The hardest thing Michael Oren has ever done occurred while he was an officer in the Israeli Defense Forces seven years ago, during the disengagement from Gaza.
“I went into houses and pulled people from houses, and I haven’t gotten over it since,” said Israel’s ambassador to the United States during a June 6 visit to Seattle. The worst part, he said, was that the result of the unilateral withdrawal intended by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ended not in peace, but in rocket fire.
“We pulled up 21 settlements, we pulled 9,100 people out of their houses in order to advance the peace process,” Oren said.
The ambassador spent a day in Seattle, speaking with media and to a near-capacity crowd at Temple De Hirsch Sinai in the evening. Earlier in the afternoon, however, in a conference room in a downtown Seattle high rise, Oren had a much more intimate setting: The Seattle chapter of the American Jewish Committee hosted Oren at a luncheon that brought in Jewish and Christian clergy from many different denominations to meet with and question him about Israel’s role in Mideast politics.
The ambassador couched the discussion in spiritual terms, including speaking about his own religious connections to Judaism and Israel, that day in Gaza being a case in point.
Under the Rabin administration in the early ‘90s, “I had the honor of serving as advisor for interchurch affairs,” Oren told the luncheon attendees. It was “one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life, being a Jewish kid from New Jersey who was dealing with the Papal Nunzio. I worked with 44 different Protestant churches.”
Oren, an academic and author of several books on Israeli history, politics and religion, spoke about the early Americans who saw it as their God-given duty to restore Israel to the Jewish people. In his 2007 book “Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present,” one of the men he researched was Orson Hyde, an apostle of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, “who in 1844 comes to Jerusalem and builds an altar on the top of the Mount of Olives,” Oren told the group. “A prayer was said that I believe has become a part of the Mormon liturgy, which talks about the restoration of the Jews to the Promised Land.”
And such is the spiritual connection between Americans and Israel.
“I would go so far as to say it is actually stronger, in many ways, than the strategic alliance or the shared democratic values. It is so integral to this country,” Oren said.
For a man who spends as much time on Capitol Hill as he does, that connection is very powerful, especially when he meets with legislators who may not have a single Jew in their constituency.
“I will walk into their rooms,” he said, “and they will open the Bible, and they’ll point to the passage that says ‘Those who bless your people are blessed,’ and say, ‘Okay, what do you want for missile defense?’”
One representative of the Catholic church, Sister Joyce Cox, said that during a recent visit to Jerusalem she had been troubled by two issues within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: The security barrier and West Bank settlements.
The barrier, Oren said, is easy.
“I would say we didn’t build the wall. Hamas built the wall. Al-Aqsa Brigades built the wall. We’ve lost 1,000 people to suicide bombers,” he said. “There was no choice.”
Settlements are a bit more complicated, however.
“There were no settlements before…the Six Day War, and there was an Arab-Israeli conflict well before the Six Day War,” Oren responded.
Pointing again to the 2005 disengagement, “We uprooted all these settlements in Gaza in order to advance peace and we didn’t get peace,” he said. “That’s Exhibit A that settlements are not the issue.”
In current negotiations, he added, it’s not just Israel’s position, but the position of the Obama administration and the diplomatic quartet of the U.S., the United Nations, Russia and the European Union, that “the way we address the settlement issue is by not couching it as a precondition, but by addressing it in negotiations,” he said.
Oren did not address preconditions from the Israeli side.
He noted the buildup of the settlements has been strategic: “If you look at the map, 80 percent of settlements are designed to thicken out Israel’s border to give us what UN Security Council Resolution 242 called secure and recognized borders.”
Since then, he said, the assumption has been that the 1967 borders would not make a secure state.
“What we’re asking for is a defensible border,” Oren said.
The challenge, he said, is that the biblical land of Israel lies in the disputed areas of Jericho, Hebron, Jerusalem and Nablus.
“For want of a better word, these are our tribal lands. This is the cradle of Jewish civilization,” Oren said. “For a Jewish state to tell a Jew that he or she cannot live in their tribal lands is really impossible, because it goes to the essence of what we are.”
But regardless of the claim, he said, there has to be recognition that Jews are not the only people with a claim to the land.
“For the head of this political government, Benjamin Netanyahu…to actually come out and say this and make it the policy of the Israeli government is no mean thing. We have to make very painful sacrifices. We have to create a Palestinian state there and live side by side.”
Reciprocal recognition from the Palestinians that Jews have a religious and historical claim is equally important, Oren said, and gets to the heart of Israel’s very existence.
“If you don’t recognize the Jews as a people, that means we don’t have the right to self-determination. And if we don’t have the right to self-determination, then it means that the Jewish state is not legitimate. It’s a passing phenomenon, it’s transient.”
That lack of recognition would be the basis for irredentist claims and future wars. “It would never stop,” he said. “If we recognize that you have the right to be here, and that we have the right to be here, that these two states are permanent, that’s the way it ends.”