Hamas-Included Government May Hinder Peace Talks
STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
In this time of change, we sat down with Michael Oren, a distinguished author and historian who is now Israel's ambassador to the U.S. He is not happy to see Hamas in the Palestinian unity government.
MICHAEL OREN: Hamas is an organization that has fired over the years thousands of rockets and mortars at Israeli citizens, at our towns, at our farms. And Hamas was one of the only elements in the entire Middle East to condemn America's action against bin Laden. Now Hamas has been brought into a unity government with the Palestinian Authority with whom we had hoped to engage in a peace process leading to a two-state solution. It makes it extremely difficult for us to negotiate...
INSKEEP: Extremely difficult or impossible? Is this peace process done? Is it not going to happen as long as Hamas has a share of power?
OREN: Well, it may be extremely difficult to make a peace treaty, even talk about a peace treaty. We've seen no indication that Hamas is willing to give up terror or to recognize Israel or to recognize the peace process as it has progressed so far.
INSKEEP: Although this is a difficult call, isn't it, on some level, because having divided authority among the Palestinians isn't very good either.
OREN: It's not good and it's preferable that there been Palestinian unity between Gaza and the West Bank, we agree. But we don't want to have that come to cost of giving a victory to terror.
INSKEEP: I want to look at this from a little longer perspective just for a moment. You wrote a really compelling book about the Six Day War in 1967. And you point out that in your reading of the history there was not necessarily an Israeli design to take all of Jerusalem, to take the West Bank. It happened in the course of the war. It happened without a grand strategy. Given that the situation that we have now was, by your reading, something of an accident, do you accept that as some point the situation is going to have to change?
OREN: I think there's also a cause for optimism looking back on the Middle East. The major issue in the Middle East at that time among the Arab states was how best to destroy the state of Israel. And I look at the Middle East today and it's not as if the Middle East is free of violence - there is much violence - but there is in many ways far more stability than we had back then. And the major issue in the Middle East today is not how best to make war with Israel but the big issue is how best to make peace with Israel, which is quite a sea change.
INSKEEP: You mentioned that in some ways the Middle East is more stable than it was several decades ago. But of course we've entered in the last few months a period of great change. It's perceived here that Israelis are deeply concerned about the direction that things are going, or at least the Israeli government is. Is your country in a less secure position than it was three or four months ago before the uprisings?
OREN: But we have to see the risks as well. We've seen in not-so-distant pasts where democratic movements that began in Iran and Lebanon, in Gaza, were hijacked by radicals and transformed those areas into basic terrorist states. So along with a sense of hope we have to exercise a certain amount of caution.
INSKEEP: Well, let's be frank, the military government that is temporarily - they say temporarily - holding power in Egypt is already changing its foreign policy toward Israel and taking steps that Israel would disagree with. And if you go and listen to political rallies in Cairo, lines criticizing Israel are guaranteed applause lines.
OREN: It's true, and we don't - I don't in any way diminish the amount of animosity that exists in the Egyptian street, but we do hope that if Egypt evolves into a functioning democracy, then politicians will not be able so easily to deflect popular disaffection away from the Egyptian government to Israel.
INSKEEP: On Israel's other border there is, of course, Syria, where there are also demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad. Have you been warning the United States not to throw Bashar al-Assad over the side or to push him too hard?
OREN: Categorically no.
OREN: Categorically no.
INSKEEP: You're happy...
OREN: (Unintelligible) a rumor like that floating around, Steve. No, not at all. Our position is that we will support any genuine reform in Syria. We will certainly welcome the emergence of a vital democracy in Syria. We would see that as preferable to the dictatorship that has existed in Syria now for more than 40 years.
INSKEEP: So you had real concerns about Hosni Mubarak losing his job. You have no concerns about Bashar al-Assad losing his job?
OREN: We have a bit of concern about rapid change. We would prefer to see gradual change. And we know that democracy takes a long time to build up. The Arab regimes that have collapsed, for example, in Egypt, they're given basically a couple of months to figure out how democracy works, how a party works. That's going to be a huge challenge. And it is not without its risks because the most organized parties in our area of the world, with the best funding and the clearest leaderships, are the radicals.
INSKEEP: One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is because you wrote an article in Foreign Policy magazine telling the United States not to forget that Israel is a valuable ally of the United States. Why did you think it was important to make that point right now?
OREN: Well, support for Israel in this country is close to an all-time high. But an increasingly vocal group of what they call realists say that Israel is no longer a strategic asset for the United States but a liability. And this area, this idea has taken root in academia and in some of the think- tanks in our area of the world here within the Beltway.
INSKEEP: Because it's used against the United States. U.S. support for Israel is used against the United States in Arab countries and other countries. That's why, right?
OREN: That's one of the reasons that they cite. And I felt it was important to take this to task and put this argument to rest once and for all. There is really, certainly in the Middle East, five years down the line, there is no country that is stable, democratic and unequivocally pro-American. And that is the type of ally that you don't find every day.
INSKEEP: Are you making that argument now though because you fear that with all the other changes in the Middle East and the Arab uprisings, that someone in the United States or in the Obama administration is going to lose sight of you?
OREN: No, I don't feel that. In fact, security relations between Israel and the Obama administration are at an all-time high also. We share our knowledge in fighting terror. So our security cooperation is really quite extraordinary.
INSKEEP: But your government was certainly not happy with the way the United States handled the Egypt uprising, for example.
OREN: No, there was no - we didn't express any - and I stress any - dissatisfaction with the way the administration handled it. Our only preference, our hope, was that the transition in Egypt would take place gradually and not too precipitously, in a way that would bring the radicals to power.
INSKEEP: And is it moving a little too quickly for you?
OREN: Again, we wish it would - the elections would be postponed a little bit longer, give these democratic and Western-oriented elements in Egypt greater time to organize. And I think that we are not alone in having that preference, but the Egyptians have their preference and we have to respect it.
INSKEEP: Ambassador Michael Oren in Israel. Thanks very much.
OREN: Thank you, Steve.
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