Sunday, December 27, 2009

Ambassador Oren: 'Obama hasn't exerted physical pressure'

US President Barack Obama has not, during his first year in office, exerted any real "physical" pressure on Israel, nor does he see that as a goal, Israel's Ambassador to the US Michael Oren told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday.

Oren, in Israel to take part in a Foreign Ministry-sponsored conference of all the country's ambassadors and consuls-generals, said in an interview that if the Americans wanted to twist arms, "they probably could. But they don't. That's not the way they want to go about it. They want to be in a situation where both sides [Israel and the Palestinians] come back to the negotiation table of their own free will, without being coerced in any way."

While Oren said there were fundamental differences between Israel and the US on building in Jerusalem and the settlement issue, and while he said the US does make its positions known, he can't find any "physical evidence of pressure."

For instance, he pointed out that the Reagan administration, which he characterized as a "very pro-Israel administration, an ultimate pro-Israel administration," cut off the supply of jet aircraft to Israel following the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.

"That is pressure," he said.

Likewise, he said that during the Camp David negotiations with Egypt in the 1970s, then-president Jimmy Carter "threatened to cut off aid if we didn't agree to certain positions. That is pressure."

"Everyone is talking about crisis, crisis, and crisis [in the US-Israeli relationship]. I know what a crisis looks like. I haven't seen a crisis. I have seen tension, I have seen disagreements, but I haven't seen a crisis."

The ambassador said that the litmus test of a "great alliance" is not that you agree on everything, "but how you deal with the disagreements. And on that we are doing very well."

Asked if he felt that Obama was getting an unfair shake in Israel, where his polling figures were extremely low, Oren said, "I think he deserves more credit for some of the things that don't make the press."

For instance, he said, "this administration has been particularly good on our security interests. I say this without reservation. They have been good on support for the Arrow anti-missile defense program. They have been very good on the joint military maneuver with Turkey - when the Turks forced us out, they pulled out.

"They have been good on the whole issue of QME [qualitative military edge]. The have been excellent on QME. When they ascertained that our qualitative military edge had been eroded they worked very quickly to redress that."

Oren said there have been historic understandings over several administrations that the US would ensure that Israel maintained a qualitative military edge "over any potential Middle Eastern adversary, or any combination of potential Middle Eastern adversaries, so that is quite an undertaking. This administration has worked hard to uphold that."

Although Oren was sparse on details, he did say that working groups have been established to discuss various ways of redressing erosion that had taken place in this sphere.

There have recently been reports that the US was making changes in some of the arms deals the Bush administration had brokered with Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf states, to ease Israeli concerns that this would damage the qualitative edge.

In addition, Oren said, the administration was "very good" on the Goldstone Commission report, "unequivocally condemning" it and "working to mitigate the impact of the report."

Likewise, he said, the US was "very active, at many levels" in lobbying the EU against adopting a Swedish EU resolution that would have called for eastJerusalem to be the capital of a future Palestinian state. US efforts there, he said, "brought about a real change."

"This is the kind of stuff that doesn't make the press here, but there are many nuances to the relationship. It is not monochromatic. Because there is so much emphasis on the settlements, on eastJerusalem, you don't see the other things."

Oren said he didn't believe that the US was planning to come out with a new diplomatic "plan" that it would then foist on the parties, as many in the EU and Russia are hoping for.

"I have heard [talk of] this from my first day on the job," he said. "They vigorously, strenuously deny it, and I have no reason not to believe this is not the case."

Rather, he said, the US continued to believe that a resolution could be found through negotiations in good faith, and was trying to get the Palestinians back to the table.

According to Oren, the US is approaching the Arab countries - Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries, Egypt and Jordan - and saying they have to provide Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas with support and backing to return to negotiations.

Asked what kind of support the US was seeking, Oren said Washington was looking for financial assistance for the PA to help build up Abbas's popularity, and also for guarantees that "if and when he goes back to the talks they will support him - first in going back, and then on the decisions he makes during the negotiations."