In an interview in his office Tuesday, Israel's ambassador to the United States warned that Iran might unleash a wave of terrorist violence in the Middle East in retaliation for the tough new sanctions that passed the U.S. Congress last week.
"What better way to divert attention from a sanctions regime than by starting another Middle East war?" the ambassador, historian and author Michael Oren, asked. Iran might respond to severe restrictions on its ability to buy gasoline and finance its state-owned companies by returning to the negotiating table, or use its connections to Hezbollah and Hamas to fight back by having those groups attack Israel and perhaps others, Oren said.
"The next step is not to fall into that trap," Oren said, arguing that the international community shouldn't be deterred from enforcing the sanctions. The question would then be who can hold out longer, the international community-or the regime in Tehran.
The sanctions might work to convince Iranian leaders to change their calculus over their nuclear program, if the energy measures are enforced, Oren said. The test of whether the sanctions are having an effect will be if the Iranian regime reacts, either by coming back to the negotiating table or waging a proxy war on Israel or the West.
CIA Director Leon Panetta said Sunday that Iran was likely two years away from having a nuclear weapon. Without getting into specifics, Oren said Israeli estimates "dovetail" with U.S. intelligence conclusions, but that Israel believes that Iran has made the decision to weaponize nuclear material, while U.S. officials have only concluded that Tehran is on that path.
He said he did not believe that the Obama administration was meeting in any way with Hamas, as some in the militant group have reportedly claimed. Oren said that no one should deal with Hamas, which he called a "genocidal, racist organization."
Iran and Hamas will be near the top of the agenda next week when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu comes to Washington. On July 6, Netanyahu will meet with Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates before moving on to New York. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will still be on her Europe trip.
One key aim of the short visit will be to show that the U.S.-Israel relationship is healthy and that the White House isn't avoiding a public embrace of the Israeli government.
"There will be a big public component of this trip that will remove any perception of snubbery," Oren said. "There's going to be a lot of photographers," he joked, referring to the fact that at the last Obama-Netanyahu meeting, no pictures were ever taken -- and the two leaders' conversation was widely reported to be tense and unproductive.
A shift, not a rift
Oren also responded to reports that he told a private group that U.S.-Israel relations were "are in a state of tectonic rift in which continents are drifting apart."
He acknowledged that the U.S. approach to Israel had changed since President Obama took office, but said that it has both positive and negative consequences for an Israel that is adapting to the new atmosphere.
"The Obama administration is not a status-quo administration; it came in with a policy of change," Oren said. "It's not headed in a direction of abandonment, it's a shift and our job is to figure where that shift is going and how to adapt."
He also predicted that as the Obama administration gets more experience in dealing with Middle East politics, it will slowly but surely come back around to agreeing with more and more of Israel's positions.
"My working assumption is that any encounter by American policymakers with Middle East realities almost invariably redounds to Israel's favor," he said.
Oren pushed back at reports that senior Obama administration officials are all over the map on Israel policy. The conventional wisdom pits National Security Advisor Jim Jones and U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice as advocating a tougher line, while Biden and the National Security Council's Dennis Ross are said to be more inclined toward the Israeli position. According to Oren, in private communications, the messages are all identical.
Oren's real worry is not the White House, but Democrats in Congress. "My deep concern is that American support of Israel will become a partisan issue," he said, referring to a Jan. 26 letter urging Israel to ease the Gaza blockage that was signed by 54 Democrats and zero Republicans.
Oren said he was discomforted by attempts from some Republican quarters calling Obama "anti-Israel". He also said that statements from Democrats immediately after the flotilla incident were often harsher on Israel than Republican ones.
What's next for Gaza
Meanwhile, the Obama administration is still seeking further "adjustments" in Israel's Gaza blockade, Oren said, including opening additional border crossings, giving a greater role to the Palestinian Authority, and adding international observers, perhaps from the European Union.
Israel would love to see more of a Palestinian Authority presence in Gaza, but opening another crossing or adding EU monitors is dangerous, he warned.
"We've had EU observers there before. Hamas threatened them, and they ran away," Oren said. "If you send them to Gaza, they're likely to get killed."
Oren said the Gaza blockade was not just vital to Israel's security, but vital for the pursuit of a two-state solution as well.
"Once you open up the sea lanes to Gaza, that spells the end of the peace process," he said.
He defended the Israeli-led investigation into the Gaza flotilla incident as a "South Korea-style investigation" on a smaller scale, referring to the international team that, in conjunction with South Korean experts, determined that Pyongyang was responsible for sinking a South Korean naval vessel.
Oren said the Israeli government has no idea if U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will launch or support a new international investigation on top of the Israeli probe. He also said he has never asked, nor has he been told, whether the Obama administration would vigorously oppose such an investigation if and when it surfaces.
"Why make an issue of something that's not even happening as far as we know?" Oren said, explaining Israeli thinking on the subject. "To the best of our knowledge, the U.S. is saying that our investigation fulfills the request for transparency and international participation."