmful to Israeli civilians, and we’ll pass that cargo on to responsible hands in the Gaza Strip. The Turks turned us down. These boats coming from Ireland have yet to turn us down completely. We hope they’ll accept the offer. By the way, the Egyptians have also made a very similar offer. If not, we, again, I tell you we are going to uphold the right to defend ourselves, and we will not let this blockade be broken. And we have the means, including non-military means, to stop these particular boats.

HH: I now have the specific statement of Prime Minister Erdogan, Mr. Ambassador. He says Israel stands to lose its closest ally in the Middle East if it does not change its mentality. Turkey tried to preserve their relationship, but the Israeli government did not understand this, and performed a historical mistake. This mistake is not only against Turkey, it is against civilians from 32 different countries. Violent policies will not bring about a positive outcome. We will not avert our eyes from violence like this. Mr. Ambassador specific response to this?

MO: Again, we reached out to Turkey in an attempt to prevent this incident, to get the Turkish flotilla to pass its cargo onto us. The Turkish response was that they couldn’t control their NGOs. They weren’t in control. But now, they seem to be very much in control. It seems to me you can’t have it both ways. As I said earlier, Israeli policy has not changed. Turkish policy has changed. And I think if the Turks want to play a meaningful role in Middle East diplomacy, and I get the sense that they do want to play that, they have to have reasonable, if not friendly relations with the state of Israel, because we, too, are major players.

HH: Last question, Mr. Ambassador, how tense is it in Israel in the summer of 2010? Do you expect more conflict, and perhaps even a war either in the north or the south, or some sort of confrontation with Iran?

MO: Well, we do keep our eyes on the north. Hezbollah now has more than three times the number of rockets they had during the second Lebanon war four years ago. They’re bigger rockets with better ranges. And we have to keep an eye on that, because Hezbollah is not an independent agent. Hezbollah takes its order from Tehran. If Tehran wants to start a war, it’ll start a war. Now having said that, the economy in Israel is robust, we’re packed with tourists. We’ve had the quietist year in our 62 year history, and people are having a great time in the state of Israel.

HH: Mr. Ambassador, thank you for joining us, spending some extra time with us, and we will check back with you as we are able, as this continues. Thank you, Mr. Ambassador.

MO: Thank you, Hugh. Good night.

HH: Good night.

End of interview.

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