Michael Oren is best-known as the former Ambassador of Israel to the United States. However, American-born Oren is also a historian, author of both fiction and non-fiction, and politician. He served in Israel’s Knesset and was a Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office. inFOCUS Quarterly caught up with him in Washington.
inFOCUS: There’s been an evolution in Israel’s position on Ukraine. It is unrivaled in the provision of humanitarian aid, but some say Israel should “do more,” meaning provide military aid. Tell us about the evolution.
Ambassador Michael Oren: At the onset of the conflict, not being in government, I took my own government to task when Israel came out in a neutral position. There were some substantive reasons, compelling reasons, for expressing neutrality, not least of which was the presence of the Russian army on Israel’s border and Israel’s need to maintain freedom of action to strike against Iran’s attempt to transform Syria into a forward base for attacking Israel. There was also a desire to play a mediating role, in part to ensure the continuation of Israel’s ability to maintain institutions that serve the half million Jews who remain in the former Soviet Union.
Plus, the fact that between one out of every five Israelis speak Russian, and they have close family connections there that could be impaired by confrontation with [Vladimir] Putin. And the fact that Israel has developed an open relationship with Putin that was the envy of Washington and most European capitals.
So, there were compelling points. I rejected them all.
Diplomatically, strategically, neutrality was a bad idea because our major concern is the Iran nuclear deal and its renewal. In addition, when friends like [Senator] Lindsay Graham [R-SC] condemn us for our neutrality, we can’t afford to lose that support. So strategically, politically, it was not a good idea, but also morally it was not a good idea. It was, in fact, untenable for the Jewish democratic State of Israel to sit by while a fellow democracy was fighting for its freedom against the totalitarian invader. And by the way, an opposition being led by a proud Jew. That was a morally terrible position for the Jewish state. I was very adamant about it. I called for Israel to provide helmets and flak jackets and to join with the sanctions. That was in March.
In April, I published an article in The Wall Street Journal saying that Israel is no longer neutral. And Israel is no longer neutral. We’ve gone from not joining a UN Security Council resolution condemning Russia to supporting a UN General Assembly condemnation to voting for Russia’s ouster for the UN Human Rights Council – for which we were excoriated by the Russians. We have sent some of the largest aid packages to Ukraine, including the first and largest, fully-equipped and staffed field hospital that actually entered Ukraine, not sitting on the border. And the Ministry of Defense approved the shipment of helmets and flak jackets.
Israel does not have legislation that would enable the government to impose sanctions on Russia. We can join several of the sanctions and help Ukraine on cyber defense. It’s under massive cyber-attack today and Israel leads the world in cyber defense – 20 percent of all the foreign investment in cyber defense in the world is in the State of Israel. We should be helping more, but I’m personally very satisfied and a little bit vindicated I must say, that Israel is no longer neutral.
There’s a tremendous amount of hypocrisy in the criticism.
iF: Turn the ticker just a little bit – to Iran. Israel’s policy of “defend yourself by yourself” has become even more clear when you look at Iran and the United States and draw conclusions about what might happen. Can you talk about what Iran has done to the U.S.-Israel relationship?
Amb. Oren: When I first came to Washington in 2008, just before I became ambassador, there were little dinner parties with State Department people. I began to hear a view that first shocked me. There were people in Washington who had reached the conclusion that America had bet on two wrong horses in the Middle East. They had spent a trillion dollars in Iraq, and they had bet on the Jews who spit in their faces and make trouble. For them, the true allies of the United States and Middle East are the people of Iran who are basically pro-Western. Yeah, they’ve got a little bit of an obnoxious regime. But if you get beyond that, we have natural allies there, the Americans would say.
When I first heard this, I thought it was just absolutely insane.
Later, I realized this was actually policy. What you hear today circulating Washington, and this should shock you, is that not only should the United States not necessarily prevent Iran from getting a bomb, but Iran actually should get a bomb. Because then there’d be a balance of “Mutually Assured Destruction” in the Middle East and the region would actually be more secure.
From an Israeli perspective this is abject insanity. And if anything demonstrates the insanity, but it’s the Ukraine situation. Now you have a nuclear power that has gone on nuclear alert. Once it’s on nuclear alert, the ability of the West to pose any conventional counter threat is eliminated by the threat that Mr. Putin is going to push a button – tactical or otherwise. Put that situation in the Middle East. We have a regime in Iran that I’m going to guess is a little bit less rational than that of Vladimir Putin and a little bit more messianic. Do you think if Iran had a nuclear capability, it would not be for a day, but a constant nuclear alert against us?
How would we defend ourselves if we had an Iranian nuclear weapon pressed to our forehead? The fear is not only that they get the thing, but that they have the ability to make the thing. That’s what’s called the “threshold capacity.” Japan has that ability, but the Japanese aren’t the Iranians. And once Iran has that capability, our ability to defend ourselves from terror will drop to close to zero. And to my mind, that is the biggest lesson of Ukraine, biggest lesson for Israel.
Iranian Bomb and Regional War
iF: Is that something Israel has discussed with the United States? The State Department appears to think Israel just doesn’t want the U.S. to have a deal with Iran. Do they understand why?
Amb. Oren: Yes. But our government has not been clear. Several months ago, during [National Security Adviser] Jake Sullivan’s first visit to Israel, the Foreign Minister [Yair Lapid] said we were past Iran getting threshold capability. That was the last time I had heard that. It was a very important statement. He may have made it several times, but then it disappeared. In recent weeks our government has ceased attacking renewal of the JCPOA and focused exclusively on the listing of the IRGC as a terror organization.
This might have been a clever line of attack if there’s an understanding between the United States and Israel that the listing of the IRGC is what prevents the agreement from going through. Because if you listen to the spokesman of the State Department who said, “Yes, we’re willing to discuss the listing, but only within the context of discussing all the outstanding non-nuclear issues relating to the U.S., Israel, the Iranian-U.S. relationship. Which include support of terror, the ballistic missiles.”
Somebody may have intended to use the delisting as a way of torpedoing the talks, but the Israeli government had to be much more outspoken and unequivocal in its opposition to the renewal of the deal and what it means for Israel. And what it means for Israel is very simply regional war. Not local war, but regional war. A tremendous amount of blood will be left on the hands of anybody who supported this deal.
At some point Iran is going to break out. It wants the bomb, needs the bomb. One reason is pride. But the other reason is regime survival. They saw what happened to [Libya’s Muammar] Qaddafi, to [Iraq’s] Saddam Hussein. Anybody who was relieved of his nuclear program died. They see what’s happening to [Ukrainian President Volodomyr] Zelensky right now. They see what’s NOT happening to North Korea. They got to have the thing and they’re going to move to get it.
I can’t answer the question about when Israel responds. We have red lines. But know that when Israel reacts, the Iranians have built up a deterrent of upwards of 150,000 rockets under 200 Lebanese villages. They’re in Iraq. They’re in Yemen. And they’re hands of Hamas. We’re going to be hit. The IDF estimate for the next war is between 2,000 and 4,000 rockets a day will be fired at us. No anti-missile capabilities we have can defend against that.
Iran knows this. So, when I talk about regional war, it’s a war where Israel not only has to somehow neutralize Iran’s ability to create a nuclear weapon, but we’re going to have to strike at 200 Lebanese villages in Southern Lebanon. That’s what the army is training for. We’ll have to hit sites as far away as Yemen and Iraq and will be engaged in another war with Hamas at the same time, a multi-front war. And the responsibility for this will lie solely with the people who promoted this deal.
iF: Is one reason that the Israeli government may be biting its tongue the fact that it’s already on the outs with the Biden administration over the Palestinians?
Amb. Oren: That is going nowhere. Why? First of all, the Israeli government is a composite of left/right/up/down/center, with some elements in the government meeting, promoting Palestinian interests, others opposing it. You have an [American] administration that would like to move very swiftly on the Palestinian issue. But there’s no Palestinian leadership. There is no there there. Mahmoud Abbas is 85 years old, a three-pack-a-day cigarette guy in the 17th year of his four-year term. He doesn’t have the will, he doesn’t have the ability to sign on anything, he doesn’t represent anybody. So, they can’t do this.
What they can do is move on the “ripple issues.” There’s talk about renewing or reopening the U.S. consulate in eastern Jerusalem – which was essentially an embassy to the Palestinians. In the past, if you went on the consulate’s website, everything was in English and Arabic, not a word of Hebrew, no mention, not only that Jerusalem was Israel’s capital, but also no mention that there was a single Jew in the city of Jerusalem. I’m deeply, deeply opposed to the reopening of that consulate. It is in fact, a reversal of the Trump era policy of recognizing Jerusalem as our capital.
It could be pressure, especially if the JCPOA fails to be renewed. How does that connect to the consulate in east Jerusalem? The answer I think lies in domestic politics and has to do with pressure from the progressive part of the Democratic Party, which has elevated the JCPOA to iconic status, the Holy Grail.
A last point on this. I have been involved in every U.S.-sponsored “peace plan” going back to 1993 when I was an advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. So, I have a certain perspective. And I will tell you that the peace plan put out by the previous administration was the most realistic peace plan ever developed by the United States of America. It was the only peace plan that actually had any chance of success and I hope it will be revived.
One of the great achievements of the Trump administration approach to the Palestinian issue, which has now been discarded, was that it changed decades of American incentives for the Palestinians NOT to negotiate. It was extraordinary. You leave the table; you get a prize. You say no; you get a prize. You leave the table; you get money. You leave the table; you get an embassy in Washington. You get condemnation of Israel. It created a situation in which the Palestinians actually could not negotiate.
We’re back to that now. Aid to the Palestinians has been resumed. What has this administration got in return? And we got an answer: buck zero, absolute zero.
iF: Israel and the United States have discussed China at great length lately, and Israel has changed its way of doing business in China. How much?
Amb. Oren: A lot. China recently surpassed the United States as our largest trading partner. China is building our two ports. China is building the subway system across the street from my house in Jaffa. They say the national bird of Israel is the [construction] crane – and 40 percent of those cranes have big Chinese signs on them.
China is expanding its economic footprint in Israel, very, very rapidly. We have to keep pace with the housing prices. We have to quadruple the size of our ports, because the ports were built by the British in the 1930s for a population of 800,000. Now we’ve got more than 10 million and we import more than 90 percent of our food. These are strategic interests for the state, just not financial. We need the Chinese; we need them to work. But not just that, the Chinese are moving in strategically at a time in the United States is moving out [of the Middle East] strategically.
Chinese have now built the largest naval port in Africa at Djibouti, at the entrance of the Red Sea. They now patrol the entrance to the Red Sea. They’re building two major ports on the Persian Gulf. And if I were a betting man, I think that China’s going to rebuild Syria. The UN price tag for rebuilding Syria is about $300 billion. The Iranians can’t do it. The Russians can’t. Just watch, we’re going to have China on our northern border, too.
I’ve sat through meetings with three administrations, and for all the differences between Mr. Obama and Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden, they all say exactly the same thing about China and Israel. They don’t like our relationship with China.
And Israel has made the same commitment to all three administrations: that we will be very circumspect in our relations with China, particularly in the area of high tech. That was not always the case. A lot of Israeli technology found its way into the hand of the Chinese, and that was bad. But we have to walk a very delicate line. On one hand we cannot ignore our budding and burgeoning economic and strategic interest in China. And on the other hand, preserving our ultimate alliance with the United States of America.
China is no substitute for United States. They don’t share our values or our interests and they just signed a $400 billion agreement with Iran – which has a military dimension.
The Abraham Accords
iF: I always think the last question should be one the answer to which is a positive statement. So, I’m going to ask you about the Abraham Accords. How are we doing?
Amb. Oren: The Abraham Accords overturned entirely every assumption about peace-making that have been considered doctrine by the “peace establishment,” which is huge in the United States and Europe. The governments, the universities, the think tanks, the media, everyone said you had to withdraw to the 1967 borders, uproot several hundred thousand Israeli settlers, redivide Jerusalem, create a Palestinian state, etc. It was like a pinball machine, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, everything was wrong.
The Accords also reversed the paradigm. With Jordan and Egypt, Israel got peace but didn’t get normalization. We had peace of a sort of with their governments, probably more with Egypt now than with Jordan, but we didn’t know peace with their people at all. With the Abraham Accords, particularly in the Gulf, we have peace with people. We have dozens of flights every week. We have business deals, people to people. It’s extraordinary and any future peace arrangement in the Middle East will conform to the paradigm of the Abraham Accords, not to the paradigm of the Egypt and Jordan peace agreements.
I have concerns about what will happen if the JCPOA is renewed and already we see some of the [Abraham Accords] signatories hedging their bets and talking with the Iranians. They’re afraid, and it can’t shock you. But for the Abraham Accords, again, along with the officials of the Trump administration that made those Accords happen, we owe a debt to Barack Obama. Because Barack Obama set out to bring Jews and Arabs closer. He succeeded – just not through peace. He succeeded through our common opposition to his policies.
We owe Obama, a debt of gratitude because he kicked us out the nest. He forced us to diversify our policy portfolio. He forced us to go to China, to Africa. Before, it was enough just to have the U.S. relationship, and we didn’t really care about the rest of the world. But there was common regional opposition to U.S. policies, particularly toward Iran—but not only – it is also a front against the Muslim Brotherhood backed by Turkey. And Israel was the only country in the Middle East that was standing up to both of these. The United States at the time was courting both.
I think countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and others will see the economic benefits, the security benefits, the openness that the Accords bring for innovation in the Middle East, and that Israel is not only not an enemy but also that it is an ally and that other countries will join as well.
iF: Michael Oren, thank you for an enlightening conversation.