Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, told a Landon Lecture audience at Forum Hall Tuesday morning that Israel is this nation’s “ultimate ally.”
Oren, an American-born Israeli historian and author, said he thought he knew about the relationship when he became ambassador. He said he was humbled to learn that the relationship was “more multi-faceted and deeper than anything I had contemplated” after his 30 years of work.
“Why is this relationship so special?” he asked. “To understand it, you have to go back.”
Oren said the support of Israel in America dates to the arrival of the Puritans on Plymouth Rock. During the struggles for religious freedom in England, he said they went to the Old Testament and identified with the Israelites’ struggles.
“They found a God who spoke to his people in their own language,” Oren said. “He made them a promise to rescue them from their exile and restore them to the Promised Land.”
Oren said the Puritans adopted the story as their own, viewing America as the new Israel, giving their children Hebrew names and making Hebrew a required language for American universities.
He said Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin suggested using the likeness of Moses on the seal of the U.S. before the bald eagle was selected.
Oren said roughly three-quarter of Americans today identify themselves as pro-Israel, tracing the same spiritual connection that the founders of America felt.
“They concluded that to be good Christians and good Americans, it was their divine, ordained duty to help those old Jews get back to the land of Israel and restore their ancient statehood,” he said.
Oren said this love is reciprocated with Israel’s two replicas of the Liberty Bell and memorials for Sept. 11, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., even recognizing MLK Day as a national holiday.
“Come (to Israel) on our Independence Day, when Israelis wave Israeli and American flags together,” he said. “There’s no substitute for that (relationship).”
Oren pointed to the military help that Israel has provided over the years. He cited an Israeli company providing more than 20,000 U.S. military vehicles with armor. Civilian engagement, he said, has included companies such as Google and Microsoft opening operations in Israel.
“There’s really nothing like this relationship between the United States and Israel on the battlefield or in medical hospitals or in the intelligence sharing-community,” he said.
Oren said the commercial partnership is growing with Israel representing America’s 20th largest customer and 12th largest export destination.
Questions after the talk focused not on Israel’s relationship with America, but with its relationship with the Middle East.
Oren said the Iranian nuclear program continues to be a worry. He said getting nuclear capabilities in the hands of terrorist groups is at stake as well as other Middle East countries gaining capabilities.
“We have long supported President Obama’s leadership of the sanctions programs in the world,” he said. “The sanctions against Iran have proven more effective than just about anybody predicted.”
Oren said the sanctions have cut into the Iranian economy, but the nuclear program has accelerated. He said he thinks increasing sanctions linked with a credible military threat will dissuade them from the belief that they can gain nuclear military capabilities.
“If they can be persuaded that they’re paying the price for naught, that they won’t have the device at the end of the day, then we think they can be dissuaded,” he said.
Oren also talked about the stalled peace talks between Israel and Palestine. He said it is his wish that talks would continue after four years of no negotiations with the exception of six hours in December 2010.
Oren said there would have to be “painful sacrifices” from both parties in a two-state solution. “I think they’ll find an Israeli government that’s not only ready to negotiate but willing to make the hard decisions,” he said.
Oren received a question about the histories of Israel and Palestine not being taught by the opposing side. Oren taught history on the university level.
“From my perspective, we do teach the Palestinian narrative,” he said. “I don’t think that is replicated on the Palestinian side.”
Oren acknowledged that the narratives being taught by both sides will be a big part of preparing the younger generation for peace.
“We’re not going to accept one another’s narratives,” he said. “What we’re going to have to do to make peace is recognize that we have different narratives and learn to make peace between those narratives.”