Peace Talks From The Israeli Perspective

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Despite visits between American, Israeli and Palestinian officials, there’s still no visible movement toward new peace talks. Host Scott Simon interviews Michael Oren, Israel's Ambassador to the United States, about the effort to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the debate over a settlement building freeze in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip border dispute, and the death last week of an Iranian nuclear scientist.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

This week, National Security Advisor Jim Jones went to the Middle East and met with the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Secretary of State Clinton met last week with officials from Egypt and Jordan, but there is still no visible movement toward new peace talks.

We're joined now by Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren. He's on the phone from Jerusalem. Mr. Ambassador, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. MICHAEL OREN (Israeli Ambassador to the United States): Thank you, Scott. Pleasure to be here.

SIMON: What would it take to get Israelis and Palestinians and maybe Egyptians and Jordanians and others to the table?

Mr. OREN: Well, I think we, the Israelis, Egyptians, Jordanians, and certainly the Obama administration, are ready to return to the table. We have all agreed that negotiations should resume immediately without preconditions. We are waiting for Palestinian leadership under President Mahmoud Abbas to agree to come back to the negotiating table.

Israel has taken some unilateral measures, in fact, unprecedented measures, by freezing construction in the West Bank settlements for a 10-month period in an attempt to create better conditions for resuming those talks. We're still waiting for the Palestinians to join us, but that remains our position, as well as the position of the Obama administration, immediate resumption of talks without preconditions.

SIMON: Well, I have the impression that the Palestinians have said a freeze ought to be a freeze and a temporary freeze is not a freeze.

Mr. OREN: Well, the Palestinians have never made those demands in the past. We hope that they will return, and when they do return I can only assure them that the Israeli government is committed to moving as swiftly as possible to resolving all the outstanding issues, including some of those thornier issues, like Jerusalem and borders and refugees.

SIMON: Let me share something with you. Maybe you've heard it already. We had on this program last week the Egyptian foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit. And we asked him about Egypt's border with Gaza and the blockade that he has on it at the moment. He said this...

Mr. AHMED ABOUL GHEIT (Foreign Minister, Egypt): It is not true at all for people to claim that Egyptians are blocking Gaza. That is one. But two, Israel is an occupation of Gaza and it is the occupying power, and occupying power, according to international law, has cases to ensure that the welfare of the people is ensured.

SIMON: What's your response to that, Mr. Ambassador?

Mr. OREN: Well, I have great respect for the Egyptian foreign minister, but I'll have to take issue. We basically share a border with Gaza in the same way that Egypt does. And like Egypt, we have a very severe problem with the Hamas regime in Gaza. A regime that is committed to destroying Israel, committed to killing Israelis. And for that reason, you know, we have sanctions against Gaza.

The border is not hermetically closed. Over a hundred trucks with food and medicine go each day into Gaza, and the U.N. can attest that there is no shortage of food or medicine in Gaza. We are, however, restricting the flow of certain construction materials which we think can be used by Hamas to rebuild its military infrastructure, which, again, could be used to kill Israelis. I think that's a very justifiable policy for any country so threatened.

SIMON: And Mr. Ambassador, I've had the impression that the United Nations, on the contrary, has specifically complained that there's a shortage of food and medicine coming into Gaza.

Mr. OREN: No. I reiterate: there is no shortage of food and medicine. There is an issue of housing materials. And we do not want the people of Gaza to suffer. We are not at war with the people of Gaza. But, unfortunately, Gaza is under this Hamas regime.

We are looking for finding a way where we can guarantee that construction materials that go into Gaza will be used for civilians and not for the military infrastructure of the Hamas regime.

SIMON: Mr. Ambassador, last week an Iranian nuclear scientist of some prominence, who, by the way, reportedly had had contacts with the opposition in Iran, was assassinated. President Ahmadinejad said Israel's responsible. Is that true?

Mr. OREN: I have no information on it. Our reading of it, that this man was probably assassinated because he was identified with the Iranian opposition. The death of a scientist, I think, is further indication of the level of violence in Iran, that this is a regime that not only threatens Israel and other Middle Eastern countries but threatens its own people.

SIMON: Mr. Ambassador, can I read some significance in the fact that, at least as I heard it, you said I have no information on that, but you didn't say no.

Mr. OREN: I just - I really don't have information on it. Do not read into it. The official position here is that we're uninvolved.

SIMON: Mr. Ambassador, so much of the world is sending assistance to Haiti. Israel as well?

Mr. OREN: Israel was one of the first countries in the world to respond to the disaster in Haiti, with doctors, with search dogs, with a medical field team and an entire, it's really defense forces rescue squad, which includes cranes, heavy machinery, for dealing with such crises.

SIMON: Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States, thanks so much.

Mr. OREN: Thank you, Scott.

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