, Newseum - Washington, DC

Excerpts from Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren:

“What is extraordinary, I believe, is that in spite of all this upheaval and violence and trauma, that a significant majority of Israelis still support a two-state solution… So that is the nature of my optimism and I hope I can persuade you this evening, both of the seriousness of the Israeli perspective but also of the no less serious chances for peace that we all can still benefit from.”
“We look forward to a time where there will be a comprehensive peace. We have always viewed the relationship with the Palestinians, not as only as an end in itself but as a means to a broader peace with all states in the Middle East.”

Transcript

S. Daniel Abraham : (Chairman, S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace)

I want to welcome you all here tonight for a very special evening. We are so grateful that you all came to help us bring a new world in to being, a world in which we all get together as friends as brothers as human beings that understand each other and can work together for peace for us and for all men. I think we’re going to have a very interesting evening tonight, I know we are, because our distinguished ambassador from Israel, Michael Oren, is one of the most thoughtful Israelis you will ever meet, so he will give us good thoughtful answers to questions and to comments. It promises to be an evening that we will all remember and that we will take with us to help us build a new and better world. Now, without further ado, I would like to introduce our President – a man who took me a long time to find, but who has been worth the wait – Robert Wexler.
Robert Wexler : (President, S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace)
On behalf of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace I want to welcome you and thank you for joining with us. I am absolutely confident that this evening promises to be an extraordinary one for two primary reasons. We have a remarkable group of people as our guests. A remarkable group of Americans who hail from all over the country. Great American patriots who are individuals but who also are a part of a community of Americans – Americans who are Palestinian American, Arab American, Turkish American, Lebanese American, Pakistani American, Bosnian American, and Muslim American. But what I think is most remarkable I hope about this evening will be the level of intellect and the level of desire to discuss in the most rational and meaningful way the issues of the day.

With that, I consider it a personal privilege to introduce Michael Oren, the Israeli Ambassador to the US. I know from the perspective of, having the privilege of, serving on Capitol Hill that there are few ambassadors in this city, of which there are of course many able statesmen and stateswomen that enjoy both the reputation and the degree of respect that Michael enjoys on Capitol Hill. And the reason for this is not only that there is of course extraordinary support in congress for the American-Israeli relationship, but it also is a direct result of Michael’s individual intellect but more importantly his willingness to engage in what are often contentious issues and to do it from a position of 100% integrity. And while people may agree or disagree or somewhere in between, I have never been witness to any situation in which anyone has ever left a conversation with Michael not appreciating the degree of sincerity and preparation that he has exhibited. And he does an extraordinary job of being an advocate for his government, which is the job that he proudly experiences, but even more so, brings to his job a degree of enthusiasm and pride that will become readily apparent to you throughout the evening. Our hope is that Ambassador Oren will open the evening with introductory remarks 10-15 minutes or whatever he deems to be appropriate, and then at that point my rather extraordinary colleague Toni Verstandig will take over the evening and we would encourage an informal discussion, ask what you wish, nothing is censored nothing is planned, and lets engage in a conversation.

Michael Oren : (Israel’s Ambassador to the US)
Robert I thought you said “with that let’s eat.” I got excited there. Having spent many years on the Jewish speaking circuit I’m used to speaking while people are eating.

I don’t pretend to be able to give the American perspective on everything that has happened, is happening in the peace process, or not happening in the peace process. I don’t pretend to give the Arab League perspective or certainly the Palestinian perspective, though I try my utmost to gain those gain perspectives, but what I think I can give you tonight is an Israeli perspective on where we stand.

And to understand that perspective you need to understand that first of all Israel, and Israelis, have been through a great deal over the course of the last decade, since 2000, certainly. We’ve had two, what we believe to be, sincere offers to the Palestinian leadership for statehood, and have had both of those offers rejected, first by Yasser Arafat and then by Abu Mazen. We have had in essence three wars. The Second Intifada, which brought conflict back to our cities which it had not been in a large scale since the 1948 conflict and cost 1000 Israelis dead, many thousands wounded, which included close friends, family members of everyone – everyone was touched by the second intifada. The Lebanon War of 2006 which brought all of Northern Israel under rocket fire. The Gaza confrontation of 2008, beginning of 2009, which brought all of Southern Israel under rocket fire. The emergence of an exceedingly aggressive Iran actively pursuing nuclear military capabilities, becoming the proxy behind Hamas and Hezbollah. The withdrawal from Lebanon first and the withdrawal from Gaza in both cases undertaken in the Israeli perception to generate conditions which we hoped would be more conducive to peace and not bringing about peace but rather bring about the opposite of peace. The overthrow of the Al-Fatah authority in Gaza, the takeover by Hamas. All of this is one long succession of traumas for the Israeli people.

What is extraordinary, I believe, is that in spite of all this upheaval and violence and trauma, that a significant majority of Israelis still support a two-state solution. In fact I would go so far as to say that had Yassar Araft or Abu Mazen accepted those two deals, even amidst the violence, a large segment of the Israeli population would have supported those arrangements. A large segment of the Israeli population continues to support the two-state solution, which is revolutionary in Israeli thought in and of itself because for most of Israel’s existence the notion of a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel was thought of as an existential threat to Israel, was posing an existential threat to Israel. And certainly since the Second Intafada, that notion has been flipped on its head. Now, the creation of a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel is perceived not as an existential threat but as the arrangement that will best guarantee Israel’s survival. Think about that, what a revolution that is in Israeli thinking. That’s the good news. The less-than-good news is that as a result of all these disappointments and setbacks in violence, many Israelis, a significant majority, almost the same majority that supports a two-state solution, is skeptical about the ability to achieve that solution; skeptical of the Palestinian leaderships willingness to step up and make that historical peace; skeptical of the willingness of the Palestinian people specifically, and of the broader Arab world to accept a permanent and Jewish state in the Middle East; skeptical about an end of violence.

To understand what has occurred certainly in the last year and a half since I’ve been on watch during the course of the tenure of the Netanyahu government is an attempt by Israeli leaders and by the Prime Minister in particular to grapple and keep a pace of these [unintelligible] and often conflicting trends within Israeli society: support for the two-state solution and skepticism about it. For that reason, the Prime Minister was very cautious in moving towards his public espousal of the two-state solution – as the head of the Likud that was a major move for him – the Bar Ilan speech in 2009, but he attached caveats, not preconditions, but caveats to his acceptance of the two-state solution – that was that the future Palestinian state would have to be demilitarized and would have to recognize Israel in a reciprocal manner as the nation-state of the Jewish people, just as Israel would recognize the Palestinian state as the nation-state of the Palestinian people. That was not a tactical maneuver, it was very substantive, that was designed to put an end to all further claims and to end the conflict once and for all.

The Prime Minister issued last November the 10-month moratorium – again for the head of the Likud party, for the head of a government whose general political orientation is Center/Center-Right, that was an extraordinary move. It was a move that was, as Secretary of State Clinton said, “unprecedented.” No other Israeli Prime minister going back to Golda Meir, had ever attempted such a thing, and it was launched in an attempt as a gesture to the United States, but also as an attempt to induce and incentivize Palestinian leadership to return to direct talks. Again, from an Israeli perspective, the Palestinians did not avail themselves of that opportunity until very very late in the game – about 8.5-9 months down and by the time the talks did commence, and we got off to a very good start, it wasn’t just optics, they were constructive, friendly, and promising talks that occurred in Washington about six weeks ago, and we were already confronting a situation in which the moratorium was winding down and the chances that the Palestinians would not be able to return to the table, whether the Arab League would endorse them.

Most importantly though, which I’m sure you’re going to have questions about this. About three days ago the Prime Minister came out with a statement in Knesset saying, that if the Palestinian leadership would recognize Israel as the Jewish state he would be willing to go back to the government and try to convince his cabinet members to try and extend the moratorium to a certain length. The Prime Minister is facing a situation in which 27 out of his 30 ministers oppose extending the moratorium in its current configuration. 80% of the Israeli public opposes extending the moratorium in its current configuration – think about 80% of Americans ever agreeing on something, it’s quite a high percentage – and it is an immense hurdle for the Prime Minister to overcome. There is also the matter of his word: having given his word on the ten months. And that word will be an important equity, an asset, not only for the people of Israel but for the Palestinians and for the United States as well. At the end of that year long process, and I understand [you’re responsible] for that year long process. [Unintelligible.]

And the end of that year, he is going to have to be able to go to the people of Israel and say to them, “We are going to have to make excruciating sacrifices from areas that have been guarded by our people for the last 3,000 years as sacred, as our sacred patrimony. We are going to have to take immense risks in view of what had happened in Gaza, what has happened in Lebanon, we are going to create a Palestinian state that is going to be directly opposite our major population industrial areas, but, you can trust me. I’m going to give you my word that this is the best way to go.” And if we are already impugning his word at the beginning of the process, then that word is going to be worth much less at the end of the process. So this is definitely an asset that should not be treated cavalierly.

I won’t dissemble the fact, I don’t think I could dissemble the fact, that we are at an impasse tonight. We are each in our own corner – the Palestinians, the Israelis, the Arab League, I think the administration also – and we’re looking for the right bell that will get us out of these corners and get us to the middle but not swinging, talking. And I would be misleading you to indicate in any way that I have the magic formula, that anybody has the magic formula for this. I can only assure you, again, that this government and the Prime Minister are deeply and unequivocally committed to this process. When he said a year, he meant it. I told you the story, when we got back into his car, one of his advisors said do you realize you just said a year? And he said yes, I said a year because I meant it. And he sticks by it. And he is committed to getting into that room with the Palestinian president and concluding this historic deal.

To do that, we understand that there are difficulties all around, but please understand that the Prime Minister and his government face political constraints which are at times gargantuan and not the least of which is this skepticism, and I think today from an Israeli perspective it is the greatest obstacle we face – this Israeli skepticism. Because if you look around, rarely can we look back and find a situation, which objectively speaking, is so conducive to peace. We have a strong, deep, and widely representative stable Israeli government. We have excellent economic conditions in the West Bank and continuing to improve. We have security, we have law and order, in the West Bank such as we have not know for a very long time. We have a Palestinian leadership that is committed to a two-state solution. There is the Arab Peace Initiative, there is an Obama administration which is acutely focused on the peace process and committed to the two-state solution. And for the first time in the last 62 years the vast majority of Arab states view another nation, and not Israeli, as their principle concern.

I remain optimistic. Not Pollyannaish, but optimistic. I believe that the momentum here towards peace, while if not irreversible, if not [unintelligible] is still considerable. And that once these two leaders do get in a room they can find themselves going places that they never previously imagined. Again, we know from history that Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadaat got in a room, they entered a peace process that had its own momentum, and they found themselves going where they thought they would go before; and in a very relatively swift time. So that is the nature of my optimism and I hope I can persuade you this evening, both of the seriousness of the Israeli perspective but also of the no less serious chances for peace that we all can still benefit from.

Toni Verstandig : (Executive Vice President, S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace)
Michael, thank you very much, please take the prerogative while I say a few words to enjoy your salad. And as Robert and Danny both said your remarks were wonderful and framed in a historical context and for some of us who were part of that historic peacemaking, I reflect on where we were and where were going.

So let me offer take the prerogative of the chair before we begin, as Robert and Danny both said will be an informal dinner conversation which we can hopefully begin to understand one another. So, I’m interested to hear your thoughts – you did touch on the Arab Peace Initiative. Robert and I just returned from Abu Dhabi and I was struck by both the newness of thinking – the [unintelligible] that is there, across the board, in terms of what they’re doing on innovation and their own society. But their angst about the future. And the future as you well pointed out the existential threat posed by Iran is shared not only the perception by Israel but others in the Gulf.

But I’m also interested to know your thoughts as you look at peace making, you spend a lot of time talking about the Israeli/Palestinian track. Can Israel – because time, I think there are a number of clocks that are ticking. There is the technological clock in terms of – as I just said Iran – the introduction of sophisticated weapons in both Gaza and also in Lebanon. There is a demographic clock, as it relates most particularly to the Palestinians. There is a biological clock and that clock – as my distinguished friend [Ziad Asali] and I’ll have him put his medical hat on knows all too well won’t be stopped. There are many leaders in the region who are aging. And we have seen the tragedy of great peace makers, both Yitzak Rabin and King Hussein, when they are no longer on the scene. And the impact that that had. And so, there is our own political clock. You talked about Israel’s politics but we obviously have our own politics. So I’m interested to know do you think that it’s time­ – when you to talk about end of conflict – can Israel achieve a true comprehensive peace, engage on a Syria track? And what are the circumstances that you would see that complimentary the two tracks?

Michael Oren:
Thank you Toni. Our position on the Syrian track is that we are ready, eager to negotiate with the Syrians. We have only one precondition. And that is that there should be no preconditions. We want direct talks. And we are happy if those direct talks start off on whatever level that would conform to the Syrian’s level of comfort. But – yes, we are eager to negotiate with the Syrians. And we don’t see any contradiction between the Palestinian track and the Syrian track. We look forward to a time where there will be a comprehensive peace. We have always viewed the relationship with the Palestinians, not as only as an end in itself but as a means to a broader peace with all states in the Middle East. And if some day Iran could be included in that equations that would be fine too.
Dr. Ziad Asali : (American Task Force on Palestine)
Thank you very much Toni. Thank you Danny and Robert, Toni and your Center. It is a testament to your credibility of the Ambassador and the Center that such a distinguished group of assorted ethnic people who are interested in this issue to show up. And to show respect and willingness to talk and listen. With that spirit, I intend to say something and not to lecture the Ambassador.
Michael Oren:
If you lecture, I get to eat.
Dr. Ziad Asali :
You have held onto your integrity and your analysis as you defended your country vigorously, we do not want to have a debate about the position of the Israelis and the Palestinians, but I think you have stated that there is no pretence that things are going well. That we are at an impasse. And the parties need to regroup and figure out a way out. In the meantime, the status quo continues. And no matter how painful it has been for the Israelis, there is no question that life under occupation cannot be but worse than Israelis have faced. But we know that the Israelis have faced difficult situations. So it is imperative for the Palestinians to pursue ending the occupation as their lifelong goal. And one that I am very pleased to hear you state very clearly, as your Prime Minister did, that it is a goal of the Israelis, of the Israeli government, to end the occupation. And to arrive at a two-state solution, as a matter of national security for the Israelis, as most certainly it is for our national interest in this country. So because there is a consensus of national interest, we all share the same optimism. However – and there is a question…
Michael Oren:
It’s okay the salad is gone.
Dr. Ziad Asali :
Because of this impasse has affected the Palestinians and Israeli government, but more importantly, the standing of the United States at this point in time, we are very concerned because that was the guarantor for everyone that somebody at home is in charge and guide things the right way. We need collectively to figure out how to transition back to a situation where negotiations resume with a level of seriousness that warrants the one year that everyone is talking about, but we don’t see it now. And how do we in fact restructure a grownup conversation – if you will – to bridge this transition period to negations?

I might suggest that what I have in mind here is that we cannot see the hopes of the Palestinians continue eroding and their life situation deteriorating as it is if we are to sustain this. There has to be an improvement. There has to be a steady improvement in the day to day life of the Palestinian people. And of course you referred to the economic situation and the security situation which is a wonderful thing and more of this needs to continue. We are concerned. Concerned about the impact of the negations, the lack of progress in negotiations, progress that has been made that you refer to, needs to be shielded. So there has to be some kind of an effort during this transition that is less lofty than the strategic achievement of a state in one year or so. But that covers the transition. I wonder if you have any thoughts about that.

Michael Oren:
Thank you Ziad. Of course I will be presenting my survey of the Israeli perspective of that. I did not mean – I said it earlier – to say that there is not a Palestinian perspective or in any way diminish the Palestinians travails or the Palestinian desire for sovereignty and statehood. We acknowledge that. It is not a zero-sum gain, of course. And from our perspective, going back to it, the way to move forward would not to take issues that are impossible for either of us at this stage to resolve and move them up front. If they are final status issues, let them remain final status issues. And, again, settlements – from our perspective – is a final status issue. It is way down the list of final status issues because settlements from our perspective are a subcategory of borders which are a subcategory of security. And so we are a long way from discussing settlements. By putting them up front, it creates a difficultly – a political difficulty. And it further augments the skepticism that many Israelis feel about the seriousness of a Palestinian interlocutor if they’re making the issue of settlements – something that the government cannot do right now.

The government has tried to the degree that it can to limit the impact – knowing the sensitivity of the settlement issue for the Palestinians, to limit that impact. It has undertaken not to build any additional settlements, not to appropriate any territory for outward expansion of settlements, not to incentivize Israelis to move to the settlements – I got to catch a breath here – not to have any construction. This is after the moratorium that any construction would be limited, restrained, and responsible and would not impact the peace map – that is a quote unquote. And not impact the peace map. I think you understand what we mean when we say that. And would not exceed levels of construction that occurred during previous rounds of Israeli-Palestinian rounds of negotiations such as the Abu Mazen and Olmert negotiations in 2008 – that is going very very far for this government. And to think for any Israeli government. And hopefully that would take this settlement issue and put it into a certain context.

We have issues that we know are final status issues for the Palestinians. And we don’t want to put them upfront either. And knowing that the only way to get through this process is to start dealing with the issues that we can deal with now. Because I fully agree with you. There has been substantive progress made on the ground and we are liable to lose that progress. We are likely to lose that bottom up progress unless we get a top down horizon. And we are aware of this. And we see very much eye to eye on that.

In addition to removing final status issues from the front of the table, I think it’s very important that the negotiations be held away from the public eye – far from the media. I had the privilege and pure of fun of accompanying President Peres a few weeks ago to New York and he addressed this issue several times. I think you heard him Toni, and you were there too Robert when he talked about this. “There are two things you should never do in front of the camera: romance and peace negotiations in the Middle East.” Quote Shimon Peres. And I think that this sentiment is taken. The swifter we get away from public scrutiny of everything these leaders are doing. They will have more latitude to be able to address these issues and then move onto the substantive issues as we go. But see, I fully agree with you that we are liable to lose the bottom up progress unless we get the top down going.

Randa Fahmy Hudome
: (President, Fahmy Hudome International)
Thank you Toni and Thank you the Center for Middle East Peace. Mr. Abraham and Mr. Wexler for the invitation for dinner tonight. Only in Washington can one dine with the Palestinian Ambassador on Tuesday night and the Israeli Ambassador on Wednesday night. So hopefully next year we will be able to dine with both ambassadors. My question or should I say latest obsession is the Arab Peace Initiative. I’m sure there are a lot of really experienced politicos in the room, and I’ve read the document. It’s a pretty extraordinary document. Not only to be endorsed by the Arab countries but by the Organization of Islamic Conferences. My question Mr. Ambassador is what is the official position of the Israeli government on the Arab Initiative and does the Israeli public or publics know about the peace initiative inside Israel?
Michael Oren:
That is an interesting question – thank you. The position on the Arab Initiative is that the Israeli government welcomes the Arab Peace Initiative. We welcome it as a positive contribution to the peace process. We think it’s a single component of a future possible peace. We feel that it’s not enough. And that the promise of normalization for withdrawal to the ’67 borders would have far greater wave, and have far greater persuasive powers in the Israeli public, if the Arab world was willing to take even the minutest steps towards normalization. And the Obama Administration tried mightily for many months to get such measures – whether it be over flight rights for Israeli aircraft heading East over Arab territory, the reopening of certain intersections, even hosting a peace conference in Arab countries that had been formally involved in the peace process – It couldn’t be done.

And so why I would wager – and I have no scientific empirical basis for saying this – but Israelis are generally not aware of what is in the Arab Peace Initiative. But they are aware that the Arab world is not taking any steps, even symbolic steps towards normalization. And those steps would have immense impact on Israeli public opinion. That we all agree on. And if the Saudis were tomorrow to either host a peace conference or to allow our planes to head East that would have immediate resonance in the Israeli public opinion. And it would greatly reduce – and I’m saying this without the scientific knowledge, but a deep sense of that this would be the case – that would greatly reduce some of the skepticism.

Dr. Odeh Aburdene : (President, OAI Advisors)
Mr. Ambassador, when Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke at CFR on July 6th, what I got from his speech was that he kept emphasizing the word”secure peace,” “secure peace” that is what Israel wants – “secure peace.” My feeling that – and I don’t speak for Abu Mazen—that Abu Mazen and the current Palestinian leadership is prepared to make a deal that will give the Israelis the secure peace and as the Prime Minister said we want a secure lasting peace. That is on the Israeli side. On the Palestinian side, I think what the Palestinians aspire is to have a state that is sovereign with political dignity because what the Palestinians lack is political dignity. So if we can balance Israeli security with Palestinian political dignity I think we can have a deal, where I believe most of the Arab states will approve. And today we have a unique opportunity that we have a Palestinian President like Abu Mazen who has basically been the only Palestinian leader who has told his people that Israel is there to stay, Israel is a permanent feature on the landscape. And then we have leaders in Egypt and Saudi Arabia who are basically pro-peace. But as you many know, King Abudullah is an old man and President Mubarak is not a young man. And if we lose Abu Mazen this opportunity, may not come again. So we are all creative, the Israelis are creative, the Palestinians are creative, the Americans are creative, why can’t we come up with a formula that says yes the Israelis can have security and the Palestinians will have a state with political dignity?
Michael Oren:
I think we have a very detailed and nuanced sense of what would guarantee Israel’s security in a two state solution. When the Prime Minister spoke about demilitarization, he went into some detail in his Bar-Ilan speech that the Palestinian state can have a security force, preserving its dignity, but it couldn’t have an army that could shoot missiles into our cities or shoot down planes that are landing or taking off at Ben-Gurion Airport. That it wouldn’t have the ability to sign military pacts with hostile enemies or states, such as Iran. That is absolutely crucial. The Prime Minister also stated his commitment to continuing a phased Israeli Army presence in the Jordan Valley. And the reason for that – and we understand that this may conflict with the search for dignity on the part of the Palestinians, that is why we stress the word phased. But our problem for example with Gaza hasn’t been so much the Gaza-Israel border but as the Egyptian-Gaza border. Our problem with Lebanon has not been so much the Israeli-Lebanese border but the Lebanese-Syrian border. And the great fear is that this border during a period when the Palestinian state is still in its inchoate stages not entirely capable of guarding its borders will prove porous – will prove porous to hostile elements, will prove porous to ammunition and rockets. And if you create a Palestinian state, a week later that first rocket falls on the runway of Ben-Gurion airport or falls in downtown Tel Aviv, what have we accomplished? Not very much.

And going back to the duality between Israel’s security interest and the need for Palestinian pride, it’s a sense of – what’s the word you used – dignity, much better word than pride. We are aware of the need to address the need for dignity. And we have to strive to make to the best degree possible consonant with our need for security. And to understand that making those two interests dovetail, may take time, way be a stage process, and cannot be addressed by signing a piece of paper.

Rabbi Marc Schneier
: (Founder, Foundation for Ethnic Understanding)
Thank you Toni. And thank you Danny and Rob for hosting and facilitating this evening’s gathering and I am particularly pleased to be here with so many friends who I have worked with to creating a new model of Muslim and Jewish cooperation here in the U.S. which we have successfully exported around the world. And I’ve often said as the children of Abraham, Muslims and Jews not only do we share a common faith, but we share a common fate. And how it’s our single destiny that strengthen our bonds of compassion, caring, and concern for each other.

The question Michael that you made reference to the Israeli public being skeptical about the sincerity of the Palestinian government and the Palestinian public. To cut to the chase, my experience, what I’m sensing, less so in the U.S. but around the world, that Muslims and Jews don’t trust one another. In fact, I’m now writing a book with Imam, a head Imam of New York, Imam Shamsi Ali, the title of our book is “Can We Trust the Other?” So to try to combat this lack of trust, we have engaged in an international campaign of twining mosques and synagogues and to literally bring this lack of trust to the people and to build these bridges of understanding and caring. My question to you is what is being done in Israel – let’s put the Palestinian leadership aside. What is being done in Israel people to people in terms of trying to foster a kind of trust so when we do realize peace between Israel and the PA that the people themselves, the masses will element and that sense of comfort in terms of dealing with Jews and their brethren?

Michael Oren:
It’s an excellent point Marc, thank you. Certainly when we talk about peace from the bottom up we can’t ignore the economic part of the bottom up but the personal component of the bottom up. Which is extremely important. And here the news is better but not good. There were I would say two good decades in the ’80s though the ’90s where there were extensive efforts to interact and dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian groups. I was involved in several of them. They were always interesting, always rewarding, always illuminating. Moreover, there was tremendous amount of back and forth. They traveled from the territories. Tens of thousands of Palestinians worked daily in the state of Israel, so we came to know each other just not as the enemy or as an abstraction but as the people who work with us, the people who shop next to us.

And then came Sept. 2000, and the cultural/religious barriers that we had confronted previously when then now compounded manifoldly by physical barriers. Israelis could not travel into the territories. It was actually an act of law. If they were traveling in the territories, they could be killed. Conversely, Palestinian labor stopped coming into the state of Israel. So we had a generation that was growing up in the late ’90s, early part of the century of young people who had never encountered one another except through violent circumstances. Young Palestinians in Gaza, some Palestinians in the West Bank have never seen an Israeli other than an Israeli soldier. And Israelis who have never really seen a West Bank Palestinians or Gaza Palestinians expect as people who were being arrested, suicide bombers who were blowing up.

Now, the situation is improving. Slowly but substantively. There are now circumstances where Israelis can travel into the territories. Recently, there was the first delegation of tour organizers into Bethlehem, and they spent the day in Bethlehem which is quite an extraordinary feat. Jenin has been opening up. Jenin shopping areas have been reopened to a certain extent for Israeli shoppers and on a personal level I am always encountering Israelis who travelled to Ramallah and come back wowed by Ramallah. And we have, this is not the Ramallah I remember. It’s beginning but it’s beginning slowly. And it’s important that we proceed cautiously.

In addition to the undertakings, we talked about earlier vis-a-vis the settlements the government of Israel has taken far reaching measures to ease the burden of transportation and communication. Particularly in the West Bank by removing hundreds of check points and road blocks. And it’s a risk. Every road block you pick up and every check point you do away with, the next day there is a terrorist attack there and then you’ve gone one step forward and five steps back. And it was quite a challenge for the Prime Minister because the day he arrived here for direct peace talks, there were four Israelis who were killed back home where a roadblock had just been removed. It was very difficult for the Prime Minister not to restore that roadblock. To the best of my knowledge, he did not. And so I think it’s in the interest of both sides. Yes, I believe it’s important we pursue the people to people, as an integral part of the bottom up process. On the other hand, I think we have a mutual interest in proceeding cautiously and assuring as we do reengage that we do not enhance the chances for violence.

Dr. George Cody : (Executive Director, American Task Force on Lebanon)
Why has Israel not followed through with the UN’s Secretary General’s request that Israel stop using Lebanese airspace and they it withdraw from part of Lebanon?
Michael Oren:
[Resolution] 1701 has been from an Israeli perspective and I don’t think only from an Israeli perspective a colossal failure. 1701 was designed to prevent the rearmament of Hezbollah. Designed to prevent the deployment of Hezbollah forces south of the Litani River. That emphatically is not the case. We’ve in the last few months alone had three cases of Hezbollah arsenals blowing up in Lebanon. UNIFIL have proven ineffective in getting to the site to inspect the natural of these explosions. Big buildings in Lebanese villages do not just spontaneously combust.

And Hezbollah has now quadrupled under the auspices of 1701, quadrupled the number of missiles in its arsenals. In 2006, it had about 12,000. It has more than 45,000 today. These missiles are now of longer range. They can hit every city in the state of Israel including Eilat. They are much bigger pay loads. They are much more accurate. Accurate to four yards. These are not the rockets that were fired willy nilly at Haifa in 2006. A very different situation and we feel that at least 15,000 of these rockets are south of Litani. They have been deployed within villages. Villages that become basically fortified strongholds and in the north particularly. Having internalized the findings for the Goldstone report, Hezbollah has placed many missiles under homes, hospitals, and schools, knowing that if we try to defend ourselves against these missiles, we will once again be changed with war crimes. It’s a very grievous situation for us. It’s a strategic threat to the state of Israel. And our ability to observe Hezbollah has been instrumental in persuading other countries including this government of the dire natural of the Hezbollah threat. That’s very crucial for us.

As for the village of Ghajar. For those of you unfamiliar with this, it occupies a tremendous amount of our time. Rarely does a cable relating to this Ghajar issue not come across my desk. It is a village that was divided. Half of it in Lebanon, half of it in Israel. It is mostly an Alawite village. But most of the inhabitants were keen on becoming Israeli citizens. And they become Israeli citizens. And yes it is true 1701 calls for the return of the Ghajar territory, as citizens of the state of Israel these people have rights. And we have worked out with UNIFIL the arrangements for a deployment there. In Ghajar, and I have members of my staff who are more updated on this than I am, but generally speaking we have worked out our differences with UNIFIL and so our problem – and if you can call it a problem – is the fact that Israel is a democracy. And that the inhabitants of the city have appealed to the Supreme Court. And basically have said that the state of Israel has no right to sign a treaty that would forfeit their citizenship and transfer them to the sovereignty of another state. And that’s where it’s stuck. It’s stuck in the Israeli legal system. As you know it’s a very robust and activist system, and so I can only assure you it’s not from want of trying but the problem there is democracy. The problem, in italics.

Dr. George Cody :
Do you think it will it be resolved soon?
Michael Oren :
I really don’t know. I’m amazed it’s taken this long. And all of the earlier estimates were that it would be resolved early on. It’s proved to be very resilient. And it has to do with the nature of the people themselves. They were happy under Israeli sovereignty. They had social rights, Israeli recourse to courts, they did not have Hezbollah to worry about. I can’t blame them.
Hanna Hanania : (American Federation of Ramallah, Palestine)
Why is Israel making it harder for Palestinian Americans to receive visas and return to the West Bank? What is the logic behind this decision?
Michael Oren:
I think the logic, it was before my time in office. I understood that there were security concerns. We are aware of this issue. And are dealing with this issue. It’s part of a broader discussion we have with the Obama administration as well as with the PA. And that’s all I can tell you right now. We understand it’s a problem and we are trying our best to deal with it.
Dr. Shibley Telhami : (Brookings Institution, University of Maryland)
Is the two state solution running out of time? I don’t see the Palestinians and Israelis reaching a final agreement without an outside state to help them achieve peace. Why is Israel reluctant to have another state propose a peace plan?
Michael Oren:
Thank you Shibley. In contrast to Camp David I, whatever we were going to call this round of peace negotiations, we are not reinventing the wheel. We’ve been down this path before at least twice. We have a general notion of what this peace is going to look like and there are details – very important details – that will have to be worked out. But the general scope of it, we more or less know. If the two leaders can get together – that does not mean, I don’t want to in any way imply that they can quickly reach this without bridging proposals by the U.S. There is a big difference between a bridging proposal and an overarching comprehensive agreement. And our fears relating to an overarching comprehensive agreement – “this is our American version of peace” – is that it will not meet our vital security needs, as we were talking about here earlier. And secondly that it could lead to an imposed solution. Because once it’s on that table you don’t know where it goes or how the tables are going to find itself. It could find itself in an international organization that could say that if the two parties do not accept this proposal they could sanctioned. That’s a real fear. And in which that would put us in a very adversarial position. There’s the reason. I think we understand that there will be an active American role and that the Americans will be placing their ideas on the table as well at crucial junctures. But ultimately, there is no substitute for Israeli and Palestinian leaders sitting opposite one another at that table and negotiating directly.
Edward Ayoob : (Partner, Barnes & Thornburgh; Former Staffer, Harry Reid)
Can you go into greater detail about the recent proposal Netanyahu gave to Abbas about recognizing Israel as the Jewish state? Also, legislation may be brought before the House or Senate in the coming months to prohibit 503 (C) 3s from giving money to the settlements – where does the Israeli government stand regarding this issue?
Michael Oren:
I actually haven’t heard about any such legislation. What I understand about the contributions is that they are not geographically limited but guided by the end-use: whether it’s for educational purposes, medical purposes, the tax reductions are for contributions, not for where they go but what they do. As for as I know, there is no change in the Administration’s position on that. I haven’t heard about any such legislation.

By the way when I say, the government is not incentivizing Israelis to the settlements, it doesn’t mean that it’s ignoring the natural life needs of the hundreds of thousands of our citizens who live there. And they have natural life needs. If they need to build a school – they will build a school. That’s the government positions.

Let me go back to your earlier part about recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. Israel is not a theocracy. Israel is a Jewish state in a national sense. It is the nation state of the Jewish people. The way Bulgaria is the nation state of the Bulgarian people. Germany is the nation state of the German people. The United States does not happen to be a nation state, so it doesn’t fit that paradigm. But most nations in the world are nations states – Israel’s one of them. And when we asked the Palestinians to recognize us, as the nation state of the Jewish people, it means many things. First of all, most fundamentally, it means we are here to stay, that the Jews are indigenous to the Middle East. That they have a 3,000 year history there and that the two state solution is going to be a two state solution and not an interim solution to something else – a one state solution. Or as Ehud Barak is fond of saying, a two state solution will not be a two stage solution, with the next stage of Israel’s dissolution. That’s what recognizing a Jewish state means.

We also understand that here is a final status issue, a classic one that recognizing Israel as a Jewish state means that Palestinian refugees will not be resettled there. They will be resettled in the Palestinian state and not in the Jewish state or in any other state but not in the Jewish state. The demographic integrity of Israel will be preserved. Recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, is not a tactical issue for us. It is the most fundamental issue for us. It’s the absolute core of the conflict. It’s what created the conflict to begin with.

Edward Ayoob :
How does the “Jewish” state affect Israeli Arabs?
Michael Oren:
Israeli Arabs are a national minority whose democrat rights are guaranteed, as there are many minorities in many nation states who don’t share the leading nationality. And if those Palestinians are Israelis in every way, fully democratic – this doesn’t mean we aren’t engaged in an ongoing battle against discrimination – we are. Israel is a work in progress. But the national character of the state is a Jewish state. And the national character of the Palestinian state will be Palestinian identity. In the same way, we are asking for reciprocity. We are saying we are going to recognize the Palestinians as a people who are indigenous and have an inalienable right to self-determination in their own homeland. All were asking is the Palestinians recognize the same things about us. Because we firmly believe this is a way to put an end to the claims and an end to the conflict. Minus that, absent that, the conflict will merely continue. If you want to read more about this, I will have an op-ed in the New York Times tomorrow.
Edward Ayoob :
You’ve taken a final status issue and moved it to the beginning.
Michael Oren:
Reluctantly. The situation was created where there was a complete impasse in the talks. The PM felt that with the level of skepticism – we talked about the 27 ministers that some measure had to be given by the Palestinians that would reassure the Israeli public, the Israeli public that feels they have made concession after concession whether it is recognition of the two state solution, the support from the bottom up, the security in the West Bank – they needed to hear something from the Palestinians that the Palestinians were serious about peace. And the Prime Minister felt that if he had that from the Palestinians – and once again this was only created by the end of the moratorium issue – that he could go to the government and try to persuade them on the extension. He did not. And this is a very important point. He expressly said the request for recognition at this stage was not a precondition for the resumption of direct talks. Which is very much contradistinction to what the Palestinian’s position where they are putting a precondition on direct talks. We have no preconditions. We’d like to see the Palestinians do many things. To figure out who’s representing the entirety of the Palestinian people, because there is a division there. We would like them to end what we call incitement in textbooks. But none of these are couched as preconditions. I want to reiterate, one more time, the government is deeply committed to moving forward without preconditions.
Samah Norquist : (American Task Force on Palestine; formerly USAID)
To what extent has the Israeli government been engaging the American right in dialogue/conversation about the importance of a two state solution for Israel’s security?
Michael Oren :
Bipartisan support in this country for the state of Israel is a strategic national interest for us. And we are in contact with all – or virtually all – aspects of the American political spectrum: right, left, center. And the message I give and am unequivocal about is that the two state solution is a natural interest for the state of Israel. And yes it is true that sometimes – I don’t know if it’s true that the majority of tea party people are against a two state solution, I’m not sure about that – but I have encountered audiences where I encounter criticisms of Israel’s policies – the moratorium, the various restraints and restrictions on new reconstruction that we have encountered or on the two state solution. Or why you are taking Abu Mazen so seriously? I do encounter it. As a matter of fact, I know you may find it hard to believe, I know there is much talk about the back and forth between the Israeli government and the Embassy and American Jewish groups like JStreet. In fact I encounter more criticism from the right than I do from the left.
Samah Norquist :
By non-Jewish Americans on the right?
Michael Oren :
I would say generally. I don’t count them by Jews and non-Jews. Bu there is a body in this country that thinks the two state solution is not the way to go – and from the right not the left – and thinks we are ill-guided and ill-advised by making these concessions. And yes I have to explain to them. And I often go out to engage, like with this group this evening, I will go out to engage with those groups as well. And sometimes you talks about arrows George, we are talking about spears here. It is one of the challenges I face personally and my staff faces here. And convincing people for why the two state solution is a possibility and why it is in the national security of the state of Israel.
Suhail Khan : (Senior Fellow, Institute for Global Engagement)
What role, if any, do the settlements play in enhancing Israel’s national security interests?
Michael Oren :
One of Israel’s main concerns in the Eastern border has been the idea of a defensible border. One of the reasons the word “the” doesn’t appear before the word “territories” in Resolution 242 was because the Johnson Administration in 1967 understood that Israel should not have to go back to the 1967 border along its Eastern front. Israel at one of its most populous areas where much of its industry is situated is only eight miles wide, facing mountains with its back to the sea, that’s not a defensible border. And if you look on a map, many of the settlements, particularly those situated in the “settlement blocs” were designed to thicken out Israel’s borders, and have thickened out Israel’s borders to a degree which we believe is not excessive and will not impede the emergence of a territorially viable Palestinian. To that degree, yes settlements have enhanced Israel’s security. There was a security component in it.

There is security in the fact that settlements act as an area where Israeli military forces can be situated for intelligence gathering it has been important for our security. Look what happened in Gaza, we pulled the settlements out of Gaza and look how our security went downhill very very quickly. So, therefore, in addressing the territorial issue, besides the deep sentimental connection we have to this land, settlements per say are a sub-category of borders and a sub-category of security particularly if you address the security needs of the State of Israel our ability to show flexibility on other issues will be greatly enhanced.

Ted Kattouf
: (President, AMIDEAST)
How far are you willing to go to ensure access, for promising students in the Gaza Strip, to institutions of higher education institutions abroad, primarily in America, to reverse current trends of students with scholarships, including Fulbright Scholars, being denied by the Israeli government from leaving Gaza?
Michael Oren :
It’s unpleasant for us, all of this. We don’t enjoy any of this and we certainly have no interest in generating ill will or earning less of anybody’s respect by restricting access to higher American education from Palestinian students from the Gaza Strip. To the degree that Israel has placed restrictions on this it is because the Security Forces, including those forces that know the Palestinian political dynamic and society very very intimately have recommended it very very strongly. And we are not necessarily privy to all of the considerations, we are not looking at the files, but what we do come back with, and I see this very much with my job, and I had a very similar issue I dealt with today – I spoke to a minister in the Israeli Government and said, “This is what the ramifications are for your decision in this country, and understand this, I don’t know the motivations are or the details are of the case but you should know that this is the impact here.” In today’s case, I won’t go into details, I persuaded the minister to issue the visa. But that’s not all the time, and understand that we have very real security concerns, and sometimes those security concerns cost us in our public image or in your respect and it’s not an easy situation for me personally or us collectively.

 

Ibrahim Vajzovic : (United Bosnian Association)
How much does the Israeli public know about the fact that there will be less focus on the region as the world reduces its dependence on oil?

How much does the Israeli public know about suffering on the other (non-Jewish) side?

Michael Oren :
Israelis are acutely aware of the oil factor as one of the key components in the world focus on Israel’s conflict with its neighbors in the Middle East in general, it’s not just an Israeli issue, and aware that if the world would become less dependent on oil, it would to a certain degree, help defuse some of that acuteness. Israel is now in the process of developing offshore oil exploration for natural gas – some of the estimates are that this natural gas would meet our needs for the next 25 years and Israel will become an actual natural gas exporter – and at the same time we are one of the world leaders for the search for alternative energy sources, non fossil fuels. But we are aware.

As for being aware of the suffering on the other side, I think that that awareness was particularly brought home by the First Intifada. The First Intifada in many ways convinced many Israelis that, first of all brought the issue for what it meant for West Bank Palestinians to be under Israeli control, what that meant to them and what that experience was, and the political consequences of the First Intifada in Israel were profound because a direct link between the First Intifada and the Oslo process, they were still engaged in the Oslo process, and that the status quo was not sustainable. And that same shift from viewing that Palestinian state as the ultimate existential threat to being the existential salvation, if you would, took place during that period as a result of that awareness.

During the Second Intifada the Israelis were less aware because we were so focused on our own suffering, it was very difficult to think about what was going on down the road, in many cases it was literally down the road when you yourself are under fire – very difficult, that’s the human trait. But since then Israel has given birth to a great number of human rights and civil rights groups, watch groups, which are very very active and very very focused on the Palestinian condition and not so much on the Israeli condition, or less so on the Israeli condition. It’s a factor. It’s a factor in our politics and in our policy making.

S. Daniel Abraham
: (Chairman, S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace)
Thank you all for the very thoughtful and frank discussion tonight. It’s not over, I just wanted to intervene for a moment and to try to bring the discussion to today, to right now. I was talking to Sara Ehrman who was at a funeral today, and she was so angry because she said, “You know Danny for 40-years we’ve been talking about a two-state solution of the conflict and we still don’t have it.” It’s time we start moving, erasing the past, erasing all the little obstacles that are in our way, and moving towards a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. That is the purpose of tonight’s dinner, tonight’s meeting, is to bring us towards today, towards a better tomorrow, but we must solve this issue and get past whatever impasses there are. Today is important – Tomorrow might escape us if we don’t solve the issues of today.

So I would like to start to move our discussion, because we are all people of good will, we’re all friends, we’re not enemies, nor are the Israelis and Arabs enemies, we’re all people of good will. We want to live in peace, we want to raise our families and our children in a world of peace and development and employment. We have one of the greatest areas in the world in the Middle East. It was in the past the center of civilization. And it certainly has a role to play today to bring this world to a better place, but we must resolve the question of the Arab-Israeli, Israeli-Arab conflict – the whole spectrum: the Lebanese, the Syrians, and the Palestinians. We must get to an end of this conflict. I think we all know what the end is going to be: ’67 borders with modifications and 1:1 swaps; security for Israel; a divided Jerusalem as capital for both states; the Holy Basin as some type of civilized city, which is at peace and open to all peoples to pray freely without conflict. We know what the end is going to be, so why can’t we bring it to the end now?

Hani Masri : (American Task Force on Palestine)
Whenever Danny speaks I have to comment and we go back 20 years and we both went to Oslo for the Nobel Peace Prize – quite an exciting moment. And we both believed in the two-state solution, and had high hopes, and we worked together for many years on this process. Danny is one of the most respected people on both sides – from Israel and from the Palestinians – because he is sincere. He put a lot of hours, a lot of days, and he has put a lot of effort into the peace process. I commend you, not because of anything, but because this is the truth, and I love you.

[Paraphrase] – I don’t want Israel to be a Jewish state because I am secular just as I don’t want Palestine to be a Muslim state and America to be a Christian state.

Michael Oren :
I thought I made it clear earlier that recognition of Israel as a Jewish state does not mean Jewish state in a religious sense, but in a national sense. We are not recognizing the Palestinian state as a Muslim state we are recognizing it as a Palestinian state – as a national state in a secular state.

We have to deal with all sorts of challenges on both sides. All I can tell you is I don’t share your pessimism, but having said that, with my guarded optimism, I know that the situation looks differently from here where we’re six to seven thousand miles away than it does there.

And to say that there should be no [settlement] building whatsoever, is first of all, for a Jewish state, which is built on what it regards as sacred Jewish territory, to tell Jews that they can’t live there or build there, no Israeli government, right, left or center, could ever do that – not Yitzchak Rabin, not Tzipi Livni, not Ehud Barak. And that this Israeli government has said that there will not be any outward expansion of settlements, that it won’t impact the peace map, that this should not be the issue that prevents us from negotiating, and if we can negotiate then we can start moving towards some aspects of Danny’s vision – I think that’s a very sound and fair policy. The demand for cessation of construction as a precondition is a new Palestinian demand that was not made in previous rounds of negotiations. I share your frustration that we are not moving forward, but I stick with that optimism that if we can get over this hurdle and beyond this impasse, and Lord knows this is not the first impasse in this process, then we can move forward, because as I mentioned earlier, objectively, circumstances surrounding these negotiations will be more conducive than any time in the past.

Dr. Ziad Asali : (American Task Force on Palestine)
I am concerned that a breakdown of negotiations could erupt in Holy war and worried that in particular the eruption will be sparked by actions in Jerusalem, like in Silwaan and Sheikh Jerah.
Michael Oren :
Point taken, and we all can list, even in my personal background having lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years, things that we have experienced, whether being shot at from Beit Jallah, or having busses blown up on Emek Refaim Street, or having the restaurant at my office blown up out from underneath me, Cafe Hillel, we all have these experiences in our past. Israel as Ted mentioned before, annexed East Jerusalem in July of 1967. The US objected to it, not because Israel didn’t have a claim to the West Bank but because the US still subscribed to Resolution 181 of November 1947, which called for the internationalization of Jerusalem. Once Israel annexed Jerusalem, and this is going to be a rather prosaic explanation which you know, then there ceased to be an East, there ceased to be a West, and all of Jerusalem had the exact same status as Haifa and Tel-Aviv. The government of Israel has no more jurisdiction or power to tell Israelis where they can live in Jerusalem than the President of the US has to tell anybody in this town where they can and cannot live on the basis of religion, nationality, or color. He can’t by law. If the government tried it, it would be hauled before the Supreme Court and be found in contempt – it would lose.

Now having said that, this government takes a position that to the best of my knowledge, no Israeli government has taken before. It says, as every Israeli government has said since Levi Eshkol, that Jerusalem will remain the undivided capital of the State of Israel. But this government says that we understand the Palestinians have a different position, we understand that the Palestinians are going to bring that position to the negotiating table, and we’re willing to discuss it. And this government’s position on Jerusalem cannot be tested unless we actually sit at the table, and again, we could all find lots of reasons not to sit at that table.

Right now, Palestinian sensitivity to the limited amount of construction going on in the settlements, or in Sheikh Jerah, or what’s happening in Silwaan, and when I first moved to Jerusalem there were Jews in Silwaan, and now none of those original Jewish inhabitants remain. They were all, in one way or another, forced to leave. There is no way we can get there if each of our sides just keeps putting out pre-conditions. Almost
ad nauseum we have talked about this year framework because the Prime Minister is serious about it, but that can’t be tested either, unless the Palestinians join him at the table. I understand your perspective, but we have ours as well. And I think the way to move forward is to sit and talk.