The ambassador weighs in on the situation in Egypt and its impact on U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S.
Tavis: The Middle East is always, of course, a powder keg. As one crisis diminishes, another one explodes. That’s certainly the case with the escalating violence and chaos in Egypt as we speak, with the destabilization of the region a very real possibility.
The proposed peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians has taken a back seat to the bloodshed in Cairo. Joining us to discuss the region’s instability and Secretary of State John Kerry’s role, perhaps as a peace broker, is Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S. He joins us tonight from Washington. Ambassador Oren, good to have you back on this program, sir.
Ambassador Michael Oren: Always good to be here, Tavis. Thank you.
Tavis: My delight to have you. I don’t need to color this first question at all. Talk to me about your thoughts, at least the Israeli government’s thoughts, on the chaos in Egypt.
Oren: Well, Tavis, we’ve had peace with Egypt for close to 35 years, and we very much value that peace. That peace is essential not only for Israel’s security but also for Egypt’s security, for stability throughout the entire region.
We in Israel certainly have a great interest in seeing peace, stability, and security restored to Egypt. We want nothing more than peace for the Egyptian people. We’re not going to get involved in how Egypt, how the Egyptians should run themselves. That’s an internal Egyptian affair.
But we do want security and peace to be restored there so that the peace agreement can be upheld between Egypt and Israel. Again, crucial for us, crucial for the region.
Tavis: I’m curious as to your thoughts about the issue of democracy in Egypt. One could make the argument that whether one likes or loathes Mr. Morsy, he was democratically elected, and when a significant number of people didn’t like the direction that things were going, the military steps in and removes him.
What does that say about democracy in Egypt to your mind? Put another way, what happens when the next person who is democratically elected moves the country in a direction that the military doesn’t like and they move him or her out of the way?
Oren: Well again, Tavis, we’re not going to get into the issue of how the Egyptians should govern themselves, an internal Egyptian issue, but I can say broadly that Israel has an interest in being surrounded by peace-loving, democratic countries, we do.
We’ve long said, and been proud of the fact, that we are the only democracy in the Middle East. We would be happier still and prouder if we were one of many democracies in the Middle East.
Tavis: Do you think that this signals that Egypt is headed in the right direction for being a democracy in the Middle East, or has this represented to your mind a U-turn of sort?
Oren: Again, I’m not going to get into how the Egyptians should govern themselves. That’s a question for the Egyptian ambassador, not for the Israeli ambassador.
Again, we’re very proud of being that democracy. We want to be surrounded by democratic nations. We think that that is in the interests of the Middle East, which is the interest of the world, and as you know, historically, democracies do not get into conflicts with one another. So it is very much an Israeli interest.
Tavis: I get that. Let me ask you one other way, then. What does concern – I don’t want to put words in your mouth, and not that you would let me do that anyway; clearly, you’re pushing back on that and I respect that. But what does concern you then about this crisis in Egypt?
Oren: Well, what would concern us all ways would be the maintenance of the peace agreement between us and the Egyptians. It’s been the cornerstone of our peace policy for now more than three decades.
I think it’s important for our search for peace with the Palestinians as well; I know we’re going to talk about that in a bit. It really serves as the first great peace agreement between Israel and a major Arab neighbor, the largest Arab country. Maintaining and preserving that peace is a paramount concern and a paramount Israeli interest.
Tavis: How tenuous, then, do you think that peace is or is that relationship, never mind what’s happening in the streets, unaffected at the moment?
Oren: Well again, for more than three decades Egypt has preserved this peace. This peace has played a constructive role in maintaining the peace. Even as recently as last November, when there was fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas terrorists in Gaza, Egypt played a constructive role.
It played a constructive role during the period of Mubarak, it played a constructive role during the period of Morsy, and we would fully expect that Egypt would continue to play that type of positive role in maintaining peace.
Tavis: As I mentioned a moment ago, there are some who are concerned, obviously, about the destabilization of the entire region. Do you have concerns about that?
Oren: Well, the region is pretty unstable right now. We look around and we see a civil war in Syria that has taken the lives of at least a hundred thousand Syrians. We see instability in other countries such as Jordan, violence in Iraq, the Iranians preparing a nuclear program and declaring their intention to wipe Israel off the map.
That’s a high degree of instability, even by Middle Eastern standards, so we have reasoned concern. Israel’s a strong country. We can defend ourselves, but we wish for the peoples who live around us to enjoy the same freedoms that Israelis enjoy, the same democracy, and for their children to have the same opportunities that our children have. We’ve got great universities and leading science. We wish that for all of our neighbors.
Tavis: Does this crisis in Egypt put the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians on the back burner, so to speak?
Oren: Oh, maybe in terms of the press. We are certainly undiminished in our commitment to achieve peace with our Palestinian neighbors. We are working very closely with Secretary of State Kerry in order to reanimate the peace negotiations between Israel and the leaders of the Palestinian Authority, with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, without preconditions anywhere.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, he says that he’s willing to meet President Abbas anywhere – here in Washington, D.C., in New York, in Ramallah, in Jerusalem.
He’s willing to meet with him today without preconditions in order to achieve an historic peace based on two states for two peoples – a Jewish state of Israel living side-by-side with a Palestinian state.
Tavis: What do you say to Jews in this country, speaking of preconditions, who believe that one of the preconditions for a two-state solution has to be the issue of settlements, and that Israel needs to approach this problem, this vexing problem, a bit differently?
Oren: Well we say that we understand that the settlement issue is a source of controversy with the Palestinians, certainly, and that it’s one of many issues that are controversial.
We say two states for two peoples, Tavis, because we recognize the Palestinian people as a people endowed with the right of self-determination. No Palestinian will ever say two states for two peoples, because they don’t yet recognize the Jewish people as a people endowed with that same right of self-determination.
So what we’ll say is okay, we don’t expect the Palestinians to give us that recognition up front. It’ll be part of the negotiations. Let’s not make it a pre-condition.
So we understand that we’re going to have to address the settlement issue within the broader context of borders and territory and security once the direct negotiations talk begin.
Now that is our position, but it’s also the position of President Obama. He has called again and again for the resumption of direct talks without preconditions.
Tavis: There are a lot of folk who think that President Obama, the administration, that is, sort of put this on the back burner – there’s that phrase again – after an initial effort in the first term. We all recall George Mitchell, the special envoy early on in the first administration – nothing happened with that, and once Mitchell basically stepped aside and sort of failed in that effort, not a whole lot happened after that.
So here we are now in a second term, for whatever reason or reasons, John Kerry has jumped in feet first, head first, to try to make something happen here. What happened with that lag and how do you grade the Obama administration on its seriousness about these talks between Israel and Palestine.
Oren: Oh, I think the Obama administration, whether it’s in his first term or second term, is totally committed to the search for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and we greatly appreciate the president’s effort, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the first administration; now Secretary of State John Kerry.
We appreciate all their efforts and we view them as partners in this search for an historic peace. Now during the first administration, during its first term, the Obama administration tried a certain way to get to peace. We froze settlement construction for 10 months. Hillary Clinton called that an unprecedented move.
It was unprecedented; an attempt to get the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. They did not avail themselves, unfortunately, of that opportunity, and it passed.
Since then, the Palestinians haven’t been able to return to the negotiating table. Now Secretary Kerry is focusing very intensely on getting them back to the table. Once they get to the table, we believe that we can approach all the core issues, and these are tough issues, not easy issues.
It’s refugees, borders, securities, it’s Jerusalem. We believe that we can address all of those issues and reach a creative solution through good will. So I see no diminishing on the part of the administration from the first term to the second term.
The president is committed, the secretary of states have been very committed, and again, we deeply appreciated their efforts.
Tavis: To your point about the table, let me close by asking whether or not the right people are at the table. There are some who think that Mr. Netanyahu specifically, and maybe Mr. Abbas, are not the right people to bring peace.
Obviously, you can only make peace between enemies, but you have to have the right people at the table to make that happen. Are the right participants, the right players, at the table?
Oren: Well, Benjamin Netanyahu has made the official policy of the Israeli government the two-state solution, at a time when he had opposition from many quarters.
That is his official position. He remains publicly committed to it, but not just publicly; also in diplomacy, totally committed to moving swiftly toward that solution.
As for President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, we hope, we hope he will be that partner. During a brief meeting between President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu in the White House – this was in the fall several years ago -Prime Minister Netanyahu turned to President Abbas and said, “President Abbas, you are my partner for peace.”
We hope that he remains that partner and can fulfill his historic role in bringing peace to the Palestinian people based on two states for two peoples.
Tavis: I’ve had the honor to talk to you a number of times over your tenure and term as Israeli ambassador to the U.S., and a little birdie told me that later this year you’re stepping aside from this position.
So I want to say thank you for all the access you’ve given us to you over your tenure, and all the best in the coming months and years. Good to have you back on again tonight.
Oren: Thank you so much, Tavis. This job has been the great privilege and honor of my life. Thank you very much.
Tavis: Good to have you on, Ambassador.
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