On June 22, the Jewish Federation of America’s new, multi-million dollar “Israel Action Network” hosted a conference call with Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren. The call was an urgent response to the flotilla preparing to cruise towards Gaza in order to challenge Israel’s maritime blockade of the destitute coastal strip. David Sherman, the vice chair of the Federation’s board of trustees, introduced the new initiative and Oren’s involvement in it as a key to combating Israel’s “delegitimization.”
Throughout the call, Oren seemed more concerned about the Arab Spring, Israel’s relations with Turkey, and the Palestinian unity arrangement than the upcoming flotilla. He opened his remarks by launching into a fast paced survey of the myriad regional threats Israel supposedly faced, then explained how the state would tamp down on each one:
Egypt – Oren was convinced that the only parties that are poised to win upcoming elections are “well funded, well led extremist movements.” Presumably he meant the Muslim Brotherhood. But the Egyptian army’s stance reassured Israel. “The army has been telling us that they have every intention of maintaining Camp David and that there will be no substantive change in Egypt’s foreign policy,” Oren said. Israel’s biggest concern at the present moment was attacks on gas pipelines in the Sinai Desert, which Oren claimed were being carried out by Bedouins to extort protection money. He said that Israel’s gas supply was only at 2/3 capacity, forcing it to import environmentally hazardous coal.
Syria — Oren expressed frustration with rumors that Israel was urging a “go slow” approach to the Syrian revolt against the Assad regime. He referred indirectly to an article by Jerusalem Post military correspondent Yaakov Katz (he did not cite Katz by name, but was clearly pointing in his direction) claiming Israel’s military and political establishment would quietly support Assad because he was “the devil we know.” Complaining about Assad’s recent failures to keep the Israeli occupied Golan frontier quiet (Oren misleadingly described it as “Israel’s border”), Oren claimed that “no one in Israel will shed a tear” if Assad is gone.
Iran — Oren claimed Israel possessed intelligence showing that Iran had enriched uranium past the 20 percent level. “The 90 percent dial where they can develop nuclear grade material is a short leap,” he said. He went on: “We are in communication with the Obama administration about another round of sanctions. They are effective; they have taken a major chunk out of Iran’s economy, resulted in high inflation and high unemployment. This is a direct result of sanctions, but they have not had a big impact on nuclear program — we haven’t seen that yet. So in the next round the administration will announce various designations this week that will impair [Iran’s] ability to import and export oil; that will hurt transportation and the airlines of Iran. It promises to be quite painful. Throughout, the policy of the State of Israel and America remains that all options are on the table to prevent Iran from developing nukes, the policymakers in Iran believe us when we say that. Look at Gaddafi: he was convinced by a credible military threat from the United States to stop developing nuclear weapons.”
Turkey — Israel’s greatest source of friction with Turkey, according to Oren, was Turkey’s demand that Israel formally apologize for killing several of its citizens on board the Mavi Marmara last year. “We’re trying to find some language to satisfy them that holds up to the unwritten constitution of the democratic state of Israel,” he remarked. He said Netanyahu had congratulated Erdogan for preventing the Mavi Marmara from sailing with the new flotilla. “The Marmara was too large and we couldn’t stop it with technical means,” said Oren, suggesting that the cruise boat’s exclusion from the upcoming fleet to Gaza was a source of great relief to both Israel’s military and diplomatic corps.
The new flotilla — Oren attacked the organizers of the flotilla as “radical anti-Israel organizations…known also for anti-American activities.” He cited statements by the US State Department and UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon criticizing or condemning their actions. Then Oren claimed that the flotilla could simply deliver its aid through a “responsible organization” like UNRWA, or bring their materials through El Arish and allow Israel to offload it. “It’s not a fight between us and the people of Gaza,” Oren claimed. “It’s between us and the group Hamas which is determined to destroy the state of Israel.” (Never mind this Israeli government document). He went on to claim that Israel’s maritime blockade was “in full accord with international law,” though he did not explain how besieging a civilian population that was not actively engaged in a full-scale war against Israel comported with the 4th Geneva Convention or the San Remo Accords.
Next, Oren proudly announced that Israel had tentatively authorized an aid shipment to Gaza containing construction materials for 1200 new buildings and 18 new schools (UNRWA officials were skeptical that the aid would actually arrive as Israel said). The timing of the shipment and Oren’s promotion of it suggested that the flotilla had already made an impact. Would Israeli authorities have authorized the aid in without outside pressure? Whether or not they would have, Israel was seeking to extract as much propaganda value as it could from its agreement.
The Palestinian unilateral declaration of statehood — The ambassador seemed far more troubled about the Palestinian Authority’s plan to introduce a statehood resolution at the United Nations General Assembly in September than about any other issue. Oren suggested that Israel would attempt to force the Palestinians back to the negotiating table in order to keep them away from the UN. In other words, the peace process would be Israel’s tool for blocking Palestine from winning statehood on a unilateral basis. In this effort, Oren described Dennis Ross, the White House special advisor on Middle East affairs, as Israel’s ally.
“We are working closely with the Obama Administration in trying to find a common framework that would enable the European Union to support negotiations in the framework to get them back to negotiations and keep them away from General Assembly,” Oren commented. “Dennis Ross is in Israel today conducting negotiations so we have reasons for some optimism. But we have to prepare for the worst. [With the statehood resolution] we are preparing for various scenarios of unrest in the West Bank, further attempts by the P.A. to use their improved status to delegitimize israel a la Goldstone type initiatives. Netanyahu has been meeting with the Italian government about this, and they are working tirelessly. And he is working closely with the Canadians who are very supportive.”
When Oren finished his remarks, the administrators of the call allowed time for a few questions. One caller asked Oren what Jews in the United States could do about the flotilla. “Stress that there’s no humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the border is open for all materials, there is no shortage of food or medicine, and that our maritime blockade is upheld by the United States as completely legal and necessary for Israel’s defense,” Oren said.
Before I could ask a question about the legality of Israel’s siege of Gaza, Martin Raffel, the director of the Israel Action Network, came on the line to conclude the call. “I want to echo [what Oren said],” Raffel remarked. “Our role is not to be passive observers. We have to shake the public discourse so we’re sending message points and program guidance to everyone involved. And we hope you have some marching orders for when you go back to your communities.”