PHILADELPHIA — Israel’s right to defend itself has been a constant theme sounded by Michael Oren since the New Jersey-raised scholar was named Israel’s ambassador to Washington.
And it was a theme he returned to when he addressed the closing plenary of the national conference of the Jewish National Fund, which took place in Philadelphia this week.
The Goldstone report, commissioned by the United Nations to look into the actions of Israel and Hamas during the war in Gaza, “posed a momentous threat to the peace process,” he told the hundreds of JNF delegates, because it meant that Israel’s military actions against terrorists could be challenged in the international arena.
Israelis are willing to take great risks for peace, Oren said, “but we have to know that if the peace breaks down, we will have the right to defend ourselves.”
Oren said the United States has come out strongly against the Goldstone report and has not pressured Israel to undertake its own investigation. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week that he was appointing a task force to respond to the report and its repercussions.
Just under 500 attended the Oct. 25-26 conference at the Marriott Philadelphia Downtown.
Israel’s water shortage was a major focus of the conference. The JNF is working to raise $100 million as part of a new project called the Parsons Water Fund, with the goal of investing in water projects over the next 10 years. Oren was one of a number of American and Israeli notables addressing the conference. Other guest speakers included Silvan Shalom, Israel’s vice prime minister and minister for regional development; Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and Sen. Arlen Specter; and Uri Shani, director of the Israel Water Authority.
In an interview, Oren, who has spent most of his career as an academic and wrote a widely acclaimed book about America’s historical engagement with the Middle East, downplayed tensions between Israel and the United States over the peace process.
Oren asserted that the issues that had threatened strains between the new administrations of Netanyahu and President Barack Obama — namely, an Israeli commitment to a Palestinian state, West Bank settlements, and Iran — have been resolved for now.
Now, Oren said, “we’re dealing with the concrete challenge of getting the Palestinians to the negotiating table.”
The Palestinians, he said, “have amassed a long list of preconditions” that they never had insisted upon before, including a total freeze on settlements.
The challenge is likely to become even greater amid reports that Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, will not run for reelection when Palestinians go to the polls in January.
Asked whether the Obama administration’s early public focus on a freeze in settlements on the West Bank had contributed to the current stalemate, Oren said, “I’m not going to pass judgment on the Obama administration.
“There is a deep commitment [by Obama] to achieving peace. We deeply appreciate that commitment.”
He said that Obama “warmly accepted” Netanyahu’s position that a Palestinian state must be demilitarized and must recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
He also said that after a series of meetings with special envoy George Mitchell, Israel and the United States have agreed to a “series of understandings,” including that Israel would limit settlement building outside of Jerusalem and that would allow for the building of nursery schools or other projects needed to accommodate the population’s natural growth in the West Bank.
On Iran, the ambassador said that Israel now fully supports the Obama administration’s approach, given what he called a “rapid and profound shift” in policy. He cited Obama’s vow to pursue crippling sanctions if Iran doesn’t suspend uranium enrichment on its soil and his pledge to keep all options on the table, including a military one.
The Iran issue, Oren said, could have created tension between Israel and the United States, but it didn’t.