Israeli Ambassador Discusses Prisoner Swap

Five years after he was captured by Hamas militants in Gaza in a cross-border raid, Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was returned to his home country. Michael Oren, Israeli ambassador to the U.S., talks with Robert Siegel about the deal that will free more than one thousand Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails in exchange for Shalit's release Tuesday.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Joining us in the studio is Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States. Mr. Ambassador, welcome once again.

MICHAEL OREN: Always good to be here, Robert.

SIEGEL: I want to ask you first about Israel's dealings with Hamas over the prisoner swap. The Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar told Israeli army radio the other day that Palestinian President Abbas, a negotiator with Israel for a million years and hasn't achieved a deal like this one. Has this agreement, in effect, elevated the standing of Hamas among Palestinians and in the world community at large?

OREN: Well, listen, there was a poll published just today by a Palestinian research center in Ramallah that shows that Hamas is imploding in terms of its political support, not only in the West Bank, but in Gaza itself. The economic situation in Gaza is miserable, for want of a better word, and Palestinians are looking from Gaza at the West Bank where there's extraordinary economic growth, where hundreds of checkpoints have been removed and they're asking their leadership, how come this isn't happening here.

So, maybe they'll receive a blip of support from the release of these prisoners today. But in the long run, their constituents are going to still be asking the hard questions. Why don't we have the same future that Palestinians on the West Bank have?

SIEGEL: The head of the Israeli security agency, the Shin Bet, was quoted as saying in defense of this agreement, Hamas had to show some flexibility as we did. Was the description of a balanced negotiation, albeit through Egyptian mediators, do you and other Israelis come away from this with any hope for any more extensive negotiations with Hamas?

OREN: With Hamas? No. I mean, Hamas still is committed to Israel's destruction. If you read its covenant, it's committed not only to the annihilation of Israel, but to the obliteration of the Jews worldwide. It's a genocidal covenant. And Hamas does not meet the criterion established by the quartet for joining negotiations. But what today's events do prove is that the Israeli government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is capable of making very hard, very painful decisions.

And if I were a Palestinian leader on the West Bank, I'd be looking at this government and saying, this is government that can deliver. This is a government that can make the hard choices and reach an historic peace with us.

SIEGEL: But if I were a Palestinian not in the government, wouldn't I look at this and say, well, these Hamas people, they've been trying to isolate them for years. But in the clutch, when it came down to getting one Israeli soldier home, the Israelis delivered 1,100 prisoners to them.

OREN: Oh, I'd actually flip that around and say, look, Hamas, in order to get - in exchange for one Israeli prisoner, they received 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. I'd be looking at the great asymmetry of that and saying, what's wrong with this picture. Wouldn't it be better, instead of exchanging a soldier who was kidnapped on Israeli soil for people who are basically mass murderers, is that the best way of ensuring the future for my children and my grandchildren?

SIEGEL: Well, what would you say to those Israelis who were critical of this swap, who said, indeed, the people being freed include, say, the young woman who masterminded the bombing of the pizzeria in Jerusalem that claimed the lives of women and children, she's out. She's not repentant. She could be planning another plot in a couple years.

OREN: Well, I think that there's a valid argument there. And as I say, we share in the joy of the Shalit family. We also partake in the pain of those who are victims of these terrorists. And I'm speaking as a - personal, as an Israeli, not just as the ambassador. I have three children who have been in the army, one who's still serving. But my family has also been - has also suffered the loss of a very close family member in a bus bombing in Jerusalem. My eldest son was shot trying to apprehend one of these Hamas leaders. He's fine today, but we bear these scars. So we understand the pain and we understand the risks.

But at the end of the day, Robert, Israel is a democracy that has a citizens army. And when we send our sons and our daughters off to defend our country, they have to know that if they fall captive or, God forbid, anything worse happens to them, that the state will do everything in their power to get them back. And that is the source of our strength.

SIEGEL: But Ambassador Oren, does the deal with Hamas make it more difficult for Israel to fault those who would negotiate with people they describe as terrorists? That is, Israel regards Hamas as terrorist. You had to deal with them. If you wanted Gilad Shalit back, you had to negotiate in some way with them. You did. Shouldn't other countries do the same?

OREN: I'm not splitting hairs here by saying that we didn't negotiate. We negotiated through the Egyptians and the Germans and we negotiated about a prisoner exchange. We didn't negotiate peace. We didn't negotiate territory for peace. It's not about that because Hamas is not interested in peace. It's about comparing lists and seeing, you know, which lists were palatable to us and which ones that Hamas could accept.

Eventually, we reached a deal. It's a better deal that we reached today than we could've reached at any time in the last five years. And with the great changes sweeping the Arab world, we thought we had an opportunity here that might not exist in the coming months.

SIEGEL: Ambassador Oren, thank you very much for talking with us.

OREN: No problem.

SIEGEL: That's Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States. And later in the program, you can hear an interview with a representative of the group on the other side of that prisoner exchange, Hamas.

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