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A Few Minutes with… Michael Oren

Too much daylight between Israel and Washington

Photo: AP Images

Israel has weathered storms before, but seemingly not so many threats on so many fronts at once. Far from defeating Hamas in Gaza, or returning its kidnapped citizens, the country faces an escalating war against Hezbollah in the North and regular aerial attack from Iranian proxies further afield — not to mention Iran’s own recent ballistic missile assault.

And then there are the diplomatic and legal arenas. Post-October 7 sympathy across much of the Western world has given way to a legal war waged against Israel in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the International Criminal Court (ICC), where Israel has been respectively ordered to end its war, and the chief prosecutor has sought arrest warrants for Bibi Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

Adding to the sense of encirclement is the fact that some European countries have moved to recognize a State of Palestine — a mark of the antipathy to Israel now rife across left-wing leaders everywhere.

What’s next for a beleaguered Israel as it faces so many active fronts? What tools does the country have to break out of its encirclement? And what role has the Biden administration played in the unfolding crisis? Few are better placed than Michael Oren — former Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Middle East historian, and politician — to provide a diplomatic tour d’horizon.


Let’s start with the recognition of Palestine last week by Ireland, Norway, and Spain. In a sense, these are the usual suspects — left-leaning countries that have long been pro-Palestinian, so how significant is the move, and could it snowball into something bigger?

There are 143 countries that have already recognized Palestine, so it’s not new. But what this move does is create another legal situation for Israel. Before, we were merely “occupying” an area that never belonged to another state, because the West Bank never belonged to another state legally. That’s one legal situation. But if it’s a state occupying another sovereign state, that creates a greater difficulty. It gives the Palestinians further opportunities to boycott and sanction us.

When would these European countries’ move get serious? If the United States would join. There have been rumors that they’ve been threatening to do it. I don’t know if it’s true, because it’s a violation of the Oslo Accords, which say that the parties cannot declare a Palestinian state unilaterally. It has to come about as a result of negotiations, which is what Biden said recently.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has vowed to cut off money transfers to the Palestinian Authority in response. Will that make any difference, and if not, what’s the best way to shore up Israel’s position?

There isn’t a good way right now. Regarding punishment measures against the PA, we’ve tried everything — the United States won’t back us, because the PA says that if you do, then we’re going to fall. They play the weakness card; their strength is in their weakness. So we’ll try to prevent other countries following Spain and Ireland, but at the end of the day we should focus on winning the war, and dealing with Hezbollah in the North.

Moving on to another international diplomatic front, ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan’s application for arrest warrants for Netanyahu and Yoav Gallant places Israeli leaders in the company of people like Libya’s Gaddafi and Vladimir Putin. Once again, how significant is Khan’s move, and what can Israel do to prevent its leaders being treated as war criminals?

It’s significant, if they decide to actually issue warrants, which they haven’t yet. And Israel will fight the move and other countries might fight it. Now, should it actually come to warrants being issued, then we have to rely on our American friends to provide what I call a diplomatic and legal Iron Dome. That exists in a piece of legislation from 2002. It’s called the American Service-Members’ Protection Act, and it says that should the International Criminal Court take action against American soldiers, the United States will defend those soldiers using various methods. For example, they will punish any country that tries to act on those warrants.

That same piece of legislation extends the same protection to America’s allies, which means us. Now, that means the United States might end up boycotting Norway — which is a friendly country — on the basis of that law.

How likely are these arrests to actually happen?

It’s almost happened before, actually. In London, an arrest warrant was issued for Doron Almog, who’s a hero of Israel, having served in Entebbe and as commander of the IDF’s Southern Command in one of the wars with Hamas. Former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was almost arrested in London in 2009. It was British government intervention that prevented those arrests being carried out.

In retrospect, was it a mistake to engage with the ICJ’s case a few months ago, as some said back then? Could Israel have more effectively rallied opposition to the genocide charges by staying away?

Insofar as the world was watching, it was important to make our case heard. Yes, it came at the expense of legitimizing that court. But the world might have heard the cases without us being there.

Moving over to the war crimes charges against individual leaders in the ICC, do you think that the court would have come after an Israeli government not headed by Netanyahu, but which pursued the same policies?

They came after Tzipi Livni, who’s left-wing, and eventually they would have come after Yair Lapid as well this time around. But Netanyahu makes it easier because it’s perceived — totally falsely — that this is his war, one that results from his policies. That’s the narrative in The New York Times and much of the Western media.

My sense is that for all the politics surrounding the hostages, the broad consensus around the war would have meant that even if another leader were in power, the government would be accused of war crimes.

Actually, we might have gotten there faster, because in marked contrast to his reputation, Netanyahu is famously conflict-averse. He is anything but a hawk; he’s very conservative when it comes to war.

Do you agree with the contention that the prosecutor’s charges result from anti-Semitism, and is that an argument that will resonate where it matters?

It won’t resonate, but it’s true. The court doesn’t take action against Russia, China, or Iran. Israel has been singled out — that, by definition, is anti-Semitic.

In terms of how we got here: Do you think that the Biden Administration’s harrying of the Israeli government over its handling of the war green-lighted the ICC’s hard line?

I think that the Biden administration is not free of responsibility for this, because saying that we’re indiscriminately bombing, which is simply untrue, has an effect. They’re saying that too many Palestinians are being killed, citing the Hamas numbers over and over again, which are simply a lie. They’re a blood libel.

As we saw last week with the UN’s sudden downward revision of the number of civilians killed by 50 percent.

That’s the least of it. We’ve killed 15,000 terrorists. About 11 percent of the Palestinian rockets fall short, in Gaza. There are no bomb shelters, and Hamas won’t let a single civilian into the tunnels. So those rockets kill people. We don’t know how many they kill — it could be like Al-Ahli hospital, where 50 people were killed. And then in a population of two and a half million over the course of eight months, well over 4,000 people died of natural causes. So when you do all the math, you come out to roughly the equivalent of one combatant for every civilian death, which is unmatched by any other army in modern times. When the United States fought in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, it was between one on four and one on nine.

So when you have the president of the United States coming out and basically saying we’re indiscriminately murdering civilians, it’s deeply, deeply harmful to the State of Israel and frankly, profoundly unfair.

You caused a stir back in 2015 by warning of President Obama putting “daylight” between the US and Israel. Post-October 7, President Biden stood solidly with Israel, but in recent months the White House has become a strong critic. Is the Biden White House guilty of more of the same dangerous daylight?

I’ve just come from talks in Washington, and I think that there’s an awareness that there’s been too much daylight between America and Israel recently.

In other words, there’s a recognition among current Administration officials that the distance between the American and Israeli positions is harmful. Does that indicate that they plan to tamp down the criticism?

Well, I would speculate that it means that all the talk about keeping Israel out of Rafah and pressuring Israel about casualties, strengthened Sinwar’s hand in the hostage negotiations and perhaps led him to believe that time was on his side. I think that was a factor in the failure of the last round of negotiations, where he turned down Israel’s extraordinarily generous offer, as Secretary Blinken termed it.

The White House has put the Israeli government under tremendous pressure to talk about a postwar plan for Gaza. Is it too early to talk about the day after, given that Hamas is far from defeated?

It’s not just the Americans who are pushing for a plan — the IDF is pushing as well. The army feels that it’s fighting for nothing, because there’s no long-term political strategy other than unending military occupation.

The Americans want to revamp the Palestinian Authority to run Gaza postwar, while Bibi seems to favor an amorphous coalition of pragmatic Gazans with Gulf state input. What do you think should happen?

I think that there should be a combination of the two. So we should get a local leadership that will operate under a general PA administration. And that PA administration has to be revitalized, as the Americans say, and Israel has to be part of the revitalization process. In other words, the United States doesn’t get to say unilaterally when the PA has been revitalized. We have to say it, too.

Both Israel and the United States refused to sign the Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court — precisely for fear of the scenario that we see today. Is it time for Israel supporters in Congress to think seriously of defunding the multilateral institutions whose anti-Israel — and often anti-American — bias has now become dangerous?

I’m all in favor. I’m in favor of taking the UN out of New York, which is one of the world’s great Jewish cities and hosts an anti-Semitic organization which New Yorkers despise. I think that the UN should move to a more hospitable place like Damascus and Tehran — they’ll feel right at home there.

While we’re about it, I think that Israel should kick the UN out, too. They occupy some great real estate, like in Armon Hanatziv in Jerusalem, where their job is still to observe the second truce between Israel and Trans-Jordan from the summer of 1948 — you know, they’re doing a spectacular job of that.

The UN are hostile, they don’t like us. Why do we have them?

In Trump’s first term, he ended funding for UNWRA, the Palestinian’s bespoke aid agency. Cutting the rest of the UN down to size could be a very good second step if he’s elected again in November.

It would be a good move. The UN is deeply influential, and it’s a strategic threat against Israel when it publishes patently false information about civilian fatalities which is then used to delegitimize Israel.

You’ve long warned of America’s failure to confront Iran. At this late stage of the game, with Iran now waging open war with Israel, what should America be doing to counter Tehran?

The United States should deter Iran, but America only takes action against Iran’s proxies — not against Iran itself. Every time an Iranian proxy attacks a US base, the United States responds against the proxy, not against Iran itself. We do the same, too. Everyone plays by Iran’s rules, so there’s no deterrence. For example, after we intercepted the Iranian projectiles a few weeks ago, Biden told us to “take the win” — as if taking down 350 projectiles is a win. Israel could have sent a much stronger message with its response, but chose not to. And America is only playing defense, and you can’t win a ball game if you don’t play offense.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1013)

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