State of Israel

An Interview with Michael Oren

I think that in the Arab world there's increasing frustration on the Palestinian issue. There's a focus on the Trump peace plan and that Trump is very pro-Israel in his positions, but the Palestinians sat out eight years of the most pro-Palestinian president in history, Barack Obama. They never came to the negotiating table. Never.

I think that not a few Sunni Arab leaders have internalized the seeming fact that the Palestinians are historically incapable of saying the word “yes.” They have never said “yes” to any peace talks. Not for the British in 1937. Not the U.N. in 1947. Not to Bill Clinton. Not to George W. Bush. These are all two-state solutions. All of them. Very generous two-state solutions. They said “no.” So I think that in the Arab world, there's a great desire to access Israeli innovation and to enter into an open strategic alliance with Israel against Iran, coupled with increasing reluctance to give Abu Mazen — who is an unelected, corrupt leader — veto power over efforts to bring stability and security to the Middle East. And that's where it stands.

OR: What do you see as an ultimate solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would allow the region to formally recognize a relationship with Israel?

Oren: Some years ago I wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal called “The Two-State Situation.” This is basically what we have today.

If you travel along Israel's eastern border, you're going to see Palestinian cities that are flying Palestinian flags. They have a leadership that they could elect, but the leadership won't let the elections be held. But there is extensive autonomy in areas A and B of the West Bank and in Samaria. All those people never come into contact with Israelis, and certainly not Israeli soldiers. So you have a Palestinian state there. It's recognized by 130 countries in the world.

Why, then, are we trying to reinvent that wheel? If you recognize that we have a two-state situation and you say to yourself, "How can we make this two-state situation, this two-state reality more stable and give the Palestinians a greater diplomatic horizon? How can we do it and give ourselves the assurance of continued security, and not uproot settlements — because Israel's not about to do that — and enable the Middle East to move on from this conflict?” One of the ways you do this, I believe, is not by adopting the Oslo formula. This is basically a Westphalian-style formula: two representatives of each side sit around a table and sign a piece of paper. But when you have one side that's not going to sign the piece of paper, either because it's unwilling and/or incapable of signing the piece of paper (and even if it does sign the paper, it has no plenipotentiary power because Abu Mazen now doesn't represent his own people, he doesn't control his own territory) — what does a signature on a piece of paper mean? The question is whether an agreement like that is in any way implementable.

I think we should have a different approach, a Middle Eastern approach. Where agreements are not signed but are implicit and understood. Sometimes hands have shaken, sometimes not. Sometimes tea is sipped. We stop trying to formalize it. If we force many of these Sunni Arab leaders to sit at a table and sign a piece of paper, we may drive them away. But if we reach an implicit understanding with these people that can take recognition of certain realities, we can make great progress.

OR: How do you assess the current, seemingly rising trend of international demonization of Israel?

Oren: The most recent trope that I'm encountering is Israel is guilty of genocide against the Palestinians. That libel has established itself very rapidly, is becoming a given. And nothing could be further from the truth. On some level, we may not be able to combat this, particularly in Europe. Anti-Semitism is pre-Christian in Europe. It's post-Christian in Europe. It's deeply ingrained in the European mindset. I encounter Europeans all the time who are shocked to find out that some of the things they say or do are anti-Semitic. They didn't know.

I said to the French finance minister that by labeling Israeli products they were evoking the labeling of Jewish products at various times in European history. You're singling us out. You're not labeling Chinese products or Turkish products or any other products. He was shocked that this was anti-Semitic. He couldn't understand this: it was just expressing opposition to Israeli policy. So there's a degree to which we can fight anti-Semitism. In certain societies, it's endemic. In certain societies, it's not endemic. In India and China — that’s half of humanity right there — it's not a problem.

In terms of explaining Israel, of course we can do a better job. That's a matter of policy on the part of the State of Israel. Right now, we earmark roughly $50 million a year to fighting delegitimization, fighting anti-Semitism. That's the cost of, maybe, a couple of platoons of tanks.  And yet without legitimacy, our tanks would not be able to roll. Planes wouldn't be able to take off. Just on a pure security level — forget the moral level, just on the security level — we have to create time and space and legitimacy for our forces to defend ourselves. We have not internalized that. We are assiduously cutting back on the Foreign Ministry’s powers and budget all the time. We have 96 delegations around the world. The Palestinians have 120. Norwegians spend 12 times as much on their foreign policy as we do. What kind of delegitimization do the Norwegians face? There’s not enough lox in the world? The fjords aren't beautiful enough?

So we're not there, and part of it stems from a deep Zionist cynicism toward the world. Ben-Gurion famously (or infamously) said, "It's not important what non-Jews think. It's what the Jews do." And that mentality is deeply ingrained here. What is said especially by Israeli young people is, "No matter what we do, they're going to hate us anyway. So we might as well do it."