Michael Oren on GPS: “I’m telling you this [Iran nuclear deal] is a very bad deal that endangers our future security and survival”
The following transcript is of an interview with Michael Oren, former Israeli Ambassador to the United States and Martin Indyk, former Special Envoy to Israel-Palestine. They discussed the damaged relationship between Israel and the U.S. and how the Iran nuclear negotiations make improving that relationship complicated. They also debated the success of Martin Indyk’s tenure as Special Envoy. Included is a web extra in response to the Atlantic’s, Peter Beinart, on President Obama’s criticism of Israel.
MANDATORY CREDIT for reference and usage: “CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS”
On GPS: A heated debate on U.S.-Israel relations
On GPS: Debating the souring of U.S.-Israeli relations- Web Extra
Oren and Indyk on how internal Israeli politics may have impacted the diplomatic efforts between U.S. and Israel.: “[OREN]: …he [Indyk] had a famously strained relationship with Netanyahu, and his appointment was, I thought, an unusual one, to say the least, if you’re trying to establish trust… …With Martin’s appointment, I think we discussed ways that he could build that trust and, in the end, I don’t think that Martin would disagree that that trust was not established and that the relations ended up being famously strained… [INDYK]: I simply don’t agree with that at all. My relationship with Netanyahu had its ups and downs, but I would say something which Michael doesn’t know, and this — this goes to a lot of the things that are in his book. He relates something where he has partial knowledge. Amb. Shapiro has criticized him for not knowing everything that was going on. In this case, he clearly did not know that my appointment as Special Envoy was cleared by Secretary of State Kerry with PM Netanyahu… As for building trust, Michael doesn’t know that — the extent to which I went to build that trust with the PM, indeed following Michael’s advice on this. And we did work closely together during those negotiations, and I followed certain understandings that the PM and I reached about what I would and wouldn’t do and, during those negotiations, I think we had a relationship of trust. When those relations broke down, I criticized both sides for the failure of those negotiations. I actually praised the PM publicly for his efforts to go the extra mile.”
Oren on his book, Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide : “…the book is about… the unfolding events, how they seemed from the perspective of the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. So…there’s no claim to omnipotence here. …This book was scheduled to come out in October. …but I pressured my publisher, Random House, to bring it out now, before the fateful vote on Iran. This is not about books. …It’s about the security and the future survival of the Jewish State. It’s not about legacy. It’s not about diplomacy. It’s about my children’s lives, my grandchildren’s lives, and I am not speaking as anybody’s spokesman here, except for myself. But I’m telling you this is a very bad deal that endangers our future security and survival…”
Indyk on how Oren’s book is causing more damage to the U.S.-Israel relationship: “I think that the issue of the Iran deal is being exaggerated in a way that distorts what is happening here. The purpose of the deal is to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons — to be meaningful curbs on its nuclear program, and should be assessed in that way. Instead, the way that Michael portrays it is that it’s going to produce an Iranian nuclear weapon that’s going to be used to destroy Israel. And I think that’s a vastly emotional and a historical approach to the problem that’s being focused on here. …I think that the critical, the critical issue here is that the United States is Israel’s second line of defense, its most important strategic ally, and the relationship needs to be repaired, not further damaged. And what Michael is doing is causing it further damage for no good purpose.”
FULL INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST, CNN GPS: In the last few years, the U.S.-Israeli relationship has been brought to the lowest point that many observers can remember. There are deep disagreements between President Obama and PM Netanyahu on everything from a two-state solution to the nuclear talks with Iran. And, by most accounts, the two men just don’t like each other.
My next guest, Michael Oren, was Israel’s Amb. to the U.S. under Netanyahu. He has written a very controversial new book called Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide. In the book, and in subsequent articles, he explains all the ways he thinks the Obama administration lost the trust of Israel — from allowing public “daylight” on disagreement between the two nations, to the President making speeches about the Middle East that the White House didn’t clear with the PM first, and much more.
I asked Martin Indyk to join me, as well. He was President Obama’s Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. In that job, he was on the other side of many of the issues that Oren brings up. He was also U.S. Amb. to Israel under Bill Clinton.
We began by talking about the “daylight” and the speeches. But I want to pick up the conversation where I asked about one other criticism that Oren made of the Obama administration. Listen in.
ZAKARIA: Let me ask you, Michael, about another decision that you seem — you seem to have certain — some problems with, which was the decision to appoint Martin Indyk Special Envoy. You say in the book you thought it was counter-productive because Bibi Netanyahu didn’t like him. Now…
MICHAEL OREN, FORMER ISRAELI AMB. TO THE U.S.: I thought — I thought it was odd appointment…
ZAKARIA: Just — but…
OREN: Martin and I have discussed this.
ZAKARIA: Well, —
ZAKARIA: — it says “It was counter-productive and it made me think, if Kerry was serious about the peace process, why did he seem intent on shaking Israel’s faith?” And my only question to you is, do you think that the United States government, when appointing special envoys, should, you know, worry about the sensibilities of a country — of Israel?
OREN: Martin I’ve known for many years and appreciate his knowledge and his experience in diplomacy. But, and I think — I think Martin would not disagree with me, he had a famously strained relationship with Netanyahu, and his appointment was, I thought, an unusual one, to say the least, if you’re trying to establish trust.
My mantra, if you will, to the administration from the — from day one was that Israelis respond to feeling secure. They do not respond to threats. They do not respond to pressure. It — I always would say try love, try love. If you embrace us, make us feel secure, we will go that extra mile.
And it seemed to me from pretty much on, early on, in 2009, that that message was not being — was not being internalized…
OREN: –not by everybody. With Martin’s appointment, I think we discussed ways that he could build that trust and, in the end, I don’t think that Martin would disagree that that trust was not established and that the relations ended up being famously strained.
MARTIN INDYK, FORMER SPECIAL ENVOY FOR ISRAEL-PALESTINE: Well, famously strained is Michael’s characterization. I simply don’t agree with that at all. My relationship with Netanyahu had its ups and downs, but I would say something which Michael doesn’t know, and this — this goes to a lot of the things that are in his book. He relates something where he has partial knowledge. Amb. Shapiro has criticized him for not knowing everything that was going on.
In this case, he clearly did not know that my appointment as Special Envoy was cleared by Secretary of State Kerry with PM Netanyahu. He assented to my appointment.
As for building trust, Michael doesn’t know that — the extent to which I went to build that trust with the PM, indeed following Michael’s advice on this. And we did work closely together during those negotiations, and I followed certain understandings that the PM and I reached about what I would and wouldn’t do and, during those negotiations, I think we had a relationship of trust.
When those relations broke down, I criticized both sides for the failure of those negotiations. I actually praised the PM publicly for his efforts to go the extra mile. So I just think that this is another case in which Michael — in the — in the process of trying to build a case against President Obama, has misconstrued what actually happened.
OREN: I think it’s an odd response for ambassadors, whether Amb. Shapiro or Amb. Indyk, to say that another ambassador doesn’t have a full picture but they do. Of course ambassadors don’t have the full picture. We have our — we have our insights, our perceptions, and that’s what this book is about. The book does not claim even to know the entire picture. It know — the book is about what the, the situation looked, the unfolding events, how they seemed from the perspective of the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. So there’s no claim — there’s no claim to omnipotence here. There’s none whatsoever.
But, but, but at the end of this process — and now we’re talking about a process that at the end it actually was — took place for the most part after my term in Washington. In Israel the only blame, the only blame that is really heard was the blame that both Martin and Secretary of State Kerry put on Israel for settlement building in areas which are not considered settlements by the people of Israel. They are considered the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem that no Israelis think of as settlements. And that the PM of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, specifically chose to release Palestinian terrorist prisoners, who had killed hundreds of Israelis, to keep the settlement issue off the table.
And then to turn around and condemn Israel for building in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem which nobody considers settlements was simply unfair and under — it just — for my mind was another example of under —
INDYK: That’s not what happened, Michael…
OREN: — of undermining…
INDYK: That’s simply not what happened…
OREN: — of under the trust…
INDYK: As a historian, you’re not giving an accurate account of what happened…
OREN: As a historian and, and an Israeli…
INDYK: I don’t understand why — why — why… When both of us…
ZAKARIA: Let’s give Martin a chance, Michael.
INDYK: When both of us care deeply about the U.S.-Israel relationship and both of us can at least agree that the relationship is in crisis, why you would want to come out and pour flames on the fire in this way, in this incendiary way, is really something that I find quite incomprehensible.
OREN: It’s interesting, you know. One of the points I make in the book is that the administration was very, very disciplined — I actually said this with respect. You know, in Israel we have a rather rambunctious diploma — democracy where every member of the cabinet is a potential PM and everybody has their own messaging. But the Obama administration was exceedingly disciplined in its messaging.
That line that you just heard, Fareed, “why would you want to pour a bucket of fuel on a fire,” I have now heard from four different people who have been briefed by the administration. So I’m glad that my — your guest has been appropriately briefed by the administration.
INDYK: But what is the point? I mean that…
OREN: The point is very simple.
INDYK: First of all, Michael, that is simply not true.
OREN: Here — here…
INDYK: I’ve spoken to nobody in the administration.
OREN: You just chose — you just chose those words randomly?
INDYK: I’ve spoken to nobody in the administration…
OREN: Of course you have.
INDYK: I’m talking about what you’re actually…
OREN: But of course you have.
INDYK: I have not, Michael.
OREN: But of course you —
INDYK: — not one person about this.
OREN: — you couldn’t have chosen those words randomly. They’ve come — they actually appear in pa — in the front-page of Haaretz today…
INDYK: Because that’s exactly what you’re doing. It doesn’t require anybody to be told what to say to know that that’s what you’re doing.
OREN: Well I think you’re well-briefed. But let’s get to the heart of this. Why now?
INDYK: I’m not — how can you make an accusation like that — ?
OREN: You raised a question. Let’s — you raised a question.
INDYK: — that is based on nothing?
OREN: Let’s, let’s get to the heart of the issue.
INDYK: There’s no fact in that.
OREN: We are missing, we are missing the huge forest for the trees right now. This book was scheduled to come out in October. And it would have been much easier for me. I’d be on break from the Knesset then, but I pressured my publisher, Random House, to bring it out now, before the fateful vote on Iran. This is not about books. It’s not about fires. It’s not about pouring — it’s not about pouring fuel on fires. It’s about the security and the future survival of the Jewish State. It’s not about legacy. It’s not about diplomacy. It’s about my children’s lives, my grandchildren’s lives, and I am not speaking as anybody’s spokesman here, except for myself. But I’m telling you this is a very bad deal that endangers our future security and survival. That’s what it’s about.
ZAKARIA: All right, Michael, you got the first word. I’m going to give Martin the last.
INDYK: Look, I think that the issue of the Iran deal is being exaggerated in a way that distorts what is happening here. The purpose of the deal is to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons — to be meaningful curbs on its nuclear program, and should be assessed in that way.
Instead, the way that Michael portrays it is that it’s going to produce an Iranian nuclear weapon that’s going to be used to destroy Israel. And I think that’s a vastly emotional and a historical approach to the problem that’s being focused on here.
And, if that is in fact the case, then it behooves Israel’s leadership and it behooves Michael to find a way to work with the administration, which the President is willing to do. I think that the critical, the critical issue here is that the United States is Israel’s second line of defense, its most important strategic ally, and the relationship needs to be repaired, not further damaged. And what Michael is doing is causing it further damage for no good purpose.
ZAKARIA: Gentlemen, a spirited conversation. I thank you both for being frank and honest.
OREN: Good day.
FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST: Michael, let me begin with you and ask you about the op-ed that you wrote in the Wall Street Journal, which was titled “How Obama Abandoned Israel,” and in some ways it distills, I suppose, some of the core arguments in the book. And you say that Obama violated two core principles that undergirded U.S.-Israeli relations: to have no public daylight between Israel and the United States, and to have no surprises.
Now, a number of people have criticized that essay, pointing out — this is now Peter Beinart in the Atlantic, who says the Obama administration is hardly unique in criticizing Israel publicly. Reagan criticized Israel publicly during the invasion of Lebanon. Bush Sr. criticized Israel, in fact, threatened to withdraw loan guarantees. The Bush Jr. had some criticisms of Israel on the settlements policy, in fact abstained in a U.N. resolution. And, he says, by the way, if no public disagreement is the principle, surely the man who violated it most strenuously was Bibi Netanyahu by going and scheduling a speech to Congress behind the administration’s back.
So what is your response to that argument — that the United States has often criticized Israel publicly, Obama is not, in fact, has not done anything like Reagan or Bush Sr., and that Bibi Netanyahu really is the guy who’s been making all the public disagreements?
MICHAEL OREN, FORMER ISRAELI AMB. TO THE U.S.: First of all, again, good to be with you, Fareed. Thank you for having me on the show. I’m an historian by training and I can lay claim to probably out-quoting instances in history where the United States and Israel have disagreed publicly. Eisenhower threatened to put sanctions on Israel for the 1956 Suez campaign. John Kennedy openly disagreed with Israel’s construction of the Dimona nuclear reactor. There are many instances.
This is the one case, which, to my mind as an historian — not just as a diplomat — where there was a policy decision made to put daylight between Israel and the United States publicly, and it was made well in advance of Netanyahu’s speech last March before the joint meeting of Congress. It was made in the first months of the Obama administration, back in 2009. I was serving at the time. I knew it was a policy decision to put daylight. And the President explained it by saying that if you do not have daylight, then the Israelis won’t move toward peace.
ZAKARIA: But I don’t understand, Michael. Are you saying that when Ronald Reagan said to his diplomats, I want you to publicly criticize the invasion of Lebanon by Israel, when George W. Bush said, I want to withhold loan guarantees, those were not policy decisions?
I’m trying to understand.
OREN: There were policy decisions about specific instances. I’m talking about a policy decision about the relationship between the United States and Israel. And that relationship had always been founded on two core principles. One was no daylight. We have disagreements, but those disagreements, when we can, we will keep them behind closed doors.
Perhaps one of the greatest crises…
ZAKARIA: And — can I…
OREN: Let me finish this one last point.
One of the greatest crises we’ve had in recent years was just before I came on board in 2009, was the proposed sale of Israeli military equipment to China. And that was a huge crisis. But it was kept largely out of the press because George Bush preserved the notion of no daylight.
The other core principle was no surprises. You do not go to Cairo, as the President did in June 2009, and give a very long speech, in fact twice as long as his first inaugural address, and — which deals with issues which are of vital security importance to the State of Israel — not just on the Palestinian issue, but particularly on the Iranian issue — without ever consulting the State of Israel. That was a departure from long-standing American policy.
ZAKARIA: Martin, how do you respond to those charges?
MARTIN INDYK, FORMER SPECIAL ENVOY FOR ISRAEL-PALESTINE: Well, I don’t think there was any policy decisions Michael claims. I think there’s a theory of the case that President Obama had — I believe it was the wrong theory of the case, and I’m on the record about that for many years now — that by distancing the United States from Israel, he could curry favor in the Arab world and that would help Israel because it would improve America’s ability to influence the Arabs in Israel’s favor. And that was the approach that he was pursuing.
It was the wrong theory of the case, but, for instance, he went to Saudi Arabia on that first trip, in coordination with PM Netanyahu, to try to get the Saudis to be more forthcoming towards Israel, in pursuit of the theory of the case.
What was wrong with the theory of the case was that it lost the trust of the Israeli people. He made a mistake by not going to Israel after the Cairo speech.
As for coordinating the Cairo speech with Israel in advance, that’s not something any administration would have done. And to single out Obama for not doing that and somehow surprising Israel because of that, I think just misrepresents the reality.
For sure there were places where the relationship between PM Netanyahu and President Obama went sour. And Michael was witness to that. But I believe that the heart of the problem, and this is something where I know that Michael agrees with me on this, is that the PM was not prepared to engage the Prime — the President with an initiative on the Palestinians that would have given them a common cause. And it’s at heart the differences of how to deal with the Palestinian issue that caused a great rupture in the relationship.
OREN: Oh, I would, I would beg to disagree. I mean, Martin, you served under President Clinton as his ambassador to Israel and certainly any major policy declaration by the Clinton administration which dealt with issues that were vital to Israel’s national security, Israel had a chance to submit its comments to that with advance copies.
INDYK: That’s not true.
OREN: And with the — with the Obama administration, this was a consistent policy. There was no time that I can recall in the nearly five years in Washington where I was given a heads up.
And in one case, which I cite in the book, which is in May of 2011, where the President was about to give a major speech on the Arab Spring, I was ensured by the White House the previous day that the speech would not have an Israeli-Palestinian component. And of course the major thrust of the speech was the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
Now this goes to the issue — this goes to the matter of trust. We are at a crucial juncture right now. We are several weeks away, at most, from the possible signing of an agreement between the United States and other international organizations, the P5+1, and Iran.
This is not Benjamin Netanyahu’s view. It’s the view of the State of Israel. I’m a Knesset member and I tell you we — the various parties in Knesset agree on virtually nothing, but there’s close to a national consensus that this is a very bad deal that endangers the future of the State of Israel. And one of the cardinal questions is whether there is trust of the United States. The President is coming to the people of Israel and saying trust me.
So we have to address the question of whether that trust has been built up over the course of the last five plus years of the Obama administration. And having lived through that period, I have to say emphatically no.
ZAKARIA: Martin, when you look — think about the issue of trust and of surprises, looking at it from the Obama administration’s point of view, I assume that they were surprised and regarded it as a breach of trust that PM Netanyahu would schedule a speech to the — to a joint session of Congress without consulting with them.
INDYK: Yes, well that was — that was certainly the extreme case, and Michael and I, again, we’re in agreement that that was a mistake on Netanyahu’s part…
OREN: We did.
INDYK: — to do that. But I think it was symptomatic of the breakdown in trust, and I think from the Obama point of view, and Michael has this in his book, PM Netanyahu was coming to the administration on a — on a daily, weekly basis asking the administration to help Israel, help protect Israel from the horrendous efforts to isolate it in international forums. There isn’t a day that goes past in the United Nations when the United States isn’t helping to protect Israel against the anti-Israel onslaught there.
And the feeling in the administration just built up over time that the PM would come to them for everything. And they would respond as best they could in every case. But whenever the administration came to the PM to try to get him to do something, particularly on the Palestinian issue, the answer was no, I can’t do it, because of my politics won’t let me.
OREN: Except in…
INDYK: And that I think is at heart the problem with the breakdown in trust.
OREN: May — if I may, Fareed. May 2009, when the President — after the President comes to PM Netanyahu and says I need you to come out in favor of the two-state solution. Now, keep in mind, Netanyahu is not Yitzhak Rabin, he’s not Ehud Olmert, he’s not even Ariel Sharon. He’s the head of the Likud party. And the Likud party now for over a generation has rejected the notion of a two-state solution. Netanyahu becomes the first head of the Likud to come out publicly at the Bar Ilan speech in favor of the two-state solution.
That was — that was what we call in diplomacy very heavy lifting. Then Netanyahu turns around the following fall and orders the first 10-month moratorium on new Israel construction in the West Bank. It’s never been done before. It wasn’t even done by Rabin. Very heavy lifting. And the question was, did he get credit for it? Did it put the relationship on a different basis?
Now Martin knows that I was — I was strongly in favor of both of those measures. I was not in favor of the Congress speech — not where it was given; I’m very much in favor of the content of the speech, the way that the PM depicted the very bad deal that is — that is approaching with Iran.
But even those times where Netanyahu went out on a limb, and a very dangerous extensive limb, to try to get onto a different footing with the President, it didn’t succeed. And, as an ambassador who was advocating for that type of going the extra mile, it didn’t help my position any.