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Israeli Ambassador to the US at Aspen Ideas Festival 2009

The afternoon session at Aspen Ideas Festival today is a four hour “conversation”, involving a remarkable set of discussants. To give us a sense for gravitas, we open with “Fanfare for the Common Man”, played on timpani and brass. I guess this is to prepare us for speakers like Attorney General Eric Holder… who, unfortunately, wasn’t able to join us due to a dental emergency. (I’m not making this up.) Instead, we get the new Israeli Ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, in dialog with Bob Schieffer.

(A reminder for all my readers – I just try to get the notes down – there’s no implied endorsement of anything said or not said here.)

Oren was born, raised and educated in the US – he gave up his US citizenship to become Israel’s ambassador to the US. He explains that this is a long tradition in Israel – the United States forces people to give up US citizenship, not Israel.

Schieffer asks the Ambassador to comment on a rumor today, that Israeli officials have indicated willingness towards a freeze in settlements as part of a larger peace process. Oren won’t confirm this, and reminds us that Israel reserves the right to coninue to expand existing settlements, but doesn’t plan not to acquire new land for settlements. This is not, though, just a negotiation between the US and Israel – he reminds us that this is a negotiation towards the whole Arab world. If there were indications that the Arab world was starting to accept Israel, perhaps there’d be more willingness. He says that Israel is looking for “baby steps”: overflight rights, visas for visiting scholars.

Trying to explain why the settlement issue is so difficult, Oren says, “These are our tribal lands… You can’t say to jews ‘You can’t live in the land of your forefathers.'” On the other hand, “that right can only be qualified by the right of another people,” and he acknowledges that the Palestinians have rights to these territories. The hope is to find mutual recognition, comity, prosperity, a recognition of parallel, opposing claims to these lands.

Oren served in the Israeli armed forces during the operation to move settlers out of Gaza. He talks about how difficult it is to remove people from their homes on land they believe they have a right to.

Schieffer asks about Palestinian reaction to the recent plan put forward by the Israeli Prime Minister – a recognition of a Jewish state, no right of return, and no joint control of Jerusalem. Orem asks us to back up – Israel is acknowleding a Palestinian claim to land, with a requirement that there’s a mutual acknowledgement in turn. Israel is demanding a demilitarized state – it will be allowed a police force, but the fear is that past attempts to allow Palestinian authorities to have weapons have led to attacks on Israel, particularly rocket attacks. And Jerusalem, he says, is not off the table – it’s simply only for the last stage of discussions.

Schieffer wonders why Jerusalem couldn’t be a shared, international city. Oren argues that international cities don’t work, and argues that the city wasn’t possible for jews until Israel took over in 1967. As for refugees, Oren wants to see refugees repatriated to a former Palestinian state, not to Israel, as it would change the Jewish character of the state. He reminds Schieffer that Israel has repatriated jews from around the Arab world who’d been expelled or threatened.

Oren draws a distinction between Palestinian groups seeking the elimination of Israel and a new generation who want economic ties with Israel. He points to security successes, with US forces training Palestinian police, which have enabled parts of the West Bank which had been closed to reopen. And he notes a changing tone in the region – Israel is no longer the enemy to Sunni states – it’s Iran, and Israel is agreed that Iran is a threat.

Schieffer asks point blank, “Will Israel tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran?” Oren sees “multiple existential threats” from a nuclear armed Iran. Not only is there the chance of a direct strike, there’s the possibility of transfer of the bomb to terrorist groups. Israel loses its ability to retailate for terrorism. And he argues that if Iran gets a bomb, other states will immediately seek them as well. “Israel will take whatever actions are necessary to protect its citizens from this multiple existential threat… Israel has the military means to defend itself under all conditions.” (This last line gets applause, perhaps because it’s an elegant dodge to a question of whether Israel has nuclear weapons.)

“The Gilad Shalit story tears my nation apart… the country that tears its heart out over a single soldier is not going to let a government threaten it with nuclear weapons.”

Asked about recent unrest in Iran, Oren says, “This is a regime that shows no compunction in killing its own citizens. It will show no compunctions in killing our or other citizens.” Israel is concerned that a “so-called moderate leader will emerge in Iran, and continue to support Hizbullah, Hamas and continue to seek nuclear weapons.” Only with a change in Iranian policy will Israel be comfortable.

Oren argues that great American leaders, including Jefferson, Lincoln and Wilson, were Zionists, and suggests that the US/Israeli relationship is like no other two-state relationship in history. As a centerpiece of US and Israeli foreign relations, it’s not going to change.

Oren ends on a light note, hoping that his next vacation can be in Riyahd. He wants to see a resolution to the settlement issue, a resumption of talks with the Palestinians, and talks with Syria, hoping that Syrian leaders will follow in the steps of Sadat and come to Israel. “The people of Israel have demonstrated again and again that when there is a sincere effort from an Arab leader, Israelis are willing to make enormous sacrifices.” He references Israel’s 1979 peace treaty with Egypt as an example.