Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the United States and current ambassador-in-residence at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, sat down with Atlantic Council President and CEO Frederick Kempe for a discussion on the history and future of America’s role in the Middle East.

Welcome and Moderator
Frederick Kempe
President and CEO
Atlantic Council

Michael Oren
Ambassador-in-Residence, Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security
Atlantic Council

  • Transcript by

Federal News Service
Washington, DC

FREDERICK KEMPE: It’s a great pleasure to welcome you all this afternoon to the Atlantic Council. I’m Fred Kempe, president and CEO. And this event marks the beginning of an important new initiative at the council, the introduction and the first public event around our first ambassador-in-residence at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the council. There are a lot of reasons why the Atlantic Council was delighted to have been able to bring on board Israel’s former ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren starting February 1st. So we’re getting him here just shortly after he began at the Atlantic Council.

And in the press release that we circulated late in January, I said the following. Quote: “Ambassador Oren brings to the council the powerful mixture of a top historian’s knowledge, a highest-level diplomat’s experience, and a best-selling author’s skills.” And I think you’ll see a taste of all of that in his opening comments and in the Q-and-A today. He’s a person who not only knows how diplomacy is done, and sometimes how diplomacy shouldn’t be done, but – not by him, of course, but in general in trying to solve some of the problems of the Middle East – but who also knows the historical context more richly than perhaps any ambassador I’ve ever known.

We face a crucial moment in the history of the Middle East, and as I think you’ll hear today, Ambassador Oren is a creative, sometimes provocative out-of-the-box thinker. During his year on the council, Ambassador Oren will address topics concerning America’s future role in the Middle East, along with cutting-edge research on Israel’s relationship with other regional partners. So first and foremost, please join me in welcoming Ambassador Oren. (Applause.)

And second, before I turn the podium to him, join me in thanking Adrienne Arsht, speaking of out-of-the-box thinkers. She was the founding donor for our newest center at the Atlantic Council, the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center. It was also her idea to pioneer the idea of ambassadors-in-residence of the council, and she has supported two of them, Capricia Marshall at her eponymous center, and Michael Oren at the Scowcroft Center. She couldn’t be here today, but she sends her greetings.

And finally, thanks to Barry Pavel, director of the Brent Scowcroft Center, who will support the ambassador’s work during his time here with us.
There are far too many people in this audience to call attention to all of them. We’ve got ambassadors, senior officials from the U.S. government, officials from many of the embassies around town. Thank you so much all for being here.

So now to the program. Ambassador Oren will kick us off with some opening remarks, after which I’ll tee up a couple of initial questions and then turn to the audience. Michael. (Applause.)

MICHAEL OREN: Thank you, Fred. Thank you very much. Fred, thank you for crediting me with the ability to solve all the Middle East diplomatic problems. I don’t think my mother would have done that, given me that credit.

Good afternoon, everybody. Thanks for coming out. Thanks to the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security and the Atlantic Council – and I’m delighted to be a part of your extraordinary organization; to Barry Pavel, the director here at the Scowcroft Center; to the incomparable, comparable Adrienne Arsht, who’s not here with us this afternoon, but she’s a great visionary and an outstanding human being; my buddies Susie and Michael Gelman; and to my former colleague at the Israeli embassy, Dan Arbell, welcome; and to our distinguished colleagues from the diplomatic community.

Well, you heard I’m – I’m come as an historian, so I’m going to start with a little bit of history for you. Some of you may know this.

The Middle East as a geostrategic concept was an American intervention. The term was coined in September of 1902 by Alfred Thayer Mahan, who was a former naval officer in the U.S. Navy, a naval strategist. Mahan’s major concern was moving warships and guarding international seaways, guaranteeing access to trade. Now those days, trade extended from the Near East of Greece and the Balkans to the Far East of Japan, China, Siam, as it was then known; and en route it passed through the Suez Canal and hooked around the Arabian Peninsula. And to define those nebulous areas between the Near and Far East, Mahan devised a new term, the Middle East.

And its most distinct characteristic of this area from the perspective of a geostrategic strategist was its almost total absence of strategic significance. Indeed, the only strategic value of the Middle East lay in its location. It was an area one had to cross while steaming from one area of importance to another area of importance. And it would take another decade before the British navy, realizing the affordability and abundance e of Middle East oil, decided to convert their entire fleet from coal to oil. It took another 40 years, till the height of World War II, before the American Navy began to look to the Middle East to quench its thirst for energy.

America’s growing postwar dependence on Middle Eastern oil coincided with the collapse of the British and French empires in the Middle East. The process through which America replaced these former colonial powers took place over a very short period of time. You can trace it from the enunciation of the Truman Doctrine in 1947 to the Suez crisis of 1956, and that period also coincided with the advent of the Cold War in the Middle East. And just as Britain and France back in the 1850s joined to stave off Russian encroachments in the Crimea into the Middle East, so too did the United States a century later labor to prevent Soviet encroachments in the Middle East.

But the lines in the Middle East Cold War were never completely and fully drawn. On one level, there were the pro-American, mostly traditional monarchies versus the radical states of Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Algeria, Yemen and Libya. But at any given time, the monarchies were also at loggerheads. Sometimes the Saudis were at loggerheads with the Hashemites in Jordan. And the radicals themselves were divided by bitter rivalries.

The Arab-Israeli conflict also cut across these lines. Though in theory it was a proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union, with the United States supporting Israel, the Soviet Union supporting the Arab side, at different points it pitted a pro-American Israel versus a pro-American Jordan and a pro-American Saudi Arabia. So the lines were never completely drawn.

And yet, and yet it was the Arab-Israeli war of 1973 that enabled Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, with singular vision and drive, to lay the foundations of what we can today call, in retrospect, the Pax Americana. And the keystone to Kissinger’s efforts was Egypt. It was Sadat’s move from the Soviet to the American sphere. It signaled the rapid decline of the Soviet Union as a serious challenger to American hegemony in the Middle East.

The Pax Americana officially began with the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. This treaty established the precedent for a later peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, as well as for the 1993 Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. It also set the precedent for later peace conferences, whether it be in Madrid or in Annapolis.

The people of the Middle East became accustomed to the assumption that only the United States could play the role of effective mediator. And even pro-Soviet states like Syria would host over 30 visits by Secretary of State Warren Christopher in the 1990s. It was extraordinary.

And as the Soviet Union disintegrated, so too did its military presence in the Middle East. Remember that great, blue-water fleet of the Soviet Union back in 1973 that went eyeball-to-eyeball with the American fleet? Well, that virtually disappeared. And between the 6th Fleet in the Eastern Mediterranean and the 5th Fleet in the Persian Gulf, American military power went virtually unchallenged. With the exception of the ubiquitous Kalashnikov rifle, American arms gradually replaced Soviet arms throughout the Middle East, and American investments predominated.

But paradoxically, though the Pax Americana ushered in decades of almost uninterrupted American influence in the Middle East, it wasn’t very much of a pax. It also inaugurated decades of American military conflict in the Middle East, something of what you can call a 30-year war beginning in 1979 with the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, and it continued with the ill-fated American intervention in Lebanon in the 1980s, the Reagan administration’s armed confrontations with both Libya and Iran, terrorist attacks against American targets, kidnapping of American nationals, often their execution, American missile attacks on Iraq and the Sudan, a proxy war in Afghanistan followed by a real war in Afghanistan which is en route to becoming America’s longest conflict in the region after the Barbary Wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This is all apart from the Middle Eastern wars in which the United States had various degrees of involvement, including Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the Iraq-Iran War. Pax Americana indeed.

Now, these conflicts exacted an immense price, both in terms of morale and materiel, from the United States. And much like the British and the French before them, Americans began to lose their stomach for maintaining their Middle East hegemony. Middle East enemies were hardly passive. Since 9/11, Middle Eastern terrorists have tried to carry out some 60 major terrorist attacks on American soil, one of them not far from here, at the Café Milano. And of course, there was 9/11 itself, which, as a military historian, you could make a case could be the most effective – in terms of its cost-benefits – most effective military operation in modern military history. With little training and four hijacked planes, 19 terrorists from the Middle East succeeded in killing 3,000 civilians and dragging America into two wars that cost the United States well over, say, 10,000 dead, and over a trillion dollars, and left the American people very war-weary. Cost-benefit.

A case could also be made for citing 9/11 as the high watermark of the Pax Americana. A year later, a year later President Bush created the Quartet, comprised of the United States, the U.N., Russia and the European Union, the Quartet, which effectively ended America’s 30-year monopoly over Middle East peacemaking. Indeed, America’s repeated inability to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians, first under Bush and later under the Obama administration, was both a symptom and a cause of the waning of the Pax Americana.

The other milestones in the deterioration of America’s pre-eminence in this region are well-known. It begins with the rather ignominious retreat from Iraq; the looming withdrawal from Afghanistan; the reluctance to aid Syrian rebels trying to topple Bashar al-Assad; the inability thus far to remove chemical weapons from Syria – about 94 percent of those weapons remain in place; the zig-zagging of American policy toward Egypt, hastening and then celebrating the downfall of Hosni Mubarak, a close American friend of 30 years, the perceived, in the region, embrace of Morsi and the Egyptian brotherhood, followed by a recoil from al-Sisi and the military regime in Egypt; the eagerness of the Obama administration to reach a negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear issue, to the great consternation of Israel and other pro-American governments in the region; the effects of sequestration on America’s ability to project power in the Middle East; the withdrawal of the USS Truman from the area; the coldness toward traditional allies, such as Bahrain, and a willingness to show difference – distance with Saudi Arabia, all the while flouting America’s newfound independence from Middle East oil sources; the refusal to take a leading role in the toppling of Gadhafi in Libya or in repelling al-Qaida’s Libyan allies; the fading of President Obama’s intensely close relationship with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan.

I could go on. I won’t. But I will say that, like in nature, geopolitics abhors a vacuum, and the Middle East power vacuum has left in – left in America’s wake has been filled, or has been tried to be filled, by other countries.

Now, the cornerstone of the Pax Americana, though it’s widely thought to be the U.S.-Israel relationship, something I’ve had some familiarity with, but I’ll tell you that the cornerstone of the Pax Americana was the U.S.-Egyptian relationship, and that Egypt has now in recent times been hosting military delegations from the Russians. The Chinese delegations have also been circulating around the Middle East. People have sensed a vacuum. The French have stepped up to what they see as a vacant home plate in the Middle East.
Now, impressions in the Middle East are absolutely cardinal, and the peoples of the region, if you were to poll them, they’re not going to agree on anything, but I’m willing to wager that if you were to ask Sunnis, Shiites, Iranians, Israelis, Druze, they would overwhelmingly agree with the proposition that America power – America’s power in the Middle East is on the wane and that the age of American preeminence is over. The house that Henry (sic) built is tottering.

But can we distinguish, then, between an impression and a reality? Is America’s sun in the Middle East indeed setting? And here the answer has to be far more nuanced. Now, the key to the future is technology. I apologize for the tautology, but it’s true. And with all due respect to Russia, China and France, American technology remains regnant throughout the Middle East. Russia can send a couple of old destroyers to Latakia, but Russia’s naval presence pales beside that of the United States in the Middle East, still.

Secretary of State Kerry, not Lavrov, not Fabius, is meeting – is mediating between Israelis and Palestinians and taking the diplomatic lead vis-à-vis Syria and Iran. Keeping in mind that the Pax Americana was always heavy on American and light on Pax, little has changed in the Middle East except for the fact that today more Middle Easterners are killing more of each other than – and killing fewer Americans. In fact, with fewer boots on the ground or even ships at sea, the U.S. is killing numbers of Middle Easterners by remote means, which you know. And for all of their war-weariness, it would be a big mistake, I believe, for any party in the Middle East to begin to target Americans.

In short, it is surely premature to speak of a post-Pax American in the Middle East, but it is not too early, I think, to speak of a post-Middle East America – distinguish between the two, an America that will seek to streamline its commitments in the region, to revisit old alliances while seeking new one, an America that will balk at acting at the – as the Middle East’s exclusive or even primary policeman and fireman. That much has changed.

But here too, we may have to wait. That judgment also may prove premature. Those of us of a certain generation – Fred – may remember 1975 and the American withdrawal from Vietnam and the iconic image of those helicopters being pushed off into the sea. And back in 1975, America could withdraw its forces from Vietnam and be pretty confident that Viet Cong weren’t going to follow Americans down to L Street in Washington, D.C. There’s a sense in – perhaps in America that I encountered during the terms – time of my service here that America could go home from the Middle East and turn its back on the Middle East or even pivot away from the Middle East. And that believe may prove illusory because the Middle East is not like Vietnam, and the Middle East can follow America to here. And I do not believe that disengagement entirely is possible.

Pax Americana. Fred?

MR. KEMPE: Great.

MR. OREN: Thank you. (Applause.)

MR. KEMPE: (Chuckles.) Wonderful introductory remarks, a lot of meat to dig into and follow up on. I will come back to post-Pax America and post-Middle East America and come back to that.

Before I do that, however, as much as you’ve gone into history in your remarks, some people in the audience might not know that you’ve gone even further back in history of the United States in the Middle East, going back to 1776. And you provide an overview in your most recent book, “Power, Faith and Fantasy,” of – (chuckles) – of U.S. involvement in the Middle East. I wonder if you can go into that in sort of a Cliff Notes version here.

MR. OREN: It’s 700 pages. (Chuckles.) Cliff Notes would be 200 pages.

MR. KEMPE: Yeah, that’s why I asked for the – that’s why I asked for the Cliff Notes version. (Laughter.) The – but the – well, maybe even a Cliff Notes of the Cliff Notes – but this comparative analysis between Middle East and the founding of the United States and how the U.S. development has influenced the Middle East’s development, and at some point I think we’ll also get into what that has to do with the Civil War and the Statue of Liberty. But let’s start with the overview first. (Laughter.)

MR. OREN: The overview is America and the Middle East have had profound impacts on – in shaping one another. The Middle East was fundamentally involved in the founding of the American Constitution. (Off-mic exchange.) I knew that would get you.

MR. KEMPE: I’m listening. I’m listening.

MR. OREN: (Inaudible) – it’s actually very simple. I mentioned the Barbary Wars. The Barbary Wars were America’s first foreign wars. The first foreign wars that America fought outside of its own shores after the American Revolution were against Middle Easterners, against the pirates of what is today Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria. And America didn’t have a navy, and they couldn’t make a navy unless they had a central government to collect taxes to make the navy. And so the question of how to fight the Barbary pirates was – became integral to the debate over whether or not to have a constitution. And if you go into the constitutional debates in every state, the Barbary Wars are there, page after page. It’s extraordinary, because we don’t have – we don’t have – we don’t have a central government, can’t have a navy, and we’re going to lose our foreign trade.

The Middle East fired the imaginations of American authors like Herman Melville and Mark Twain, freedom fighters like Frederick Douglass and John F. Kennedy. And it – huge influence on – cultural and economic influence on the Middle East well before the advent of Middle Eastern oil. In fact, during the 19th century, America was the main exporter of oil to the Middle East, mostly in the form of kerosene.

But the United States also had a no less transformative impact on the Middle East, and mostly not through – not through economics, not through oil, but through education. America built the universities in the Middle East. It built the American University of Beirut. It built the American University of Cairo and universities in Turkey through which American educators imparted American ideas. And perhaps the most influential idea was the idea of nationalism and independence. And those ideas percolated through educated classes, first through – many through Middle Eastern Christians, then into the military. And understand that there’s a direct link between America’s educational involvement in the Middle East and the emergence of an Arab nationalist idea, the Arab awakening – and to use George Antonius’ term – and the struggle for Arab state independence throughout the course of the 20th century, Nasserism, and – Nasserism, which has a huge impact on the Arab-Israeli situation and the 1967 wars, and we’re still trying to dig ourselves out of it.

So we’re – (chuckles) – America – much can be traced back to America’s involvement in the Middle East. And I believe it’s underappreciated.

MR. KEMPE: I want to – we had a fascinating conversation before we came in here, and because I’m a great lover of historical anecdotes, you really have to share two of them with this audience, if you would, first of all, the impact of the Civil War on the history of Egypt, and then after that perhaps the history of Egypt’s impact on the Statue of Liberty. (Laughter.)

MR. OREN: Without – at the risk of sounding reductive, the Middle East would not look like the Middle East today if it weren’t for the American Civil War. Why? In the American Civil War, the North blockaded the South, and Egyptian – Southern cotton, which was vital to the economies of Britain and France, was cut off, and there was only other – the only other place in the world that had cotton of a similar quality was Egypt. So the price of Egyptian cotton went up 800-fold. The Egyptians made a lot of money. With the money, they started to build a thing called the Suez Canal. But in 1869, Southern cotton came back, and the Egyptian economy went bankrupt. And they went into arrears, and it led to the British occupation of Egypt in 1882, and – which ended in 1956 with the Suez crisis. Nasser emerges as the great hero of the Suez crisis, so much so that nine years later, he tries to take on Israel in the 1967 war, and we’re still – as I said earlier, we’re dealing with the outcome of that war, whether the final disposition of the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem. All this can be traced back, of course, to the Civil War.

The – (laughter) – the parallel, of course, to that is – has to do with a military delegation that was sent by Bill Tecumseh Sherman, of Civil War fame, who was the chief of the U.S. military in the late 1860s. Egypt wanted to modernize its armies and break away from the Ottoman Empire so they turned to the United States, a nice neutral power back then. And Tecumseh Sherman sent a group of his buddies, some of them who had been former Confederate officers whom he had known from West Point, to Egypt, because they needed a job. They were out of a job.

And then went to Egypt and they modernized the Egyptian army, but at the same time they created schools, and in these schools they imparted American ideas – nationalism, patriotism, democracy – to Egyptian officers. And it’s not by accident that the people who led the great – the first great revolt against the British in 1882 are the Egypt military. They’re still doing it today. I will probably disturb people by saying you can trace el-Sisi back to American involvement in the late 1860s in Egypt. Talk about reductionism.

But Egypt went bankrupt, as I said, in 1869 because of the return of Southern cotton. They had planned not only to open the Suez Canal but to put a beautiful statue at its entrance. And the statue showed a veiled Arab woman holding a torch. You can see the designs from it. They took on a brilliant French sculpture – sculptor named Bartholdi to do this and then they ran out of money. And Bartholdi still had the design so he was able to sell it to some Frenchmen who gave it to the United States.

And they brought it to New York to an island at the entrance of New York Harbor, but they didn’t have anybody to put it together – (chuckles) – because it was built by Eiffel and it came in many parts. And so Bartholdi told remembered all these American engineers, these former Civil War officers who he had met in Egypt, and he brought them back from Egypt to put together the Statue of Liberty. So the Statue of Liberty’s concept and its construction were both related to America’s involvement in the Middle East.

MR. KEMPE: So I just want to give you – I just wanted to give you a little bit of a taste of what we’ve opened up the Atlantic Council to in terms of thinking. (Laughter.)

MR. OREN: And now that I’m not ambassador, I can hawk my own books. (Laughter.) So, available at fabulously reduced rates, “Power, Faith and Fantasy.”

MR. KEMPE: Well, I’m sure – I’m sure the Amazon numbers are going up even as we speak, so – (laughter).

I wouldn’t mind fast-forwarding a little bit now to your comments on post-Middle East America. And let’s – I have a couple of questions, and I’ll go to the audience and maybe we’ll go back and forth between the audience and myself a little bit. But you talked some about energy but perhaps you could go a little bit more deeply in the role of oil and energy in the picture that you are painting of Pax Americana in the Middle East, but also now the impact or potential impact, as you see it, of the U.S. energy revolution.

As you said, the U.S. was exporting to the region then it imported from the region. Well, we’re now facing another change in terms of our energy relationship with the region. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how you think this might influence the issues that you were talking about.

MR. OREN: Well, if you look back at the history of presidential doctrines about the Middle East – and an inordinate percentage of all presidential doctrines issues since Truman have to do with the Middle East, going up through the Carter Doctrine – had to do with protecting the free flow of energy of oil from the Middle East, specifically from the Persian Gulf region, whether it be from the threat of soviet encroachments, later from Iran, and even some of America’s military engagements.

People forget the flagging operations the latter part of the Reagan administration where American warships were actually firing on Iranian – on Iranian boats and even on Iranian coastal installations – forgotten. This had to do with protecting American energy sources. But over the course of the subsequent decades you can actually trace the percentage of America’s oil consumption that was imported from the – from the Middle East decreased.

I know that by the time I came on my job in 2009 as ambassador it was down to about 11 percent – very small. Today it is almost negligible. And the notion that America might have to exert force to protect the free flow of energy out of, say, the Persian Gulf area today would be a far more, say, remote assumption than it would be in the 1970s and the 1980s.

Having said all that, that doesn’t mean that the – that Middle Eastern energy – Middle Eastern oil is not vital to other countries in the Middle East – in the world, including a country like China, which is –

MR. KEMPE: More increasingly.

MR. OREN: – increasingly, and that America’s economy is inextricably tied up with that of China. So albeit indirectly, the American economy remains deeply attached to Middle Eastern oil, if not – even though they’re not importing it. So it may not be, in the first step, a strategic issue but is certainly a financial – a supreme financial interest.

MR. KEMPE: So you don’t see that the energy boom in the United States or self-sufficiency is going to significantly shift U.S. approach to the Middle East?

MR. OREN: Actually, on the contrary. I think it will shift it as less of a strategic interest and more of a financial interest.

MR. KEMPE: Yeah.

MR. OREN: President Obama, in his State of the Union when talking about the Middle East, didn’t talk much about the transitions that we were all focused on before the Arab Awakening; talked more about nuclear Iran, Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and of course Syria. What is your view of how policy has evolved during the Obama administration? And do you see an underlying strategy behind this shift, or how would you explain what we’re watching?

MR. OREN: I think the Obama administration came out of the gate in 2009 with a very robust and highly specific outreach to the Middle East. If you look back at the Cairo speech of June 2009, which in many ways was the foundational doctrine – document for the Obama administration’s outreach, it was perhaps the most sui generis document in the annals of American foreign policy.

It is the only – it’s the only instance that I know of in which the president of the United States addressed the adherence of a faith, a world faith. I mean, you can’t imagine the president getting up and addressing the world Methodists or even going to Rome and addressing the world’s Catholics, but he went to Cairo and address the world – it was addressed to the Muslim world.

That in itself was highly unusual. Addressing a Muslim world and not addressing the citizens of Muslim states I think inadvertently conformed to an Islamist notion of states being illegitimate and there’s only one truly legitimate state, which was a universal Muslim state. And that outreach, in retrospect, has proved less than successful. And you don’t – you don’t see many echoes of it in more recent statements by the president and by his administration.

Events in the Middle East have simply outstripped the ability of just about anybody to formulate a cookie-cutter, one-policy-fits-all situation. You can’t. The events have transpired so rapidly and so radically in the Middle East, and so differently, whether it be Egypt or Syria or Bahrain. We talked about Libya. I would challenge just about anybody to try to come up with a single policy that’s going to address all of these.

Having said that, you could just point to – criticize various aspects of the policy, whether it be in Syria or in Egypt. In retrospect, in terms of America’s image in the Middle East, there probably should have been a deeper breath taken before pressing for Mubarak’s removal – try to do it in a more gradual way.

I wonder whether today there’s thinking back: Well, if America had been involved in Syria at an earlier stage, perhaps the jihadist imprint would have been – would have been pre-empted, would have been lessened. But all that is what they call – not in the Middle East but in the United States – Monday morning quarterbacking. So –

MR. KEMPE: Well, let’s do – it’s Monday and we’re looking to Saturday, so let’s look actually ahead. What’s at stake in our – and then after this question I’ll turn to the audience and pick up what people in the audience have on their mind. What’s at stake in the negotiations with Iran for the region, for the United States, for Israel? And I know that’s a big, broad question. I’ll let you narrow it down, but I’m just wondering, from your standpoint and with the view – your historical view, what’s at stake in these talks?

MR. OREN: Everything. Everything. It’s the future of the Middle East. There is – are we now at a – at the tectonic shift point where – again, whether we’re in a post-Pax Americana mode, is there – do the negotiations implicitly recognize a certain hegemonic role for Iran in the region, and what would that hegemonic role look like from an Israeli perspective, from the perspective of most Gulf countries?

And today there is a greater confluence of interests between Israel and these Gulf countries than at any time in the last six decades because we agree on, say, Egypt or agree on the peace process, on the fundamentals of the peace process. They agree on Syria, but most of all they – Israel and the Gulf countries agree on the Iranian threat, that an Iran that maintains not a nuclear weapon but the ability to make a nuclear weapon in a very short period of time presents an unsustainable threat to the region, and that it’s a threat that has – that has – that is multifaceted.

It’s not just the threat that – of Iran being able to put a nuclear warhead atop of one of the many missiles it has that can hit any capital in the region or any city – and I just watched a video clip of – the Iranians put out of what they would do if they were threatened by Israel and other countries, and they show Iranian missiles striking not just Israel but striking American allies throughout the region. They’re very unequivocal about this. But that’s, in many ways, the least of the threats.

The bigger threats come in the form of providing nuclear umbrellas to terrorist organizations that could either attack Israel or other pro-American countries in the region with relative impunity, because those same leaderships are then going to have to think to themselves, well, if we strike back at Hezbollah, for example, will that then precipitate an Iranian breakout?

It becomes a big part of their calculus and an immense break on latitude. But beyond that, terrorists could get access to nuclear capabilities. And you don’t have to worry about rockets; you have to worry about nuclear ordnance being delivered through ship containers – that won’t be traceable – or through trucks. And it’s an entirely different magnitude of threat.

So that’s what’s at stake for Israel and other countries in the region. And the big litmus is going to come – the great litmus is going to come at the end of this six-month negotiating period where the United States – which is a big country far away from the Middle East, not threatened with national annihilation by the Iranians, and which has immense capabilities that nobody in the region has, not even the state of Israel. Israel does not have aircraft carriers by the way or B-2 bombers.

If the United States can strike agreement with the Iranians, Israel and the Gulf countries are going to have to ask themselves – the leaders are going to have ask themselves, is this something we can live with? America may be able to live with that. The big question is, are countries in the region going to be able to live with that? And it’s going to be a very tough decision.

MR. KEMPE: Can you go through two parts of that decision – first of all from the Israeli standpoint, what Israel will have to measure if things go forward in this direction with the U.S., which, you know, could not just be a nuclear deal of some sort but a normalization of relations, whatever that means – so from the Israel standpoint.

And then, interestingly, one of the things you’re going to do at the Atlantic Council is work on the relationship between Israel and regional countries. How has this shifted already the relationship between Israel and the Gulf? And with all the barriers to closer relations which we know about, can those actually be removed, and could one have a step change in those relations?

MR. OREN: One would hope so. Again, the influences – those interests are very confluent today, more so than any time in the past. Whether those – that confluence translates into open – a more open sort of relationship between the two remains to be seen.

Israel has had relations of one type or another with several Gulf states. Most of them are quietly pursued, but with other Gulf states it’s been much – a much colder distance. And the great example is Saudi Arabia, where there really hasn’t been – certainly no formal contact. And it’s something that I think would be in the interest of all of these countries to pursue and hope it can happen in the future.

MR. KEMPE: And as you were saying, deciding whether or not they can live with whatever happens with Iran, what are the factors one would have to measure – if you’re a Gulf state, what are the factors one would have to measure from Israel’s standpoint. And are there differences in those factors? Are those factors pretty similar?

MR. OREN: I think you’d have to see some material dismantling of the Iranian nuclear program. Fred, we had an unusual event about a week and a half ago. For the first time that I can recall, Israel and the Iranians agreed on an aspect of the Iranian nuclear program. Israeli spokespeople and Iranian spokespeople both came out and said that President Obama’s claim that parts of the Iranian nuclear program had been dismantled as – in the interim agreement was not true. That no parts of the Iranian – they actually agreed. (Laughter.)

And – it – you had to be hard-pressed to see what parts of the Iranian nuclear program were in fact dismantled. You know, the 20 percent stockpile of enriched material was oxidized or in the process of being oxidized, but that’s only 180 or 185 kilograms of material. They have about 6(,000) and 7,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium, which is enough for about four bombs, and that’s not being dismantled, and there are no – there are no facilities that are being dismantled, and there are no inspections of the military sites – of the major military sites. Now they’re beginning to give an inspection of the detonator sites. But Parchin is the largest military base that remains beyond the grasp or the access of inspectors.

So you’d have to see material dismantling of centrifuges. You’d have to see a shipping abroad of a large segment, right now formally Israel will say all of the – of the 3.5 to 5 percent stockpile. You’d have to see the shutting down of key facilities like Fordo, the cessation of work on the Arak plutonium heavy water facility. There would have to be some concrete evidence that the Iranian nuclear program has been defanged. And that would be accompanied by very vigorous and invasive inspections.

MR. KEMPE: So – (inaudible) – lots and lots of questions. So let me – let me – let me go straight out here, and then I’ll try to get everybody in the order that I’ve seen you all.

Q: Lou Pugliaresi, Energy Policy Research Foundation. I had a couple of questions. One is if you look – I don’t really think a lot of us really fully understand the technology, what’s happening in North America. But we can easily get to 2020, 2025 in which OPEC excess capacity goes 7, 8, 9 million barrels a day, and there’s a real problem between Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia and how they divide that up. So I’m sort of curious whether you thought about how those rivalries may take place. Otherwise you have a collapse of prices, and it’s going to be very interesting.

The second part is this problem of appearance between the reality of U.S. strategic interest in the Persian Gulf, because it’s true that the Western Hemisphere is likely to disconnect from the crude flows, but it’s also true that the Gulf’s still important. And if there’s a major event or disruption, prices will still go up, even in the U.S. And because of the nature of the world oil market, most of the adjustment to the world oil price will have to take place in the U.S. You know, your prices are already very high. Prices are heavily subsidized in the Middle East.

And so one question I have for your as a diplomat, how do we manage this appearance versus reality? Because with the Congress, within the American political structure, we’re going to hear more and more say, well, why do we need to worry about the Middle East?

MR. OREN: Right, that’s –

Q: We’re disconnected. But I think we can make a strong case we should. But how you manage that political phenomenon is of great interest.

MR. OREN: I’ll give you a very short answer: I agree. (Laughter.) Probably the shortest answer I’ve given in weeks. I agree with you. And I’ve spoken mostly tonight about impressions of American power and a willingness to project power in the Middle East. But there’s also impressions in the United States as well. I mentioned one at the end with – there’s and impression that you can go home, you can push the helicopters over the side and go home, which I think is an illusion. But there’s also an illusion – and I think you’re absolutely right that the security and strategic aspects of the flow of Middle Eastern oil are not – will not impact America’s economy and also impact America strategically, even though America’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil – is very much on the wane.

MR. KEMPE: Thanks, Lou.

Please, here and then there and then to the side. So one, two, three, please.

Q: Thank you. Thank you, Ambassador. Jeff Steinberg (sp).

I’d like to suggest a maybe slightly different narrative as to what’s going on with the U.S. policy in the Middle East right now and get your thoughts on it. Have we possibly come to the point where we’ve got to basically face up to a number of strategic errors that were made in shaping U.S. policy? Did we fail to see the long-term dangers of the spread of neo-Salafism in a nonterrorist from and miss the significance of that? Did we have an overly optimistic and basically false notion of the role that the Muslim Brotherhood might play as a reformed faction within political Islam? And is there also some kind of possible rethink about the actual viability of being able to achieve through diplomatic means a just two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine issue?

Of course, you know as a historian that at the time of the Truman administration recognition of Israel, Secretary of State Marshall and Joint Chiefs of Staff warned about the dangers of partition and envisioned the United States role being reduced to a military presence and losing a lot of leverage. So my question is, is the U.S. possibly going through a kind of correction of some deep and fundamental misjudgments that formed U.S. policy over a period of time, and maybe we’re doing some correctives to come back and try something better?

MR. KEMPE: Within the answer to the first part of that, perhaps you could take a crack at future political Islam. We’re seeing a difference in Tunisia, Egypt, you know, and I wonder if you’re seeing – if you have some sort of historian’s view of where you think political Islam has gone?

MR. OREN: If I had like – I wish I had an hour and half to respond to this. You touched on some of the – some of the core issues.

Of course America’s made mistakes in the Middle East. Of course Israel – just about any country you can name has made mistakes in the Middle East. And probably the biggest problem is being able to view the Middle East not as – not from the outside, but from the inside. And there was a great Civil War general who – I’m big on the Civil War – (laughs) – and – who traveled the Middle East in 1872. When he came back, he said, I think the most insightful remark ever about the Middle East was that if we don’t judge the Middle East by its own terms, but continue to observe it, judge it by American terms, we will be condemned to always misjudge this region – a great remark.

But I want to respond on several levels. George Marshall, 1948, made a number of predictions about the future American role in the – what was then known as the Palestine conflict, the Israel – the Arab-Israeli conflict. One was that the United States would have to send 300,000 soldiers to defend the Jewish state because the Jews were incapable of defending themselves, that the Arabs would cut off oil to the West and that Western Europe would fall to the Soviet Union and that the Jewish state would emerge as Bolshevik state and would be aligned with the Soviet Union. All three of those major predictions were wrong, for starters. And you can make a very strong case that rather than diminishing American influence in the Middle East, in fact, America’s involvement in the Israel-Palestinian – or the Israel-Arab conflict has actually enhanced America’s standing the Middle East. To this day, it’s only the United States that can mediate there. Nobody else can. So you can actually turn that argument on its head.

Did the United States underestimate the impact of political Salafism or political Islam? Yes. And it’s not just America. There’s a strong tendency among – particularly in the American press to downplay the emotional and intellectual power of Islam. According to – there’s a basic sort of journalistic narrative in the United States that people turn to Islam only out of despair and not that they turn to Islam because of – it imparts positive values and a sense of meaning in life. And that’s always downplayed.

But beyond that, I mean, every administration camp comes into office with its own worldview. The Obama Administration came in and if you’re – again, I go back to the Cairo speech. Always go back to the Cairo speech. The – President Obama is addressing the Muslim world and says, you can authentically Muslim, be authentically Muslim, it’s good to be authentically Muslim, but if you’re – if you’re – (inaudible) – Muslim and democratic and observe democratic norms, then we have the basis for a strong alliance and a new relationship.

And look at the Middle Eastern leaders to whom the president reached out in a significant way, Erdogan, Morsi. Who were these people? They were people who had authentic Islamic roots, had been elected democratically, very much conformed with the image of the – of the Cairo speech. Was it a good decision? Maybe too early to tell. It’s like, you know, the French Revolution. It’s too early to know whether it’s – whether it was successful. But it was the administration’s approach and I think the administration’s reaction to el-Sisi was very significant in that way.

I really can go on about this. I’ll conclude with one small anecdote. As ambassador you always get asked pretty much the same questions in any audience. You want to be asked about settlements, about Jerusalem policy, what is Israel’s policy on Iran? Toward the end of my term someone asked me a question I never received before, and for a while it took me aback. He says: What is more difficult, explaining America to Israelis or Israelis to Americans? (Laughter.) I know Don Arbel (ph) will say, I know exactly the answer. Any Israeli diplomat who has ever served here will have the same answer.

It is much more difficult to explain America to Israelis because Americans basically get Israel, except for, you know, difficult questions, complex questions like settlements. They get countries defending itself. It’s a Western-style democracy. We get it. Israelis – and not just Israelis; I think many people look at the Middle East and look at America and look at the faith-based and value-based foreign policy and scratch their heads.

They’ll look at a piece of legislation the Congress – I’m not talking about the Obama administration. The Congress has passed a piece of legislation that says the United States cannot support a regime, particularly a military regime, that has overthrown a democratically elected government. And they’ll think, wait a minute; what if the democratically elected government was an anti-democratic government that doesn’t rule democratically? They don’t get that.

And then you have to explain that this is America and that even during the period of – one of the most difficult periods during my time was the winter of 2011, Tahrir Square, where people in Israel – and again, not just in Israel – were looking at the events surrounding the beginnings of what was then called the Arab Spring and saying, do you know where this is going to lead? But Americans – and Democrats, Republicans, CNN, Fox, everybody – was wildly enthusiastic about what was going on back then.

And it was my job, difficult as it was, to explain to Israeli policy makers that a million people out in the streets of Cairo demanding democracy from what was essentially a dictatorship was – resonates with the American narrative. It’s Lexington and Concord time. And there’s no way that Americans wouldn’t get excited about that. America is what America is, and this is something that’s hardwired into this country. I happen to think that it’s a beautiful thing, but it’s not always readily understandable to people in the Middle East.

MR. KEMPE: Thank you.


Q: Thank you. My name is Jacob Shultz (ph). I’m a trans-Atlantic relations student at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

The United States has only limited resources not only in terms of money but in terms of time and attention. And I’m wondering whether you could identify whether there is core conflict in the Middle East that the United States should focus on most importantly in order to bring security to the Middle East. Is it the Iranian conflict, the Iranian nuclear programs, the Arab-Israel conflict? Is it Egypt? What should the United States really focus on as the top agenda point?

MR. KEMPE: So if you were sitting in the Oval Office, how would you tell the president to set his priorities? Is that – is that what you’re saying?

MR. OREN: The Middle East is caught in three cyclones of instability right now. There’s the ethnic cyclone of Sunni Shiite, there is the cyclone of modernity versus tradition, and the cyclone generated by the breakdown of the Arab state. Depending where you look, different cyclones are hitting. In Syria I think you’ve got all three of them going on at the same time. And I think that makes for a very violent situation.

American policy makers – and I say this with all due humility – have to look at – they have to take a strong example of what – which of these storms they can actually – which of these storms they can actually grapple with and can make an impact on or lessen the – lessen the damage of.

In the case of Syria, right now I don’t know much more that the United States can do than to further extend humanitarian aid and to lessen as much as possible the suffering of the Syrian people. In the case of Egypt where the main structure there is between modernity and tradition, I think that requires deeper thought on whether the United States can impact that situation as well.

But overwhelmingly, the paramount question-slash-threat to the region is Iran and its nuclear program. And whether – and I’m just going to reiterate something I said earlier – whether any deal can be reached with the Iranians, Iranians need this program, and they need it for – they need it for not just their hegemonic aspirations – and they have hegemonic aspirations. (Inaudible) – there are two militaries in the world that divide the world into theaters of operation. One is the U.S. military, you know, European Command, African Command; and the Iranian military. They have lots of aspirations, the Iranians. But beyond that, they need it for regime survival. They saw what happened in Libya, they saw what didn’t happen in North Korea, and they draw conclusions from that. So getting them to give up this program will be very, very difficult, especially in the absence of a credible military threat, which, frankly, doesn’t exist right now.

And that is if – and that’s why I say it’s a big if – whether an agreement can be reached with the Iranians – the countries of the Middle East, many of the countries of the Middle East are going to have to determine whether they can live with that agreement and what would happen if they don’t. And that is going to be I think the paramount strategic interest of the United States in the year to come.

MR. KEMPE: Thanks for that clear answer.

Ambassador Sager from the Swiss Embassy. It’s great to have you with us today, (certainly ?).

Q: Thank you. Thank you, Fred. Thank you, Ambassador. Thank you, Michael. There was an op-ed in The New York Times today, you might have seen it, that picks up on some of the question of U.S. leadership in the Middle East and elsewhere and – to which the administration responds by, look at what – all the things we’re doing in the Middle East and Syria, the negotiations with Iran and the Secretary Kerry and the Middle East peace process. But the contention or the thesis of the author of the op-ed is that if you’re not willing to project power, then your diplomatic efforts may not – also not be taken all that seriously.

Now, if you look at it just from a historical perspective, of course, you can – and you – as you did, you can find very concrete reasons for a – perhaps more of a reluctance to project power at this point in time; you mentioned sequestration, war weariness in the United States after two costly wars. But if you look at it from a historic perspective, is this one of the swings that the pendulum sometimes does in the United States of more – isolation is too big a term, but more of inward-looking and all of a sudden more external projection of power? Or is this something more permanent? If I understood you correctly, even hinted a little bit that the last chapter on this assessment has not been written yet.

MR. OREN: Thank you, Manuel. Thank you, Ambassador.

It’s true, it’s too early to tell. But we know historically that in the aftermath of economic dislocations and traumatic wars, America often descends into periods of isolationism. That was the case in the 1920s, to a degree in the 1970s, and this is not particularly exception. We don’t – there’s no way of knowing at this point whether this is a permanent alteration or a passing phase. We don’t know.

But we do know empirically is that there’s a direct connection from America’s ability and willingness to project power, particularly in an area in the Middle East where people are very sensitive to impressions of power and the Americans to wield diplomatic power, wield diplomatic influence.

You know, there was, needless to say, a lot of criticism of Bush administration policies, certainly in – certainly after the invasion of Iraq. But in December of 2007, on very short notice, President Bush was able to convene the Annapolis peace conference in which more than 40 nations sent their top leaders – and really in a matter of weeks. And I ask myself whether that could be done today to that extent and with that level of participation.

And you could say anything you – any number of criticisms on Bush administration policy – I think I – I think I made a case today saying that though the waning of the Pax Americana in the Middle East is often traced to Obama, I trace it back to the creation of the Quartet, when America unilaterally gave up its monopoly over Middle Eastern peacemaking. That began under the Bush administration.

The fact of the matter is that Bush was very willing to use power and military power on a massive scale in the Middle East. And that gave him a certain degree of leverage, which I don’t know if it exists today. The most – certainly the most emphatic example I can give you is what transpired last summer or didn’t transpire surrounding the chemical arsenal in Syria, where the president came out and said he was going to use force, the secretary said it was going to be a very small use of force, and then it turned out that he went back to Congress, and initially, the administration was very sanguine about congressional support for this, but phone calls in both houses and both parties were running something like 500-to-1 against. And that also sent an unequivocal message to the Middle East that even a very limited missile strike to enforce a presidentially declared red line was not going to happen. And to think that you can wield the same amount of diplomatic weight after that type of experience I think would be – would be a mistake. (I’m realistic ?).

MR. KEMPE: Thank you very much. Thank you for your patience – (inaudible) – getting around as I saw people – I do my best.

MR. OREN: I hope you ask something about the Palestinian issue because no one said anything about the Palestinian issue. Please.

Q: That’s my point.

MR. OREN: OK. Good. (Chuckles.)

Q: Welcome back – welcome back to the Washington, Mike. It is – it is really a statement of the time, and it’s nevertheless fascinating, that you went through the whole discourse of yours within really mentioning much about the Palestine-Israeli conflict, even omitting the only part of the U.S. policy that is intensely engaged in the Middle East at this time with negotiations over Palestine/Israel. Now that you are out of office and free to speak your mind, you’ve done some of that, I’ve noticed, but would you – would you care to tell us what kind of an advice you would give to present Israeli government, not the American government, as to how best to maneuver from now on?

MR. OREN: Well, let me say that – first of all, it’s great to see – (inaudible) – I mentioned that the inability of the United States to bring about a resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict or even aspects of it – I know that the Palestinians were particularly frustrated with the inability of the administration to maintain the settlement freeze back of – in 2010 – has also impaired America’s influence and created – helped – and contributed to the image of waning Pax Americana in the Middle East. That I did mention.

What I would recommend to the Israeli government – (inaudible) – this government is avoid policies steps that would – that would impair Israel’s image, not just in the Middle East but in the world and among segments of the American public opinion; to do the utmost to try to exhaust all diplomatic options to try to achieve peace with the Palestinians; and if that fails, to consider measures in the event of an inability of both sides to reach a negotiated permanent two-state solution to think about ways in which – of altering the status quo, perhaps even unilaterally. Alas, unilateralism has gotten a bad name since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, and to a large extent, legitimately acquired a bad name. There were many mistakes made back then.

But that doesn’t mean that if Palestinian leaders – and I think that they have to make some immensely painful concessions – in no ways minimize the concessions the Palestinians has to make – Israel has to make major concessions and take risks. If that proves incapable, I think that Israel can take measures that will minimize the damage to its international – its reputation, maintain Israel’s identity as a democratic and Jewish state, and also enable us to protect ourselves in case a situation in the Middle East – in the West Bank or elsewhere further deteriorates.

MR. KEMPE: Thank you for that question and the answer. This gentleman here and then there and then here. Again, I’m doing my best to where I have seen people and the order I’ve seen people.

Q: Ken Myercourt (ph), Worldox (sp). Don’t you think it would help in dealing with the Iranian nuclear program if Israel admitted it doesn’t have any nuclear weapons?

MR. OREN: Israel admits that it does not have any nuclear weapons. (Chuckles.) I think you meant, in fact, if Israel will admit – yeah, I just – I’m correcting the negative. You know, Israel’s policy, going back 50 years, is that it will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weaponry into the Middle East. And I think there’s no chance that Israel’s policy is going to change in that way.

But I actually don’t see the relevance of the question. Why, America had – I don’t know, has maybe thousands of nuclear weapons. It didn’t protect the United States on 9/11, and it – whatever Israel’s capabilities are, it’s not going to protect Israel if Hezbollah, which, according, to the head of IDF intelligence last week, has somewhere in the order of 170,000 rockets, starts firing rockets at Israeli territory. What are Israelis capabilities in that field that are going to make any difference at all?

It’s – Israel is a tiny country, and all talks of, you know, of Cold War sort of calculi of mutually assured destruction are completely irrelevant to Israel, and especially if you’re dealing with a government in Tehran which I don’t think is rational even the way the Soviet government was during the Cold War.

So the question – I guess my answer to you is no, that it won’t make any difference, and I don’t think it’s going to happen anyway.

MR. KEMPE: Thank you, please. (Off mic.)

Q: Thank you. Sama Halfonz (ph), Arab League. Actually, I have two questions here, quite interrelated.

Let me take you back to when you mentioned that the involvement of the United States and the Middle East might not be all bad like it may – the only mediator in the area and the Palestinian-Israel conflict, and it would be taken as positive, not negative, because they are the only player and able to meditate. Doesn’t this have another flipside, that being the only responsible, most capable player might be the focal attraction of radical extremist people to attack the United States, because – giving her the blame that they are responsible of the nonsolution of the conflict? This is one question.

The other is, what would you see more immediate threat with, or now? Is it what’s called the Arab Spring or the uprising in the area with some faith-based or radical-based popularity in the area, which could be a threat to Israel at some extent, or the Iranian threat?

MR. OREN: All right. As to whether America’s support or engagement – I think you’re asking not just America’s support for Israel, but American engagement as the – as the key mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute – does that render America more vulnerable to attacks by extremist elements? And I think that the record will show that America was vulnerable to extremist elements even when it was succeeding stunningly in the peace process. After 1993, after the Oslo accords, Americans were the targets. And then, when the peace process wasn’t succeeding stunningly, the Americans were the targets.

So I think that extremist elements in the Middle East will find no shortage of excuses for attacking the United States, and I think that – you look back at the record, it will show this, and the overwhelming majority of these attacks were not impelled by America’s policies toward Israel or even its mediations in the conflict. It wasn’t because of America’s support for Israel in the ’80s that Americans were kidnapped in Lebanon and many of them were executed.

I mentioned obliquely some of the terrorist attacks that have been attempted on American soil; the details of those attacks – attempted attacks remain classified. But, again, they weren’t impelled for America’s support for Israel or its involvement in the mediation, it’s because America is America, and what it represents and what America is.

As for the second question, what is a greater threat to Israel? The upheaval throughout the Middle East or the Iranian nuclear program, and the answer is unequivocal: the Iranian nuclear program. The upheaval in Egypt and the – and the civil war in Syria – its impact on Jordan have forced – (inaudible) – really, policymakers, to rethink just about all of their assumptions about the Middle East that they had maintained over the course of decades. It posed new challenges. The peace border with Egypt used to be an open border; it’s no longer an open border. Israel had to rush and make a high-tech fence along that border at the cost of about a billion dollars. They’re building a similar high-tech fence along the northern border with Syria. That had been a quiet border; the danger that the Syrian civil war could spill over to the Golan Heights can’t be ignored.

The threat to Jordan is, I think, perhaps the greatest single challenge facing Israel from – that arises from the Arab Spring. Jordan is vital to Israel’s security. Israel’s security border is not the Israeli-Jordanian border, it’s the Jordanian-Iraqi border. Among other things, Jordan is what keeps Iraq and Iran out of Israel’s backyard. And that is – that is very important, but all of that pales compared to the possibility that a regime that is on the record saying that the destruction of this state is part and parcel of its raison d’etre, and that it’s going to acquire military nuclear capabilities, and those nuclear capabilities can be made accessible and available to terrorist groups, it can trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East in which Egypt and Saudi Arabia are going to get nuclear weapons, and Israel’s going to find itself inhabiting a profoundly unstable nuclear Middle East. Won’t be worrying about chemical arsenals, we’re worrying about nuclear arsenals. All of that so overshadows anything that has occurred since the winter of 2011.

MR. KEMPE: Thank you Ambassador, Oren. Please – and let’s take these last two questions, and I’ll take them one after another, and then we’ll be out of time.

Q: Thank you. Mr. Ambassador, following on your answer to Zyad’s (sp) about what advice you would give the Israeli government in the peace negotiations now, do you think the Israeli government is pursuing these negotiations with an actual goal of a peace deal, and do you think the same is true for the Palestinian leadership, in other words, do they really actually want a deal to come out of this, or is their value simply in having the conversation and acceding to Kerry’s request or demand that they do?

MR. OREN: You know, I can only say that –

MR. KEMPE: Well, let’s go ahead – let’s pick up this last question here, thank you. (Off mic.)

Q: Peter Scharfmann (ph), Miner Corporation (sp). You spoke at the beginning of the impact of events on the United States. How would you answer the question put in the following way: What has hegemony without peace done for U.S. interests in the past 50 years?

MR. OREN: What has hegemony without peace done – OK. Let me go back to the question about Israel, Palestinians. As ambassador, I participated in many, many of the rounds of the peace talks, certainly all of the meetings between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama, virtually all the meetings between the prime minister and Secretary of State Clinton, later Secretary of State Kerry. I can only assure you in the most emphatic terms that, yes, the Israeli government, certainly the prime minister, is committed to moving ahead to peace and reaching a peace agreement – understand the price.

But there are certain points where the price becomes prohibitive. And Netanyahu has also been very clear about what he said would – what he believes would constitute a prohibitive price. One would be a two-state solution that leaves Israel’s eastern border open to the type of arms smuggling that has transformed Gaza and southern Lebanon into basically large missile pads. I mean, I don’t think of any country in history that has ever faced the magnitude of the 170,000 rockets that are poised – pointed at Israeli neighborhoods today. And he’s unwilling to let that happen on the West Bank.

And Netanyahu is particularly adamant about the need for the two-state solution to actually be a permanent and legitimate peace resolution. And that’s why he is so insistent on recognition by the Palestinian state on Israel as the Jewish state. It’s not a tactical demand. It’s a very substantive requirement because without it you’re going to have one state, the state of Palestine, being a legitimate nation-state of the Palestinian people and recognized as such by Israel, but you’ll have a Israeli state that is not going to be the legitimate recognized nation-state of the Jewish people, which is going to open the door to endless irredenta (ph). And it won’t be a permanent peace. And actually, the support – I think the support for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is the way you get to peace. And people who care about the peace should understand it more deeply.

On the Palestinian side, for the Palestinians with whom I’ve interacted I think that they’re sincere about reaching peace. I think there’s – on the Palestinian side – and I tread lightly here – there’s a greater question of not whether they’re willing but whether they’re able. And I say this as a historian who’s looked at previous rounds of attempts to create a two-state solution going back to 1937. This is – the history keeps repeating itself here. The Palestinians were offered a state in ’37, ’47, 2000, 2008. You could even make a case that Carter offered them a good state in 1979. Israel offered to create an autonomous Palestinians entity in the West Bank after the Six Day War.

Each time – there were no shortage of Palestinians who thought that this was a good idea and we’d like to be able to do this, but they were unable to deliver because they didn’t represent the majority or because, I think more frequently, they were threatened. The best example I can give you is in – I looked at the records in a book I wrote about the Six Day War about the summer of 1967 where Israel sent out about 80 researchers to canvas opinions in the West Bank about the possibility of creating this autonomous Palestinians entity there.

And almost all the Palestinians notables said to the Israel interviewers, we’d love to have this, but if we sign on the dotted line with us – with you, the radicals will kill – will kill us. And the radical they mentioned by name was a gentleman by the name of Yasser Arafat. Scoot ahead to the summer of 2000, when Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak make the same offer to Yasser Arafat. Arafat says to Bill Clinton, I’d love to sign on the dotted line, but if I sign on the dotted line the radicals will kill me – a full circle.

So I think the – on the Palestinian side, even more than the Israeli – in no way to diminish the obstacles that Netanyahu and some of his ministers would – will encounter en route to if a two-state solution were possible – there’s no shortage of people even within the government and within their parties that were opposed to it – I sincerely believe that if it goes to a referendum, the Israeli people will overwhelmingly approve it. I think they would have approved it I 2000. I think they would have approved it in 2008. I’m not sure about the Palestinian side. I got to be honest with you about that. I hope it would be the case that they would support it as well.

Your question, sir, what is American – hegemony helped America’s peace interests over the last 50 years? And here you’re asking the impossible conundrum. Couple years ago – it’s a good ending, Fred.

MR. KEMPE: Good.

MR. OREN: A couple years ago when I could still write things like this I wrote an op-ed for the – I think it was The Wall Street Journal, called “The Paradox of Prophecy.” And it was about the Book of Jonah. And Jonah is the shortest book in the Bible. And it tells a story of a prophet who – God comes down and tells the Prophet Jonah, you’ve got to go to Nineveh and say to the Ninevinians (ph) if you don’t – I probably said that wrong – tell the Ninevinians (ph), if you don’t repent, you’ll be destroyed.

And Jonah realizes that this is a no-win situation, that if he goes to Nineveh and tells them to repent and they do repent, three years later they’re going to say, why did we have to repent? Nothing happened. Or if he goes to Nineveh and they don’t repent and they’re destroyed, then Jonah’s a false prophet. It’s what I call the paradox of prophecy. It’s a no-win situation.

And you can ask the same question about the American – the maintenance of American hegemony in the Middle East. If America had not maintained hegemony over the 50 years maybe nothing untoward or unfortunate would have happened to the United States. But if America had let its guard down and something, say, worse than 9/11 had happened, then the paradox would have been there. Why didn’t America maintain its hegemony?

So there is no conclusive answer to your question. Decision makers in real time – and this is something I’ve learned to appreciate as a historian who’s now seen decision makers making decisions in real time – have to confront that paradox all the time – every day. They have my sympathy and often my respect, sometimes even when they make the wrong decisions because they take the responsibility. They assume the paradox of prophecy. They know that if they make a certain decision it may have untold consequences but if they don’t make a decision it also may have untold consequences.

And consistently, consecutively, over the past half-century and even beyond, American policymakers have overwhelmingly come down on the side of maintaining American hegemony in the Middle East. And I think, again with humility to some very powerful minds and I think some good hearts, you have to give them credit.

MR. KEMPE: Michael, Ambassador Oren, let me just say a couple of things in closing. First of all, from the Book of Jonah to the Civil War to the modern day realm, this was a sterling debut for our new ambassador in residence. So, on behalf of the audience and also really everyone at the Atlantic Council, welcome on board and thank you so much for this great discussion. (Applause.)


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