Home inFocus The War of Independence 2.0 (Spring 2024) Israel at Home and Abroad

Israel at Home and Abroad

An inFOCUS interview with Amb. Michael OREN

Michael Oren Spring 2024

Michael Oren is a diplomat, essayist, historian, novelist, and politician. Born in New Jersey, he immigrated to Israel in 1979. He has served as Israeli ambassador to the United States, a Member of Knesset, and Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office. He has taught at Harvard, Yale, and Georgetown universities in the US and Ben-Gurion and Hebrew universities in Israel. You can find him on Substack. inFOCUS editor Shoshana Bryen spoke with him recently.

inFOCUS: Last summer, a lot of people were worried about societal disunity in Israel during the protests. Since October 7, that seems to have changed.

Michael Oren: The concept of unity can be broken down into unity about the war; unity about the hostages; and unity about the government.

Of the three, unity about the war is being maintained. You don’t see any major movements against it. Israeli society is overwhelmingly committed to completing this war and destroying Hamas.

On the hostages, there are those who think Israel can’t rescue the hostages, at least not most of them, and therefore should put its energy into saving the state and destroying Hamas. There are also those who believe that Israel should agree to pretty much any terms of Hamas to maintain the raison d’etre of the state, which is redeeming hostages. There are divisions even within the hostage family community; not all hostage families agree.  And if you’ve seen some of the letters that soldiers have written, letters that have been published after they have died in battle, they say, “Whatever you do, if I get captured, don’t trade terrorists for me.”

The third unity issue is around the government where very high percentage of Israelis think Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu should resign. He won’t resign right now. 

iF: You wrote in The Rejuvenated State that, “Universal military service is not universal and not all of the reserves perform their duty.” You also wrote, “The role of the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community has to change.” There was some change after October 7. could it represent something long-term?

Oren: It could continue, but I don’t want to overemphasize it. Right now, it’s very small. You’re talking about hundreds of people coming to the IDF, not thousands. Longer term trends may point in that direction, the very rapid expansion of Internet service and usage among the Haredi community, for example. But right now, the issue of Haredi draft may actually bring down this government.

iF: You’ve also written that Israel needs a larger standing military. Will October 7 change people’s understanding about military requirements?

Oren: Yes. There was a trend before October 7 to reduce the length of military service. That’s going to change. There was still some residual resistance to women serving in combat roles. That’s going to change also. And the willingness of Israeli society to continue to countenance Haredi non-service is going to change.

There was also a de-emphasis on the reserves before October 7, and that’s going to stop. A number that I cited in the book was that only about 25 percent of people who had served in the Army as conscripts continue to do reserve duty. That’s going to change.

There’s going to be a greater emphasis on reserve service, a greater emphasis on women’s combat roles, and a greater emphasis on Haredi service.

iF: We see enormous support for individual soldiers, amazing support for soldiers. Does that extend to how the people feel about military leadership in Israel?

Oren: Less so. There’s going to be a reckoning. The Israeli army failed egregiously on October 7, and it was a failure of leadership, not of soldiers. Soldiers streamed to the front.

iF: The US is opposed to any territorial changes in Gaza. It’s negative about Israeli action in Lebanon and is talking about a “two-state solution.” Is the US government out of sync with the Israeli people or just the Israeli government?

Oren: With the Israeli people. Totally.

Most Israelis never thought there was a “two-state solution.” I’m one of them; let’s start with that. But those people who were maybe leaning toward it in the past, they’re not now, because they’re going to ask a very simple question, “Who is going to lead that state? Who is going to prevent that state becoming a Hamas state?”

Isaac Herzog, our president, former head of the Labor Party is saying, “Anybody talking about a ‘two-state’ solution now is mad.” And he’s reflecting Israeli opinion.

As for the buffer zones in Gaza, I would say that 98 percent of Israelis favor that. The fact is that if the Biden administration doesn’t want to see any reduction in the territory of Gaza, Israel is just going to have to say, “I’m sorry, I don’t see the United States giving up the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. This is protecting our homes.” That’s the least price of this war – that nobody can get near that fence.

Two States

iF: No “two-state solution.” But you wrote about the “two-state situation.” Tell us about it.

Oren: Let me preface by saying that harping on the two-state solution, which hasn’t worked, patently hadn’t worked for the last 31 years, and won’t work in the future, is not going to get us anywhere. It’s tragic for the Palestinians. They’re not going to get anywhere.

But there are other directions you can go if you think creatively. In fact, the whole question of two states/one state is kind of a misnomer because there are already two states. If you travel up Highway 6 going north in Israel, you’ll see to your right Palestinian cities, they’re flying the Palestinian flag. In those cities, there’s Palestinian governance. They collect taxes. They could hold elections if they wanted to hold elections. There’s a type of Palestinian state already, but the big question is what would be the extent of the sovereignty of that state?

It won’t have a monopoly over the use of force and won’t be able to control its airspace, but then the issue is what is the territorial and juridical extent of that sovereignty? You can build on that.

But an independent Palestinian state is not going to go anywhere. Moreover, the Palestinians don’t want it. Someone’s not getting the memo. They keep on saying “no” to two-state offers and no one seems to listen to them.

iF: Why do they keep saying no?

Oren: Because the price of two states would be accepting our state and they don’t want to do that. The only thing the Palestinians agree on, perhaps, is getting rid of us. Even those people who say they’re in favor of a “two-state solution” never say they’re willing to live side by side permanently and legitimately with us.

The Palestinians are unwilling to give us peace. They’re unwilling to recognize that Jewish people even exists. According to the official Palestinian line, the First Temple didn’t exist, the Second Temple didn’t exist. All the artifacts we dig up in the State of Israel, the myriad evidence of Jewish inhabitants in the land of Israel over more than a thousand years, all of that is fabricated, according to Palestinian officials.

Israel’s Arab Citizens

iF: What happens when you look inside of Israel? How have Israeli Arabs reacted to the current war, and do you see them as a long-term integral part of the state of Israel?

Oren: Yes, I do. I do. And it has to be because they’re 21 percent of the population, they are not going anywhere, and we have to make efforts to try to bring them into society. But it’s based on mutual recognition.

Israel, the Jewish state, will fight discrimination in a Churchillian way, in the classroom, in the workplace, and in the media. But the quid pro quo must be recognition that Israeli Arabs are citizens of the State of Israel and they’re loyal to a nation state, the Jewish nation state. Anglo-Jews can support, salute, and even fight and die for a flag that has not one, but three crosses on it. Israeli Arabs can salute and fight for a flag that has the Star of David on it.

There are many models of nation states in the world that have loyal minorities in them, and the Palestinians should be one of them. But the poll taken immediately after October 7 showed that 77 percent of Israeli Arabs objected to the Hamas attacks, which is very good, but 23 percent didn’t, which is disturbing.

iF: Look at the Abraham Accords countries. The Accords haven’t been abrogated, relations with Israel haven’t been broken. Are they waiting to see how Israel succeeds or fails in this war?

Oren: Yes. Those countries made peace with us not because they love us. They made peace with us because we serve their interests and their interests are, beyond everything, strategic. They are facing two existential threats. Sunni extremism in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, ISIS, Al-Qaeda. And Shiite extremists in the form of Iran and Hezbollah. There’s only one country in the Middle East that’s standing up to both.

And that’s us, that’s Israel. If we prevail, they will continue to make peace with us and more of them will make peace with us. If we do not prevail, then peace will be jeopardized.

The Essential Problem: Iran

iF: Did Iran encourage or order or create the conditions for the Hamas invasion because it was worried about Israel succeeding in the region?

Oren: I gave a speech in Dallas on October 5, and I said, “I don’t want to scare you, but Israel will soon be going to war.”

The US was trying to broker a peace agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel that had an economic component and a strategic component, but also a nuclear component. I said, “Anybody who thinks Iran is going to sit quietly and let this happen is fooling themselves. Iran will precipitate a war.”

That’s the huge flaw in the Biden plan. They think they’re going to make peace, make a Palestinian state, and then confront Iran. They have it exactly backwards. The United States will not have the leverage to do anything without confronting Iran first.

iF: Can Israel confront Iran without strong American participation?

Oren: It can, but not to the same degree. America in a single night can change the entire balance of power, not just in the region, but in the entire world.

iF: Will it?

Oren: The US won’t even retaliate for the killing of American soldiers. After the killing of the three American service people, I suggested online that America blow up the factory that had created the drone that killed them because that would be a blow not just to Iran, but also to Russia that is using those drones to kill Ukrainians. Nobody did that.

The way to prevent escalation into a regional war and beyond is by standing up to Iran, not by backing away from Iran.


iF: Speaking of escalation, Hezbollah. Is that next?

Oren: Right now, it seems inevitable. Let’s say it’s highly probable; nothing’s inevitable. In the first week of the war, I wrote in Israel Hayom that we were fighting the wrong war, that we should freeze the Gaza situation because Hamas wasn’t going anywhere. Keep pounding it from the air and focus our military might on Hezbollah. There are many reasons for it. First, we had called up 360,000 reservists and it’s not easy to do that.

At the time, we also had two US carrier strike forces in the region. But more importantly, Hamas, for all the damage that it had inflicted on us and all the pain, poses only a tactical threat to the State of Israel. Hezbollah poses a strategic threat. And the situation in the north, where much of northern Galilee is now uninhabitable, was an intolerable situation for any sovereign state. The return to that status quo ante of October 6 in the north is just not possible. If Israel wants to populate the Upper Galilee, again, it’s going to have to come to blows with Hezbollah.

iF: Which conflicts obviously immediately and directly with US interests in Lebanon.

Oren: Indeed. It actually came to a vote in the Israeli government, where it turned out that the defense establishment was very much in favor of my position, but it was turned down by Netanyahu under pressure from the United States. The United States did not want Israel to open that front.

Meanwhile, they sent the special envoy to Lebanon to try to negotiate the retroactive implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 from 2006, which calls on Hezbollah to withdraw its forces north of Litani River and establish a buffer zone.

I don’t know what leverage the United States has to convince Hezbollah to withdraw from the border, or how Hezbollah and Iran would explain that to the region, or why Hezbollah wouldn’t simply violate it the next day, like they did with 1701.

We also have an even more fundamental disagreement with the US.

Washington believes there’s a country called Lebanon; Israel does not. We believe there’s a place called Hezbollahland. The United States believes there’s an independent Lebanese Army; we do not. We think the Lebanese Army is a branch of Hezbollah. So, getting the Lebanese Army to enforce a security zone between us and Hezbollah for us is risible.

The America-Israel Divide

iF: Does Israel have to consider its future as a military partner of the US, a financial partner, a technology partner? Does Israel have to become more independent?

Oren: Yes, of course. I was the first to write in Tablet Magazine about the need to wean ourselves off American military aid. I was the only member of the Israeli government in 2016-17 to oppose [President Barak] Obama’s MOU (Memorandum of Understanding). There were many reasons, but one of them had to do with leverage and the impression it creates of Israeli dependency, and the vulnerability it creates to outside pressures, which is inconsistent with an affluent and strong military and state.

This war has only strengthened my convictions. But I didn’t talk about cutting off the United States, I talked about entering a collaborative relationship where we would cooperate as partners in the central fields like cyber and laser defense, and not be on a sort of a philanthropic and recipient basis. So, changing the nature of that relationship is crucial for me.

iF: The Biden administration has done several things to irritate Israel on the side of this war – nasty comments, demands, sanctions on individual Israelis and companies, and more. What impact is this having?

Oren: At the end of the day, what they’re saying is not to Israel. They’re saying something to the world about the reliability of the US.  Go back to my memoir, Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide, which was predicated on the belief that the US-Israel relationship is a barometer to measure America’s steadfastness, America’s dependability as an ally.

What they said about Israel’s judicial reform and sanctioning radical settlers says the US doesn’t trust Israel’s legal system. It creates a situation where those measures can be extrapolated and expanded upon to include hundreds of thousands of Israelis. They’re contributing to the steady erosion of our legitimacy. And that’s dangerous for us and it’s dangerous for the United States because it calls into question America’s dependability as an ally.

Do I sound adamant? And you know me, I’m a moderate.

Gaza Casualties, Old Tropes

iF: Returning to Gaza, you wrote that the ratio of non-combatant to combatant deaths in Israel’s war has been low compared to, for example, US Forces in Afghanistan. So, why is everybody jumping on this, including President Biden, saying that Israel was “over the top” and doing unacceptable things?

Oren: For many reasons. One is simply political, and that is the 2024 elections. I’m talking to you from Michigan. Michigan is a big issue.

Two, There’s an obsession with Palestinians. Some of the same people who are tearing their hair out over the loss of the Palestinians didn’t shed a public tear over the massacre of a half million Syrians or the abandonment of hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Afghan women; it’s only Palestinians.

And at the end of the day, we can’t forget that we are the Jewish state and we’ll be treated as a Jewish state. We’re up against antisemitic tropes that are 2,500 years old. They predate Christianity. And among those tropes are the blood libel, “Jews kill children, Jews kill women, Jews enjoy it.” These are classic anti-Semitic tropes.

It’s amazing. They keep citing Hamas casualty numbers, which are always inflated, but okay. They also say that of the 30,000 Palestinians killed, 10,000 have been children. And if you deduct the 12,500 terrorists we’ve killed (by the way, the administration never questions the Hamas numbers, but always questions our numbers), you understand that the 10,000 children is statistically impossible. But nobody questions it because “Jews kill children.”

iF: You’re really looking at not just anti-Israelism, anti-Zionism, anti-policy of the Israeli government, you’re looking at classic antisemitism.

Oren: Of course, but now there are many people who are good, conscious Jews who have internalized it, don’t understand that it’s antisemitic, but it is. And by the way, all of these comments about Israel acting over the top and bombing indiscriminately and killing too many Palestinians, not only is it factually untrue, but it is also strategically dangerous to the State of Israel. The next time we are hauled before an international court, all those pronouncements will be adduced as exhibit A, B, and C against us for the prosecution.

American Jews

iF: Have American Jews changed since October 7?

Oren: Profoundly. I think October 7 answered two of the most pressing questions facing American Jewry: How do we define antisemitism? And once we define it, what do we do about it?

Before October 7, there was a debate about whether anti-Zionism was antisemitism; that’s largely been resolved by the pro-Hamas protesters calling to throw Jews into big ovens. And then, there was a debate about how to deal with it; whether Jews should fight it or  see it as an educational moment to sit down with these antisemites and explain about the Holocaust, explain about the Inquisition and the pogroms.

I think today, the overwhelming majority of American Jews understand that the anti-Israel protests are antisemitic, and that the way to counter them is not to sit down with people who are saying, “From the river to the sea,” but to fight them wherever they are.

iF: There doesn’t seem to be much of a plan for this.

Oren: No, there isn’t. I’ve now traveled to many American communities with a message; that American Jews can choose one of three courses of action. They can hide, take the mezuzahs off the door, close the door, not listen to the news; or they can move to Israel; or they can stay and fight.

And if they fight, there too, it should be Churchillian. They should fight in the legislatures, they should fight in the media, they should fight in the classroom, and develop a plan of action, certainly.

For example, there was a horrible protest at Berkeley and the Chancellor of Berkeley put out a statement. Look at that statement, it talks about intolerance, “We won’t put up with intolerance on our campus and violence on our campus.” It goes on and on and on. There are two words missing from that statement, “Jewish” and “Israel.”

I don’t know why that chancellor is still in his job, or any job. That’s a state-funded university. Why aren’t the Jews of California going to the legislature and getting that chancellor fired? It doesn’t have to be a large-scale protest; it has to be pinpointed. Why is that chancellor is still in the job? That is totally unacceptable.

I have had conversations the last couple of weeks with American Jewish leaders and my message to them is, “I don’t understand why you’re being quiet. Why are you letting them get away with delegitimizing us?” I think everyone’s afraid that anything they say against Biden will be immediately interpreted as pro-Trump.

But what they’re basically doing is forfeiting the political field to anti-Israel elements in Michigan who have no problem telling Biden he has a price to pay. Jews aren’t doing that.

I would say it’s unfortunate, but it’s worse than that. It’s dangerous for American Jews. If Israel’s security is impaired, American Jewish security is impaired.

iF: In 2015, an Atlantic Magazine article asked if it was time for Jews to leave Europe. In 2024, a Commentary Magazine story is called “They’re Coming After Us.” Is there a future for diaspora Jewry?

Oren: I think there’s a future for diaspora Jewry, but the question is what kind of future?

iF: Well, it’s not much of a future if you have to take your mezuzah off the door.

Oren: No, but you can also fight back.

iF: Perhaps. But I would feel better if I thought we had some organization and a plan. As you look at Israelis, Jews, capabilities, Western democracy all those things that we have grown up to treasure and all of which are under attack right now, is there an optimistic line?

Oren: Yes, certainly there is, but in an aberrant, hideous way. We owe Hamas a measure of thanks. Hamas reminded us of who we are. Reminded us that we are a people, we’re a nation, we’re a state, we’re a family. And it brought us together and made us see that the differences between us left, right, religious, secular are far less significant than we ever thought.

Israeli society has revealed itself as the strongest and most resilient society in the world. And Israeli society offers the West a model of how you can reconcile tradition with modernity, East and West, democracy with the nation at arms. There’s a model there should people want to emulate it. And I think based on that strength, I’m quite confident we’ll win.

iF: You are confident that the Jewish people will win?

Oren: Jewish people will always win. Again, there’s always going to be a price. We’re still here. If you define winning as surviving and thriving, the Jewish people is still alive and, in many places, thriving. That’s a victory.

iF: Michael Oren, on behalf of the members of the Jewish Policy Center and readers of inFOCUS Quarterly, Thank you.