Israeli envoy calls divisive settlement plan a politically necessary reprisal

Settlement plans east of Jerusalem – decried by the US and Europeans – were meant to punish Palestinians and satisfy domestic political pressure in Israel, Ambassador Michael Oren says.

Michael Bonfigli /The Christian Science Monitor
Michael Oren, Israel's Ambassador to the United States speaks at the Hay Adams Hotel in Washington DC on Tuesday.

Israel’s recent decision to proceed with plans for settlement construction in a hypersensitive strip of occupied land east of Jerusalem was meant as a signal to Palestinian leaders that Israel will not let provocative actions go unpunished, the Israeli ambassador to Washington said Tuesday.

Speaking at a Monitor-hosted lunch with reporters, Ambassador Michael Oren placed the announcement of plans for settlement construction in the so-called “E1” tract of land in the context of the Palestinians’ successful bid Nov. 29 for enhanced United Nations status.

“We felt if the Palestinians were taking unilateral action in the UN, we had to also send the message that we could take unilateral actions,” he said.

Ambassador Oren addressed the E1 controversy in a wide-ranging discussion in which he described life for Israel in a Middle East of widespread upheaval and conflict as both “the worst of times” and – surprisingly – also “the best of times.”

He said Israel’s growing economy, strengthened relations with some of the world’s major or emerging powers, including Russia, China, and India, and a vibrant high-tech sector, make for an upbeat assessment of its future.  

Oren also characterized the announcement about E1 – a piece of land that separates the Palestinian cities of Ramallah to the north and Bethlehem to the south, even as it stands between Jerusalem and large existing Israeli settlements – as a political decision meant to address what he said was “pressure from a significant part of the Israeli electorate” to respond to the Palestinians’ UN move.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for early elections, which will take place Jan. 20.

The decision to proceed to planning and permitting for E1 construction has estranged Israel from many of its European allies and drew protests from the State Department.

A long line of Israeli leaders has considered retention of control over E1 as critical to Jerusalem’s security. But many Middle East experts say settlement construction in the E1 lands would strike the death knell of the two-state solution, because it would make any future Palestinian state unviable.

In listing the factors that make this the “worst of times” for Israel, Oren cited a daunting list: political turmoil in Egypt, with which Israel maintains a shaky peace accord; the continuing threat posed by Hamas in Gaza; the civil war in Syria, where extremists threaten to get their hands on the chemical weapons of the teetering regime of Bashar al-Assad; and Iran, and in particular its nuclear program, which Oren said continues to advance toward a point where Israel would be forced to act.

On the Syrian conflict, Oren suggested Israel is keeping very close tabs on activity around Syria’s chemical weapons sites – and warned that Israel would take immediate action at any evidence of Syria transferring any of its chemical weapons to Hezbollah, the Iranian-supported extremist organization in Lebanon.

But the Israeli diplomat also found a silver lining in the civil war that is threatening President Assad’s rule, saying “anything would be better” than the arc of extremism that he says currently links Tehran, Damascus, and Beirut.

Yet even though Assad’s fall would constitute a strategic blow to Iran, Oren said Israel continues to consider Iran’s nuclear program as the most important existential threat it faces.

Oren reminded reporters of the “red line” that Prime Minister Netanyahu laid down in his speech to the UN General Assembly in September, in which he said that Israel would not permit Iran’s nuclear program, and its enrichment of uranium, to proceed to a point where Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon could no longer be stopped.

In the weeks since Netanyahu’s speech, attention has shifted to prospects for talks early next year between Iran and world powers, and speculation that Iran may be ready to reach a deal to limit its nuclear program. But Oren made it clear that Israel will not be easily dissuaded from taking action against Iran’s nuclear sites.

Noting that Netanyahu in his speech set spring or early summer 2013 as the point where an advancing Iran would have to be deterred, Oren said, “We continue to adhere to that red line.”

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