‘Our margin for error is so small’: An exit interview with Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren

October 2, 2013

Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, Israel’s long-serving ambassador to Washington officially stepped down after a term that witnessed the Arab Spring uprisings and most of President Obama’s first five years in office. During his tenure, Michael Oren presided over periods of unusual strain between top U.S. and Israeli officials, as well as moments of close cooperation in defense and counterterrorism. In between, the telegenic, U.S.-born historian and author was a faithful spokesman for Israeli interests on op-ed pages, Sunday talk shows and even Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.”

I sat down with Oren during his final week on the job to talk about the Middle East and U.S.-Israel relations. At one point, he pulled out a copy of his 2007 best-selling history of U.S. adventures in the Middle East, provocatively titled, “Power, Faith and Fantasy.” Here are some excerpts from the interview.

Washington Post: What do you mean when you say that “fantasy” has shaped U.S. policy in the Middle East?

Michael Oren: If you look back at 200 years of American involvement in the Middle East, you can see these competing impulses. There are power interests — oil, strategic positioning, the Cold War, the projection of military force. There’s faith, which is overwhelmingly the values-driven part of American foreign policy — the emphasis on democracy, liberty. And there’s fantasy. Fantasy in the last couple of years has played a very important part. Fantasy is the tendency of Americans, going back to colonial times, to look at the Middle East as a type of fractured mirror of the United States — a type of mirror that could look a lot more like the United States, if, say, a Middle Eastern George Washington would emerge.

Fantasy played a very strong role in the American reaction to the Arab Spring in the first months of 2011. There was an immense amount of excitement here. But we in Israel were the heavies. We were the people who came along and said, “Don’t get caught up in the fantasy. What is going to happen here is, extremist forces — who are much better organized and much better funded than some of the genuine liberals in the streets — are going to take over. We incurred a tremendous amount of criticism. Netanyahu was called the Israeli pharaoh. Quite unfortunately — tragically — we were proven to be correct.

WP: Israeli officials say Iran’s moderate new president can’t be trusted. Why the hard stance on Hassan Rouhani before nuclear talks even begin?

MO: Here again we are playing the role of the heavy. Here you have an Iranian leader who comes from inside the regime — he was chosen by the supreme leader as one of the selected candidates. He has boasted in the past that he has lied to the West, that he smiled and installed centrifuges. We have very deep understanding of why the Iranian machine wants and needs a nuclear weapon, and we’re saying, “Hold on, don’t be caught up in the fantasy. If he is serious, test him.” The president is saying this too. Iran is in violation of four U.N. Security Council resolutions. It should comply. ...

We do believe that a diplomatic solution can be reached. But it can only be reached on the basis of the Iranians actually doing something. We’ve seen this before. Diplomacy has been going on for decades. The position of the international community has moved and become consistently more flexible. And the Iranian position has not moved a millimeter.

WP: As described by Israeli officials, Israel’s “red line” on Iran’s nuclear programs applies not only to weapons, but also to the capability to make weapons. Why does a mere capability threaten Israel’s survival, given your country’s clear military superiority?

MO: For us, the Iranian nuclear program is an existential issue. Why is it existential? The most obvious answer that some give is that, if Iran gets the bomb, they’re going to put it on top of a rocket, and the rocket will be fired at Israel. We all get that, and the reply some would give is, “Well, Israel can send rockets back” – as if a second strike has any meaning for us. We’re a very small country. As the Iranian moderate [former president Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani has said, “Israel is a one-bomb country.” And we are.

But here are the real issues: First, it’s not just Iran getting the bomb. We think there’s a plurality of Middle Eastern states that get the bomb, beginning with Saudi Arabia. The entire Middle East becomes nuclearized. But more immediately and more poignantly, if Iran were even to achieve breakout capacity — sometimes referred to as having a Japan-like capability — that greatly inhibits our deterrent power. The Iranians have created a situation where we’re facing as many as 100,000 rockets in Lebanon. They know from the 2006 experience that we can’t neutralize all those rockets from the air. The sheer mass of those rockets creates a situation where we would have to move in other ways, in offensive ways. They would have us checked, because if we did move, Iran could break out and make a nuclear weapon.

So this is an attempt to put us in a perpetual check. Every future Israeli leader would have to say, “Okay, to defend the country against what is already not just a tactical threat but rapidly becoming a strategic threat, I risk confronting a nuclear Iran.” That is insufficiently appreciated. That is the first thing that Israeli policy makers are thinking about, which is how do we maintain our deterrence power. ... Israeli leaders will do an awful lot to maintain it, because our margin for error is so small.

WP: Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s effort to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process continues to defy expectations. Where do you see this heading? What are the main obstacles?

MO: It’s counterintuitive that it is happening now. Why in the midst of all this chaos and uncertainty, would the Palestinians — who had refused to negotiate with us for several years, for the entire span of my term here — negotiate now? The answers are manifold. One is the blow to Hamas dealt by the events in Egypt and the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood, which weakened Hamas and empowered the Palestinian authority. Hamas also was weakened by the events in Syria. There’s a sense that, with all the turmoil, this is the one front where actually people can sit down. There is only one place where people are sitting down and talking face to face, and it’s with the Israelis and Palestinians. ...

For us the main issue is going to be security. Individual Palestinians run risk by engaging in peace with us, but the Palestinian people do not. The Israeli people incur all the risks. The risk occurs if there is a Palestinian state that breaks down or fails to cohere, and it can’t guard its borders. Then we have southern Lebanon and Gaza, and we have it opposite our most populous area and our industrial center.

WP: Is a two-state solution essential to Israel’s long-term survival?

MO: I think it is essential for Israel’s survival as a Jewish and democratic state that we end the status quo. The preferred way to end the status quo would be on the basis of a two-state solution. We don’t want the Palestinians to be citizens of Israel, nor do we want them to be subjects.

WP: Some of your colleagues have described the Syrian conflict as a lose-lose situation for Israel, with grave risks ahead regardless of the outcome. Why is it still preferable in your view that President Bashar al-Assad is removed from power?

MO: I would emphasize first that Israel has no intention of getting involved in regime change in Syria. But having said that, Assad has long been viewed by Israel as a source of instability throughout the entire region. He was instrumental in providing 100,000 rockets to Hezbollah. He had tried to create a clandestine military nuclear facility that doesn’t exist any more, thankfully. He has made Syria the keystone in the strategic arc that extends from Tehran to Beirut, which is potentially a mortal threat to Israel. So his departure, even given the risks involved in who might replace him, would on balance be in Israel’s favor.

WP: You were born and educated in this country, but then moved to Israel and had a career as an historian and academic before returning here in 2009. How did these last few years shape your views about America?

MO: On the morning after presenting my [diplomatic] credentials, I wrote something in the guest book at the White House, about why I moved to Israel and why it was my sense of love for America that very much impelled me to move to Israel. It was because I still believed in the values of this country, and I felt that in moving to Israel I was completing an identity that wedded American and Israeli values. I saw that Israel and America were so closely united in their ideals that by moving to Israel, I felt in some ways more fully American. It is ironic that, to take this job, I had to give up my American citizenship. But it didn’t make me less American, in the sense of what I feel about the country and my respect for what it stands for, and for the values that it instilled in me.

I do have concerns. I have concerns about the depth of America’s world-weariness. I think the world does need America. I feel a sadness to see America bogged down in political divisiveness, and to see American self-doubt, because I see this country as the indispensable power.

WP: Despite occasional tensions, the U.S.-Israel relationship remains remarkably close, judging from the kinds of ovations Netanyahu receives when he speaks to Congress. Support for Israel is one of the rare issues that unites Republicans and Democrats. What accounts for that?

MO: It is not as though there is across-the-board agreement on everything we do. There isn’t. Certainly in any two sovereign countries, no matter how close they are, there are disagreements on policy. There are structural differences, with one country being big, powerful and far from the Middle East, and the other small, less powerful and smack in the middle of the Middle East. But beyond that, if you look around the world today, where are you going to find a country that is militarily, economically, scientifically and technologically robust, that has never known a second of non-democratic governance, and is unreservedly pro-American? People here get that.

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