Michael Oren on the Palestinian Authority’s Status at the UN

Transcript provided courtesy of NPR’s All Things Considered

Audio available here.

Guy Raz (Host of NPR News’ All Things Considered): Before the break, we heard from Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad on what an upgraded status at the U.N. means for the Palestinian Authority. Israel and the U.S. strongly opposed that resolution. We asked Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, why his government sees it as a threat.

Michael Oren (Israeli Ambassador to the US): Because it represents an end run to the peace process. You know, the Palestinian Authority signed on agreements with Israel that said that there’d be no alternative to direct negotiations. The only way to reach a two-state solution for two people was for Israelis and Palestinians to sit and to work out the very complex issues between us. If you just run to the U.N. and declare that you’re a state, you get the territory without giving the peace, you really haven’t advanced the peace process. You’ve set it back.

Those are also violations of the Palestinians commitments to the United States. The United States is cosignatory to these agreements that say that there’s no alternative to direct negotiations, and that’s why President Obama also opposed the Palestinian move in the United Nations.

More after the jump.

RAZ: How, though, will nonmember observer status substantively change the political equation?

OREN: Well, they really won’t. And the only way it could be changed is if the Palestinians try to use this nonmember status in the General Assembly as a means of going to international bodies like the International Criminal Court and try to accuse Israel of war crimes; in which case, that will force us to take countermeasures that we don’t want to take. Actually, what we want to do…

RAZ: Countermeasures, what do you mean?

OREN: Well, the Palestinian Authority – President Abbas has now claimed he is the president of a state that includes the Gaza Strip. And the Gaza Strip is an organization called Hamas that has fired thousands of rockets against millions of Israeli citizens. Now, that is a war crime by any definition. And we could take him to an international court and accuse him of war crimes too.

We don’t want to do that. We want to negotiate with him. And if he declares his state and it’s a symbolic measure, if he keeps it as a symbolic measure and sits down and negotiate with us, he’ll find us to be a ready and eager partner and very anxious to reach this two-state solution.

RAZ: You say this just as news has come out this week of several thousand more housing units to be developed in the West Bank territory that the Palestinians see as their future state. So I mean, put yourself in their shoes for a moment. They have seen these settlements expand and expand and expand throughout this peace process, or so-called peace process, for the past 20 years, and it hasn’t really changed. I mean, they don’t have what they have sought. What other options do they have at this point? I mean, what else can a Palestinian leader do?

OREN: The settlements altogether take up something less than 2 percent of the entire West Bank. But settlements are part of the border issue, the part of the territorial issues. Those are one of what we call the core issues that have to be discussed at the negotiating table. But…

RAZ: And if they keep on expanding during these non-discussions, doesn’t it make it harder to dismantle them?

OREN: We understand that the Palestinians don’t like settlement expansion. We get it. But there are many things the Palestinians do that we don’t like. They name town squares after suicide bombers. They instruct their kids…

RAZ: But that’s easier to change than a settlement.

OREN: But they haven’t changed it. And it’s educating a young generation that Israel has no legitimacy, that terror is the way to approach Israel, rather than peace negotiations. It’s a serious problem. We don’t make it a precondition. We say, come, all right, let’s talk about it. Let’s sit at the table. We don’t like some of the things you do. We understand that you don’t like some of the things we do.

That’s the nature of negotiations. We are willing to discuss everything. Everything’s on the table, and just join us. The last four years, they’ve been refusing to join us. You ask what the Palestinians can do – they can negotiate.

RAZ: But what incentive do they have, Ambassador, I mean, if the settlement expansion is so problematic to them and many countries in the international community would argue it’s a violation of international law, why would they negotiate under those circumstances?

OREN: We froze settlement negotiations, settlement expansions, for 10 months in an attempt to induce the Palestinians to come to the negotiating table. They did not avail themselves at that time. So even when we freeze settlements, they’re not negotiating. They may not be negotiating for many reasons, perhaps related to some of the changes going on in the Middle East.

But we strongly believe that the only way for the Palestinians to change the reality on the ground, to actually have a real Palestinian state, not a virtual Palestinian state, the great way to respond to Hamas, to terror, which cannot give the Palestinians any future other than continued strife, which is not investing in education, which is not investing in infrastructure, the only way to do that is through genuine peace. And the only way to reach genuine peace is through direct and candid negotiations.

RAZ: That’s Michael Oren. He’s Israel’s ambassador to the United States. He joined me here in the studio. Ambassador, thank you.

OREN: Thank you, Guy. Good to be with you.

Film Chat: One of the Lamed Vav

— by Hannah Lee

With much difficulty and the necessity of a personal courier to hunt for it in Israel, my shul, Lower Merion Synagogue, was able to screen the documentary film, One of the Lamed Vav, about the life of Rav Aryeh Levin, whose biography was titled, A Tzaddik In Our Time. (Lamed Vav refers to the 36 righteous people hidden in our midst, according to mystical lore.) Our Rabbi Emeritus, Abraham Levene, then spoke about his esteemed grandfather to an audience of seniors. I took privilege in attending, although I was not a member of the target audience.  

More after the jump.
I’d read the 1976 biography A Tzaddik In Our Time but the new documentary filled in for me the early years of Rav Aryeh’s life and how he became known as the “Tzaddik of Jerusalem” and one of modern Israel’s most beloved icons, known for his great acts of chesed (loving kindness) for prisoners, lepers, and the poor. He died in 1969, but people still tell stories about Rav Aryeh.  Israel used his image on postage stamps in 1982.

Aryeh Levin was born on March 22, 1885 near the village of Urla, near Bialystok, in northern Lithuania. He was tutored by local teachers until the age of 12, and then left home to attend the great yeshivas of Eastern Europe in Slonim, Slutsk, and Volozhin.  His passion for Eretz Yisrael led him to study with Abraham Isaac Kook, later the Chief Rabbi of Palestine.

In one of his most renown roles, Rav Aryeh was the unofficial chaplain (he refused to be paid) for the Jewish political prisoners– members of the Palmach, Haganah, Irgun or Lehi who were fighting for Israeli independence– held during the British Mandate in the 1930’s. As these individuals dared not implicate their families, they had no means of communication with their loved ones. Walking long distances, Rav Aryeh would walk from his home in the Nachlaot neighborhood to the Central Prison in the Russian compound, then deliver messages to the prisoners’ families all over Jerusalem, offering words of comfort and hope. The former prisoners who were interviewed for the documentary were effusive in their praise of a man who was so gentle and loving; he inspired them all to become better people with his mere presence and kind words.

The documentary film, One of the Lamed Vav, has interviews with two grandsons, Rabbi David Levin and his cousin, Rabbi Benjamin (Benji) Levene as well as others, both in prominent positions as well as elderly folks interviewed on the streets. The two grandsons spoke about how their grandfather helped them find their niche in life– the former as chaplain in the Israeli Defense Forces, the latter for work bridging secular and religious Jews through his work with Gesher– as well as a continued source of inspiration and chizuk (strength), such as managing one’s anger in the face of verbal attacks.

Simcha Raz, the author of A Tzaddik In Our Time, was interviewed on the documentary and he recalled that on one of his last visits with Rav Aryeh, he asked if Rav Aryeh thought of himself as one of the Lamed Vavniks.  Sometimes, said the latter, because it’s not a permanent role and one could fulfill a necessary task and revert to being an ordinary person.  How inspiring is that for all of us?  We, too, could have our moment of divine mission and rise to the occasion!

Spiritual leader of Lower Merion Synagogue for 40 years, Rabbi Avraham Levene told me how his family’s name got changed: They were visiting his maternal grandparents in England when World War II broke out. He was traveling on his mother’s visa (being so young) and her name was spelled Levene.  His father’s name was Anglicized Lewen (in Hebrew, Lamed Vav or Lev), so to avoid the confusion of multiple names, his family adopted the spelling of Levene. After the war, they moved to the United States where his father had a pulpit position and there they stayed until the father retired back in his beloved Israel. Abraham Yitzhak was 15 when he traveled by himself to visit his grandfather, Rav Aryeh, who cried when they met– Abraham Yitzhak being the eldest grandchild of his eldest surviving son. The stories that my Rabbi Levene tell are of the time spent living with his grandfather, in a simple one-room home, where love and faith were the guiding principles.

Rabbi Benji Levene, younger brother of my Rabbi, has published a story about their grandfather, “The Escort,” in the 2011 book Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning, edited by Philadelphia Jewish Voice Religion Editor, Rabbi Goldie Milgram and Ellen Frankel with Peninnah Schram.

The biography of Rav Aryeh Levin, A Tzaddik In Our Time, by Simcha Raz is now out-of-print but it can still be ordered through Amazon; the DVD is not yet available for distribution in the United States.