BPR Interview: Former Ambassador Michael Oren

Michael Oren, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States from 2009 to 2013, talks to Brown Political Review’s Sam Rubinstein. Oren stepped down from his post a week before this interview.

Brown Political Review: Have sanctions had enough of an impact on the Iranian economy as to render the Ayatollah open to a settlement, or are President Rouhani’s overtures a stall tactic?

Michael Oren: I think it is a stall tactic, but they are not mutually exclusive. However, sanctions have dealt a serious blow to the Iranian economy that does not translate into a willingness to dismantle their nuclear program, which is what would be acceptable to Israel. Rouhani came to New York to lift the sanctions, not to stop the nuclear program.

BPR: For Israel, what would constitute a good deal regarding Iran? Is the window for Israel to act alone closing?

Oren: The window for Israel’s action is not unlimited — it is short and growing shorter. The acceptable outcome from Israel’s perspective is the dismantling of the program entirely. If Iran is left with thousands of centrifuges, and a stockpile of even 3.5 percent enriched uranium, then they have the wherewithal and the knowledge to quickly enrich that stockpile to weapons-grade uranium, and can do it in between inspections. All it takes is a room about the size of your average Brown lecture hall, hidden underground in a country about half the size of Europe.

BPR: Do you believe that Palestinians have the incentive and desire to reach a negotiated agreement with Israel?

They can choose the Gaza model, or they can choose a model of a state that has close diplomatic and economic cooperation with Israel, even defense cooperation. Oren: I hope they do. I don’t think there is an alternative path to a viable and stable statehood for the Palestinians other than through negotiations. You have a model of what a Palestinian entity looks like that doesn’t negotiate with Israel for statehood, and doesn’t have peaceful coexistence and recognition — that model is in Gaza. It’s hard to call Gaza anything other than a failed state. They can choose the Gaza model, or they can choose a model of a state that has close diplomatic and economic cooperation with Israel, even defense cooperation. We are faced by common enemies. They can make that choice.

BPR: What is the justification for the continued construction of settlements?

Oren: Almost all the construction is going on in East Jerusalem and the settlement blocks — neighborhoods and areas that everyone knows will be part of Israel in any negotiated settlement. The final status of the West Bank will be determined through negotiations, and there should be no preconditions. We have a lot of things we want the Palestinians to do upfront, but they’re not going to do it. They’re not going to recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state, but that has to be the outcome of negotiations. Freezing settlement construction upfront is not actually good for the Palestinians. We had a 10 month moratorium, and it did not bring Palestinians to the table — it pushed them farther away. Why? Because in the world of Middle East diplomacy, if you are conceding things upfront then the public is going to say:  “Why should you make concessions at the negotiation table?”

BPR: Regardless, doesn’t the political cost of settlement construction outweigh the benefits for Israel?

Oren: It is certainly a legitimate question. We are a democracy, and the Israeli public has come down pretty strongly on that issue through successive elections, even during the height of the Oslo process under the Rabin government. There was far more settlement construction back then than there is today. There was something — I wouldn’t call it a consensus — but there was a strong majority in favor of continued construction. Before 1967, our border was eight miles wide, which wasn’t secure. Part of the reason the settlement block was built was to thicken out our borders. There exists a strong Israeli consensus for not going back to the ’67 borders. However, the decision does carry a political price with it. Certainly in international relations it carries a price, but also a majority of the Israeli public sees the logic and justification to it. Israelis will continue to support it until there is a negotiated solution. And we understand we will have to pay a price for it, maybe even a painful price, in terms of territory.

BPR: You recently stepped down from your post as ambassador. What is your proudest accomplishment?

Oren: Missile defense was huge. Last November, Israel was struck by hundreds and hundreds of rockets, and 1 million Israelis under fire from those rockets watched as we shot them down. That was made possible as a direct result of support we received from the Obama Administration and Congress, which all occurred during my watch. Another success was the outreach to various communities. I spent a long time building ties with the Hispanic community, African American community and LGBT community. I instituted the first Israeli Iftar, and we’ve now had three Iftars. Generally, I would say that Israeli-U.S. relations are deeper and more multifaceted now than they were at any time in the past.

BPR: What do you mean by deeper and more multifaceted?

Oren: I mean the Israeli-U.S. commercial and scientific relationship. At a time when companies are outsourcing to Asia, Israeli companies are outsourcing to the U.S. There are tens of thousands of Americans who are employed, directly or indirectly, by Israeli industries. Apple never had an overseas R&D center, but it’s going to open its first in Israel. That is a rapidly expanding part of the Israeli-U.S. relationship.

BPR: How has the chemical weapons deal with Syria and Russia been received by the rest of the international community?

Oren: I hate clichés, but the proof is in the pudding. If the combination of diplomacy with a credible military threat produces the desired result — which is the removal of weapons of mass destruction from the hands of a radical regime — then it will be viewed as extremely successful.

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