‘If the Government Can Survive One Week, It’ll Survive a Month’: An Interview with Michael Oren

June, 17 2021
Israel, Latest, Politics
Israeli Ambassador to the United State, Michael Oren

In a Moment Zoominar on Tuesday, historian and former Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, who also served as a member of Israel’s 20th Knesset, spoke about Israel’s new government. Watch the complete zoominar here.

Can you give us a brief overview of this new coalition government? There are eight parties in this coalition. Naftali Bennett will be Prime Minister for two years; after that Yair Lapid, the centrist, will take over. The eight parties include, on the left, Meretz and Labor, and on the right, Gideon Sa’ar’s party, New Hope, as well as Naftali Bennett’s Yamina (“Rightwards”) party. And also in the coalition is the Blue and White party of Benny Gantz, the former Chief of Staff of the army and my former military attache at Washington. I know Benny quite well.

We’ve had right-left coalitions before, but this is the most diverse. The key to the whole thing is an Islamic party called Ra’am (“The United Arab List”), led by a rather, I think, intrepid individual, Mansour Abbas. This is the first coalition where an Arab party is not just a member, but a key member, a decisive member.

It also contains the largest number of women ministers ever in Israeli history, 10 women ministers, and an Arab minister, my dear friend Issawi Frej. I’m delighted for him.

So It’s fascinating. Will it hold? Well, a majority of Israelis think not. And the reason is, not the opposition to it, but that Likud will introduce legislation this week designed to break it apart. For example, if Likud offers legislation that calls for annexing part of the West Bank, Bennett’s party will have to vote for that, as will Gideon Sa’ar’s party, but everyone else will oppose it.

Conversely, if Likud were to table a motion about civil marriage—we currently don’t have civil marriage in Israel—certainly, Labor and Meretz are going to vote for that, Blue and White will vote for it, probably Yair Lapid will vote for it. But Bennett and Mansour Abbas, the Arabs, will vote against it because they’re Islamic purists. So it’s going to be very bumpy. 

Hamas could also break the coalition apart if they start firing rockets again. Ra’am, the Islamic purist party, will not go along with a harsh Israeli military response against Gaza. They just won’t. And part of Meretz won’t either.

My own feeling is if the government can survive one week it’ll survive probably a month, if it survives a month it is liable to survive six months, and if it survives six months it’s likely to survive its whole term, certainly until the rotation of Yair Lapid.

How is Bennett regarded in the foreign policy arena? I think those who have the insider track, inside the Beltway, know who Bennett is. They know that he represents a right-wing party, that that party is opposed to the two-state solution, that that party is certainly opposed to the Iranian nuclear deal of 2015. But then again, so are most Israeli parties.

I think what you’re going to see is maybe not so much a change of substance, but a change of tone. Now, I worked with Benjamin Netanyahu for many years, and his tone was to make things very public. Whether it’s his famous squabbles with President Obama, his current attacks on the Biden administration or the questions of Iranian nuclearization, they are all very public. Netanyahu was a man of the media, very much so. 

Naftali Bennett is not. I think you’re going to see things a lot more sub rosa than you saw in the past. I can tell you as a diplomat, that creates space. When things aren’t public, you have space.

During the recent Gaza fighting, I was on the news a lot. I said if I were back at university teaching diplomacy, I would give President Biden an A plus. What they did, in contrast to previous administrations, was rather than coming out and criticizing Israel publicly and creating a situation where the Israeli government had to push back, but try not to be seen as getting into it with the United States, the president kept on coming out again and again and saying “I uphold Israel’s right to defend itself.” That created for Israel a tremendous amount of military maneuverability and space, and also gave the president leverage.

When the president came to Netanyahu, and I remember the moment very well because I was there, and said, Okay, enough, stop it, Netanyahu had really no choice. 

Nobody wanted to stop, by the way, 80 percent of the Israelis were against the ceasefire, including my own left-wing kids. Netanyahu had no choice because Biden had navigated that diplomacy so deftly.

How do you view President Biden on the international stage, both his track record and his potential, and is your view common to the Israelis you speak with? I know Joe Biden well. I’m not self-aggrandizing here. When I was ambassador, we were going through successive crises. Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state, boycotted the Israeli embassy. She wouldn’t take my calls, but Joe Biden was always available. So I ended up logging a lot of time with him.

I know him to be an honest man, a person who’s deeply committed to Israel, deeply committed to the alliance between Israel and the United States. We have policy differences,  particularly over the Iranian issue, but it’s fundamentally different from what we experienced during the Obama years. It’s certainly different from what we experienced during the Trump years. 

It has to be judged on its own merits. And here I’m going to say something tough. So brace yourself. Yes, President Biden has brought a new voice, or rather restored an old voice, to America’s interactions with the world.

There’s one point in which President Obama, President Trump and President Biden are exactly identical. They hate hearing this, but it’s true. And that’s on the level of isolationism, America is withdrawing from the world, it is withdrawing militarily from the world. It is probably not in a position to project major military power elsewhere in the world.

It’s human nature in diplomacy when two foreign leaders meet one another, if one is projecting power in the world, whether it be in Crimea, Ukraine, or the Middle East, he’s going to have an advantage over the statesman whose country is pulling back.

The new ambassador to Israel from the United States was just selected, Thomas Nides. What are your feelings on him as being the next ambassador? Tom Nides is a great choice. He’s a personal friend of mine, I think the world of him. I was just texting back and forth with him. They couldn’t have made a better choice.

  He comes out of two backgrounds. He’s a banker from JP Morgan, but he also was the undersecretary during Hillary’s period. I had a tremendous amount of interaction with him. He’s a person who’s deeply committed, like the Biden administration, like Tony Blinken, deeply committed to Israel’s security and our alliance.

Yes, we have policy differences, I have to say that all the time. But I’m delighted he’s coming, I’m really looking forward to this.

How much power does Bibi still wield as head of the opposition, and what’s next for him? We don’t know, and the long knives are out [laughs]. I’m already getting text messages from various senior Likudniks, who are vying to oust him. It’s probably a bad metaphor, the body is not cold yet but they are already dicing it up. So he’s going to have an even harder fight on his hands remaining the head of the opposition.

 It’s the role of the opposition to try to take down the government. It depends how, and I think that some of the things that Netanyahu said the other day on the first day of the new government, sort of comparing it to a disaster, saying they were celebrating in Tehran, I think that kind of talk is deeply harmful to the Israeli political system. I think it’s harmful to our interests abroad and to our image. And I think it shouldn’t be allowed.

Will the Abraham accords be impacted by last month’s war with Hamas and the new Israeli government? And is there any hope for new countries to formalize relationships? The answer is no, it won’t be impacted by the war. It was impacted by the protests around Jerusalem because these are Muslim countries and they’re very sensitive. Once Hamas started firing rockets at Tel Aviv the impact ended. They’re not on board for that. We have normalized relationships with these countries.

Whether additional countries would join, all I can say is I hope so. It is in the nature of any new administration not to invest in the achievements of the previous administration, certainly if the previous administration was headed by Mr. Trump. So I don’t know how much the Biden administration is going to invest. 

One thing I do know, and this I know categorically. If the United States does renew the Iran nuclear deal, other states will seek to join the Abraham Accords because Israel is going to be the only country in the world that can stand up both to Iran as well as Turkey.

Turkey also threatens these countries, they backed Islamic extremists. We’ve gone from being an enemy to being the ultimate ally of these countries, and they know it.

If Hamas fires rockets into Israel tomorrow as a response to the flag parade, or for some other reason, who decides on the level of retaliation? And can the retaliation cause a problem for the coalition? It’s important to note that Israel, unlike the United States, does not have a commander in chief at its head. The Prime Minister of Israel is not the commander in chief. The commander in chief is the Israeli security cabinet that’s sort of a kitchen cabinet, made up of security people and ministers. Broadly, the cabinet itself has to decide on war. The prime minister has a certain amount of leeway in returning fire because you just can’t immediately convene the cabinet all the time.

 And yes, it will impact the coalition, as I mentioned earlier. If the fighting begins to snowball, then the Ra’am faction will have a hard time remaining in the coalition.

Down the line in future American presidential cycles, do you think that the United States could ever have a president who does not support Israel? I’m a historian, and I have enough problems predicting the past. There are certainly currents and processes that are going through America right now, and transforming American politics that of which Israel has no control. We didn’t invent “wokeism,” we didn’t invent cancel culture, we didn’t invent intersectionality. 

Even if Israel created a two-state solution tomorrow, I don’t think it would materially impact those processes. So I don’t know where they play out in terms of American politics, whether there’s a sort of a reformation, or Reconquista [laughs] against all of this. A backlash against cancel culture, certainly the Republicans would like to have that type of backlash.

I don’t know, but someone like Bernie Sanders came close, he was within a certain shooting range. Elizabeth Warren was within shooting range. They now have come out and expressed a very different position about America’s relationship with Israel.

Does it matter that more American Jews in the United States are less supportive of Israel and its policies than in the past? It matters, of course, it matters. There are debates about the actual numbers, it’s certainly clear among young liberal American Jews, alienation and disaffection. Israel has to do a better job of reaching out to them. 

But keep in mind, we can only reach out to a degree, we cannot adopt policies in order to satisfy the demands of these young liberal American Jews, policies that will endanger our children and grandchildren. No one’s going to do that.

No one’s going to say that the Iran nuclear deal is a good deal. Nobody. Even though the majority of American Jews support it.

Why does it seem that a majority of Palestinians support Hamas and not the Palestinian Authority, and did this last round of fighting weaken the PA even more? It does. For a year and a half, I was in charge of Gaza for the Israeli government, and I don’t wish this on anybody. What I learned was that everything I know about human governance, everything I know about humanity, you can pretty much throw out the window when you’re talking about Hamas and Gaza. 

You have a terrorist group that keeps its population in a humanitarian disaster status, in order to play victim to the world in order to keep that population weak. You have a Palestinian Authority that’s willing to fight Hamas to the last Israeli. You have Iran that is willing to fight Israel to the last Palestinian. It’s a madhouse. This is Hamas that uses thousands of children to dig tunnels. You have about 1,000 kilometers of tunnels. Who dug them? It’s Palestinian kids who are basically enslaved, hundreds of them die.

So you have to throw out everything you know about the way human beings interact. One of the things you have to throw out is that Hamas can starve its population. It can deprive them of all but three hours of electricity a day. It can deprive them of all but 4 percent of potable water. And it will still win overwhelmingly and end elections, and not just in Gaza, but in the West Bank, which is why the Palestinian Authority hasn’t had elections. This is why Mahmoud Abbas, the president, is entering the 16th year of his four-year term.

Why is that? It’s because Hamas represents values, it represents Islam, and they take it very seriously. Hamas represents resistance to Israel. Hamas is largely incorruptible, whereas the PA is thoroughly corrupt. The Palestinian Authority has received hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid over the course of the last 25 years. And where is the aid? It’s sitting in bank accounts in Paris.

Palestinians aren’t stupid, they know this. They know these people are completely corrupt. And so that’s why.

How concerned does Israel need to be about Lebanon and Hezbollah? Very concerned. Especially if the Iran nuclear deal is signed. Hezbollah currently has 130,000 rockets aimed at us. These are very accurate rockets, unlike the rockets from Gaza. They are hidden under 200 Lebanese villages, under houses. Should they shoot those rockets at us, our army will have to go into those villages house to house. The army trains to do that.

Why would Hezbollah shoot at us? Well, here’s the scenario: Under the JCPOA, the Iran deal, the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program begin to lift with the Sunset Clause starting in 2023. Eventually, Iran will move to get nuclear weapons and Israel will not let that happen. In the interim, Iran will have received hundreds of billions of dollars in sanction relief and business deals, which they will not spend on schools and hospitals, surprise, surprise. They will spend it on rockets and missiles to give to Hamas, to give to militias in Iraq and in Syria, to the Houthis in Yemen. When we try to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, we are going to get hit. We are going to get hit as we’ve never seen before. It’s going to make what happened a couple of weeks ago look like a very small picnic, and of this, I am absolutely certain, and we have to prepare for that in every possible way.

What has been learned from this latest war with Hamas? I’ve learned that with every passing war, now we’ve had four, and I participated both as a statesman, a commentator and as a soldier. Opposition worsens.

Our response gets more and more accurate, but the international response becomes less and less sensitive to Israel’s needs and more and more critical of Israel’s actions. The wars have actually gotten shorter. In 2008 the war was three weeks long, and in 2014 it was 26 days long. We’ve killed fewer Palestinians. We’ve been more condemned by the world, and the Palestinian rocket fire has intensified and the range has increased. So, are we winning or are we losing?

I would say that Hamas has won a very big victory. Yes, we may have deterred it for a while, and knocked down a lot of its underground tunnels, but we paid a huge price. The next war, what I’ve learned is it is going to be shorter, costlier in terms of our diplomacy, and more damaging in terms of what Hamas can do to us in terms of its rockets.

Israel has to make a decision about what it wants to do about Gaza because the current policy, I think, in the long run, is untenable.

Is there a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem? I have an interesting perspective. As I mentioned, I worked with Yitzhak Rabin. I have accompanied this process from day one. I’ve been involved in many peace plans, including the Trump peace plan.

I will say at the end of it—I say this also as a person involved in politics, and I still have political aspirations—I’m in favor of a two-state solution, in theory. I stress “in theory,” because I can’t think of any way in hell it’s ever going to happen. Palestinians clearly don’t want it; they have rejected it again and again since the 1930s. Right now they actually don’t have a government that is capable of signing that agreement. Israelis will never let the Palestinians have security control over the West Bank, they will not outsource our security to the Palestinians.

It ain’t gonna happen. I can’t think of any situation, and I would like to think of alternatives to it. So, a solution in the American sense of a solution, the answer is a categorical no. A solution in a Middle Eastern sense, which is much more amorphous and implicit. It’s not what I call a Westphalian solution, with two sides sitting down and signing a piece of paper and drawing a line. It’s not going to happen.

What will happen is something that is much more implicit. I’ll conclude with this: Much of the talk about one state, two states, is moot. If you drive up Israel’s Highway Six, which follows the old 1967 border, you’re going to see a Palestinian flag to your right to the east. 

There actually is a Palestinian state. It has some kind of borders, some kind of government, it has a police force, and a flag. It could have elections if it wanted to. The issue then is how do we take this two-state reality and make it stronger and expand it. That is the issue, and that will require strong leadership on all sides. Israel, thank God, has one right now. Palestinians do not have it.

Top photo: USCPublicDiplomacy; Flickr; January 17, 2013, Michael Oren 

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