Israel’s window for action against Iran ‘is getting much smaller,’ says Ambassador Oren

‘The issue is not whether we trust the US,’ says Israel’s envoy to Washington. ‘The issue is our responsibility as a sovereign Jewish state’

David Horovitz
Raphael Ahren
Michael Oren (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-Anne Mandlebaum)
Michael Oren (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-Anne Mandlebaum)

It’s not easy being an ambassador in a high-profile posting when your home country and your host country are in the midst of a very public row over an acutely sensitive issue.

Just ask Dan Shapiro, the US envoy to Israel who reportedly broke protocol to remonstrate with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for misrepresenting President Barack Obama’s Iran policy at a meeting last month. Shapiro publicly denied the report as “a very silly story,” only for the third man in the room — Rep. Mike Rogers — to declare that there was “a very sharp exchange.”

Ordinarily Shapiro, and his Washington counterpart, Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, would expect their work to be sensitive, demanding, and extraordinarily important — but not hugely controversial. They are, after all, the representatives of two profoundly allied countries, partners committed to democracy and freedom.

But these are not ordinary times. Iran, a common threat, is progressing relentlessly with its nuclear program.

If Israel doesn’t use its military capacity soon, it will no longer be able to impact that program. But the United States is urging Israel to hold its fire — to give more time for diplomacy and sanctions. Extraordinarily fateful decisions are being weighed. Perhaps inevitably, tensions are fraying even between these firmest of allies.

And the diplomats — along with the politicians and the security chiefs — need to be acutely careful about what they say and do. Every word and deed comes under the microscope — whether it is US military chief Martin Dempsey’s use of the word “complicit” to denounce the notion of an Israeli attack; or Netanyahu’s assertion that it is not “moral” for those who are not setting red lines for Iran to seek to prevent an Israeli strike; or the resonant failure of the presidential schedulers to find a time-slot for an Obama-Netanyahu tete-a-tete during the prime minister’s admittedly brief visit to the US at the end of this month.

In a telephone interview from his Washington offices on Thursday, Oren — a former paratrooper who fought in the 1982 Lebanon War; author of “Six Days of War” and other highly regarded works of history; and now three years into the post of ambassador — was at his diplomatically polished best.

He gave no ground whatsoever on the curious case of the Obama-Netanyahu non-meeting, insisting that it was simply a matter of scheduling difficulties. He was slightly more forthcoming, though unsurprisingly non-specific, when acknowledging that some of the recent Israeli-American rhetoric has not been helpful.

Where he was most insightful was in describing the “structural differences” between the US and Israel when they grapple with the Iranian danger, and when bringing his historian’s perspective to the crisis. Without remotely diminishing what he called the “existential” threat posed by Iran, he noted that Israel faces moments of truth “all the time.” That, he said, is “the nature of Jewish sovereignty. It’s the responsibility that comes with it.”


The Times of Israel: You have to be diplomatic and ambassadorial. Your job is to tell us that all is well between the US and Israel, but it doesn’t seem as though it is. I’m very struck by the statement by the American chief of staff about not wanting to be “complicit” in an Israeli strike at Iran. I was struck when the prime minister questioned the “moral” right of those who seek to prevent Israeli military action. And I’m amazed that it has not been possible to schedule a meeting between the president and the prime minister. Essentially the president is asking Israel to not fire (at Iran), and to put its destiny in American hands, and is not prepared to discuss this face to face? It seems very hard to fathom.

Michael Oren: First, you have to understand the nature of our relationship with the United States. The newspapers — I’m not faulting the newspapers here — tend to focus on specific issues, issues that capture the eye, or evoke some kind of curious interest. But the US-Israel relationship is vast. It’s multi-faceted and deep. Even though I spent about 30 years studying it, and thought I had a good grasp of it, I had no idea of how vast it was.

Even on the strategic issues, the spectrum of our common interests and communications is vast. So for example during the summer, we had a long list of high-ranking US officials come — Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

What do you think those conversations are like? The conversations open up first of all with the situation in Sinai… a source of great concern not just for Israel but for the United States. It impacts Jordan. It has impacted Saudi Arabia. Egypt itself. If Sinai becomes a safe haven for international terrorism…

The next topic is the Syrian situation. Together we are very concerned over the future control of chemical weaponry there.

We talk about the peace process… We’re talking about ways to incentivize the Palestinians to get back to the negotiating table, and to keep them at the negotiating table, and trying to dissuade them from going off on a unilateral path at the UN, which we think will be disastrous for them and certainly not helpful for us.

These are serious talks. They are substantive and detailed to the extreme.

And then, yes, we come to Iran.

When we talk about Iran, we proceed on the assumption that we have a structural difference. The structural difference is that Israel is a small country, living in Iran’s backyard, with certain capabilities. And Israel is threatened almost daily with national annihilation. And of course the United States is a big country, far away from Iran, with much greater capabilities, and not threatened with national annihilation.

And what we’re trying to do is find a middle road where these structural differences can sort of meet a golden mean that would allay our fears and guarantee our security and also satisfy American interests.

That makes absolute sense, and yet the three points that I made seem to be a departure from the logical picture you give of the meetings. You have Iran watching as the American military chief is basically suggesting that Israeli military action would be something criminal. You’ve got moral accusations. And then this failure to meet. It doesn’t sit easily with what I’m sure is indeed a very serious and substantive, measured, incredibly intensive coordination.

Clearly, things have been said which might not have been helpful for the situation. But at the same time in the last few weeks the prime minister had telephone conversations with American officials — he had an hour-long conversation with the president the other night — and things are also said not for public consumption. And they are part of this very intimate, candid and continuous dialogue that we have with the United States.

Is there any remote likelihood that Israel feels the need to resort to military action now, before the American elections?

I’m not going to go into any details about operations. I would like to say that the American elections don’t play any role in our calculations. The only issue that is crucial here is the speed with which the Iranian nuclear program is accelerating, both in terms of its accumulation rate — the rate at with which they are producing enriched uranium, both at 3.5% and 20% — and the rate at which the Iranian nuclear program (is being moved) underground (with) its facilities beyond our capabilities to interdict.

On that second point, is there an estimate? Is Israel incapable of having a substantive impact on the Iranian program if nothing is done within the next six months, or year? Or three months?

All I can say is that our window is small, and it’s growing much smaller.

The counter-argument to why there is no Obama-Netanyahu meeting in the context of a military warning about complicity might be that Israel is about to do something, and therefore the last thing the president wants to do is be complicit by meeting the prime minister. Do you think that’s possibly the case?

I think that what happened there was a scheduling problem. I know it sounds mundane but the fact is these are two busy individuals and the prime minister was coming to New York between Jewish holidays (in between Yom Kippur and Succot) and the president couldn’t be in New York at that time.

They’re not going to move the heavens and the earth and cancel, I don’t know, the president’s meeting with the leader of Egypt, who’s a 9/11 semi-denier, for the sake of a meeting with Mr Netanyahu?

You have to ask the Egyptian ambassador but I think that (Obama meeting with President Mohammed Morsi) is happening prior to Netanyahu’s arrival in New York.

So the meeting’s a lost cause?

The prime minister will meet with the secretary of state (Hillary Clinton).

And you don’t think that ultimately there will be an Obama-Netanyahu meeting, maybe in Washington, at some stage on this trip?

As far as I know there’s a scheduling difficulty.

It seems remarkable. It wouldn’t seem as remarkable at any other time, but at a time when the window, as you put it, is closing, and therefore if Israel doesn’t act it is placing its destiny in American hands, it seems astonishing that the president and the prime minister would not be able to get together in America.

I think I answered all these questions. I’d like to talk about other things we deal with besides dealing with scheduling issues.

I’m happy to talk about other things. Netanyahu talks about wanting “red lines” (which, if crossed by Iran in its nuclear drive would prompt military intervention). One red line that’s been suggested to me, that America could be able to set quite easily, is if the Iranians start enriching beyond 20%. Do you have any sense of what red lines Israel would like to hear, that would reassure Israel?

I’m not going to go into details about the actual location of this red line. What I will say is that we believe the Iranians can discern the color red. We’ve seen them do it in the Strait of Hormuz, for example.

They understand what a red line is. And we believe that the redder the line, the less the chance the Iranians will actually cross it. We think that the clearer the red lines, the less the chance that anybody will be drawn into a military engagement. By drawing them, you diminish the chance of a military engagement. You also diminish the kind of scope of a military engagement. Because if you wait until a much later stage, to a time when the Iranians have advanced this program in multiple facilities in places that we may not know, the scope of your interdiction is much greater.

Do you share President Peres’s public faith that the American administration will stop Iran from attaining nuclear weapons?

The issue is not whether we trust the United States, or don’t trust the United States. They are a great ally. The issue is our responsibility as a sovereign state, as a sovereign Jewish state. Previous Israeli governments, in 1967, 1956, 1948, have faced very similar situations, where they were asked to wait for longer periods of diplomacy. And diplomacy wasn’t succeeding. The leaders of the (Israeli) governments during those years perceived an existential threat to the country. And you know the Americans didn’t agree to everything we did in 1948, 1956 and 1967, but we acted to defend ourselves, and to assure our continued existence as a sovereign Jewish state.

David, it’s the reason why we came home, after 2,000 years — to assume that responsibility.

I understand. And that makes it sound as though, holding to that determined, independent assertion of sovereignty, Israel could not allow its window of opportunity to close. That’s the conclusion one might draw from this history.

One should never forget at the same time that no country in the world has a greater stake in resolving the Iranian nuclear threat peacefully than  the state of Israel. We have the most at stake. My kids babysat for your kids, David. We have those kids to think about… We seek to exhaust all diplomatic options.

We’ve been preternaturally patient over the last 20 years that we’ve been warning about this program. It took the world 10 years to take us seriously, till (the uranium enrichment facility at) Natanz was revealed in 2002.

We waited for all these years. We’ve supported the sanctions. The sanctions have unfortunately not set back the Iranian nuclear program. According to the IAEA report of August, the program is speeding ahead. The 20% enrichment has tripled. The amount of centrifuges in the fortified underground facility in Qom has doubled. They are also building a plutonium reactor at Arak. All of this they’re doing in the face of sanctions. And all of this they’re doing in the face of diplomacy… There’s been nothing whatsoever from the Iranians. Not a millimeter of concessions.

The question then is how long you wait? And those are profoundly weighty questions for the decision-makers of Israel.

How do you think this is going to play out? I can’t imagine the Iranians are going to change course. We’re coming to the moment of truth, aren’t we?

I think Israel faces moments of truth all the time, and has since its founding in 1948. Because I came to this job as a historian, I always approach a contemporary situation through a historic lens. And I see how different Israeli leaders, including Israeli leaders from different parties, acted very similarly at different junctures. It’s the nature of Jewish sovereignty. It’s the responsibility that comes with it.

From a historian’s perspective, do you think the United States gets the Middle East? Do you think the administration gets the Middle East, when the secretary of state professes herself confounded by the killing of the US ambassador to Libya? For us in Israel, it was not hugely surprising that there are some terrible people in our ruthless region who go around killing.

I think the Middle East is an enormously complex region and fluid place. Anybody who says they understand the Middle East has to be regarded with a sense of skepticism. In Hebrew, you say “the things you see from here, you don’t see from there.” The same is true for what is going on in Washington. The distance, the cultural divides, all make it very difficult…

I think many Israelis fear that maybe this administration thinks that it sometimes knows better than Israel, but doesn’t understand this region sufficiently?

I disagree. The same day that we have these riots, and the terribly tragic death of our colleague (US Ambassador Chris) Stevens, the State Department led a delegation of 50 very senior industrial heads to Egypt, encouraging investment in Egypt. They understand, and I think we would agree, that a strong Egyptian economy is in our interest. A stable Egypt is in our interest. The Administration is working in all different ways to address a truly dizzying array of rapidly changing challenges in the Middle East.

How troubled are you by the reality that Israel is becoming a factor in the US presidential elections — which each party accusing the other of not being as supportive?

The president's Rosh Hashanah letter to Ambassador Oren (photo credit: Courtesy)
The president’s Rosh Hashanah letter to Ambassador Oren (photo credit: Courtesy)

Bipartisan support for Israel is a paramount national interest for us. Several days a week, including today, I go up to Capitol Hill, and I go visit Republican and Democratic representatives — congressmen and senators. And wherever I walk in, I am greeted enthusiastically, with great understanding. That part of my job is making sure that we remain aligned with both parties, and with the American people. I got a beautiful Rosh Hashanah letter from President Obama this week — very personal.  It talks about my kids, by name. It has this great line — “Not bad for a guy from New Jersey.” I’m from New Jersey. I am very touched by it. I have very good and close working relations and many personal friendships with people in the administration.

It’s not just part of my job. It’s part of my privilege to be able to serve in this capacity. We tend to see things through the prism of headlines. Here (In Washington), certainly through the prism of a tough election. In Israel, through the prism of an existential threat. But beyond those prisms, there is a vista of relationships which are very deep and very close. And they are bipartisan.

You don’t think Israel is rising to become some sort of wedge issue?

I don’t think it’s becoming a wedge issue.

How do you defend this Israeli government’s fairly empathetic policy on settlements to Americans — Jews, politicians — who think it is destructive  for the prospect of resumed negotiations and progress?

History comes in handy. In 2000 and 2008 we made serious offers for the creation of a Palestinian state, and the Palestinians turned that down — not because of the settlements. You could say that Israel tried to create a Palestinian state in 1967, or an autonomous entity, right after the Six-Day War. There were no settlements. But the Palestinians turned that down too. They turned down the Partition Resolution of 1947 and 1937 (a reference to the Peel Commission). The settlements are not the issue.

On a personal level, I participated as a reserve officer in the disengagement from Gaza in 2005. And it was one of the most traumatic  experiences not just of my military career, but of my life. And we did that to advance peace, and we didn’t get peace. We uprooted 21 settlements and we didn’t get peace. We got rockets.

It’s not about settlements. We understand that settlements is an issue that will be determined within negotiations with the Palestinians. Prime Minister Netanyahu got up in front of both houses of the Congress and said that he understood that in the event of peace with the Palestinians there would be settlements that would lie beyond Israel’s borders.


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