ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
Earlier this week, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, was quoted - he says misquoted - as saying U.S.-Israeli relations are in a crisis of historic proportions. Well today, Ambassador Oren gave me this far- less alarmist assessment of the disagreement between his country and Washington.
MICHAEL OREN: I would characterize this as a flap, but flaps happen quite often in relationships, even between the closest countries.
SIEGEL: We spoke at Ambassador Oren's office at the embassy. As for what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said to Secretary of State Clinton in that phone call, Ambassador Oren wouldn't say.
OREN: I'm not in liberty to go to the details of this. What I can tell you is that the Israeli government made a serious and very concerted effort to respond to all the issues raised by the secretary of state. And the prime minister discussed with the secretary of state not only ways that Israel could show some flexibility moving forward but also ways in which the Palestinians could show efforts to move forward, particularly by desisting from incitement, desisting, for example, from promoting riots in Jerusalem, something that the Palestinians did this week, or naming a prominent square in Ramallah after a Palestinian terrorist who killed 38 civilians some years ago. It would be sort of the equivalent of naming a square somewhere in the world after Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, rather upsetting to Israelis.
SIEGEL: But on the subject of the housing construction in east Jerusalem, what can you tell us about what Israel will do now?
OREN: And just as Israelis have a right to build anywhere in Tel Aviv, they have a right to build anywhere in the city of Jerusalem, where the Netanyahu government has gone further than some Israeli governments in the past as in saying that we understand that the Palestinians also have a stance on Jerusalem, which differs from ours, and we're willing to discuss it once the Palestinians get back to the negotiating table. Our problem is that we haven't been able to get them back to the negotiating table. They refuse to sit with us.
SIEGEL: The Washington Post reported yesterday that Israel hopes to resolve this dispute by assuring Washington that the Ramat Shlomo construction will not go ahead anytime soon, and that Israel won't publicize any further construction decisions about Jerusalem. Not so much a freeze as a Don't Ask Don't Tell policy unsettlement. Is that a fair approximation of what...
OREN: Again, I'm not going to go to the details of what was discussed between the prime minister and the secretary of state. I can only say that during Vice President Biden's visit to Israel, Israel made assurances to the vice president that the - particularly the project of Ramat Shlomo because of the normal course of project planning and implementation would take several years.
SIEGEL: Well, here's what the quartet of Mideast mediators - that's the U.N., the United States, the E.U. and Russia, said just today. The quartet urges the government of Israel - I'm quoting right now - "to freeze all settlement activity, including natural growth, dismantle outposts directed since March 2001, and to refrain from demolitions and evictions in east Jerusalem." Will Israel comply with that?
OREN: Keep in mind, the Netanyahu government has done what no other Israeli government has done before. It has unilaterally frozen new construction projects in the West Bank for a period of 10 months. It has undertaken to create no new settlements, not to expand existing settlements, not even to incentivize Israelis to move through the settlements...
SIEGEL: But not to...
OREN: ...which no other Israeli government has done before.
SIEGEL: But not to expand you're excluding natural growth, as you understand.
OREN: But if the extension is not ours, not to expand them by acquiring new territory. And there's a number of units that we have agreed upon with the Obama administration that were begun before this freeze period, and they are being carried out for natural growth. That is true. Jerusalem was never included in that.
SIEGEL: Do you accept the premise that for the U.S. to be an effective mediator, it requires credibility in the eyes of the other side...
OREN: We do.
SIEGEL: ...of the Palestinians and their allies. And if the U.S. looks likes it a pushover for every Israeli government, they have no credibility.
OREN: Now, we understand that United States has to maintain credibility, but how do you maintain credibility? We do not think, at the same time, that the Arab leaderships among the Palestinians or among other countries or movements in the Middle East you get the impression that they can insinuate themselves between the United States and Israel because our experience have shown repeatedly that once they feel that, they will not come to the negotiating table. They'll actually stay further away from the negotiating table, basking in the assumption that they can sit back and gain benefits that they would maybe not gain in negotiations just by sitting outside of negotiations.
SIEGEL: This announcement of the approval to build at Ramat Shlomo while Vice President Biden was visiting was regarded by the U.S. as an insult to the vice president, to this administration and to this country's efforts. I gather, Israel's response has been it was a complete coincidence and a mistake or an accident. How do you describe that announcement?
OREN: I call it a gaff. It was made by a midlevel bureaucrat in the interior ministry. It related to a project that was in the planning phase. It wasn't as if these units were going to be built tomorrow. It was stage four of a seven-stage project. They announced the completion of this stage. It was a normal function. It didn't have to be announced during the vice president visit. And for that the prime minister apologized several times to the vice president publicly, privately, made some gestures to him that we thought would put it behind us.
SIEGEL: Were somebody fired for that gaff? Did somebody lose his job for making that mistake?
OREN: No, because that person was doing, you know, her job. In this case, it was a woman. It was normal job and was unaware that it would have had some political ramification. It was as if someone at very, very senior level set out to disturb the vice president's visit. It was just part of their normal job. We have committed to do a better job.
SIEGEL: Ambassador Oren, thank you very much for talking to us once again. That's Israel's Ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren.
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