Israeli Ambassador On Obama's Trip, Prospects For Peace
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Next week, President Obama makes his first trip to Israel since becoming president. It's a quick visit - less than 48 hours on the ground before he moves on to the West Bank and Jordan. The president is not expected to bring any new initiatives aimed at restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but this visit is a big deal for a country whose most vital ally is the United States and whose government has not always agreed with the Obama administration.
The Israeli ambassador to the United States is the historian Michel Oren. Let me begin with the situation on the ground when it comes to the Palestinians. Is the current situation sustainable for Israel?
MICHAEL OREN: No. I do not believe it's sustainable for anybody. I think it's preferable that we replace it with a two-state solution based on recognition of the Palestinian people and their unassailable right to self-determination to live in their own state in their own homeland, and the recognition of the Jewish people and its unassailable right to self-determination, and our right to live in an independent state in our ancestral homeland. And that is the way - we think that's the only way to end the conflict and bring about a permanent and legitimate peace.
INSKEEP: Give me an idea of the timeline. When you say the current situation is not sustainable, does something have to change in a year, five years, fifty years? How do you think about it?
OREN: Well, I'm not in the business of prophecy, but certainly Prime Minister Netanyahu has said if President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority enters into serious negotiations with him, he, Netanyahu, believes that a peace agreement can be reached within a year and he feels the urgency. He feels the need to bring about that peace so that the Palestinians can fulfill their national destiny. We can fulfill our national destiny and we can ensure our national security as well.
INSKEEP: Because you want to ensure your national security, I want to ask a little bit more about the timeframe that's on your mind, because you know, people have different timeframes when they think about this. Is this something that Israel has to be prepared to tolerate, the current situation, for 20 years or 50 years?
OREN: Well, you have to be very, very careful even when you talk about timelines. You don't want rush ahead and create a Palestinian state that the next day is going to turn into a Southern Lebanon or a Gaza. We've had that experience. We withdrew from Southern Lebanon in 2000, from Gaza in 2005 in order to advance peace and we didn't get peace. We got thousands of rockets.
I think the main thing is to move ahead as quickly as possible, all the while keeping in mind that the Middle East is in turmoil. There's lots of changes going on. As we make peace, we have to ensure that provisions are in place that will protect us in case that peace breaks down.
INSKEEP: You said that Prime Minister Netanyahu has said that if there was a process, if negotiations were going forward, that something could happen in a year. You'll correct me if I'm wrong, but I think I can paraphrase Netanyahu as also saying that he has no one to negotiate with and no prospect of someone to negotiate with.
OREN: No, he doesn't say that. He has - he says we have someone to negotiate with. It's President Mahmoud Abbas, Abu Mazen of the Palestinian Authority. Our problem is that Abu Mazen does not want to negotiate with us, and for all the last four years, with the exception of six hours, we have not had direct negotiations between the prime minister of Israel and the president of the Palestinian Authority.
And we, together with the Obama administration, call for the immediate resumption of those direct talks without preconditions.
INSKEEP: Can you envision a circumstance in which Israel would do as Israel did in Gaza in 2005 and simply withdraw from portions of the West Bank, in effect make your own solution?
OREN: Well, that didn't work so well. We pulled up 21 settlements, kicked 9,000 people out of their homes. I personally participated in that operation as a reserve soldier. It was very traumatic, remains very traumatic for me to this day. At the time we thought it was worthwhile as a step to advance peace. Since then, Hamas has taken over Gaza and millions of Israelis have come under thousands of rockets that have been fired by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
We don't want to return to that situation.
INSKEEP: What can President Obama do, if anything, that would help you move toward a solution?
OREN: Well, he can help convince Abu Mazen to come back to the negotiating table. And if Abu Mazen thinks that Prime Minister Netanyahu is not serious about peace, we say try him. Go into a peace negotiation. Go to some remote farm house in Maryland or Virginia and lock the doors for a couple of weeks and see if the prime minister is serious. We invite him back and we're ready to talk about all the major issues, Steve.
And there are huge issues on the table. This is not in any way to diminish the magnitude of the issues.
INSKEEP: Just to give an example, you're willing to talk about moving thousands of settlers out of some areas of the West Bank, where they currently are.
OREN: Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke before a joint session of Congress in 2011 and he said we have to be honest with ourselves. In the event of the creation of a Palestinian state, there will be Israeli settlements that will lie beyond Israel's borders. Now, we want to find a situation where nobody has to leave their homes, but the fact of the matter is we understand that in the event of the creation of a Palestinian state, it's going to involve painful sacrifices from us and it will involve painful sacrifices from the Palestinians as well.
INSKEEP: Ambassador Michael Oren of Israel, thanks very much for coming by.
OREN: Thanks you, Steven.
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