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Michael Oren on Israel as a world power

Octavian Report: What do you think is driving the seeming realignment of certain nations towards Israel?

Michael Oren: About five years ago, when Secretary of State Kerry was traveling back and forth between Israel and the Palestinians, he almost invariably paused before getting on a plane back to the United States to issue a not-so-veiled threat against the state of Israel. The threat was, and we understood it as a threat, that if Israel did not make concessions to the Palestinians, we would be isolated internationally. To quote the Secretary: “isolated on steroids.”

Today, you’ll find that Israel today is pointedly and emphatically less isolated than at any other time in its history. To the best of my knowledge, we’ve yet to make peace with Palestinians.

Our relationship with Latin America is at an unprecedented high. We’ve had the Prime Minister be the first Israeli Prime Minister to visit any country south of the United States of America. Now he’s visited four.

There are 51 countries in Africa, most of which cut off relations with us after the Arab boycott of the 1970’s, that have renewed relations with us. They’re standing in line to strengthen those relationships with us. Our relationships with Eastern Europe, the former Soviet bloc countries, are excellent.

We didn’t have relationships with China or India 30 years ago. They are our biggest trading partners outside of Europe today. With India, we also have a strategic relationship, an alliance.

And then we have the Sunni Arab world. I would venture to say that the Sunni Arab states no longer view us as an enemy state, but more to the point they view us as an allied state — an important ally.

These are sea changes. Much of the improvement in our foreign relations has been driven by Israeli technology, and our technology is in areas that everybody needs. Everyone needs water technology. Israel leads the world in water technology. Just in terms of reclamation, we reclaim about 90 percent of our water. The country that comes in second after Israel is Spain, with 13 percent.

We’re way ahead in water technology. Then there’s our smart architecture. But it’s also in the defense fields. In cyber security, we’re a world leader. Everybody needs defense today. Everyone’s behind in the quest for cyber defense, and we are there. I was previously the deputy minister for diplomacy in the Prime Minister’s office. I was meeting with foreign leaders almost every week, and they all came with the same requests: water and defense. Water, food, and defense. In those areas, at least, Israel’s forging the 21st Century.

It is doing so in some other areas as well. The economy’s thriving. There’s 3D printing. There’s biotech. There’s med tech. Most recently it’s been cannabis: Israel’s the only industrialized country that has been able to have human testing for cannabis. That puts us very much ahead.

Beyond that, Israel is perceived in the world today as a power. There was one international metric that had us as the eighth most powerful country in the world. This is a function of the IDF, which is today more than twice as big as the British and French armies combined. Add our ability to project power and to maintain close relationships with the leading powers of the world, whether they be Russia, China, or the United States, and Israel is uniquely positioned.

But the Sunni Arab world is a somewhat different dynamic. Because yes, it’s the power, and yes, it’s access to technology, but there it’s also Iran. Iran, Iran, Iran. Here again I have to go back to the latter years of the Obama Administration, when the President sought to bring Israel and the Sunni Arabs closer together through peace. He brought us together in the end, though not through peace. He brought us together through common opposition to his policies — particularly his policies toward Iran and the Iran nuclear deal, which strengthened, enriched, and legitimized Iran and has resulted in a major Iranian offensive across the Middle East. If you look at the map of the Middle East in 2016 and look at the areas under Iranian influence as blacked out, then a big chunk of the Middle East has been blacked out. Iran poses an existential threat to Israel; it poses an existential threat to the Sunni Arab region. This has created a confluence of interests. This is very intense and getting more intense every day.

OR: Do you see a future for the two-state solution?

Oren: Let’s have some clarification of terms here. First of all, not every solution’s a two-state solution. A two-state solution may be an oxymoron. And we shouldn’t confuse the two-state solution as a goal with the goal of making progress toward some type of resolution with the Palestinians.

The two-state solution in Israel has taken a tremendous blow. We have the highest natural increase rate of any industrialized country in the world, at 3.4 or 3.5 children per family, as opposed to 1.2 in Italy, 0.9 in Japan, or 1.9 in the United States. So we have a very big youth base.

That’s a youth that does not remember the Camp David Accords, doesn’t remember the Oslo Accords. What it remembers is Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon and Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza to make peace. We didn’t get peace. We got thousands of rockets launched at us. They made the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians, and we got thousands dead from suicide bombs. You cannot convince this young Israeli generation that by giving up territory or supporting a Palestinian state, you’re going to get anything other than more dead Israelis.

The big fear of Israelis is that if this nation is going to be created, it better be created not to fall apart. If that happened, if it fell apart, it would fall to Hamas at best and to ISIS at worst. We’re not going to have a terrorist state in Gaza. We’re going to have a terrorist state next to our major cities and industrial areas, and that would be an existential threat. What the world may see as peace, Israelis see as an existential threat.

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.”

OR: How do you read the apparent drift of the American Jewish community, especially its young people, away from Israel?

Oren: We could do a better job of reaching out to those segments of the American Jewish community, particularly the young, liberal segment of the community that is becoming increasingly alienated from us. But we also cannot overcome every reality. So what is the reality? First of all, just the purely objective fact that we are in the world’s worst neighborhood and facing thousands of rockets and American Jews aren’t. They can’t even conceive of what we’ve gone through, with rockets raining on our neighborhoods. How can they even conceive of what that means? Or consider the objective reality that Israel every year becomes more religious, more traditional, more conservative, while these liberal American Jews all become more liberal and less traditional. And then there are historical factors and processes in the United States which we have no ability to influence. Like the growth of the notion of microaggressions and cultural appropriations and all those issues that have come to define American progressivism. That’s not because of Israel. I don’t know how well we can actually counter the malign effects of intersectionality.

OR: Has the Democratic party become anti-Israel? Does that concern you, or do you think that’s a temporary phenomenon?

Oren: I don’t think the Democratic party has become anti-Israel. But I do remember what happened during the last Democratic National Convention when they had to put together a platform about Israel, and the acrimonious debates that erupted. I expect those acrimonious debates to grow angrier still in the future. In 2020 we’re going to be hearing it again. And louder. It’s disconcerting. And it’s not only about Israel. Israel in many ways was the bellwether of all this.

OR: What do you make of the concerns that Israel has become attached to Trump in a way that might be damaging in the long term?

Oren: I’m concerned. On one hand we have to express our deep appreciation for what this President has done for us. There’s the symbolic moves of recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the American embassy there. And the non-symbolic moves, like standing up for Israel in the United Nations and for ending Palestinian support for terror and the immunity with which Palestinians violated American law when they maintained an embassy in Washington and for cutting off the funding for UNRWA (which existed solely to perpetuate a largely artificial refugee problem).

It is, above all, what this Administration has done on the Iranian issue, which for us is not a symbolic or political issue. It’s a matter of paramount national security.

Having said that, we have to be aware of the deep and painful political polarization in the United States. We have to continue to believe that bipartisan support is a strategic national interest for this country. And we have to do, again, a better job of reaching out across that aisle (as difficult as it is today). It’s a zero-sum game. If you say thank you to President Trump, you’re basically dismissing other people.

We have to be in a situation where we can say thank you to President Trump and also say to the Democrats, “Thank you and we want to do everything in our power to have close and warm relations with you.” And not only because, in the nature of things, the Democrats will return someday to a majority in the Senate. They’ll return someday to the White House. So it’s in our national interest there.

OR: Are you concerned about Gaza? Is there anything that could be done to help the situation on the ground?

Oren: Not much. I was in charge of the Gaza situation for about a year and a half. Members of the government and the Prime Minister asked me to look into it. I came away with a number of conclusions. One is that Hamas itself wants a level of humanitarian crisis so they can blackmail the world. Abu Mazen wants to turn this into a war against us: that means us going to fight Hamas until the last Israeli soldier, then him suing us for war crimes afterward. The Iranians want to push us into a war because they want to fight Israel to the last Palestinian. And even in Israeli society, there’s a tremendous reluctance to help Hamas. They have the bodies of two of our soldiers. There’s two Israeli hostages — live — they’re keeping. And the prevailing notion in this country is that if it’s bad for Hamas, it’s good for the State of Israel. Given that situation, I didn’t see much hope there. I think that the best way to proceed eventually would be to reach an agreement with the Americans, and through the Americans with the Sunni Arab leadership, about what to do with Gaza the day after the IDF rids the Strip of Hamas.

OR: Are there issues arising since you finished your book on the ’67 war that have historical lessons for Israel and the Middle East?

Oren: The big change in the Middle East since then is certainly the rise of Islamic extremism and the rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Many of the the dynamics remain the same. What begins as a minor border skirmish can snowball into a regional and international conflict that can alter the course of history — which is what happened with the Six-Day War. And so every time we have a flare-up with Gaza, this notion that ipso facto it can be contained, that we can contain it, is historically inaccurate. If one of those Hamas rockets were to hit a school bus or hit a hospital, we could be in a war situation. And then you get the questions: “Okay, if Israel is attacking Gaza, would Hizbollah stand by idly? Would Israel find itself with a very difficult two-front war? And if Israel attacked Hizbollah, would Iran stand by idly? Or would rockets start hitting us from Iran and Iraq?” So you could find yourself in a ’67-like scenario very quickly because one rocket hit one school.

OR: Do you see any complications in Israel’s growing international relations, particularly around China?

Oren: Yes. I think with China, we’ve had a spectacular growth spurt. In recent years, China accounts for between one-fourth and one-third of all foreign investment in Israel. The Chinese are building our Haifa port. The Chinese are building the light rail. In Tel Aviv, you see Chinese construction companies everywhere. But I think that Israel is going to have to exercise greater restraint and control over what it sells to the Chinese, which enables the Chinese to construct vital infrastructure here. And the United States has made no attempt to hide its concern over the rapid growth of Israel/China commercial relations and Israel/China exchange in the technological field.

OR: Is Russia an adversary, a friend, or something in between?

Oren: Some people would call it a frenemy. We have, first of all, one of the biggest Russian diasporas anywhere in the world. More than one out of every seven Israelis speaks Russian. There are strong cultural affinities. We have significant trade with Russia. But on the other hand, we have the Russian Army several meters from our northern border supporting our enemy — forces that want to destroy us — and that complicates the issue greatly. The Prime Minister has a very open relationship with Mr. Putin, and that is unusual in the world today.

I remember when I was in Washington, the Obama Administration always wanted to know what we were hearing from the Russians because they didn’t have good relations with the Russians. I would hope that we’d be able to maintain this dichotomy between having very friendly relations but also having a tense situation on the border, because we have to be able to operate fully in Syria to prevent Iran from transforming it into an active military front against us and to prevent Iran from providing Hizbollah with precision-guided missiles. We have to. It’s not even a choice. And the Russians have to understand that.

Now, we do have a liaison with the Russian military at the level of deputy commander-in-chief. My hope is that this will continue.

OR: How do you assess Trump’s move on recognizing Israeli sovereignty in the Golan?

Oren: That was a good thing. I had actually asked the Obama Administration at the end of my term whether they’d recognize Israeli sovereignty in the Golan as a partial way of compensating for us for the Iran nuclear deal and Iran’s attempt to establish itself militarily in Syria. The Administration didn’t buy it. I think it’s a very important move, not just for Israel but the entire region. Israel’s presence in the Golan is actually crucial to the stability of countries like Jordan — and then through Jordan and into the greater Gulf region. If Israel weren’t there in the Golan, Syria and Iranian-backed forces in Syria would be expending those influences much more directly southward.

OR: What about Israel’s relationship with the former Eastern bloc countries?

Oren: As the Right is proving to be resurgent throughout Europe, not just within Eastern Europe, a question is going to arise repeatedly: “What are to be our relations with countries and parties and movements which in the past have been rooted in fascist and even anti-Semitic ideologies?

First of all, let’s understand that Israel has arrived at our relationship with these parties and governments out of disappointment. The liberal project in Europe abandoned Israel, in the form of the European Union and its unrelenting criticism of us. Along come right-wing groups that say, “We love Israel. We’re pro-Israel.” Given that need to be accepted, at least by part of Europe, there are many in Israel that are willing to overlook this unsavory past.

I’m not.

I think we should be very, very cautious about the way we are willing to trade our legacy for possible contemporary or future benefits. As we go to war against forces and countries that want to destroy us and wipe us off the map, we can say to the world, “Listen. We are people who’ve known genocide. And we are going to take every measure to defend ourselves against the possible reoccurrence of that genocide.” We should be very careful about conceding or ceding our Holocaust legacy.

Having said that, there’s a benefit in breaking the E.U. consensus on us. I think that’s what the Prime Minister was doing. He was trying to chip away at that E.U. consensus by establishing close relations to the Austrian government, the Hungarian government, and the Polish government. As we see with Poland, there’s a cost to it. Yes, we want to have a close relationship with Poland, we want the Poles to vote in the E.U. and vote with us in the U.N. But not at the cost of letting Poland off the hook for the Holocaust.

OR: Are you optimistic about Israel’s future?

Oren: Of course I’m optimistic. I wouldn’t be living here otherwise. But it helps to have historical depth. I mentioned that five years ago, the Obama Administration was predicting our demise through isolation. Look where we are now. Why wouldn’t we be optimistic? Fifty-one years ago we were facing destruction at the hands of Arab armies. Seventy-one years ago we were almost driven into the sea. So how can you not be optimistic, looking at Israel today? But being optimistic does not mean getting starry-eyed and overlooking the serious problems we face. The social gaps in this country are very deep. They’re among the widest in the world after the United States and Mexico. We face issues of deep divisions between religious and secular, Eastern and Ashkenazi, left and right, Arabs and Jews. Over the role of the the central rabbinate in Jewish religion in this country, over our relations with the Jewish diaspora. It’s not as if our plate is not full with many, many challenges. But you still have to have historical perspective, and you cannot look back. And you can’t help being optimistic looking forward.