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Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, on the Palestinian stunt at the U.N.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011
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HH: My friend over at Powerline, Scott Johnson, says in the U.N., it all makes perfect sense. But it probably doesn’t make perfect sense to you, everything that’s been going on at the United Nations over the past fortnight, whether it’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whether it’s President Abbas from the Palestinian Authority. But perhaps to lay it out in a way that can be understood by the audience, I’m pleased to welcome back Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ambassador Michael Oren. Mr. Ambassador, welcome, it’s great to have you back.

MO: Always good to be with you, Hugh.

HH: In the Wall Street Journal a couple of days ago, you wrote, “The Palestinians ame to the U.N. to get a state, but without giving Israel peace in return.” Can you explain what you mean by that?

MO: Well, we have a peace process that’s been going on since 1993. And it began with a document called the Oslo Accords, in which the Palestinians committed to sit face to face with us and work out all their agreements with us through direct negotiations, no end running that process. The United States is a co-signatory to that agreement. So it’s a Palestinian commitment not just to us, but to the United States of America. And what the Palestinians are trying to do now is end run that process, and go directly to the U.N., and get the U.N. to recognize an independent Palestinian state without having to make any concessions with Israel, without having to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, having to give Israel any security guarantees, or basically having to make peace. So it’s getting a state without making peace. Remember that old, that formula was territory for peace?

HH: Yup.

MO: This is getting the territory without giving the peace.

HH: Now in the Wall Street Journal op-ed, Mr. Ambassador, which I’ve got linked over at Hughhewitt.com, you wrote that, “Understanding the Palestinians’ decision requires a review not only of the past week’s events, but of one that occurred 64 years ago.” And I’d like to actually, in this segment and next, in fifteen minutes, try and review with you, given your status as an accomplished historian, what you mean by you have to go back 64 years to understand what happened yesterday.

MO: Well, to understand it, this is the not the first time we’ve seen this played out. It goes back to 1947 when the United Nations proposed a two-state solution – a Jewish state living side by side with an Arab state in perfect peace. There was even an economic union between the two states. And we, the Jews, the Israelis, we accepted that proposal, and the Palestinians rejected it. And they rejected it because the price of getting a Palestinian state was accepting a Jewish state. And they were unwilling to pay the price. And in fact, they were so unwilling, that they joined with the armies of five Arab states in attacking the new Israeli state and trying to destroy it. Fortunately, they failed. But the same thing happened in the Year 2000. In the Year 2000, then-Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, met with then-Palestinian president, Yasser Arafat, at Camp David, under the auspices of President Bill Clinton, and once again, there was a two-state solution offered. Ehud Barak offered, basically met all of the Palestinian demands for a Palestinian state in Gaza, in virtually all of the West Bank, and even in East Jerusalem, the first Israeli, probably the first leader in the world to volunteer to divide his nation’s capitol with another country, with another people. And Yasser Arafat turned it down. They turned around and walked away, because the price of accepting the Palestinian state was accepting the Jewish state. Flash forward eight more years to 2008, you have and Israeli prime minister by the name of Ehud Olmert, meeting with Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. And Olmert went even a little further than Barak went in meeting the Palestinian demands – a Palestinian state in Gaza, and virtually all of the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, and Abu Mazen simply ignored the offer. He never even got back to Ehud Olmert. And so now the same, Mahmoud Abbas, three years later, is turning around and going to the U.N. The reason he didn’t get back to Ehud Olmert in 2008 was not because of settlements, it wasn’t because of Jerusalem, it wasn’t because of borders. It was because the price of creating a Palestinian state was accepting a Jewish state. This is just what happened in the U.N. last week.

HH: Now as recently as today, news arrives from Israel that the interior minister has approved the construction of 1,100 new homes in East Jerusalem. Was this tit for tat for the Palestinians going their own way to the U.N., Mr. Ambassador?

NO: No, I think that first of all, it’s not actually in East Jerusalem, Hugh. It’s in South Jerusalem, in an area that’s always been a Jewish neighborhood since 1967. There’s virtually no Arabs around there. It’s actually a neighborhood very close to my own in Southern Jerusalem. And I think that this was an announcement of a second or third stage in a seven-state approval process that may take years to come about. And these stages are happening all the time in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a city of over a million people, and people build, and they expand neighborhoods, and they’re living, it’s a living city. It’s not a frozen city. And it’s part of the natural course of things. Also, under Israeli law, Jerusalem has exactly the same status as any other city, Haifa, Tel Aviv, and neither the prime minister of Israeli nor the president of Israel, or even the mayor of Jerusalem has the ability to tell individual citizens under law that they can’t build somewhere. So it’s perfectly legal under Israeli law, and part of the natural course there. It’s not tit for tat with the Palestinians.

– – – –

HH: Mr. Ambassador, before go back to the large issue, I want to focus on a small one. In my own backyard, in Southern California, which is the conviction of students at the University of California, Irvine, for purposefully obstructing your remarks there last year, do you have any comment on that decision, and on the punishment that’s been meted out?

MO: Well, I can’t comment as an ambassador on an internal American legal issue. And you understand that.

HH: Of course.

MO: I have gone out to Irvine to interact with many communities, but particularly that community, which I knew was particularly active on the Irvine campus, and I think it was very important that the Israeli ambassador reached out to a community of Muslim-Americans, and try to engage in a civil dialogue, and try to work out some of our differences, hear their perspectives, allow me to hear their perspectives, but also allow them to hear my perspectives. And they were unwilling to do that. They kept on trying to deny not only my right to speak, but also the right of others to hear what I was saying. And unfortunately, they also denied themselves the right to hear what I was saying. And I said it then, that I was very saddened by it, and I subsequently wrote a letter, an open letter, to the student body of Irvine, with an emphasis on this particular group, saying that if they were willing to have a civil discussion with me, that I would go back to that campus, I would go back tomorrow and try once again, because I’m not going to give up on dialogue.

HH: Well, that, it was very dispiriting, and then when I went for the first time to your country this summer, in August, it was in my mind as I looked around, and I kind of got a sense for the intractability of some of these issues. In Nazareth, for example, undisputedly part of Israel now and forever, there’s this sign that’s just sort of an aggressive, large sign in front of the Church of the Enunciation, and I thought to myself then, and at many other places, this is just intractable. Do you feel that that is what we’re just going to be living with for the next hundred years, Mr. Ambassador?

MO: Well, I think if I believed that, I maybe couldn’t do this job. I think that Israel is a country of optimists. I mean, if anybody would have thought that today, anybody that thought, say, in the aftermath of World War II, when a third of the Jewish people had been killed in the Holocaust, and the Zionists movement had no money or no means to defend itself, no international allies, that today you’d have a Jewish state which is close to 8 million people strong, with a robust economy. We just became members of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development with a thriving tourist industry, thriving high-tech industry, an outstanding citizens’ army, a democracy that’s never known even a second of non-democratic rule, one of the few countries in the world that can say that. I mean, you have to be able to be an optimist to look, to believe this stuff, because it seems like, it almost could seem like a fairy tale. So while these problems do seem intractable today, I think there’s reason for optimism that eventually they will be resolved, and that someday, we can live in peace with our neighbors.

HH: Going back to the U.N., today, Jeffrey Goldberg, who’s a Bloomberg columnist and national correspondent for The Atlantic, wrote a piece that suggests, pretty explicitly, that the U.N. is using the Palestinian issue as a good attempt to divert attention from numerous dysfunctions. And among the dysfunctions that Jeffrey cites out of the Muslim world are just terrible example after example – Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, of incredible violence. Do you think he’s right here, that the U.N. indulges the Palestinian drama as an excuse not to deal with the serious problems that they ought to be addressing?

MO: I think Jeffrey is spot on. I think that’s precisely what the U.N. does. When you have a situation where 21 of the last 27 General Assembly resolutions were condemning the state of Israel, a state that occupies probably, takes up .00001% of the world’s surface, and about as much of that of the world’s population, at a time when you have the Syrian army massacring its own citizens, where you have terrible oppression and famines throughout the world, that that type of a balance, it’s about detracting attention from all the other horrors, all the other atrocities, and the violations, the gross violations of human rights that go under it, and picking on this tiny, but thriving democracy in the middle of a very hostile and flammable Middle East.

HH: Now Mr. Ambassador, not long ago, Vice President Cheney was here, and we were talking about his memoir, in which he describes in great detail the debates over the Syrian nuclear facility, and what the United States didn’t do, and what Israel did. Have you had a chance to read that? And can you confirm the accuracy as well as you understand it of the Vice President’s account?

MO: I have certainly read the account, but I cannot confirm the accuracy about that operation.

HH: All right, in terms of the Australian newspaper, it reported yesterday that the International Atomic Energy Agency no concludes that Iran has stepped up its uranium enrichment, and one commentator said they are within less, you know, two months and six days of going critical. Your reaction to that? Is that, in fact, the opinion of the Israeli government as well?

MO: Well, I can’t go into the details of our assessments, but I will tell you that we do not have much time, and that yes, the Iranians have overcome virtually all of the technical difficulties they encountered the previous year. They are enriching uranium at a pace, at a very quick rate. They have now put in centrifuges that can quadruple the amount of uranium they can enrich, and they have also learned to enrich it at a much higher level, approaching the level you need for weapons-grade uranium. At the same time, they’ve developed a missile system that is capable of carrying nuclear warheads not only through the region, but now to Western Europe, and probably within the decade, to the Eastern Coast of the United States as well. So the uranium nuclear program is a threat not only to Israel and the Middle East, but to the entire world. And the day, if and when Iran gets a nuclear weapon, it will be a game-changer. It’s the end of non-proliferation globally, not just in the Middle East. That’s why we are determined to preventing it, and why the United States is determined to preventing that happening.

HH: Last question, Mr. Ambassador. The New York Times ran an odd piece today that seemed to argue that Christians, at least a number of Christians in Syria, are opposed to regime change there, because they, “Fear that in the event that President Assad falls, they might be subjected to reprisals at the hands of a conservative Sunni leadership.” Your reaction to this piece, and whether or not you think that it represents widespread sentiment in Syria?

MO: I have no way of knowing, Hugh. I do not know this. All I can say is that back in the 30s, there was a revolution in Iraq, and basically a Sunni population won that, and they turned around and massacred the Christians of Iraq. So maybe people in Syria, people in the Middle East have long memories, remember that particular event. But many things have also changed since then. And one of the reasons that there were ethnic tensions in Iraq in the 30s was because the Syrian Christian community was very close to the British colonial government. Today, there’s no colonial government in Syria today. There’s only the despotic rule of Bashar al-Assad. And I think it would be in the interest of all Syrians, and I think it would be in the interest of the people of the Middle East in general, including Israel, if Mr. Assad were to disappear, and very quickly.

HH: Ambassador Michael Oren, thank you. It is always a pleasure. Come back again soon.

End of interview.

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