Michael Oren served as Israel’s ambassador to the United States from 2009 to 2013. He is currently a member the Kulanu political party and was a part of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition before the Knesset was dissolved. In the process of filming a new documentary about the upcoming Israeli election, I met with him in Jaffa, to speak about the hot-button issues.
What is the 2019 Israeli election really about?
The same thing that the previous election was about. And the election before that and the election before that. The election’s about Benjamin Netanyahu.
Why is this election only about Netanyahu? It’s not as if Israel suffers from a lack of issues.
Because of the situation that Israel finds itself in. Israel is challenged in a way that no other country is challenged, in terms of its security – it’s physical security and it’s legitimacy. Netanyahu is perceived as the person that can defend Israel. He’s also an economist, a legislator and an expert politician, and no single challenger has been able to check off all those boxes in a generation.
Is there anyone who can challenge Netanyahu this time around?
The Israeli press is saying that Benny Gantz poses a serious threat to Netanyahu, but it’s too early to tell. It’s yet to be seen what his cadency will look like.
What are the ramifications of the current investigations against Netanyahu?
If there are indictments issued against the prime minster, it will rally his base around him. They’ll say that he’s been the victim of a witch hunt by the judicial system and by the police system. But it may cause difficulties for the prime minister to try and cobble together a coalition, because a number of parties have already said that they would not sit together in a coalition with a prime minister who has been indicted.
Is Israel about to lose it’s democratic character?
You might get that from reading Haaretz or the New York Times, but in fact, Israel is significantly more democratic today than it has been in any time in it’s history. You can go back and see how many women were involved in politics, how many people of eastern origins were in politics, how many gay people were in politics, how many Arabs were involved in politics. Israeli democracy is not in any danger.
Is the nation state law, which you voted for, not undemocratic?
No. The nation state law establishes Israel’s identity as the nation state of the Jewish people, but there are other laws that establish it as a democratic state. This law was important to counterbalance those laws, because of the great weight the judicial system, particularly the Supreme Court, was giving to Israel’s democratic nature over its Jewish nature. Now I think that will be more balanced.
What are some of the challenges that you faced in the previous coalition?
The greatest challenges were to get the members of the coalition to show sensitivity to American Jewry, to the Reform and Conservative movements. The need to see the big picture, not just the small picture.
Why did Netanyahu take such a perceived hard stance against the Reform and Conservative movements, when it came to the Western Wall?
The answer is simple: Netanyahu gave tremendous priority to maintaining his coalition. The ultra-Orthodox are the DNA of any coalition. You didn’t see the Labor party coming out and attacking the Orthodox, either – even on the issue of the Kotel. Everyone needs the Orthodox for their coalition. But more to the point, the prime minister was deeply disappointed, and maybe even angered, by the position of liberal American Jews, particularly the Reform movement.
What was the reason?
Their support of the Iran nuclear deal, which Netanyahu viewed as a dire threat to Israel’s security. The opposition of those same liberal and Reform elements to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal, and even their lack of support for Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, also angered him. I think the sense was that, if these American Jews were not going to stay with us on issues that are vital to our security and are vital to our identity, then why should any Israeli leader go out on a limb for them?
That is a very hard-line position to take, is it not?
I think the sense was that, on the Iran issue in particular, American Jewry’s position was similar to the one taken by many American Jews during the Second World War, in that American Jews did not act forcefully to shield and defend the Jewish people from an existential threat.
Besides Iran, there’s also the issue of the conflict, yet it doesn’t seem to be a high priority for any party. The number 1 issue for Israelis is security. But they don’t see a connection between security and the peace process. If anything, the peace process endangers our security. Every time we have rounds of negotiations with the Palestinians, more Israelis die. Security is defence against missiles and defence against terrorism. After that comes housing and cost of living. In fact, peace with the Palestinians is dead last.
Why is that?
We have a very young population that doesn’t remember the Oslo Accords. All they’ve seen is that when Israel withdraws from territories, we get rockets and bombs and terrorists. Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, refused to negotiate during eight years of the most pro-Palestinian U.S. president in history, Barack Obama. He’s going to reject anything that President Trump will give him. So Israelis don’t see any hope coming from him. There’s no one to negotiate with.
But then what do you do with the millions of Palestinians? Will this not lead to a one-state solution?
I wouldn’t call it a one-state solution. I think that a one-state solution in itself is an oxymoron. I think what Israelis are saying is that the status quo, as complex and difficult as it is, is preferable to a solution that will result in the death of thousands of Israelis. I’m a historian. I can tell you that the Palestinians never said yes to a two-state solution. Going back to 1937, 1947, the 2000s, they never said yes. So what makes anybody think that there’s some solution out there that they will say yes to?
So what is the alternative?
You say that the areas in Judea and Samaria, the West Bank, which are under Palestinian control now, should be what Netanyahu has called “a state minus,” or an “autonomy plus.”
But Israel must continue to control the borders. Even tomorrow, if there was a Palestinian state, Israel would continue to control the borders. Otherwise we would have Iranian rockets in there within a week.
What will Netanyahu’s legacy be?
His legacy will be of a leader who saw Israel through its transformation from a largely middle-class society, to a high-tech society with a per capita GDP that rivals Japan. That’s a profound transformation in a very short period of time. He also provided us with security. He’s a person who made us a power in the world. This country, which is smaller than New Jersey, is thought of as a superpower, thanks in large to Benjamin Netanyahu.
Are you running in these elections?
I’m not running because my own party is not doing well in the polls. So I’ll sit this one out.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.