Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, on the state of the Middle East today
HH: As I prepare to make my first ever trip to Israel, I got a book out last night, Power, Faith & Fantasy: America In The Middle East – 1776 To The Present, which I read before, but I’m rereading it in advance of the trip, and then thought well, let’s ask the author, who happens to be Israel’s ambassador to the United States to join us and update it. And I’m pleased to welcome back Ambassador Michael Oren. It’s great to have you, Mr. Ambassador.
MO: Always good to be with you, Hugh, thanks. It’s exciting to hear about your trip.
HH: Oh, I’m pretty excited about it, and it’s a great way to get ready for it, the book. But the book ends in 2008. We’ve had a busy three years since then. Stepping back to 30,000 feet, has the Middle East had a period of this kind of sustained upheaval in the Arab world that we can look back for a guide to what will happen next?
MO: Well, I should say there’s a new version out that goes out to 2011. But even that one, now, because it came out three months ago, doesn’t include the U.S. intervention in Libya, which is interesting, because America began its military activities in Libya in 1801 during the Barbary wars. But yes, the Middle East has always been the scene of upheaval, going back to 1776 and before that. But from the American experience, it was always about change and upheaval. America’s first overseas war after its revolution with Great Britain, the first overseas war was against, was in the Middle East against the Barbary pirates, which are today in Tunisia, Libya and Morocco. Sound familiar?
MO: And the first American servicemen to be killed overseas were killed in those areas. The American Navy was created to fight in those battles. Thomas Jefferson, in 1801, talked about creating a democracy in Tunisia and Libya. Unbelievable. There’s nothing new under the Sun.
HH: I didn’t realize that Power, Faith & Fantasy had been reissued. I got the 2008 edition. So you sat down…did you cover the Arab spring in the new edition?
MO: I covered the Arab spring. It was so interesting for me, and to see, you know, how America responded with faith, with faith in its democratic ideals, sometimes, in the case of Libya, with power, and whether there would emerge an American George Washington, because it’s a long held aspiration for American leaders that there would emerge Middle Eastern George Washingtons, excuse me, Middle Eastern George Washingtons that would lead their peoples to democracy and freedom. And really, nothing really new in the American response to the Arab spring. It’s been going on for over two centuries.
HH: Do you see any such Washington prototypes yet, Mr. Ambassador?
MO: Well, we’re not really familiar with the rebels in Libya, and certainly no leader, at least that I have seen, has emerged who you could identify and point at as that type of George Washington. I think the George Washington may be different types than what we would identify – a very tall man with a sword. They may be very young people with a laptop computer, which would be a different type of George Washington than most people knew, or seem to call up. So right now, no. What we fear, and we do have fears about the Arab spring, we see opportunities, but we also see risks. The risks are that some of these young people, these young opposition, who are Western oriented and democratic in their outlook, are not yet organized. And the people who are organized are the radicals, who could take over the situation. They could hijack these revolutions. We saw it happen in Lebanon, we saw it happen in Iran, and we saw it happen in Gaza. There were democratic movements in all three of those places, and they were hijacked and transformed into terrorist strongholds, in the case of Gaza, and Lebanon, and they were transformed into rocket pads, for the launching of thousands of rockets against Israel. So we see the opportunities of true democracies, peace-loving democracies emerging, because we know that democracies are better at keeping peace than totalitarian governments or autocracies. But we have to be very cautious as well.
HH: I’m talking with Ambassador Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, historian, former professor at Yale and other places on the East Coast. Professor, last two times I’ve been on Hannity’s show with my friend, Bob Beckel, Bob has said, and I’m pretty much quoting here, Hewitt, don’t worry about the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe, nothing to worry about. What’s your reaction to that statement? I know Bob’s probably a friend of yours as well. But what about the general lassitude that people, or indifference that people are showing to the Brotherhood in Egypt?
MO: Well, I think we have to again be very cautious. I know there’s been a tremendous amount of reports about, that the Brotherhood has split along ideological lines, there’s a more moderate wing, a less moderate wing. But our sources inform us that the Muslim Brotherhood often adopts flexible positions in order to adapt to a certain political environment, or a certain political reality, when their ultimate goal remains the same, and that is crating an Islamic, a unified Islamic state, under Islamic law, throughout the entire Middle East and beyond. We know this because there are branches of the Muslim Brotherhood which aren’t in any way moderate, such as Hamas in Gaza. And Hamas in Gaza not only wants to destroy the state of Israel, and according to its covenant, destroy the Jewish people throughout the world, but it wants to replace Israel with a Palestinian state that will be an Islamic extremist state, and will serve as a basis for expanding that state throughout the Middle East. And these are organizations that threaten not just Israel, but threaten all pro-Western governments in the Middle East. They want to upend the entire existing order. So again, we have to exercise great caution when looking at the Muslim Brotherhood. There’s also a Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is not moderate even in its façade. It’s extremely radical.
HH: You bring up Syria, and it’s the day on which the regime okayed, promoted and probably organized attacks by the mobs on the U.S. and French embassies. No one has been injured at the U.S. embassy, and the mob has now retreated. What’s your reaction to these events? And what does it tell you about the regime in Syria?
MO: Well, we see the regime in Syria as the devil we know, and we don’t prefer that devil, certainly. We see Bashar Assad as the type of incarnation of the devil. He has promoted murder in Lebanon, had a stranglehold on Lebanon. He has maintained a very strong alliance with the murderous regime in Tehran, in Iran. He is widely reported to have tried to develop nuclear weapons of his own. He’s provided 50,000 rockets to Hezbollah in Lebanon, 10,000 to Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Perhaps maybe the only redeeming quality about him was that he and his father kept a quiet border with Israel for about forty years, but he doesn’t even do that anymore. He’s sent, now, Palestinians to try to break through our border in a violent wave. So there’s nothing redeeming about this individual, nothing redeeming about his regime. And were that regime to pass from the world, I guarantee you no Israeli would be particularly sorrowful about it.
HH: Secretary of State Clinton said today, Mr. Ambassador, that, “from our perspective, Assad has lost legitimacy. He has failed to deliver on the promises he has made. He has sought and accepted aid from the Iranians as to how to repress his people.” Are you surprised by that statement? And what do you think she’s signaling, because the Obama administration has actually been quite quiescent in the face of Syrian repression in the last two months.
MO: I think that the administration is taking an increasingly strident position vis-à-vis the situation in Syria. And I think the message is clear, either that he democratizes, or that he steps aside. I mean, it’s hard to say that he is a dictator, a violent dictator. His regime has been maintained through brutality, through suppression. His father came to power through a very bloody coup, and he has repressed any attempt to democratize, including thirty years ago when his father killed as many as 20,000 people in one city, in Hama, in a single afternoon, who were protesting for democracy. It’s hard to say that a regime like that ever had legitimacy, and from where.
HH: Is there any sign, Mr. Ambassador, that Syria, in an attempt to relieve pressure at home, will use Hezbollah as a cat’s paw, or will encourage any kind of violence along the Israeli border from Lebanon?
MO: It hasn’t happened yet, Hugh, but we are vigilant. We are watching it very carefully. We are watching very carefully the transfer of arms from Syria to Hezbollah. And we cannot entirely eliminate the possibility that if Bashar Assad is pushed into a corner, he’ll do anything, and I mean everything, to get out.
HH: Does that mean Israel has been on a different state of alert? I mean, there’s nothing going to stop me from going to Israel, but I am curious as to what is the situation on the ground there, given Syrian instability.
MO: Well, we’re not on alert. I want to say we’re not on alert. But I am saying it’s something we have to watch for. Israel has to prepare for any number of possibilities all the time. We live in a tough neighborhood, as you know. And we have a wonderful and committed defense force, and it is advanced and loyal. I’ve got my, I have two kids serve in that army already, got one kid, now, still left in the army. We have a citizen’s army, which is brave and completely obedient to a democratic government which has never known a moment of non-democratic rule. And so we always have to keep our eyes open for what’s going on in our region, because some of our neighboring countries aren’t democratic, and aren’t peace-loving. So we have to be on the watch.
HH: Any small d democratic forces in Syria, the rise of which would give reassurance to you, Michael Oren, that the right people are rising up?
MO: I think that there is a middle class in Syria that understands the basics, the precepts of democracy, and wants that type of freedom. It’s harder to say whether any of these movements would turn around and make peace with us. But one thing is certain, is that it is a good chance that the emergence of a more Western-oriented, open, democratic government in Syria would affect a loosening of Syria’s death grip on Lebanon. It would serve to unravel the very dangerous alliance between Syria and Iran. And perhaps some people would start to think that the way to give their kids and their grandkids a better future is by not constantly being on an oppressive war footing, but actually opening up to peace.
HH: To peace. I’ll be right back with Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren.
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HH: Ambassador Oren, before I go on, I want to go back, one Egyptian question I forgot. Right now, the United States is considering the sale of 125 M1A1 Abrams tanks to Egypt. Given circumstances there, has the government of Israel made any position on that sale?
MO: Well, the United States sales to Egypt of military equipment is of course not new. It goes back to the early 1980s. And there are actually factories in Egypt that co-produce some of these materials. The army, the Egyptian army has been in close coordination, cooperation and communication with Israel, and they assure us that they have every intention of maintaining the peace. That is what’s key for us, Hugh, that they are committed to maintaining the peace.
HH: All right, now how is the relationship with the United States right now? There have been a rough patch with President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. They appear to have patched it up, but a lot of people who are supporters of Israel in the United States, like me and most of my audience, think that this administration has not done what it ought to have been doing in terms of supporting our ally. Where’s…what’s the temperature right now?
MO: Well, the relationship between the United States and Israel is an unbreakable bond, Hugh. Again, you can read in this book, it goes back even before Israel was created, to John Adams, second president of the United States, or Abraham Lincoln, both of whom supported the notion of creating a Jewish state in the land of Israel. So it has very, very deep roots, and deep roots in the American historical consciousness. And this is a relationship which is actually far more deep-seated and multifaceted than anything I ever imagined as a historian, getting into the role of ambassador. It includes areas of commercial interests and security interests. It is very, very deep and multifaceted. Do we have disagreements at times? We do have disagreements at times. Are there disagreements today? Any sharper or deeper than some of those disagreements that have occurred in the past? No, I can think of some even harder times in U.S.-Israel relations. But as good friends and allies, we discuss our differences, and we overcome them. And since the Prime Minister’s last visit here, and his speech before a joint session of Congress, very warmly received by both parties there, a bipartisan show of support for Israel. We continue to be engaged in a very close communication with the administration about how to proceed on the peace process. And I think I can fairly say that there’s been some good progress on those negotiations, and we understand very much our respective interests and goals. And those goals remain very much the same. It’s peace for Israel, it’s a two-state solution in which the two states recognize us, recognize one another, a Palestinian state and a Jewish state. And it’s a permanent peace. I can’t stress that enough. It’s not a peace arrangement that is an interim stage to something else. It’s an end of claims, end of conflict. There is no disagreement whatsoever between the government of Israel and the Obama administration on those very key issues.
HH: Now Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to the joint session was really an extraordinary moment, and I spent a lot of time talking about it on this program. I’m curious, as a historian, is there any parallel that you had with that speech and its reception?
MO: The number of people who have been invited twice, this is the second time that Benjamin Netanyahu was invited to address a joint session of Congress, is very, very short. It includes people like Yitzhak Rabin and Winston Churchill, very short. And by different accounts, he got between 29 and 30 standing ovations, over 50 ovations altogether. I can’t conceive of a warmer reception by the Congress to any foreign leader.
HH: Is the communication between the United States and Israel with regards to the upheavals in places like Syria all that you would like it to be right now?
HH: All right.
MO: And again, rarely a day goes by where I am not in an detailed conversation about what’s happening in our region, with key and senior members of the administration.
HH: Now I’d like to talk to you about Greece and the flotilla that wasn’t, because a year ago, there was a disastrous flotilla for all concerned. This year, it didn’t happen. I was actually surprised that Greece intervened in this way. Would you explain to the audience what happened, and whether or not you were surprised that the Greece government stepped in this way?
MO: I wasn’t surprised. We have developed a very close relationship with Greece, and Prime Minister Netanyahu visited Greece over the course of the last year, and was warmly received there. And we deeply appreciate the contributions of the Greek government to helping avert a similar controversy that we experienced the last year with that previous flotilla. Israel and Greece share an ancient history, as you know, and we share a number of common interests, not the least of which is stability and peace in the Eastern Mediterranean. Vast numbers of Israelis travel to Greece every year. They’re our neighbors, and we have a very good, neighborly relationship with them.
HH: Now Turkey used to have a great security relationship with Israel. Is there a tilt underway, Mr. Ambassador?
MO: Not only a security relationship, we had a very good business relationship. About 400,000 Israelis every year would travel to Turkey. We had multiple flights every day. Almost all of that is gone today, alas. Our policy toward Turkey has not changed at all. But Turkey’s policy has changed, toward us and toward the region. Turkey has turned away from the West, it has a more Islamic oriented government, has developed a close relationship with Hamas. It had a close relationship with Syria before the present upheaval, a close relationship with Iran. And it had sponsored the previous flotilla, and sponsored an extremist organization, IHH, which is actually recognized as a terrorist organization by two European states. So Turkey’s changed. Turkey cancelled its joint maneuvers with us. We are trying. We are trying. We’ve had a series of talks with the Turks at a very high level, and we are trying to, if not restore things to the way they were five, six years ago, at least get on a better track with the Turks. We recognize the Turks are a powerful and proud nation. They, as strategic players go in the Middle East, they are the players par excellence. And we want to be on as good a relations as possible with the Turks, and therefore we are pursuing these negotiations at a very high level.
HH: Last couple of minutes we have, Mr. Ambassador, I want to cover two things, I’ll let you decide in what order and emphasis, Iran and the boycott law passed in Israel today. Now a secondary boycott’s an unfair labor practice in the United States, so I’m not surprised by this. But I expect a lot of news on this tomorrow, so I’ll put those two out there, and let you know we’ve got about two minutes to the break.
MO: I’m back, I’m sorry.
HH: I had asked you about the boycott law that passed in the Knesset today, and about Iran, and we’ve got about a minute and a half to the break.
MO: Well, let me focus on Iran right now, because it’s such an important issue, with your permission.
MO: About…in law, we talked a lot about the Arab spring, Hugh, and there is lots going on. From Libya, Tunisia and Egypt down to the Persian Gulf, up to Syria, everyone’s focused on what’s going on in the Arab world, and they’re not focused on what’s going on with Iran. And this is an Iran that has been supplying the Syrian regime with arms and with money to repress its own people, its own Syrian people. This is an Iran that continues to supply weapons and training to terrorists, whether in Lebanon or in the Gaza Strip. This is an Iran who is now developed a missile capable of reaching Southern Europe. And in another decade, according to our estimates, those missiles will be able to reach the Continental United States. This is an Iran who according to the new secretary of defense, Leon Panetta, according to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, is actively involved in killing American servicemen in Iraq. And this is the Iran that is developing nuclear weapons. And they’re doing all this without nuclear weapons. Imagine what the Iranians will do with nuclear weapons. We’re talking about an absolute global game changer. And we deeply appreciate the efforts of the Obama administration, and like minded nations.
HH: Mr. Ambassador, we’re out of time, always a pleasure. Thank you, Ambassador Michael Oren, from Israel to the United States. I appreciate the time.
End of interview.