Israel ‘Resilient’ but Feeling ‘Very Lonely’ Half a Year Into Gaza War, Former Ambassador Says

Israel ‘Resilient’ but Feeling ‘Very Lonely’ Half a Year Into Gaza War, Former Ambassador Says
Former Israeli Ambassador to the United States speaks with NTD's Kelly Wright at his home in Tel Aviv, Israel on April 4, 2024. (Tal Atzmon/NTD)

Since the Oct. 7 attacks, former Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren says his country has shown itself to be “the strongest and most resilient society on the planet,” but has had to contend with “feelings of loneliness” on the world stage as it continues a multi-month military campaign to defeat the Hamas terrorist group and win the release of its hostages.

The former Israeli ambassador to the United States reflected on Israel’s position in the world and the progress of its war effort in the Gaza Strip in a recent interview with NTD’s Kelly Wright as the war stretches past the six-month mark.

Mr. Oren noted some 360,000 young Israelis reported for military reserve duty after Hamas gunmen carried out an extensive surprise attack across southern Israel on Oct. 7. Some Israeli military reserve units, he remarked, had seen response rates as high as 150 percent to its call-up for the war effort.

“We are very strong. And I think that that strength is the same strength that has enabled us to survive and thrive as a people for more than 3,000 years. There’s a reason why we’re still sitting here and that strength, that internal fortitude, remarkable,” he said. “On the negative side is the feeling of loneliness. And we really feel very lonely in the world, that the world doesn’t understand us. Waves of anti-Semitism sweeping across North America, in Europe, such as we haven’t seen in many, many decades. And the feeling that we are facing potentially existential threats, which the rest of the world doesn’t appreciate.”

Much of the pushback Israel has seen around the world has focused on the rising humanitarian costs of its ongoing Gaza war effort, and the number of civilians injured and killed as the fighting continues. Some critics have argued the Israeli war effort constitutes a genocide of the Palestinian population, and the South African government has already argued that case before the United Nations’ International Court of Justice.

Israel faced renewed criticism last month after more than a hundred people were killed and hundreds more were injured during a chaotic incident along a humanitarian aid distribution route in Gaza City. Israeli military officials said Israeli troops fired warning shots as thousands of people descended on an arriving aid convoy, but insisted most of the casualties were the result of people being trampled in the crowd or even run over by the aid trucks. Palestinian human rights monitors, like the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, have insisted many in the crowd were struck by Israeli gunfire.

Israeli forces were again castigated by members of the international community last week after conducting a series of airstrikes targeting a humanitarian aid convoy operated by the World Central Kitchen (WCK), killing seven aid workers. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) dismissed two of its officers from their duties and reprimanded three more, after an IDF internal investigation concluded the April 1 strikes did not follow Israeli military standards.

Biden Admin Criticism

Mr. Oren noted President Joe Biden and members of his administration have increasingly joined in chastising Israel for its handling of the ongoing war effort, demonstrating a growing rift between the Biden administration and that of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr. Oren said President Biden initially supported the Israeli military campaign in Gaza, noting the administration has approved multiple new rounds of military aid for Israel, and has opposed U.N. resolutions pushing for ceasefire terms disfavored by the Israeli government.

“In recent months, that message has changed to a certain degree, certainly publicly, a tremendous amount of criticism about the way we’ve managed the war, claims that we’ve dehumanized the Palestinians, that we have not taken care to avoid civilian casualties,” the former ambassador said. “And I personally find these these charges very hurtful, because they’re not true.”

President Biden said he was “outraged and heartbroken” upon learning of the Israeli military strike on the WCK humanitarian aid convoy last week.

“Even more tragically, this is not a stand-alone incident,” President Biden continued. “This conflict has been one of the worst in recent memory in terms of how many aid workers have been killed. This is a major reason why distributing humanitarian aid in Gaza has been so difficult—because Israel has not done enough to protect aid workers trying to deliver desperately needed help to civilians.”

Mr. Oren said he’s concerned President Biden’s remarks could become ammunition for critics of Israel’s human rights record.

“If we are again hauled before an international criminal court, these remarks by the administration will be adduced … as exhibit A, B, and C,” he said. “So I would strongly, strongly urge the administration to cut back on these talks.”

Mr. Oren served as the ambassador to the United States from 2009 to 2013, coinciding with President Barack Obama’s administration. He’s seen “deep-seated” policy disagreements in the past between the United States and Israel.

“We can have policy differences we can,” he said. “But it’s very important to keep them behind the scenes and don’t let our mutual enemies derive benefit from them.”

Protests in Israel

Protests have grown within Israel in recent weeks, with some activists expressing frustration at Mr. Netanyahu for not having secured the release of all Israeli hostages, combined with others demanding new elections in the country.

Protest organizers recently put the number of attendees at an event in Tel Aviv at 100,000. Other events have occurred in other locations throughout the country, including outside Mr. Netanyahu’s home.

Mr. Oren—who was appointed to his ambassadorship by Mr. Netanyahu—cautioned against taking the growing Israeli protests as a sample of broader Israeli public opinion.

“We had a big protest about Netanyahu this week, about 100,000 people came out. It’s impressive for a society of our size. But keep in mind, you know, 100,000 people protesting meant that 9.8 million people weren’t protesting. Keep that in mind,” he said. “You have the hostage families, protesting. It’s not all the hostages families … Not all the hostage families want to join with the protesters against [Mr. Netanyahu]. They want to keep it apolitical or non-political.”

While acknowledging the anti-Netanyahu protests have focused heavily on his efforts to free hostages, Mr. Oren insisted this is not reflective of a movement specifically opposed to the Israeli war effort in the Gaza Strip.

Mr. Netanyahu and several of his allies in government have insisted their wartime goal is to win the release of hostages taken on Oct. 7 and also to ensure the total defeat of Hamas. Mr. Oren argued balancing these two wartime objectives can be a challenging task and the debate within Israeli society has focused on how to strike that balance.

“I have members of my family who say we should forget about the war and just focus on the hostages, because if we don’t get the hostages back, these family members will not be able to send their children to the army. Other members of my family say if we don’t destroy Hamas, they won’t have an army to send their kids to. And they’re both right.”

The former ambassador said balancing the freeing of hostages and the destruction of Hamas can be a “painful contradiction,” but that “we have no choice.”

Hostage Negotiations

The Netanyahu government is currently in a standoff with Hamas negotiators over what the Israeli side is willing to give up for the return of its hostages.

The Netanyahu government has offered to give Hamas a temporary reprieve in exchange for the release of some of the hostages. By contrast, Hamas negotiators have insisted on a more permanent ceasefire, with Israeli troops withdrawing altogether from the Gaza Strip, effectively requiring the Israeli side to end the war without achieving its goal of totally defeating Hamas.

“Israel can afford a temporary ceasefire in exchange for hostages. Israel cannot afford a permanent unconditional ceasefire,” Mr. Oren said. “Permanent ceasefire means that Hamas wins, means Hamas gets away with mass murder. Permanent, unconditional ceasefire means that Hamas comes out of the tunnels, declares victory, reasserts control over Gaza, rearms, regroups, and mounts the next deadly attack.”

The former ambassador said the Netanyahu government is willing to accept the risk of Hamas rearming during a temporary ceasefire, but not a deal that requires it to abandon one of its wartime objectives.

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