Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister for Diplomacy Michael Oren joined me Friday morning:
HH: I’m joined now by Michael Oren. Over the years, I have referred to Dr. Oren as Professor Oren, as Mr. Ambassador when he was Israel’s ambassador to the United States, as a member of the Knesset. Now, he is the deputy prime minister of Israel for diplomacy. I am hoping that Deputy Minister will do, Deputy Minister Oren. Is that the correct way to address you now?
MO: How about Michael?
HH: No, that won’t go.
HH: That’s, we…
MO: Really, Hugh.
HH: I’ll not cause, I’m going to do with Deputy…
MO: You’re not going to stand on ceremony here, are we? No.
HH: Let me start, welcome back, thank you for joining me.
MO: Always a delight.
HH: The timely, because Peter Baker has a front page story in the New York Times this morning, As Trump V. Clinton Captivates World, Netanyahu Is Unusually Silent. And the point of this is nobody will take sides in the presidential campaign in Israel. Why is that, Deputy Minister Oren?
MO: First of all, that is the common practice between democracies and to allies. We don’t interfere in one another’s elections. And in 2012, I know, when I was ambassador, we were accused of intervening in elections in favor of the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney. It wasn’t true. And oh, my God, I did somersaults every day to try to keep out of that election. But we got dragged in by both sides. The first YouTube clip in 2012 claiming that one party was more pro-Israel than the other was a Democratic YouTube clip, and I, they had me starring in it. You know, there were clips taken out of, little splices taken out of things I’d said. So we’re always trying to be dragged in, and I think that the Prime Minister is very correct not to get dragged into these elections, to do our utmost to stay out of it.
HH: All right, now the last time I spoke with you is when the publication of your book, Ally, came out. And you were a member of the Knesset with part of the coalition having 61 votes. You are now the deputy prime minister for diplomacy. What does that job do? What happened to the coalition in between?
MO: Well, what happened to the coalition in between was that another party, Avigdor Lieberman’s party, is our home party, joined the coalition and raised it up to about 66. So it’s no longer the smallest or narrowest coalition in Israel’s history. It gives us a little bit more wiggle room in terms of legislation. It won’t affect our foreign policy very much. But as part of that reshuffle, I got a little promotion, as you hear. And that brings me back into the world of diplomacy, which is very important to me, because in Knesset, I was overwhelmingly involved in legislature, which wasn’t, in legislation, which wasn’t my principal background. The vast majority of the last 40 years has been in Israel’s foreign policy. So I’m back into that pilot seat, and it’s very interesting. This is an incredible moment for Israeli foreign relations, Hugh. You know, on the one hand, we’re facing tremendous threats and de-legitimization around the world, particularly in Western Europe. But Africa is opening up before us. The Prime Minister’s just been to four East African countries. Muslim countries in Africa are reaching out to us. Asia, we’ve pivoted to Asia a long time ago. Latin America, from a historical perspective, we are in a better foreign policy position than we’ve ever been since 1948.
HH: Then that brings me to the big three that I want to talk to you about – Turkey, China and Russia. Recently, Turkey and Israel, I don’t know what you would call the change in relations, but it was for the good, was it not?
MO: Yeah, I was part of that negotiation, Hugh, and it’s a complex one. On the one hand, we have made very strong relations with Greece and with Cyprus. We have shared a concern about Turkey’s involvement with Islamic extremism. Erdogan’s party is basically a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is linked to Hamas. On the other hand, Turkey is a trillion dollar economy. It’s a strategic asset. In the past, it had been a close ally of the United States, and better to have decent relations with Turkey than non-decent relations with Turkey. Having said that, we share concerns with many in the world about what occurs inside Turkey, and we’d like to see a better relationship with Turkey. There’s another aspect. Turkey, because of its relationship with Hamas, has an involvement in Gaza, and Israel has an interest in improving the lives of the Palestinians in Gaza and giving them something to lose. We certainly do not want another war there. And to the degree that Turkey can help ameliorate the conditions in Gaza, many of them actually rendered by Hamas, that would be welcomed by Israel.
HH: Now in the past, I am told that the IDF used to train quite extensively with Turkey.
HH: Do you foresee that renewing?
MO: I do not. And Turkey would claim that they cancelled those joint maneuvers. They were once known as the Anatolian Eagle Maneuvers. They took place every spring. Turkey made a claim that it cancelled those maneuvers because of the flotilla incident of May, 2010. In fact, Turkey cancelled those maneuvers before that. I don’t foresee their renewal anytime in the future, near future.
HH: Okay, let me turn now to Russia. I’ll come back to China. Russia has begun basing missions out of Iran. And I guess that was the throw-in for the deal with the United States that we would also get Russia basing rights in Iran. How does Israel view that development?
MO: With concern. With concern, certainly. Our relationship with Russia is also complex. You know, on one hand, we have an open and constructive dialogue with Mr. Putin. The Prime Minister has spoken with Mr. Putin four times this year, he’s visited. And we have a very large Russian diaspora here. About one out of every seven Israeli speaks Russian. Avigdor Lieberman speaks Russian, our defense minister. And so we have that complex interest, and, but we’re backing different sides, we’re not backing any side in the Syrian conflict, but Russia is backing Bashar Assad, and we would like to see him go. And as you see, has gotten very, very close to Iran and supplying systems to Iran, like you may have noticed that the S-300 anti-aircraft system, which is one of the most sophisticated systems in the world, a Russian made system, has been deployed around the nuclear plant at Fordow in Iran. It’s the underground, under, it’s under a mountain. It’s 30 meters under a mountain. One wonders if Iran has only peaceful nuclear research going on at Fordow, why it needs one of the world’s most sophisticated anti-aircraft systems deployed around it.
HH: All right, so then with regards to Iran, this past week, Iranian patrol boats buzzed American naval ships in the Gulf there. What do you, how do you interpret what Iran is doing in light of the alleged deal that we have with them that is supposed to be increasing cooperation between the United States and Iran? What’s Israel view that Iranian aggression as?
MO: Well, Israel’s view was and remains that Iran is the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism. It’s a source of profound instability and violence in our region. It openly professes its aim to destroy the state of Israel. So we believe it has a genocidal and irrational policy. We always wanted Iranian behavior linked to the Iranian nuclear issue. We didn’t want them separated. But now that it has been separated, we expect the United States and the world to hold Iran’s feet to the fire and not let Iran get away with provocations such as that which occurred against the American Naval vessels. I watched the films, I don’t know if you saw those films, Hugh. They were…
HH: I haven’t. No, I haven’t.
MO: They were just astonishing. They were just astonishing. And I cannot imagine why they didn’t open fire at these boats, because the Iranians had these little missile boats that they use for suicide missions. And they were zig-zagging toward an American destroyer. Maybe compliment that captain on his restraint, but that was quite provocative. And Iran…
HH: Is the IRG acting independently of the civilian government, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard? I have to assume that those boats are not acting sua sponte. They’ve got to be getting orders from someone.
MO: Of course. Of course. If they’re taking American sailors captive, it’s all on orders. There’s no divisions in that level of, in Iranian government. Everything comes from the Supreme Leader. Everyone comes from the Islamic clique that runs Iran. Sometimes, they’ll put on a more moderate face, because that’s what they have to do to appease the West. But it remains a radical, militant, largely medieval jihadist state, which has received tremendous boost in legitimacy through international diplomacy but it hasn’t changed at all. And the Iranian nuclear agreement, we have to deal with it as a reality, and to grapple with its ramifications. But we also have to note that many of the terms of this treaty will expire between ten and twelve, fifteen years. One year has already passed in this agreement, and Iran’s behavior has not improved. If anything, it’s deteriorated. So we have to prepare for the fact that we’re going to deal with a post-nuclear agreement, a Iran regime which has not changed in any way, which is as bad, or if not worse. That is our responsibility as the state of Israel. I don’t think that’s a left wing position or a right wing position. That is our national sovereign responsibility.
HH: Deputy Prime Minister Oren, we’re going to have to leave the People’s Republic of China for our next conversation. Thank you for joining me on a Friday, always a pleasure, always illuminating, and I appreciate you sticking around at the office a little bit late on a Friday to talk to me. I very much appreciate it.
End of interview.