Monday, March 30, 2009

Living Jews: Interview with Michael Oren

Michael Oren is the foremost historian, author, and scholar on the Middle East, and is currently a visiting professor at Georgetown University and a fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. He is also giving a free talk at Washington University this Thursday, April 2nd, at 7:30 PM at 560 Trinity.

The St. Lou Jew had the opportunity to interview Michael Oren, along with the St. Louis Jewish Light, and Wash U's Student Life. Read on for the interview.

Was the Gaza opp a success?

Generally, the only thing keeping Fatah alive is the IDF. This is why abbas doesn’t call for the withdrawal of troops.

It was important for the IDF to deal Hamas a decisive blow. Give Gazans an option to live like they have under Hamas, or like in the West Bank

Yes, the IDF dealt a decisive blow, Hamas fighters went underground and did not fight..a paper tiger. Israel shored up deterrent powerand eliminated hamas deterrence power.

To have gone into Gaza city and uprooted Hamas would have required the IDF to kill several thousand Gazan civilians. The leadership of Hamas was hiding under Shifa hospital and had the whole hospital wired to blow.

If Israel had successfully uprooted Hamas, who would Israel have given Gaza to?

As of the day of [the day of the interview] I decided to change the topic. I was going to give historical survey of Israel trying to reconcile being Jewish and Demographic, but will now going cover the 7 existential threats to Israel. No other country faces truly existential threats."

What do you hope students will get from your talk?

"I hope that students will appreciate this opinion not just by people who have studied this, but as someone who has lived this as well."

How would Freeman's appointment to the National Intelligence post have effected US policy and Middle East outcomes?

"I believe that certain forces in the middle east won’t react to American policy. I think it has its own dynamics, and agency, not just based on American Foreign policy, so I think that there is a limit to what extent Freeman would have been able to to twist the intelligence to meet his agenda.

I don’t think that Obama reaching out is ultimately going to change Iran’s behavior. I think it is important to reach out after 8 years of Bush, but I think it is more important that Americans be reminded of what Syria and Iran really are. This is not the first administration to reach out to Damascus

I think the most important thing people can do in terms of getting involved in the middle east is educating themselves. Many people with partial educations sometimes go and do things that are very dramatic. Be involved, read the newspapers every day, go there, get those experiences."

We recently had a chance to hear Saree Makdisi, who spoke about a one-state solution. Is this a legitimate solution, or is it an underhanded attempt to destroy Israel?

"Yes and Yes – they are not mutually exclusive. It has always been a possibility. It was one in 1948. The Palestinians could stop demanding a separate state and could demand equal rights in Israel, and you would already have parity between Jewish and non Jewish Israelis and then the Jewish state would cease to exist. The question is not so much the motivations, but whether it is practical, whether it could actually happen and the answer is ‘no’. Many Jewish Israelis wouldn’t be interested in living in a state like that. And if the state gravitates towards and Arab political culture as opposed to a Western political culture, many Israelis would not want to live there. So it is certainly a prescription for the end of the state of Israel as a Jewsih state and even for the presence of Jewish people in the area. But you have to look at other places in the area in which there is a single state solution in place, like Lebanon, like Iraq. None of these single-states solutions are really working. They have always been a formula for protracted, untractable civil strife. And so its not as if tomorrow, if there was a single state solution, everyone would be living peacefully with each other, instead it sets the state for another round of very bloody civil strife. Where states have succeeded in living more or less peacefully with one another have been situations of partitions, in which they are simply separated from one another, like in the Gulf Region. But I don’t think that is in the immediate future either, so it becomes an issue of interim solutions, so the question is, how do we better manage this conflict, and you do that by building up the Palestinian economy and institutions and uprooting illegal settlements and creating the greatest distance possible. This clears ground for a two-state solution."

The US media is often criticized as being anti-Israel…

"I don’t think that the US media is particularly anti-Israel. The European media is far far worse. If there is an unfairness towards Israel, it is in the gross disproportionality that Israel merits in the Western Media. For example, the New York Times just had a front page story about two Israeli Sargeants who claimed that they witnessed war crimes in Gaza, but you read the story and it turns out that they didn’t witness them; they just heard rumors about them. The US media is fair, while the European media is not fair."

You said that you were going to speak about Israel's dilemma as a Jewish and Democratic state, how are these issues going to manifest themselves.

"I think that we are on a major collision course with Iran, which will bring to the fore the fault lines in Israeli society between Israeli Jews and more Islamist-minded Israeli Arabs. I think there will have to be a line drawn, if Israel is to survive in the Jewish state. The question is really where the line will be drawn.

The Labor party wants to compensate Palestinians for any land taken in the West Bank, with land in the Negev, while Lieberman wants to compensate them with land in the Galilee, which is densely populated by Israeli Arabs. Lieberman sees this as a two-birds, one-stone situation in that it transfers Israeli Arabs to PA (Palestinian Authority) control. On the face of it, this appears cruel undemocratic, because the Israeli Arabs wouldn't have a choice, and most would rather live under Israel than PA, even though they don't like Israel.

Labor and Kadima are also discussing dividing up Jerusalem, but no one has asked the several hundred-thousand Palestinian Arabs who live there. Most of them would rather live under israel, even though they don't like Israel, rather than the PA as well."

Are you more or less optimistic about chances for peace than you were a year ago?

"I'm more optimistic, but not about chances for peace. Americans like to think about solutions and peace. I think in terms of survival, national strength, cohesion, deterrence... all those things are more important to me. Let me unpack that, peace is not going to happen, in the entire Middle East, because there are virtually no solutions to any Middle Eastern problems, only better managing of the conflict. Security is going to be a very elusive quality for a long time to come. But I'm very optimistic that Israel has improved its deterrence power vastly as a result of the Gaza operation, the economy is doing very well, tourism is off the charts, you can't get a hotel room, Israeli society is very robust and strong, vollunteerism is high, we had over 100% response to the reserve call up during the Gaza operation. All of the indicators show that Israel is in a vastly better position geo-strategically and economically than it has been at anytime in the last 61 years. That's reason for optimism! Israel hasn't been at peace for any second during those 61 years, so if you leave the peace out of it, we're doing very well and I'm very optimistic for the future."

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