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Israel Warily Watches Arab Turmoil


After leaving Egypt, Secretary Gates traveled to Israel, his second time there as Defense secretary. He talked with Israeli officials about taking action on the stalled peace process, the spike in violence and civil uprisings in the Middle East.

The unrest in the region presents Israel with an array of security concerns. Given the specter of threats from potentially hostile neighbors, Michael Oren is Israel's ambassador to the United States. He joins us in our Washington, D.C. studios. We'll stipulate this interview was taped on Friday.

Ambassador, thanks so much for being with us.

MICHAEL OREN: Pleasure to be here. Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: There's a lot of ferment in Israel's neighborhood.

OREN: A bit.

SIMON: How - what does Israel make of it? I mean, how do they feel about what's going on?

OREN: Well, we look around at what's happening in Egypt, Tunisia, and the Persian Gulf, now in Syria most recently, with the sense of guarded hope. We know functionally that democracies are better at peacekeeping and peacemaking than dictatorships.

With that, we've had some bad experience with democratic revolutions in the area, in Lebanon, in Iran, and most recently in Gaza, where democratic movements began and they were soon hijacked by the only organizations that were well-funded and focused and led, and those were the Islamic extremist organizations, and they took over in those areas.

SIMON: Is Libya with or without Moammar Gadhafi more or less threatening to Israel?

OREN: Well, with Moammar Gadhafi it was certainly a threat. Gadhafi has been a sponsor of terror in the past. Scarcely an Israeli who would express any remorse if he were to disappear from the scene. Again, it's a situation where we don't know what kind of government would emerge in his absence. If there's a vacuum there, we have good reason to believe the opposition in Libya is influenced by democratic values and wants a more open and free society, that those opposition elements be given a chance to organize and focus themselves.

SIMON: Are there generational differences in some of these questions in Israel?

OREN: I think the younger generation is unfortunately less hopeful. For them the Oslo period of 1993, to say nothing of the Sadat visit in 1977 is ancient history.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

OREN: They have grown up with suicide bombers. They've grown up in the shelters. Now that has a big impact on a young person, and they look at that and people talk of peace and, you know, their old man comes and says I think there's an opportunity for peace with the Palestinians; we have to keep working for it. And there is a tendency for them to say: Peace? These people are shooting at us. You know, maybe you're living back in the '60s, dad. They say...

SIMON: I mean because I have to interject. You, you know, of course, there are Palestinian youngsters, the contemporary...

OREN: Exactly.

SIMON: ...of your children who have very similar stories growing up in bomb shelters, Israeli planes overhead being rousted at Israeli checkpoints. They have their stories too.

OREN: Yeah, I understand that and I share that concern that we have a generation on both sides that has known nothing but. When I speak to Arab young people or Jewish students in this country, I say, just remember that when I was sitting where you're sitting, the thought that the president of Egypt would get on an airplane and land in Tel Aviv speak at the Knesset, we would have looked at you like someone that's crazy if someone had told us that.

The fact that the major issue in the Arab world, which was once how best can we destroy Israel, has become how best can we make peace with Israel? Or that the majority of Israelis who once thought that the greatest danger to Israel would be the creation of a Palestinian state, which today supports the creation of a Palestinian state would have been unthinkable when I was a student. So it's very important to maintain that hope, and it's very important to maintain the historical perspective.

SIMON: Michael Oren, Israeli ambassador to the United States in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

OREN: Great pleasure, Scott.


SIMON: And you're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.