On September 7, 2010 the Orthodox Union (Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America), the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization facilitated a Pre-Rosh Hashana conference call for its membership with Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren. Below please find the transcript of the discussion that took place:
Moderator: Nathan Diament
September 7, 2010
10:30 a.m. CT
Operator: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. My name is (Lori) and I will be your conference operator today. At this time I would like to welcome everyone to the (Ambassador) Oren call. All lines have been placed on mute to prevent any background noise. After the speakers’ remarks there will be a question and answer session. If you would like to ask a question during this time press star then the number one on your telephone keypad.
If you would like to withdraw your question press the pound key. Nathan Diament you may begin your conference.
Nathan Diament: Thank you very much, operator. Hello everybody, (Boker Tov), this is Nathan Diament at the Orthodox Union’s office in Washington, DC. Rabbis who are on the call from around the country and other OU officers and directors welcome. I want to thank the rabbis in particular, as if your schedules right now were not busy enough we wanted to put another item on your calendar just hours before Rosh Hashanah. But we’re at a critical time, as you know, with the United States-hosted talks last week here in Washington between the Israelis and the Palestinians restarting the peace talks.
The year ahead is obviously going to be challenging, full of opportunity and so many other things that it’s hard to forecast as we sit here now. But as we’re going into Rosh Hashanah we wanted to facilitate an opportunity for you to hear from the Israeli leadership and their outstanding ambassador here in the United States as someone who we work with very regularly here in Washington on behalf of the OU and the community.
So without any further ado I’m going to turn the call over to the OU Chief Executive Rabbi Steve Weil who will introduce the ambassador.
Steve Weil: Thank you, Nathan. And we to thank everyone specifically, again the rabbis, for making the time. The reality is each and every one of us right now – it’s a tense time for us in our personal lives and as a Jewish nation. We’re extremely grateful, profoundly grateful to ambassador Oren not only for what he’s doing this morning but every time we see him on CNN, on Fox News, every time we need someone to articulate the vision of the Jewish people, the vision of our precious (Medina).
Ambassador Oren does it with such dignity and such grace, never in an apologetic fashion, always in an educational fashion. And he’s a walking, breathing (Kiddush Hashem) and he’s a spokesperson not only for (Medinat Israel) for the Jewish people. And without further ado, to turn to the ambassador for some insights, to turn to the ambassador for some words, some thoughts and the retrospect on what’s happening – without further ado it’s a great honor to introduce Ambassador Michael Oren.
Michael Oren: Thank you Rabbi Weil, thank you Nathan. The honor is mine, I assure you. I’m delighted to be speaking to all of you from the embassy in Washington. Shalom on this (erev) Rosh Hashanah, (shana tova). A year full of challenges and danger and obstacles that we together will have to overcome.
But before that let me first address the achievements of the previous years, which have been quite extraordinary – indeed many of them of an historic importance to Israel and to the Jewish people worldwide. The previous year, 5770, was the year in which Israel was accepted into the Organization of Economic Development and Cooperation. And as a member of the OECD Israel is now listed among the 30 top economies in the entire world.
Who would have thought of this 20, 30 years ago? Even five years ago it would have been inconceivable. Israel, which has one of the few economies in the world to emerge from the global recession with a very positive growth rate, industry thriving, high tech thriving. The biggest year, by the way, in Israel’s tourism history – more tourists have come to Israel this year than any time in the last 62 years.
In terms of security, until the terrible terrorist attack last week, this had been the quietest year in Israel history; 5770 was the quietest year in Israel’s history, going back until 1948. But as you’ll certainly hear shortly, that should not lead us into any type of illusions about the nature of the security challenges that continue to face us.
In its relationship to the United States of America, a very complex relationship – again and I’ll go into greater detail later – this was the great year in terms of American support for Israeli security programs. The three missile defense programs, Arrow III, Arrow II, David’s Sling, provide us with a multi-layered defense against a wide array of missiles, everything from intercontinental post-atmospheric missiles to low-ranging Cruise missiles. And then in addition we have the Iron Dome project, which we hope will protect us from the scourge of Kassam and Katyusha rockets, thousands of which have been fired at Israeli towns, cities and farms over the last five years.
None of these projects would be successful without the support of the United States government. And that support today is at an all-time high. Recently we just received $205 million grant from the U.S. government for the deployment of the Iron Dome system.
So in many ways 5770 was a very successful year for the State of Israel in many ways. But then again that should in no way cloud or diminish the monumental challenges we face this year. We face the challenge of the lavishly-funded and global efforts to deny Israel the right to defend itself, and indeed to deny Israel the right to exist. Sometimes we refer to those efforts by the collective acronym of BDS, Boycott Divestment and Sanctions.
And BDS is ubiquitous. It is everything from the Goldstone report, which you know quite well, from the global condemnation – near global condemnation of our efforts to defend themselves against – from Hamas rockets from Gaza, by upholding the maritime blockade of Gaza during the flotilla incident, to efforts to boycott Israeli academics, to have strikes of dockworkers who refuse to take cargoes off of (Simline) freighters to efforts to prevent Israeli ambassadors from speaking on American campuses, which some of you, I know, are quite familiar with.
It is, as most recently, for those of you who have seen the recent issue of Time magazine, which is really – calls into question, you know, whether Israelis want peace, which of course even by raising the question gives rise to the answer of maybe they don’t want peace. And of course there’s no other – there’s never been a front cover like that that shows the Palestinian symbol and asking whether the Palestinians want peace, or suggesting maybe there’s a reason why Israeli want peace, and it’s strongly intimated in the article that one of the reasons Israelis may not want peace is that their economic – because of their economic success, which you know, evokes the old Jewish – the old canard that maybe Jews like money more than peace. That’s BDS – all of that is BDS. And these are very serious challenges.
And the BDS is not only economic and political challenges, it also has tactical ramifications. Hezbollah, in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza – Hezbollah in Lebanon now has four times as many rockets as it had in 2006, over 45,000 rockets. They’re longer range, they have bigger payloads, they’re far more accurate. Hamas now has more rockets than it had in 2008, during the Gaza operation, during Cast Lead.
And we know that both Hamas and Hezbollah have internalized the lessons of Goldstone, in contrast to 2008 or 2006, during the second Lebanon war, most of their rockets were placed in areas where our air force could get at them, particular the middle range and long range rockets; today those same rockets have been placed under houses and homes and schools, with the full knowledge that when Israel tries to defend itself against these rockets Israel will immediately be branded as a war crime, as a war criminal. Israeli leaders, political and military, will once again we threatened with arrest for war crimes in foreign capitals. They know this quite well. All of this is BDS.
We know, tragically, from our history, that every attempt to destroy us as a people has been proceeded by attempts to dehumanize us as a people. And BDS is certainly that type of attempt to dehumanize us, and to humanize us in the face of the most monumental threat we face, and that is from the rapidly-nuclearizing Iran. Look in your papers today and you’ll see that a UN source now believes that Iran has enough (low-enriched) uranium for three nuclear weapons. And make no mistake about it that this is the Iran that is supporting Hamas and Hezbollah, that is undermining governments throughout the Middle East, that is developing a missile capability that can reach any, certainly, city in the Middle East but is now – can also reach cities in Western Europe within a decade. They estimate those missiles can reach the United States as well.
This is an Iran that is building up a strong political and military presence in – near the United States, in South America. Iran is everywhere. And that is Iran without a nuclear weapon; imagine what Iran would do with nuclear military capabilities. If it gets those capabilities not only can it place a nuclear weapon on top of one of those missiles it can pass those capabilities onto Hezbollah and Hamas, it will prod other Middle Eastern countries to acquire nuclear weapons – so Israel will find itself in a profoundly unstable nuclear neighborhood. That type of threat.
And finally there is the great challenge of peacemaking. Last week I had the honor of accompanying Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Israeli delegation to the relaunching of direct peach negotiations with the Palestinians, the ceremony held at the White House. And we got off to a good start. But again, no illusions. We understand that peace will involve almost incalculable risks for the State of Israel. We run the risk that any Palestinian State create along our eastern border will replicate our experience with Lebanon, with Gaza, where Israel withdrew in an attempt to generate conditions conducive for peace and didn’t get peace but got tens of thousands of rockets.
And these rockets now will not be falling on the sparsely-populated Negev or the sparsely-populated Galilee but in our major population and industrial centers, where I live in Southern Jerusalem. And Arnona is not rocket range, it’s pistol range from this potential Palestinian State and then certainly Ben-Gurion Airport would be in range of these rockets.
There’s also the great danger that any future Palestinian State would refuse to recognize Israel as the Jewish State, and therefore just say that the two-state solution is really a two-stage solution in which the final solution is Israel’s dissolution, and we’ll work from that point on to try to destroy the State of Israel by all sorts of means.
Now Israel is striving to meet all of these threats every day. On BDS – we’re challenging BDS in the courts, in the U.N., on campuses – I’m certainly not dissuaded from going to any campuses in the United States. We are fighting in the press, and yes, it’s very much an uphill battle, you should know. It’s an uphill battle and sometimes – like when Time magazine comes out this week it seems virtually overwhelming. But we’re not giving up and we’re striving unflaggingly, unswervingly to fight BDS.
On the nuclear issue in Iran, you know, Israel is in close communication, coordination with the United States and with like-minded nations throughout the world in (imposing these) sanction regimes on Iran. We’ve seen that the sanctions now are having some bite in Iran; we see that the Iranian leaders are reacting to the sanctions. But we have not seen any inclination on the part of the Iranian leadership to cut back on the nuclear program, which will be the ultimate test. And eventually we’re going to have to assess the degree to which these sanctions are working.
Until that time the position of the State of Israel as the position of the United States is that all options will remain on the table, and Israel as the sovereign Jewish State that arose from the ashes of the holocaust will take any measures necessary to ensure its defense and survival.
On the question of peace Prime Minister Netanyahu has been unequivocal in saying that any Palestinian State will have to be effectively demilitarized; it will not have missiles that can land in our cities and towns. It cannot have an air force that can shoot down civilian airliners taking off, landing at Ben-Gurion Airport; it cannot have treaties with hostile states like Iran or terrorist organizations. And extremely important – this is not a tactical demand – it is a very substantive demand that this Palestinian State will have to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and that by doing so it will acknowledge that there’ll be no refugee resettlement in Israel, there’ll be no further claims; it’ll be an end of conflict. End of conflict.
Now these challenges are, needless to say, immense, and sometimes seemingly insurmountable, but as we recall in our history we have often met challenges of this nature and we’ve always been able to surmount them by remaining united as a people, united in our faith, united in our resilience. And on this Rosh Hashanah we have to be reminded of that.
I’m going to be speaking at a number of (shuls) over the next few days and I’ll be talking a lot about the story of Hannah and Elkanah – it’s one of my favorite stories from the Bible. And talking about Hannah’s faith and her resilience, and how through that faith and resilience brought about the birth of Shmuel, who really becomes the – plants the seeds of redemption. And truly Israel today is (reishit tzmichat geiulateinu) – it also – it represents the flowering or our redemption.
And the way that we preserve that flowering is remaining united through some difficult times. We ask you – I know I don’t have to make this case too strongly with any of you, stay with us as we fight the fight for – against BDS, as we stand up to the nuclearization of Iran. Stay with us through the difficult decisions of the peace process, whether we decide we have to make painful sacrifices to make that peace or whether we decide that the type of peace offered doesn’t merit those sacrifices, we will need you – we will need you very much.
In that spirit I want to wish you, your families, your congregations, your (kehilot) a peaceful, restful, fruitful New York. (Shana tovah mutzlachat shemenukah bishil shalom) to all of us.
Nathan, Rabbi Weil, I’d be delighted to entertain any questions now.
Nathan Diament: Great. Thank you so much Ambassador Oren. (Lori) you want to give the instructions again for the questions?
Operator: Certainly. Again, if you wish to ask a question, star one on your telephone keypad. We’ll pause for just a moment to compile the Q&A roster.
There are no questions at this time; I turn the call back over – oh, pardon me, you have one call in the queue. It is from (Joe Finkelstein), your line is open.
(Joe Finkelstein): Yes, Ambassador Oren, thank you for taking your time to share with us. If you had to make a choice between the following bad choices which one is better –
Michael Oren: Yes?
(Joe Finkelstein): Incurring the wrath of the Obama Administration, (possible) which could have implications for its policy regarding Iran and cooperation with your policies in Iran, versus the possibility of missiles that could reach Tel Aviv, versus controlling too many Palestinians.
Michael Oren: Yes, one of the great advantages of being an ambassador, (Joe), is that you don’t have to make those decisions. But you do have to represent those who do make those decisions. And I think some of us can wake up in the morning and say, (avrahah) that we don’t have to make those decisions, they’re quite weighty.
But be assured of this. The U.S.-Israel relationship is a strategic interest for the United States – for the State of Israel. And preserving that relationship is a paramount interest for us. That does mean that we agree with everything the United States does, doesn’t mean that sometimes there are periods of tensions in our relationship. But generally keeping that relationship on solid ground, retaining its vitality is essential for us.
I mentioned our missile systems. Our missile systems are vital for our security and they are a direct product of our relationship with the United States. Standing up to BDS – this particular administration has been excellent in its support for Israel and standing up to the Goldstone report and supporting us (for) the flotilla. I merit the administration’s support for Israel’s membership in the OECD – proved essential also, absolutely essential. So there are many things going on besides just the peace process and our relationship with the Obama Administration, not all of the merit press conference (coverage), alas.
Having said all that, the government of Israel will not enter into a peace agreement that will endanger the lives of millions of Israelis, period. We understand in any peace agreement there’s going to be an element of risk; there was such with our relation – in our peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt as well, and they have proven, while not ideal, we have not been at war with Egypt and Jordan for quite a few decades now.
We understand that. But we also understand that because of the location of the future Palestinian State, because of the great sensitivities involved in issues like Jerusalem and refugees and borders that this will be a far greater risk than any risk we took with Egypt and Jordan. That is why this is the only peace agreement in which we are demanding mutual and reciprocal recognition, for example of Israel as a Jewish State. We didn’t demand that of Egypt and Jordan; we demand that of the Palestinians. That’s part of ensuring that the conflict doesn’t go on.
And the decision-makers of Israel have to counterbalance these two paramount interests, our relationship with the United States and security for the State of Israel. We strive to create a situation where those two interests are consonant all the time and reconcilable. And that is the great weight of decision-making, not for Rosh Hashanah but if we were talking about Yom Kippur we read the book of (Yannah) here, (of course you see) the great decision he had to make to go to Nineveh or not to go to Nineveh. Each one had its own momentous or weighty ramification, each of those decisions. Such is the paradox of prophecy; it’s also the quandary of leadership.
And I think the important thing is to, at the end of the day, whether you agree with the Israeli government decisions or disagree with them, respect the Israeli democratic process. Here’s an interesting fact for you all. Israel today is older as a democracy, is older than more than have the democracies in the world, and Israel is one of a handful of democracies in the world that has never had a period of non – never experienced a period of non-democratic rule. And that’s an extraordinary accomplishment for this country.
And keep in mind the decisions of that democratically-elected government, the ramification of those decisions will be most directly felt by the people of Israel. So respect the decisions, (that’s it). Not easy. You’re right. Unfortunately I don’t have to make them, (Joe).
Nathan Diament: Operator?
Operator: Your next question comes from the line of (Jerry Wolafski). Your line is open.
(Jerry Wolafski): Ambassador Oren thank you very much for your eloquent speech. One of the issues, obviously, that’s troubling to many – all of us – and the OU has taken a very specific stance on is that issue of (yuru shaliem). And while I certainly respect the right of the government to make decisions that are best for the Israeli people I think we all feel that, you know, (a khalik), a part, in (yuru shaliem) and the OU has been very clear, and I think, you know, American-Jewish, certainly the Orthodox American Jewish community is very clear on their desire and their insistence on a unified Jerusalem and I think we’re all very, very troubled about some of the reports that are coming out regarding the Defense Secretary’s statements and I was wondering if you could clear that up.
Michael Oren: The bottom line is that we understand that the Palestinians have their position on Jerusalem. And, you know, the Obama Administration may also have its position of Jerusalem but I haven’t heard it articulated yet, other than the fact, you know, on issues of construction and demolition; they’re quite outspoken about those issues.
But the position of the government of Israel is and has been, since 1957 that Jerusalem will remain the undivided capital of the State of Israel, (nikuda), period.
(Jerry Wolafski): So the defense – so your – the (report) – we can – you can tell us that the reports we’re hearing about the secretary – Barack’s statements in the press we should – are not correct?
Michael Oren: Well as you know in our unique political system there are many parties in the coalition and 30 ministers, and they have differing opinions on many things. But at the end of the day that is one opinion within that government and that government’s position as a whole remains that Israel – that Jerusalem will stay the undivided capital of the State of Israel.
(Jerry Wolafski): Thank you very much.
Operator: Your next question comes from the line of (Steve Orlow). Your line is open.
(Steve Orlow): Hello, Mr. Ambassador and thank you also so much for giving us this chance to hear your thoughts there. I’m – you did refer to the tragedy that occurred, of course, recently and the people that were killed, which always seems to be part and parcel of any peace process and discussions that take place. I was just wondering to what extent – what options does the Israeli government see available to itself to respond to these murders? I understand – from the press I understand that there’s some additional soldiers, perhaps a couple of battalions or something that were added. But of course at least 60 – at least what I read recently, checkpoints have been removed. Is there any thought to replacing the checkpoints? Is there any thought to actually going into Gaza itself and exacting some justice there? Because we hear the comments coming from – from Hamas. And they admit that they – they were the ones that planned these horrific attacks.
Michael Oren: Let me first say, Rabbi (Orlow) that we deeply regret –
(Steve Orlow): Oh, I’m not a rabbi, but I’ll take that as a compliment.
Michael Oren: OK, Steve – that we deeply regret the murder of this – these two innocent couples. One of the women was pregnant, left seven orphans. A terrible, terrible tragedy. The government of Israel, the army of Israel is taking all measures possible to apprehend the terrorists, to beef up security in the entire area. Ultimately our response to these attacks is to retain our ability to respond to them and to attain our ability to – well it’s called hot pursuit – to go after them, and to retain our right to respond to them, whether in Gaza or in the West Bank militarily.
It’s no secret that Israel has lived in this type of neighborhood – we’ve had this conflict now for 62 years; Israel has never known a true second of peace. And that struggle will continue, and quite tragically that struggle claims victims. We tried to – again, referring to my earlier remarks, the counterbalance, our desire to maintain a good relationship with the United States government as well as governments throughout the world and in an atmosphere in which we’re under relentless criticism, particularly in the press.
We have an interest in bolstering the Palestinian economy. And in this way – this is another success of the previous year, in which the Palestinian economy had extraordinary growth to about nine percent and the Palestinian security forces, many of them trained by the United States, have been able to replace the Israeli army in some four major cities in the West Bank. And this is (a return of) law and order. And this is one of the reasons why there was such a low level of terror the previous years. That doesn’t mean that we’ve eliminated terror.
But one of the ways that we facilitate economic growth in the West Bank is by removing the checkpoints. So here is a difficult call for you. Do you remove checkpoints and perhaps endanger Israeli lives or do you increase security by removing checkpoints that will in turn lead to economic growth? Each decision carries with it a risk and possible benefit. But it’s a hard decision, not an easy one.
(Steve Orlow): Interesting.
Nathan Diament: Operator?
Operator: Yes. There are no further questions in the queue at this time.
Male: OK, thank you very much.
Nathan Diament: OK, well that’s good because our time is just about up. Thank you so much Ambassador Oren for taking the time out of your busy schedule. Thank you to all the rabbis and OU officers and directors on this call. I want to wish everybody a (kitivah v’chatima tova) and just to let you all know a small advertisement toward the end of this month we will be having another conference call to – with some analysts to talk about where things are in the restarted peace negotiations. We have to figure out if we’re going to do it before September 30th or after September 30th, depending on what’s going on. But stay tuned and watch your inboxes for notice of that call as well.
Thank you again, Mr. Ambassador. (Shana tova) to all.
Michael Oren: Thank you all. (Shana tova).
Operator: This concludes today’s conference call; you may now disconnect.