Dr. Michael Oren, Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister for Diplomacy, joined me this morning from Israel:
HH: Joined from Israel by Dr. Michael Oren, who is Israel’s deputy prime minister for diplomacy, and frequent guest, fun to have him on the show. Follow him on Twitter, @DrMichaelOren. Mr. Deputy Prime Minister, I’ve got two things to talk to you about – the Gaza troubles, but before that, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia gave an interview this week to Jeffrey Goldberg, your friend and mine, that is just head-swiveling. What did you make of that?
MO: First of all, Hugh, always great to be with you. Hi. Wonderful. Not terribly surprising, but good to hear. You know, one of the ironies of the Obama period was that the previous president sought to bring Jews and Arabs closer together through peace. He succeeded, just not through peace. He brought us together through common opposition to his policies particularly toward Iran. And I think that the Saudi Prince was very explicit in saying one of the reasons he is looking forward to a closer relationship with Israel, because he sees Saudi Arabia and Israel and other Middle Eastern states standing in a common front against Iranian aggression.
HH: Yeah, in fact, Jeffrey Goldberg says to the Prince you speak extraordinarily bluntly about Iran and its ideology. You’ve even equated the Supreme Leader to Hitler. What makes him a Hitler? Hitler’s the worst thing you can be. And MBS says I believe that the Iranian Supreme Leader makes Hitler look good. Goldberg says really? And MBS says Hitler didn’t do what the Supreme Leader is trying to do. Hitler tried to conquer Europe. This is bad. Goldberg says yes, very bad. But MBS says, but the Supreme Leader is trying to conquer the world. He believes he owns the world. They are both evil guys. He is the Hitler of the Middle East. I mean, is that, I think that’s correct, but it’s the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince.
MO: Look, I’m not going to compare anybody to Adolf Hitler, with all due respect to the Iranian leaders. But they are a hegemonical, genocidal regime. They’re out to destroy my country of nine million people. They make no attempt to dissemble that. They act on that impulse. They have been responsible for countless deaths in this area. They’re complicit in the murder and massacre of over a half million Syrians. Just start right there. So they’re certainly capable of mass murder. And they are an existential threat. They’re an existential threat to Saudi Arabia, and they aspire to be an existential threat to us. We have the means to defend ourselves, but we will welcome, again, that forging of a common front in the Middle East against Iran.
HH: Now let me turn to the reason I called originally – the Great March of Return, it’s being called in the Jerusalem Post and elsewhere, and the events of the weekend in which 16 were killed and a thousand wounded along the Israel-Gaza border. What is happening here? What is the view that the world ought to know from your position?
MO: Firstly, and this is so widely overlooked, Gaza is under the heel of a terrorist organization called Hamas, recognized as a terrorist organization by the United States, by Europe, an organization that seeks Israel’s destruction, that is responsible for well over a thousand Israeli deaths, and tries to kill us daily. And this march of return was anything but a peaceful march. It is a march that was designed to break through the fence and to allow Hamas terrorists who had infiltrated with these protesters to break through the fence and to kill our soldiers and civilians, period. Period. All those who were shot were terrorists of Hamas, 11 of them out of the 17. The others were civilians who were in, who were actively engaged in attacking our troops.
HH: And so in terms of the casualties, the Guardian ran five articles on this yesterday. I don’t think the world, I think the world is getting the impression this is like the great Indian Salt March, that these are peaceful protesters marching towards a disputed border. This isn’t a disputed border, is it? I mean, this is the border.
MO: It is the border. It is indeed the border, and Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip in 2005. It ripped up 21 settlements, all of our army bases in order to give peace a chance in Gaza. We didn’t get peace. We got Hamas and thousands of rockets fired at us. That has to be known. And this so-called peaceful process, it’s also important to point out, Hugh, that no women and children were among those shot, very important that our sharpshooters were exceedingly careful and acted according to Israeli law and international law. But I think it’s more important, actually, to point out, and this is completely understood, that Hamas itself has created the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Israel, we were moving 1,200 truckloads a day of food and supplies into Gaza. Hamas itself has cut that down by two-thirds, because it wants to starve out its own population so it can say to the world, look, our people are starving, give us money. And then there’s Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who’s cut off all the subsidies to Gaza, cut off the salaries of 50,000 workers so that Israel will be pushed into a war with Gaza. Hamas will shoot at us, we’ll shoot back, and we’ll remove Hamas. So Hamas is willing to fight Hamas to the last Israeli soldier. And then guess what? He’s going to sue us for war crimes, which is just what he’s doing this week.
HH: Meanwhile, in Egypt, President Sisi was won reelection in what was basically a one-man race. What is Egypt’s position vis-à-vis the norther border of Gaza, which goes into Egypt, as opposed to the southern, or maybe I have that reversed, but what’s his position on his Gaza border?
MO: Well, it’s interesting, we had the only crossing into Gaza. The Egyptian crossings are closed, because Sisi hates Hamas. Hamas is an ally of ISIS. And ISIS has been fighting a civil war against Egypt, so far a civil war which has proved insuppressible. And it’s aided by Hamas. They’re in league with one another. So Sisi himself wants to see Hamas starved out.
HH: Now in terms of the, the Russians on your northern border in the Syrian area, Putin has suggested to President Trump that they have a meeting at the White House. I don’t think that’s going to happen. But if that does happen, and the President is talking with the president of Russia on the phone about arms races, I will win that, the President said. What do you think the President ought to be telling Russia about what they’re doing in Syria right now, Dr. Michael Oren?
MO: The United States should be telling Russia, we would hope, that the Russians should not, cannot allow the Iranian forces to establish themselves there, to build bases, build underground missile labs and workshops, to create airfields, and certainly not to create a port for Iranian nuclear submarines on the Mediterranean coast, period.
HH: And is Russia’s construction proceeding, Dr. Oren? I mean, is that actually underway?
MO: Well, the construction of what I mentioned before is what the Iranians keep on aspiring to do. We know what they want to do, and we have drawn red lines. We say if Iran builds a base, builds a port, builds an underground bomb factory, we will stop them.
HH: But what I’m not clear about is, is Russia helping Iran build that submarine facility? Or is that a Russian facility that’s expanding? What exactly is going on there?
MO: No, neither of the above. It’s Iran acting on its own. The question is whether Russia will stop them.
HH: Okay, so that is what the President needs to communicate. Now let me turn to, back to Goldberg’s interview, because this is something I don’t think the American people understand at all. The Crown Prince referred to a triangle of evil, and he’s talking about Zawahiri and ISIS, he’s talking about Iran, we’ve talked about that, but he’s also talking about the Muslim Brotherhood. And that brings us back to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. What is your view, Dr. Oren, you’re a historian in the Middle East, of the Brothers and what they represent to Egypt, to Saudi Arabia, to Jordan, to every part of the Arab world?
MO: Well, the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in the 1920s. It is the mother organization of Hamas and other terrorist groups around the region. They are jihadists and Salafists. They aim to create a new caliphate that has no borders, and to eliminate all the other governments of the Middle East that are not associated with them. For example, you know, Qatar and Turkey are associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and active, have actors in the Muslim Brotherhood. But everybody else, including Israel, including Saudi Arabia, including other Gulf countries, are targeted by the Muslim Brotherhood for overthrow. And they have tried it actively in Egypt, so far unsuccessfully. But they remain a powerful force in our region with powerful backers such as Turkey.
HH: So clarity has come to this through the Crown Prince and through things I’ve been saying for a long time, and it’s arriving in the White House in the person of John Bolton and at the State Department in the person of Mike Pompeo, maybe at the CIA in the person of Gina Haspel. That confirmation is a little bit more difficult. You’re an American. You know how this goes.
HH: What do you make of the new foreign policy team that President Trump, the second line we call it in hockey. Usually, it’s not as good as the first line. In my opinion, this time, the second line is better than the first line. What do you make of this?
MO: Well, from our perspective looking from the Middle East and certainly from an Israeli perspective, it’s the A Team. You have a Secretary of State and a national security advisor who have gone repeatedly on record as being opposed unequivocally to the Iran nuclear deal, and we view that deal as a catastrophe. They have expressed serious reservations about the Palestinians’ willingness to make peace. That has been our experience. They are willing to work to forge this Middle Eastern united front against Iran, against terrorism. All good, all constructive, we welcome it.
HH: Last question, if the President does under the, with the advice of Secretary Pompeo, Secretary Mattis and National Security Advisor Bolton, cancel the Iran deal and re-impose sanctions, what do you expect our European allies to do, because the argument against doing this is that they won’t follow suit. My reply is so what, but what’s your response?
MO: Yeah, my response is so what. You know, the European governments aside, they’re European businessmen. And businessmen will have to choose between doing business with a half trillion dollar economy, which is Iran’s, and a $21 trillion dollar economy, which is the United States. The United States also controls the means for transactions, internationally, the SWIFT system and others in the world. Any smart businessman is going to choose the United States, hands down. So the governments of Europe may moan, but at the end of the day, America, America is a deciding factor.
HH: I lied. One last question, Mr., Dr. Oren, the Crown Prince kind of sounded almost wistful when he was talking about the Israeli economy. Did you pick that up that he said there’s this…
MO: Yeah, I did.
HH: …this little country with all this technology, and he’s got this vision 2030. Do you see cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia to perhaps energize different sectors in the Saudi Arabian economy?
MO: I mean, could you imagine what that would be like, wedding Israeli innovation with Arab capital? It would be transformative not just for the Middle East. It could be for the world. And I think we can seriously look forward to someday, hopefully someday soon, realizing that vision.
HH: On that good note, I’ll let you go. Thank you for joining me this morning, Dr. Michael Oren, deputy prime minister of Israel for diplomacy, clear as always. Clarity is a great virtue.
End of interview.