The Honorable Michael Oren is a Member of Knesset (MK) from Israel’s Kulanu party and Deputy Minister for Diplomacy in the Prime Minister’s Office. He served as Israel’s ambassador to the United States from 2009 to 2013. With a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton, his academic career includes visiting professorships at Harvard, Yale, and Georgetown universities as well as Tel Aviv and Hebrew universities. MK Oren is author of Power, Faith and Fantasy; America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present; and Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East. inFOCUS Senior Editor Shoshana Bryen spoke with him recently.
inFOCUS: Deputy Minister Oren, thank you for speaking with us today. To begin at the time of the 1967 war, did Arab leaders have divergent interests or motivations at the start of the war? If so, how did that affect the outcome?
Michael Oren: Yes, there were very different interests and goals. [Egyptian] President [Gamal Abdel] Nasser wanted to demonstrate his strength and his leadership in the Arab world. It wasn’t at all clear to me that he wanted to go to war. King Hussein of Jordan wanted to survive; Nasser had tried to assassinate him 11 times. When Nasser kicked the United Nations peacekeeping forces – UNEF out of Sinai, then closed the Straits of Tiran, the entire Arab world began demanding the destruction of Israel. King Hussein had no choice but to fly to Cairo and place his army under Egyptian command. He just wanted to survive.
The Syrian Arab regime wanted to go to war. They had plans for war. They were – the army, the people – the most radically against Israel. They were clamoring for what was a very radical Ba’athist regime, the forefather of the current Ba’athist regime. Hafez Assad, the father of Bashar Assad, today’s dictator, was then the ruler.
Did that affect the outcome? I think the outcome was that the Jordanian Army was placed under Egyptian command. Israel opened hostilities against Egypt on the morning of June 5th; all of Israel’s attempts to keep Jordan out of the war were a bust. Egyptian generals in Jordan gave the Jordanian army orders to open fire on Jerusalem, to attack Jerusalem, on land, to open fire on greater Tel Aviv with long range guns.
That brought Israel into war against the Jordanians. The Syrians opened fire immediately from the Golan Heights with 10,000 shells falling on Northern Israeli farms and settlements. That was more ideologically motivated than King Hussein’s offensive. That was the impact [of divergent Arab views], the outcome.
iF: Here is a question that starts at 1967 and ends now. As a result of 1967, you have UN Resolution 242, and later you get 338. The point of those was to get the Arabs to reverse their position from 1948, that the creation of Israel was illegitimate. Does Israel still need the Arabs to accept the parameters of 242 in some formal way? Can you make peace with the Palestinian Arabs even if the Arab states don’t take their obligations seriously first?
Oren: Resolution 242 comes up because of the Khartoum Resolution. UN Security Council Resolution 242 was passed in November 1967, the Khartoum Resolution of the Arab League, was passed in August of that year. The Khartoum Resolution was known as the “Three No’s” – there would be no peace, no negotiations, and no recognition of Israel.
Resolution 242, which doesn’t actually call on the Arab states to make peace with Israel, just says that “every state in the region” has the right to peace and secure, recognized boundaries. The Arabs could easily say, “They include Israel and we don’t recognize Israel as a ‘state in the region.’” Security Council Resolution 242 was a massive work of ambiguity. The principal of “land for peace” was established, and framers of 242, particularly Justice [Arthur] Goldberg, the American ambassador the United Nations, were very explicit about leaving the word “the” out of the document before the word “territories” – meaning that Israel would not be required to return to the 1949 Armistice Line.
Israel was to return territories captured in the 1967 war in return for peace; not all the territories. The understanding was that the borders that defined Israel on June 4, 1967, the day before the war, are not defensible. They were eight miles wide in some places. Now, the Arab armies had already tried to cut the country in half twice before across that narrow bottleneck.
It was a very important concept then, understanding that Israel would not withdraw from the entire West Bank. Today, the concept is still important. Israel would make some type of territorial concession in return for peace but wouldn’t have to withdraw from all the territory. The most damaging event recently regarding Resolution 242, to this principle, which is now nearly 50 years old, was UN Security Council Resolution 2334 [of December 2016]. It designated all the territory Israel captured in 1967 as illegally occupied “Palestinian land.”
The question must be asked, why would the Palestinians want to make peace with Israel if the United Nations had already given them all the land? Resolution 2334 was a tremendous blow to 242. I wonder if it can be repaired.
iF: Does that come into play when you think about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump talking about a wider Arab-Israeli peace process? Would it be helpful for the Arabs at least to acknowledge that Resolution 242 remains relevant?
Oren: I don’t know that Resolution 242 is actually in the Arab Peace Plan. [Editor’s Note: Also known as the “Saudi Peace Plan.” It is a 2002 proposal for an end to the Arab–Israeli conflict endorsed by the Arab League and re-endorsed in 2007.]
The Arab Peace Plan does talk about normalization, which includes peace, in return for withdrawal to the 1967 lines. In one way, it goes beyond Resolution 242, calling for normalization, not just peace. But it falls far left of it. Unlike 242, it calls for withdrawal from all of the territories.
iF: The Saudis have made certain overtures to Israel; other countries have made overtures to Israel. Is that the result of changed attitudes, or is that the result of military deterrence plus a fear of Iran?
Oren: It’s all three. I think that Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf States have a closer confluence of interest than any time in our history. We agree, of course, on Iran. But we also agree on Assad, we agree on Hamas, we agree on the Muslim Brotherhood. We agree on ISIS. Increasingly, some of the Arabs states are viewing Israel not as an enemy, but as an ally – as a crucial ally – in their national defense. It’s a change of attitude, but also a change of circumstances.
iF: You have said that Israel’s victory in 1967 dramatically changed the Middle East balance of power to Israel’s advantage for a generation. What has been the effect in the last five or six years of the Arab Revolutions on that balance? On Israel’s relative position?
Oren: The Arab Spring was a shaking up of the Middle East – in some ways to our advantage and some ways not. There are longstanding state enemies of Israel, like Syria and Iraq, that have been destabilized, unraveled. They really don’t exist as states anymore. At the same time, some dark, Islamic forces have been released – like ISIS – which doesn’t redound to our benefit. On the other hand, the Arab Spring has caused the Sunni Arab states to band closer together, those who have survived, and to contemplate the possibility of joining us in a common regional defense.
For example, Egypt, where the Arab Spring initially brought a Muslim Brotherhood government to power. Now there’s a far friendlier government in power in Cairo than there has been at any time since the peace accord of 1979.So it’s a mixed bag.
iF: Pan-Arabism was at the heart of the Arab coalition in 1967. Is Pan-Islamism the new Pan-Arabism; is it something countries can rally around to Israel’s detriment?
Oren: Of course. Pan-Arabism was an important ideology of the past, but Pan-Islamism is a much more potent force than Pan-Arabism ever was. Pan-Islamism is in principle a global force, not a regional force. Pan-Arabism was to some extent an imported ideology from the West. Pan-Islamism is indigenous to these areas and it’s far more radical than Pan-Arabism ever was. Western captives weren’t decapitated by Arab nationalist forces in the 1950’s and 1960’s. So yes, it is a much more potent force and it comes in two varieties. You have Sunni Islamism and then you have Shiite Islamism and frankly, Israel faces a much greater threat from the Shiite variety.
iF: Is that historically the case or is that because of the Iranians being who they are?
Oren: It’s because of Iran’s 1979 revolution.
iF: I’ve heard people talk about a distinct preference to work with Shiite Muslims over time, not the Iranians [in power now] but Shia Muslims over time rather than Sunni Muslims.
Oren: That’s fine, but the problem right now would be Shiite Muslims dominated by the Islamic Republic [of Iran]. That doesn’t mean all of them are, but the fact is that the Shiite Muslim mainstream is influenced by the Iranian revolution that caused wide destruction, larger state-sponsored terror.
iF: How strong do you think the Iranian regime is?
Oren: I think it’s very strong. I think the regime had a dry run of the Arab Spring – it’s called Green Revolution and they learned to suppress it in June 2009. They put together a million-man destruction army and since that period there has not been a single demonstration in Tehran. If anybody demonstrates against the regime the protest will be decapitated very, very quickly.
iF: Would you say President Obama’s biggest failure was not to take the 2009 Green Revolution seriously?
Oren: I think it was part of a broader plan to engage with Iran, to engage that regime, and I think if you ask 99 percent of the Sunni Arabs in this region, they believe it was part of a broader plan – the American-Iranian détente, which included not getting involved against Assad militarily in Syria and which included the Iran nuclear deal. Iran has done very, very well. It is basically the major military presence in Iraq and, of course, in Yemen.
iF: How does Israel assess Iran’s military build up, do you think it has nuclear weapons? Do you think it’s close?
Oren: They want them. I do not know if they have them, but we start with the assumption that the nuclear deal not only did not prevent Iran’s path to the bomb, it paved Iran’s path to the bomb. [Editors Note: The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between the P5+1 countries and Iran.] It created two paths to the bomb: Iran could cheat and get the bomb or it can comply with the deal and wait another 10 years and get not just one bomb but many bombs quite legally, with legitimacy. That’s a very good option for this regime because I see no alternatives to the regime anywhere over the horizon.
iF: Why is it that Israel continues to deal with the Palestinian Authority given the breaches in its agreements, support for terror, and that it pays terrorist families?
Oren: Right now, the Palestinian Authority is the authority which we can interact with on a number of levels including security cooperation – although I wouldn’t over-estimate the value of that, but it is a value. We interact with them on many different levels, on economic projects, I’m interacting with them in my daily job. And so, while we can protest and take measures against the way they use foreign aid to promote terrorism, I don’t think it is in Israel’s interest to replace the Palestinian Authority at this time.
iF: Do you think you could replace Abbas if you wanted to?
Oren: I don’t know. Already, the race for his successor is on and it only resulted in shooting in the streets, Palestinian streets. We have interceded to stop the shooting.
iF: Israel is increasingly integrated economically and technologically with most of the world, including with Europe. At the same time, those same Europeans use public platforms and international platforms to denigrate Israel. Do you just have to shut your eyes and say, “Okay, let’s keep rolling”?
Oren: Pretty much. Fighting it the way we fight it, still 33 percent of our trade is with Western Europe, and they are our major trading partners. I would like to see us reduce that dependency as long as Western Europe remains our primary critic in the world – and they are our primary critics in the world.
iF: Worse than the Russians?
Oren: Oh, much, much. We have better working relations with Europe, perhaps. We have very complicated relations with Russians because they are operating militarily in the region. That’s an issue, but Europeans are labeling products from Judea and Samaria and the Golan Heights. Take Sweden. The old relations are pretty much outdated; Sweden is considered a hostile country.
iF: In 1967, Israel was a Second World country – it had fewer than 3 million Jews. Today its a First World country with about 6.5 million Jews. Politically, and in some respects socio-religiously, the population appears divided. Do you believe that Israel has the resilience to uphold the Zionist enterprise indefinitely?
Oren: Indefinitely includes infinity; that’s kind of a big chunk of time. But as far as we can see for the future, the answer is definitely, unequivocally, yes. As a matter of fact, by all indicators, Israel is an overwhelmingly successful society, whether it is economic advancement, or one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world, or one of the lowest inflation rates in the world. It is pretty extraordinary stuff.
Its also one of the happiest countries in the world. We’re the fifth happiest country in the world. We have very good longevity rates. Citizen satisfaction, the highest in the world. It’s pretty amazing.
iF: And that goes beyond the internal divisions in the country: religious, non-religious, Arab and Israeli citizens of Israel.
Oren: Just one of the recent statistics shows that the Arabs in Israel are overwhelmingly happy too.
iF: I see they’re enlisting in the military in greater numbers. Not big numbers but greater numbers.
Oren: Yes, I don’t think anybody can stop the path of Israeli modernity, and it will make inroads. Now over 50 percent of the ultra-Orthodox men are working, are in the work force in one way or the other. That’s an impressive statistic.
iF: Yes, it is. A wrap up thought: if you were Israel in 1967 and you were Israel in 2017 what are the biggest changes that have occurred in the country?
Oren: Israel today is far more diverse, far more democratic, and in many ways more progressive than it was in 1967. We’re certainly economically far more developed, and technologically far more developed. We are militarily far stronger and we are diplomatically more connected with the world. We didn’t even have a strategic alliance with the United States in 1967. We are scientifically more proficient. Using any indicator you can find, Israel has excelled. An interesting statistic: Israel has the highest natural growth rate of any modernized society in the world. Most Western democracies have a rapidly falling birth rate, but our birth rate keeps going up. It’s a sign of optimism. You know you don’t have three to five babies if you don’t have confidence in the future.
iF: It’s probably also why you’re a happy country. Everybody’s out there making babies.
Oren: I think it’s also the reason why we have longevity; our family structure keeps us alive. Mine, occasionally, wants to kill me, but they keep us alive.
iF: Is there anything you would like to say to the readers of inFOCUS?
Oren: I think they have to know that the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War is going to be the continuation of that war. Some people will try to mark 50 years of occupation, 50 years of Israeli oppression. They will try to cast the war as an act of planned aggression. It is very important to know the facts. Without war, we would not have peace with Egypt and Jordan; we would not have a reunited Jerusalem with freedom of worship; we would not have security; and we would not have international recognition to the degree we have today. Yes, there are controversial aspects that remain to be resolved and can be resolved if the Palestinians ever come back to the negotiating table, but the Six Day War was and remains an historic and miraculous victory for Israel and the Jewish people.
iF: Thank you on behalf of the Jewish Policy Center, inFOCUS, and its readers.