Michael Oren has served as Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. for the past three years. But his real trade isn’t diplomacy, it’s the past: Before Oren took on arguably the toughest job in Washington, he wrote books about Mideast history. So when I spoke to the ambassador yesterday afternoon about Operation Pillar of Defense, I asked him what historical moment he’d compare this one to: “In the best of circumstances, it’s May 1967. And the worst, May 1948. Rarely in our history have we ever faced such a broad spectrum of monumental threats.”
There’s the Iranian regime bidding for nuclear weapons, a Muslim Brotherhood government running Egypt, Hamas ruling Gaza, Hezbollah controlling southern Lebanon, and the civil war raging in Syria that spilled into Israel earlier this week. Jordan, a reliable Israeli ally since the mid-1990s, has become even more critical since Hosni Mubarak was ousted in Egypt. But many suspect it’s only a matter of time before the Arab upheaval fells King Abdullah II—especially given current protests.
That would be a worst-case scenario for Israel. “Jordan is what keeps Iran out of our backyard,” said Oren. “Our defense border is the Jordanian-Iraqi border”—that is, not the Jordanian-Israeli one.
It’s difficult not to see this operation— pinpointing and targeting Hamas leaders, while taking out underground missile sites—as intended for an audience beyond the Strip, namely the one watching in Tehran. (The Iranians have undertaken major air drills in the past few days, and revealed new missile systems.) But Oren insists the Islamic Republic has nothing to do with this operation: “This is not about sending a message to Iran. This is a message about defending a million of our citizens,” he said. “It would be the equivalent of 40 million Americans in bomb shelters.”
And yet Iran was the subject we kept coming back to. “I think that the key to it all is Iran,” Oren said. “Gaza’s basically an outpost of Iran. Lebanon is an outpost of Iran. Assad is a lackey of Iran.” Indeed, one key lesson Oren draws from Israel’s previous territorial withdrawals is that Iran’s proxies tend to fill the vacuum left behind. “Wherever we have withdrawn, the Iranians have filled it. In Lebanon, in Gaza.”
Since Israel pulled out of southern Lebanon (2000) and Gaza (2005), the IDF has played an ongoing game of whack-a-mole with Hezbollah and Hamas. Oren argued that this tactic has been more successful than some have claimed. “After the Lebanon war [of 2006] we were very tough on ourselves, with the whole Winograd Commission. But I think we were too tough on ourselves. In fact, we deterred Hezbollah” in that war.
Four years since Operation Cast Lead, deterrence is once again the name of the game for the IDF in Gaza: “Hamas may have to just be reminded again, and reminded in large scale, that we will not allow our citizens to be shot at with impunity,” Oren said. “It will go on for as long as Hamas continues to escalate.” Israel said Wednesday that it is prepared to expand this campaign into a ground operation.
“We have nothing to be ashamed about, nothing to apologize for. This is our right,” said Oren. “Ahmed Jabari killed dozens and dozens of Israelis.”
And what would victory look like? “Victory looks like security restored to the inhabitants of the south,” said Oren. Longer term, the goal is a change in mindset. “The Palestinian people have to internalize that as long as they choose leadership like Hamas, that will bring them no closer to statehood, no closer to economic and social development, and no closer to peace.”
With weeks until Israelis go to the polls, some see a clear connection between the election and this operation. Oren dismissed the question: “This is not about the elections. We didn’t want war,” he said. “This government has exhibited superhuman restraint: 2,500 rockets since 2009. Last month, 800 rockets. In the last week, 300 rockets. What government in the world wouldn’t have responded with war a long time ago?”