MONTREAL — Canada deserves praise for having the moral courage to stand by Israel through thick and thin, says the outgoing Israeli ambassador to the United States.
“If any government has shown the world that morality must be a central component of foreign policy, Canada has,” Michael Oren told a full house at the annual Mike Dym Memorial Lecture at Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation in his first public address since stepping down from that post Oct. 1.
Oren is being succeeded by Ron Dermer, senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
At the synagogue, the 58-year-old, U.S.-born diplomat singled out for praise Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Foreign Minister John Baird and Liberal MP Irwin Cotler.
But Oren, who is also an author and scholar, mixed caveats with his compliments, in an informal talk that included audience questions on Iranian nuclear ambitions, the Syrian civil war, U.S.-Israel relations and the peace process.
Oren also spoke – with humour and candour – about his background as a kid from upstate New York who was intent on living the Zionist dream.
On Iran, Oren was absolute that Israel will never allow it or the region to become “nuclearized.”
“Once Iran gets the bomb, terrorists get the bomb,” he said, no matter what so-called “compromise” is offered by the new president, Hassan Rouhani.
Oren said Netanyahu was “unequivocal” on that point during his recent visit to the White House. “It’s not a matter of our security – it’s our survival,” Oren said.
He also downplayed the supposed mutual dislike between U.S. President Barack Obama and Netanyahu, characterizing whatever disagreements might exist between the United States and Israel as “tactical,” not substantive.
“We agree on what the end of the peace process should look like,” Oren said, adding that the U.S.-Israel bond remains more “multi-faceted” and “deeper than it’s ever been.”
Oren said it’s good that renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have so far gone eight rounds, but despite both sides being in favour of the two-state solution, Israel has yet to hear Palestinians “recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish People, [not of] Israelis.
“We need the Palestinians to tell their people that Israel is here to stay,” he said.
Asked who the United States wants to see win in Syria – the pro-Bashar Assad or pro-Islamist forces – Oren answered: “the side that will bring about a democratic system.”
But more seriously, he said he doubts whether the United States would hold back next time if Syria does not get rid of its chemical weapons as promised, or uses them again. Oren also warned that if the terrorist group Hezbollah tries to use any of its 100,000 missiles against Israel, Israel would fully deploy its successful Iron Dome missile defence system and retaliate in kind.
Before addressing the large issues, Oren, who wrote a book considered a definitive chronicle and analysis of the 1967 Six Day War, spoke glowingly of Israel as the “most thrilling chapter” in Jewish history and of the Jewish People, “who never abandoned our cherished ideas.”
This was Oren’s mindset as a young man, who shoveled snow to pay for his first trip to Israel and worked in Israel as a “Jewish cowboy.”
“I called myself Oy Rogers,” Oren said with a laugh, adding that he was thrilled when he first shook hands with Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Yitzchak Rabin, and grew up to emulate him. Oren had to renounce his U.S. citizenship to become Israeli ambassador.
Oren drew laughter when he described a 2009 visit to the White House with his family, including his parents, who initially weren’t even invited. Obama “spent the entire time talking to them,” Oren said.
Now, he said, Israel is a nation with about a dozen Nobel Prize winners, three Apple R & D centres, and record tourism and startup nation accomplishments.
“Only a Jewish state would be more proud of having more Nobel Prize winners than Olympic medalists,” Oren said. “Peoplehood is why we are still here after 4,000 years.
“Not only are we surviving, we are thriving.”