Where do we go from here?

Former ambassador to the US Michael Oren speaks with the ‘Magazine’ about what should be done to move forward.

Michael Oren former ambassador of Israel to the United States, speaks during the Jerusalem Post Conference in New York in April. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Michael Oren former ambassador of Israel to the United States, speaks during the Jerusalem Post Conference in New York in April.
In a true sign of the ever-shifting dynamics Israel must grapple with at any given moment, on Monday afternoon the Magazine asked former ambassador to the US Michael Oren about Israel’s measured restraint against Gazan rockets launched at the South over the past week.
This question was asked a mere hour before Hamas stepped up its onslaught against Israel, and red alerts were heard as far as Rehovot and Beit Shemesh.
“I assume there will be some sort of military activity, and there has been military activity,” Oren said over the phone. “The problem is here in the Middle East, where honor and shame are such powerful forces. If Israel declares that it does not want to escalate, it creates a situation where Hamas doesn’t have an excuse to de-escalate.”
The former ambassador also effectively highlighted the conundrum facing Israel’s security cabinet, and effectively predicted the launch of Operation Protective Edge – which by Tuesday morning was already well under way.
Since he stepped down from his post last fall, Oren frequently appears on CNN as its Middle East analyst and serves as a lecturer at the Lauder School of Government Diplomacy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.
He spoke with the Magazine about a myriad of issues, ranging from the now-defunct peace process, challenges relating to Israeli hasbara (public diplomacy) and the Fatah/Hamas unity government.
Like any effective diplomat, Oren is an accomplished storyteller. Staying true to form, he began the interview by recounting his most recent experience at CNN: “I just finished coming off a CNN interview. The entire interview was about the Israeli police beating up the 15-year-old cousin of Muhammad Abu Khdeir; his name is Tariq and he’s an American from Florida.
“The interview showed his face all beaten up, and his American accent. The whole report was about this incident and nobody mentioned, not once, the 300 rockets that have fallen on the southern part of Israel.
Nobody mentioned that hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been in bomb shelters.
“What do you derive from that? What you derive from that is the beating up of this kid by the police, which was photographed, can cause us material and strategic damage. Because not only can it impact the recognition of our right to defend ourselves, it can impact the international recognition of our need to defend ourselves.”
What do you think Israel should do in terms of preventing instances like this? What kind of punishment should these officers face for beating him, and what can we do to explain ourselves to the world?
The image of the beaten-up face of a 15-year-old boy is so much more powerful than an image of hundreds of thousands of Israelis in bomb shelters. It’s abstract.
You can’t see the fear of the masses, but you can see the bruises on the kid’s face. You can’t see the fear in the eyes of the kids in Sderot, but you can see the bruises on this kid’s face.
So what do we do to counteract this? First of all, you punish the officers. If they’re found guilty, you punish them to the full extent of the law. I think that in general, even though these police officers are under tremendous strain, certainly during the day they have to know that the world is watching their every move, and that their actions have profound strategic ramifications.
Not just PR ramifications, but strategic ramifications for the State of Israel and our security. They’re there to protect our security, not to harm it.
The other thing you can do is take diplomatic initiative.
Because right now much of the world is looking at us as the party which has been labeled guilty, and we are considered the greatest culprit for the breakdown of the peace process – as we’ve been so labeled by the Obama administration and the EU. We have to create a situation where we are taking diplomatic initiatives, in not being passive, in not allowing the Palestinians to be the active party all the time.
That’s why we’re strongly advocating for the Plan B idea [an idea widely circulated among the Israeli press, calling for a clear delineation between Israeli and Palestinian land that wouldn’t constitute an official Palestinian Authority state, but rather coexistence between the two peoples].
Do you have any examples of how we can implement this concretely?
My example is Plan B, where we announce that we are ready to draw up borders that will end Israeli rule over Palestinians while ensuring our own integrity as a Jewish and democratic state.
A recent Washington Institute poll on PA attitudes toward a two-state solution was released, and the results were bleak: 66 percent, including 55% percent in the West Bank and 68% percent in Gaza, refuse to acknowledge Israel’s existence. What do you think this means for Plan B?
I think it strengthens the Plan B idea, because I never thought there was a strong amount of support among the Palestinians for a two-state solution. I think the problem is deeper. Not only is there not a lot of support, there’s also not a lot of capabilities to make a two-state solution. I always perceived that assumption based on history.
Palestinians, whenever they have an opportunity to achieve a two-state solution, turned it down. So you’ve got to ask yourself at some point, okay, not only do they not want it, it seems that they are also incapable of it.
What are we going to do about it? I think our job is to take care of ourselves. And our job is to preserve ourselves as a Jewish and democratic society, but also to create a situation in the world where people who are trying to delegitimize us will not be able to claim that we are ruling over Palestinians. Because we won’t be.
What do you think that means for the framework agreement, which will probably never see the light of day?
I don’t know. I think it’s important that we keep the door open to the possibility of a two-state solution, and for that reason I want to maintain areas of the West Bank and Judea and Samaria, so that we can negotiate with the Palestinians.
But I was never a big fan of framework agreements.
The history of the Arab-Israeli conflict is littered with framework agreements that were never implemented; we’ve forgotten them all. Framework agreements only happen when there’s actually an agreement, not when there’s a framework disagreement. I thought it was counterproductive, even from a diplomatic point of view.
What do you think all this means for the Fatah/ Hamas unity government?
I think it’s still quite relevant, the US hasn’t come close to backing off of it. The US had an opportunity to say after the murder of the three Israeli boys that ‘maybe we have to think about this a little bit.’ They didn’t; the Americans did not do that. So I see no reason why it can’t continue.
I think it’s important for [PA President Mahmoud] Abbas. If he wants to declare a state unilaterally at the UN, he can claim that he controls the territory and he controls the de facto sovereignty of the territory and the population – something he couldn’t do previously.
The US is strongly reconsidering halting Palestinian aid. What do you think that does to the peace process? Does it help or hinder it?
I think they should strongly reconsider it. I think the US and the Quartet established clear conditions for Hamas participation in the peace process – and those conditions have emphatically not been met. I think the Hamas/Fatah pact can only be supported if Hamas indeed fulfills all the conditions established by the Quartet, but they haven’t done it.
What about the need for continued cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces? We saw that come into play during the search for the slain teens. Wouldn’t cutting off PA aid hinder that cause?
I don’t know about the extent of the security forces [cooperation]. I’m not familiar with details or how substantive that cooperation was. I think there’s an interest in maintaining Palestinian security forces, that’s my broad view. But I think that there also has to be a price to be paid, for the violence of the Palestinians and when they violate the conditions of the aid.
By making a pact with Hamas, they violate the conditions of the aid. They violate agreements with which the US is a co-signatory.