In a speech to the Orthodox Union in D.C. last night, Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren put on his historians’ hat. As one of the most highly regarded modern chroniclers of the Jewish state, it is a role he feels comfortable inhabiting. And in the academic recounting of history, he is able to make pointed observations that have obvious application to the current situation.
He was blunt: “Israel has very rarely found the sheer array of threats” as it does now. He emphasized that Israel is surrounded by chaos and unpredictability. “We can't say what the Middle East will look like in three months, in three days or tomorrow morning.” He noted wryly that some see the chaos as further reason to push forward o the “peace process.” But in Israel, the sentiment on both the right and the left, he explained, is “Hold on.” The nature of the regimes being reconstituted is yet to be determined, “but if there is true reform, genuine democracy, then Israel will be the first to embrace them.” He immediately qualified this, “They must be peace-loving democracies.”
On Egypt he noted that there is much posturing by the new regime on abrogating its obligation on the Gaza border, but there is more talk than actual change. He shared that the contact and relationships between Israel and the Egyptian military remain strong, and that the military “has every intention of maintaining the peace treaty,” since the risk of losing U.S. aid is a grave one.
He then flat out denied that Israel “supported the devil we know over the devil we don’t in Syria.” He said, “Without reservation . . . there is not an iota of truth” to this. He noted that there is now evidence Syria organized the border raids on Israel. (Left unsaid was when Israel reached this realization.)
As for Turkey, he spoke more in sadness than in anger. “Our policy toward Turkey hasn’t changed; Turkey's relationship with us has changed.” Turkey shifted “irrevocably,” Oren said, when it cancelled joint military operations with Israel, promoted the flotilla, backed the terrorist-connected IHH “charity” and announced a new flotilla in the offing, perhaps with a Turkish naval escort. Israel hopes for the best, he said, “but I’m not Pollyannaish about getting the relationship back” to the days when the two had more than cordial dealings.
On Iran he stressed that there is no sign the nuclear weapons program has abated. To the contrary, its enrichment efforts have “escalated.” While praising the U.S. and international sanctions, he stressed that “all options must be on the table, and it must be a credible one that Iran takes seriously.
The audience was waiting for Oren’s remarks on the peace process. He seemed to try his best not to make news at what is surely a tense time for the Jewish state. He stressed that if the Palestinians cannot get the U.N. Security Council to grant them U.N. membership, “They will go to the General Assembly, in violation of all its agreements going back to Oslo.” He added pointedly, “The U.S. is a co-signatory to those agreements.” And he noted that “a growing number of legislators” in the U.S. are preparing to cut off aid to the Palestinians. (Notice how all action in this regard comes from Congress.) He then recited the three Quartet principles, stressing that the obligation to abide by past agreements was particularly important since that would require Hamas to dismantle its terrorist operations and give up thousands of missiles. (Translation: This is never happening.) But, he said, somehow, “The ball is widely seen to be in Israel’s court.” (By using the passive tense he avoided fingering the Obama administration.)
In the most edgy part of the speech, he “thanked” President Obama for clarifying that the “1967 borders with land swaps” means ‘there won’t be a return to 1967 lines.” Then he gingerly suggested that what was missing was “specificity” — the Palestinian Authority recognizes Israel, but what about “Israel as a Jewish state,” that is, giving up the right of return? He noted (in what may have been a vague rebuke to the administration?) that “first [the Palestinian Authority] wanted a freeze on all of Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem” and now they are saying that they won’t come to the table without the 1967 borders as the parameter. (Hmm, this would be Obama’s position as well, right?)
Oren concluded on a positive note. Israel, he said, is “facing all of this and yet Israel’s economy is off the charts. Two thousand and nine was the biggest year for tourism and that was exceeded in 2010 by 27 percent.” In other words, “Israel is a thriving country,” he declared.
In the question-and-answer period, Oren was asked what happens if the General Assembly passes a resolution on Palestinian statehood. He said there were two scenarios. The first is that the “Palestinians operate as Abu Mazen said in the New York Times.” The Palestinians use that resolution to renew attacks on Israel in the International Criminal Court, the U.N. Human Rights Council and other bodies, perhaps even seeking sanctions. There may also be widespread demonstrations or a third intifada.
But, Oren suggested, the other scenarios is, “Nothing happens.” He speculated, “The Palestinians may not want to risk their economic progress.” And as for public demonstrations, he pointed out, “I’m not sure the PA wants to let the genie out of the bottle,” pointing to how easy it has been for mass gatherings in the Middle East to turn on their own leaders (in this case, the PA).
Most interestingly, when asked about the details of the negotiating framework, Oren candidly acknowledged that the U.S. contends that security and borders must be addressed first, and that refugees and Jerusalem are “sentimental, emotional” issues that should come later. He said, “We beg to disagree. Refugees are an existential issue,” namely whether the Jewish state survives. He hastened to add that the U.S. and Israel are working this out as friends in a cooperative manner. That was perhaps the only false note of an otherwise elegant address, the type that Oren has become known for.
Oren is the quintessential man in the middle. His job is to prevent Israel’s relationship with the United States from fraying further while representing Israel’s positions. He joked that in his job, “I have positions, not opinions. I sometimes want to scream [the opinions out]. But I don’t.” And one day, it’ll make for maybe his most fascinating book ever.