Michael Oren: OK in DC

Ambassador Michael Oren has no problem with flotillas or the Obama administration.

At the end of the month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will arrive in Washington for another round of talks. As usual, he will turn up in the Oval Office for the traditional handshake with the president under the flash of the cameras; in some parquet-floored room on Capitol Hill for talks with selected congressmen; and in a meeting room in a luxury downtown Washington hotel for a journalists' briefing.

What will be different? He will be more stooped, under the virtual burden of the Gaza flotilla fiasco, which threatens not only to fray the fabric of the explanations Israel has woven to justify its sea and land blockade of the Gaza Strip, but also to topple the near complete wall that isolates Hamas, perhaps without payment by the terror organization the full dues demanded of it for that release: recognition of Israel's right to exist; renunciation of violence; and acceptance of previous agreements with Israel. As far as Hamas is concerned, Israel's clumsy, heavy-handed behavior kilometers from the Gaza coast could be a deus ex machina.

Netanyahu will be brought up against the spectacle of the nuclear armament of Iran, his cause célèbre, being sidelined, while he tries to wash away the political and propaganda stains left by the flotilla debacle. Not that anyone in Washington truly grieves over the death of the Turkish "peace activists", and no heart is troubled by the Gazans' distress, but the Israeli operation all at once released so much political energy, from so many different directions, that ignoring it is not an option. Like the burst oil pipe off the coast of Louisiana, the burst of sympathy for the 'victims of the Israeli blockade' cannot be quickly plugged. Mistakes have to be paid for. BP polluted the Gulf of Mexico. Israel polluted the Mediterranean. It will be costly for both. The difference is that BP CEO Tony Hayward's head will probably roll. Bibi's almost certainly won't.

But US President Barack Obama will extract a price from Netanyahu at the end of the month, not as a punishment, but as payment for rescue services rendered. There is no gainsaying that those services were given generously. A day after the operation that went wrong, a US official was quoted on the website Politico as saying of Israel, "The situation is that theyre so isolated right now that its not only that were the only ones who will stick up for them. Were the only ones who believe them and what theyre saying is true. And who drew the teeth of the draft Security Council resolution condemning the operation? Who persuaded NATO to refrain from any condemnation at all? Who makes balanced statements that carefully sidestep any word that might sound like a denunciation? Who said the whole story was no big deal? The Americans, and only the Americans.

We can already guess in what coin Israel will make payment: relaxation of the blockade of Gaza, the almost inevitable result of which will be renewed momentum for Hamas. Not that the Obama administration lacks political savvy. Neither the State Department nor the National Security Council wants to see Hamas out of the bottle, with no possibility of putting it back in. They certainly do not want to cause erosion of the standing of Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas, recently in Washington to meet Obama. But after the Turkish seafarers revealed the blockade as an empty vessel, Washington understands that it cannot be filled up again. In US diplomatic jargon, it sounds like this: The blockade is not sustainable. These words have become mantra that Israeli diplomats are sick of hearing.

Certain US analysts are saying that Netanyahu's lemons could become Obama's lemonade. A sober examination of the object of the blockade on Gaza reveals it as a near complete failure. Out of its four aims - halting the rocket salvos; weakening the Hamas regime with the goal of toppling it; blocking the flow of arms; and obtaining the release of Gilad Shalit only the first aim has been achieved. Obama could, and should, exploit the window of opportunity opened by the flotilla incident to adopt a new tactic, these analysts say: no longer isolation of Hamas, but an effort at a historic reconciliation between it and Fatah. That should be the president's message to Netanyahu.

"All roads lead toward the need for Palestinian reconciliation, as difficult as that is for Israel, the United States, and many European states to accept. This does not mean that the United States should open a direct dialogue with Hamas, particularly when that group has not yet renounced the use of terror. But the United States should take the long view, encouraging the building of Palestinian state institutions in a serious way while pursuing a negotiated agreement," former Middle East specialist at the State Department and the White House Michelle Dunne wrote in a paper published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a liberal Washington think tank.

It is still too early to tell whether the Obama administration will squeeze Netanyahu's lemons into this kind of lemonade, but Israel's ambassador in Washington, Michael Oren, who was thrust from the grove of Academe into the diplomatic maelstrom, agrees that the sea blockade is not perfect, and that Israel is open to suggestions.

Speaking to "Globes", he says, "The Americans understand the need to strengthen the sea blockade. But they are also proposing solutions and measures that might perhaps help us avoid situations like the incident of the other week. We are open to new ideas. We will welcome any constructive proposal. But before raising ideas such as assistance by United Nations observers (to inspect aid consignments and prevent arms smuggling, R.D.), you have to remember what happened in Lebanon. There, under the watching eye of UN observers, Hezbollah has doubled and tripled its strength. And when I'm asked, 'What about a European Union force?', I answer, 'And what about the Europeans in the UN force in Lebanon?'

"There are discussions with the Americans on this question. I don't say there's a magic solution. It's a tough problem. One thing though has to be clear: we will continue to defend ourselves. The administration doesn't question this. There are a lot of declarations out there, a lot of rhetoric. We hear about a new flotilla from here and a new flotilla from there. The Iranians are talking about sending a flotilla. You have to remember that Egypt is also in the picture. Are we certain that the Egyptians will allow Iranian ships passage (through the Suez Canal, R.D.)? No."

Every Israeli ambassador to the US (and I recall five or six of them) used rose-tinted spectacles to describe relations between Washington and Jerusalem, but it seems that Oren's spectacles are even rosier. If only everyone in Israel had a pair, the national mood would improve immediately and support for Obama would soar. Apparently what they see from the arched embassy building they don't see from the streets of Gedera.

How would you describe the reaction of the Americans to the flotilla incident in comparison with reactions in Europe?

"It's the difference between night and day. Much of the EU jumped to condemn immediately. But I haven't heard any condemnation from the US administration. We started to think together how to solve the blockade problem, but I haven't heard a single word of criticism, no condemnation, and I say that in all seriousness, on the record. How to explain it? The administration understands that the sea blockade is vital not just to the Israel's security, but to the security of Egypt as well. I Hamas arms with missiles, that's the end of Abu Mazen, and no-one wants that.

"That doesn't mean we have no policy disagreements with the Obama administration. There's Jerusalem. There are the settlements. But people forget that US policy on these issues has been in place since 1967. It's true that the current administration highlights these policy lines more than the previous one. That has led to a disagreement over the settlements, but we managed to solve it through the freeze. In any event, you have to understand that the political disagreements are far from being the main thing in Israel-US relations."

NATO did not criticize the IDF operation, even though specific members of the alliance joined the choir of condemnation. Was that a result of US pressure?

"It could be that it was because of American influence, and it could be that it was because of the fact that the alliance itself sees in the sea blockade legitimate conduct in a state of war. Generals will think twice before criticizing a blockade, because one of these days they themselves are likely to use such a tactic. They don't want to create a precedent of illegitimacy for a blockade. A sea blockade is a legitimate measure that is consistent with international law. The Americans imposed a sea blockade on Cuba. I believe the Turks themselves used a sea blockade against the Kurds."

In the Israeli street, there's a perception that Obama is an Israel hater. Some surveys found that his support level among the Israeli public is single figure. Is that justified?

"The president extended a hand to the Muslim world at the start of his presidency. He has yet to come to Israel. Our people is very sensitive. It lives in constant uncertainty. The Israelis want to know, to feel, that the president of the US stands by them. I have no doubt that when he pays a visit to Israel, the attitude towards him will change from one extreme to the other. The Israelis will love him. When will that happen? At the appropriate time. (In Washington the assessment is that Obama will visit Israel at the end of the summer, before the Jewish holiday season, R.D.).

"I want to stress that in many fields, relations between the Obama administration and Israel are as good as they were in previous administrations, if not better, this despite the attacks on Obama as if he is anti-Israel. Certainly, there are differences of opinion, but the relations between us have mighty roots. Where should I begin? On the military-security plane? Exchange of intelligence information, aid in developing anti-missile missiles, visits by warships, annual military aid, weapons stockpiles of the US Army in Israel. And the economy? People are not aware that Israel has become a US economic interest. We are invested in the US (Teva), the US is invested in Israel (Warren Buffett).

"And the OECD? You have to remember that US support for Israel's accession to the organization was critical. It's not certain whether, without their support, we would have managed to gain acceptance at all. I won't forget that a senior administration figure called me after it was decided to let us join the organization and said to me in Hebrew 'mazal tov.' The Americans have not received enough credit for that."

It's a fact that US congressmen have published many statements of support for Israel, more than legislators in any other parliament in the world.

How far was the administration's muted response to the flotilla incident thanks to the parallelogram of forces with Congress? Does the fact that the Republicans condemn the administration for its lukewarm relations with Israel have an effect?

"the US, as a democracy, is built on checks and balances between the arms of government, and of course they influence one another. If Republican legislators have criticism for the administration of a Democratic president, that certainly has an effect. And vice versa. What worries me is the prospect of support for Israel becoming a one-party issue. Historically, support for Israel has been bipartisan, and I even published a public warning on this matter. I warned that we must not reach a situation in which support for Israel erodes among the members of one party.

"However, in the specific case of the flotilla, it all broke on Memorial Day, a national holiday. Congress was in recess. All the measured responses of the administration were formulated by decision makers, without input from legislators."

In private conversation, administration officials expressed dismay at Israel international isolation in the wake of the incident. Is that what you hear?

"It isn't a question of global isolation, but of isolation vis-a-vis certain countries. We are not isolated from China or India, half of humanity. We are not isolated from Russia or Eastern Europe. But it's true that there are administration officials who are alarmed at the criticism of Israel voiced by certain countries in Western Europe."

Tell us what happens at your meetings with senior people in the administration. How do your talks go in these crazy days?

"I dont have to explain to them the importance of the sea blockade. They understand that very well. My interlocutors requested details of the operation, and received them. They wanted to know what our constraints were vis-a-vis an international investigation. I explained to them, once more, the bitter experience we had with the Goldstone investigation.

"From those I talk to, I hear that the status quo (on the Gaza blockade) is not acceptable, and my response is, 'it isn't to us either.' I explain that we have to find a compromise between the desire to improve the quality of life of the residents of Gaza and our efforts to look after Israel's security interests, not to strengthen Hamas, and to free Gilad Shalit."

Is the release of Shalit a non-negotiable condition for changing the status quo?

"Let's say that the release of Shalit is an integral and vital part of any change in the status quo."

How far will the flotilla incident affect US efforts to block Iran's nuclear arms project, particularly the efforts to formulate sanctions with as much bite as possible in the Security Council?

"There will be no effect."

We hear a great deal about initiatives to persuade funds of public bodies (universities, public sector pension funds) to disinvest from Israel companies or from companies that do business with Israel. Are we seeing a trend here?

"Absolutely not. Circles that support flotillas of different kinds will try to exploit the incident in order to promote divestment initiatives. So far, such initiatives have had meager success. Some churches are trying to promote this. They won't get far. A boycott of Israeli products? No chance. The American people is pro-Israeli to an extremely significant degree. It won't happen."

For all that, there have been some incidents on campus that have gained prominence in the media.

"There have been two such cases, not similar to each other. In Irvine, in California, a demonstration of Palestinians and Muslims was organized against me. That can happen anywhere. At Brandeis, there was a move by Jewish students who thought I planned to make a divisive speech that would not suit the graduation ceremony at which I was invited to peak. That, of course, was not my intention."

You sound optimistic. Do you sleep well?


Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on June 13, 2010

Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2010

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