March 31, 2006

Six Days of War Author Michael Oren Talks to The Sun

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American-Israeli historian Michael Oren, author of the acclaimed Six Days of War: June 1967 and The Making of the Modern Middle East, spoke yesterday on the events leading up to Israel’s recent withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Before his talk, The Sun caught up with Oren and picked his brain on Tuesday’s Israeli elections, the future of the West Bank, the Iranian nuclear program, and the pro-Israel lobby.

The Sun: Let’s begin with the Israeli elections that took place on Tuesday. Kadima, a brand-new centrist party Prime Minister Ariel Sharon formed before his stroke, won a plurality of seats in the Knesset on the platform of unilaterally disengaging from most of the West Bank. How did this political earthquake happen?

MO: Kadima represents the coalescence of an Israeli consensus that on one hand we can’t continue the occupation indefinitely because the occupation endangers the State of Israel morally and demographically. On the other hand, there is really no one to negotiate with on the other side. And in the absence of a viable Palestinian partner, then we have to think about unilateral moves to draw our borders in a way that are demographically and militarily defensible.

The Sun: The new prime minister, Kadima leader Ehud Olmert, needs to form a coalition with smaller parties to give him a majority in the Knesset. Will he be able to create a coalition supporting his plan?

MO: “Well, the Labor Party would agree with it. They’d prefer to negotiate, but there’s no one to negotiate with. The ultra-Orthodox Shas Party doesn’t care either way as long as they’re getting support for their religious academies. The Pensioners, who won seven seats-a big surprise-won’t care either as long as you give them their pensions. And just with that alone, he has a solid majority that he can begin to move unilaterally.”

The Sun: Which party did you vote for?

MO: I probably would have voted for Kadima, but I was here [laughs]. I was offered by CNN to go back and be the commentator for 24 hours.

The Sun: Really?

MO: Yeah, they were going to fly me back for 24 hours, but I turned them down. I do a lot of CNN, but I just couldn’t this time. I have classes all week.

The Sun: Where are your classes?

MO: I’m teaching at Harvard and Yale this semester.

The Sun: Back to the elections: How did this new “Israeli consensus” you speak of, in support of unilateralism, come about?

MO: This is the big revolution in Israeli politics over the last two years. For 35 years after the Six-Day war, Israeli society was deeply and increasingly divided over the territorial issue-whether, on one hand, we should retain all of these territories and settle them or, on the other hand, whether we should break away from all these territories and make a peace with a Palestinian partner.

And what happened 37 years after this war is that the majority of Israelis woke up and said, ‘Well, on one hand, we can’t retain all of these territories. On the other hand, there’s nobody to negotiate with, so we’re going to have to get out of most of the territories, but we’re going to have to do it unilaterally without negotiating with anybody.

The Sun: How does the fence relate to this?

MO: The fence really marks the point to which Israeli society has agreed to evacuate. The issue now in Israel is not whether to evacuate, but where to. The debate is really over the positioning of that fence.

The Sun: What sorts of dangers would accompany an Israeli West-Bank withdrawal?

MO: The biggest challenge we face right now is Hamas in the sense that wherever we evacuate, we have to understand that that vacuum is going to be filled with Hamas/Iran. And that greatly limits our latitude. For example, much of the West Bank is within shoulder-fire missile range of [Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv]. And we have to be aware of that. And that will constrain us from moving from large areas around the airport.

The Sun: You said “Hamas/Iran.” How do the two go together?

MO: Well, Hamas is very much allied with Iran today. Hamas leaders go to Tehran. They talk to Tehran. It is an alliance of convenience. They cross actually two lines because not only are they crossing the Shi’ite/Sunni line, but they’re also crossing the Arab/Iranian line, which is unusual.

The Sun: Speaking of Iran, how do expect Israel, the United States, and the international community to confront that regime as it seeks nuclear weapons?

MO: Stop them. I think they will stop them. I think the United States and Israel, at least, and perhaps the Europeans have decided not to let Iran nuclearize. They are going to try to use every diplomatic means at their disposal, and I think there’s a chance that those diplomatic means can succeed to prevent that, but barring a diplomatic solution, they will look at other solutions.

The Sun: And what could those other solutions be?

MO: Well, you can do all sorts of things. They can set back Iran’s nuclear program five to ten years.

The Sun: By aerial strikes?

MO: Aerial strikes, ground strikes, however you have to do it. They will not let Iran nuclearize under the current circumstances.

The Sun: Could America muster the necessary military resources while it’s bogged down in Iraq?

MO: Of course. What do you need? You need a couple of planes and a couple of missiles. You don’t need brigades of infantry. You don’t need tanks.

The Sun: How would an aerial strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities differ from Israel’s 1981 strike on Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak?

MO: It’s vastly more complex. The Iranians have divided up their nuclear program into a great number of sites. They’re deep underground. Some of them are close by population centers, which the Osirak reactor was not. Moreover, Iran, from Israel’s standpoint, is very far away. Israeli planes would have to refuel in flight at least three times.

The Sun: Would you expect Israel or America to carry out such an attack?

MO: It doesn’t matter. If Israel does it, the United States is going to have to be implicated in some way because you have to fly over American-controlled airspace. If the United States does it, then Israel will just be perceived as an extension of the United States. So, they might as well do it together.

The Sun: How do the Europeans factor into this whole situation?

MO: The Europeans are very much afraid. Keep in mind that Europe is within Iranian missile range. The Iranians have gone about their nuclear program in a non-conventional way. Most people develop nuclear weapons, and then they figure out away to deliver them. The Iranians have developed their delivery system first, which means that the minute they develop nuclear weapons, then they’re operational. And the Europeans are afraid because those Shihab missiles can reach Paris. And the Europeans don’t want to conduct their affairs under an Iranian nuclear pistol.

The Sun: You have an article coming out in a few days in The New Republic. Can you give us a preview?

MO: Well, it’s about this Walt and Mearsheimer article.

Stephen Walt, the dean of Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and John Mearsheimer of University of Chicago have come out with this paper called “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” basically indicting the Israel lobby, which they never really define-a loose coalition that includes everybody from Jerry Falwell, Martin Indyk, Dennis Ross, Pat Robertson, Hilary Clinton, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic. This is the “Israel lobby,” this sort of loose Pro-Israel cabal that has made Israel the exclusive focus of American foreign policy in the Middle East since 1967 and has manipulated American foreign policy and American foreign policymakers to pursue a pro-Israel policy which is fundamentally at odds with America’s interests. They seem to think that America should support Iran, Syria, and Hamas.

If I’m being constrained, I’ll say that the article is insane. If I’m being unconstrained, I’ll say it’s vilely anti-Semitic-basically a reincarnation of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion-it depends how you get me… My article asks the question, What kind of academic environment exists that enables papers like this to be passed off as serious research?

The Sun: What type of environment is that?

MO: It’s the environment of Middle Eastern studies today in the United States, which basically accepts many of the theses advanced by Walt and Mearsheimer: Israel is a racist state that commands a lobby that dominates American foreign policy and gets America to act against its best interests; Israel is responsible for terror; Israel is responsible for Iraq. Those ideas are very prevalent in the field.

The Sun: Do you believe those ideas are prevalent beyond those departments?

MO: I do. I don’t know how prevalent because I’m not in those fields, but I know there hasn’t been a big outcry from American academia at this paper. Had this paper been written about any other ethnic group in this country, there would be an immense outpouring of disgust and protest, and there hasn’t been in this case.

The Sun: Is America’s professorate out of touch with mainstream America on these issues?

MO: Well, I think that’s true. Public opinion is overwhelmingly pro-Israel in this country. As a matter of fact, it’s at the highest level ever. The most recent Gallup poll shows that 67 percent of the American people think that Israel’s great. I don’t know if 67 percent of all humanities faculty members feel the same way.

The Sun: How is it for you to be an American living in Israel?

MO: I’m the immigrant generation. I have Israeli children. Israelis make fun of my accent. I have one foot in each world, and I’ll always have one foot in each world even though in Israel I’ve done the whole Israeli course that you can do-army, government service, foreign ministry service, Prime Minister service. At the end of the Day, I’m still an American. At the end of the day, Haaretz still refers to me as Michael Oren, the American-Israeli historian. [Laughs]

Archived article by Ben Birnbaum
Sun Senior Writer