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Ambassador Works to Head Off Palestinian Statehood

July 28, 2011 By:
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Michael Oren — Photo by Anne Menanbaum

Israel's ambassador to the United States has a lot on his plate these days, but one issue preoccupies him more than most: the Palestinian quest to gain statehood recognition at the United Nations.

With just a month before a possible mid-September showdown, Ambassador Michael Oren said he is working on the issue daily, using diplomacy to try to head off a U.N. resolution while simultaneously planning for the fallout should it happen.

In an interview during a visit to Philadelphia last week, he suggested that a U.N. decision to take up such a resolution would further isolate Israel and potentially lead to renewed violence in the region.

Oren asserted that Israel and the United States are on the same page as they work to avert a U.N. resolution.

He said that Israel, at the request of the Obama administration to "do something different" to get back to the negotiating table with the Palestinians, has accepted the idea of the 1967 boundaries with mutually agreed land swaps as a basis for negotiations with the Palestinians.

At the same time, he said, "Israel regards the 1967 boundaries as indefensible and stresses the need to address the rights and interests of the hundreds of thousands of our citizens who live beyond those lines.

"We welcomed President Obama's clarification that 'mutually agreed swaps' means that the parties will not return to the lines that existed on June 4, 1967," he said. But, Oren emphasized, Jerusalem only accepted that formula after getting a "more express commitment" from the administration that the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state, which they have so far refused to do.

Such recognition is critical, Oren said, because it would signify Palestinian understanding that Israel is not a "transient phenomenon," that the conflict is over and that the Palestinians can no longer stake claim to the so-called "right of return" for the descendants of Palestinian refugees from 1948, when Israel became a state. 

Oren said that his government had hoped for similar backing from the Quartet, which besides the United States, includes Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. But the E.U. and Russia objected to recognizing Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, he said.

The ambassador suggested, though, that even a Quartet agreement might not have diverted the statehood quest anyway. P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas wants recognition of statehood to leave as his legacy.

Although the United States has said it would veto any action in the U.N. Security Council, the Palestinians are likely to push for a resolution at the General Assembly of all member nations. Oren said he'd rather not predict the outcome at the General Assembly if statehood is voted upon. But noting the G.A.'s "long history of actions against Israel," he said, "We're working hard not to let it happen."

Not only would such a declaration "not bring peace," he added, it would likely bring an outbreak of renewed violence and make the prospects for negotiations even dimmer.

Oren, beginning his third year in the top diplomatic posting, said that U.S.-Israel relations are closer today than they have been in the past 21/2 years. Asked why this is so, he answered; "We've all learned lessons; no one's had the monopoly on mistake-making."

Indeed, relations between the Obama administration in Washington and the Netanyahu regime in Jerusalem have been rocked by disagreements over settlements in the West Bank and other issues.

His two-day visit to Philadelphia, which included Erev Shabbat at Beth Sholom Congregation and meetings with local Jewish leaders and media representatives, culminated in a Shabbat morning visit to Bethel, an African-American synagogue in West Oak Lane.

Afterward, he said he was "deeply moved" by the warm welcome of him and his wife, Sally, and the rabbi's and members' expressed love for Israel.

In his remarks, he said, he cited the weekly Torah portion, Matot, "dealing with the responsibilities of Jewish peoplehood to say that, in spite of our differences, we are a single people endowed with the same blessings and obligations" and that "Israel belongs to us all."

Asked in the interview about the Knesset's recent passage of an anti-boycott law, Oren predicted that the Israeli Supreme court would likely rule against it. The law, approved July 11, provides for civil sanctions against supporters of boycotts targeting Israel or the settlements. Those harmed by boycotts can file civil lawsuits seeking monetary damages from those who advocate or organize such boycotts. The law has elicited opposition from Jewish groups across the political spectrum.

At the same time, Oren said, the law has broad public and government backing, stemming from Israel's increasing sense of international isolation. The global movement to boycott "is not about the settlements, it's about boycotting a certain segment of Israeli society," he said.

Israel "is turning rightward," he said, citing developments that have sparked fear and uncertainty among the populace: uncertainty over the future of peace with Egypt, Hezbollah's increasing power in Lebanon, Iran's push to build a nuclear weapon, rockets on Israeli borders and Fatah reconciling with Hamas.

"What Israelis feel is fear," he said. If they felt there was a sincere Palestinian partner with whom to do business, "the Israeli political spectrum would look very different."

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