Q&A with Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren

What follows are questions for Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren from Coach Kemper and IFE Journalism Interns.

1. Q: As a historian and author, what 3 books would you recommend to high school students who wish to gain a better understanding of the world and the middle east in particular?

A: I would highly recommend The Siege, by Conor Cruise O’Brien; David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace; and Fouad Ajami’s The Arab Predicament, on Arab political thought since 1967.

2. Q: What are the day to day challenges the average Israeli high school student faces that are different from other students around the world? How do they unwind?

A: Israeli teenagers face many of the same challenges as American high school students and teenagers around the world. They work hard in school, and balance their studies with social lives. Of course, Israeli students do this with the knowledge that they’ll be joining the military at 18 and mentally prepare themselves accordingly.

3. Q: When an Israeli citizen turns 18, what are the different ways they can go about meeting their national/military service requirement? Are women given the same opportunities as men in the Israeli military?

A: The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is a conscription army. It is the people’s army, and everyone – including women and LGBT soldiers – is given an equal chance to serve in combat. It is both a duty and a privilege to serve. Women join the IDF for two years; men for three. Those who are not capable of serving can instead choose to fulfill their duty through national service projects, such as working in hospitals or senior citizens’ homes.

4. Q: If an 18-year-old has a special talent, such as being a musician or an athlete, and needs to maintain their skills through hours of practice each day, does the program allow for this?

A: Yes. While they are not exempted or released from service, special rules are applied for young talents so that they can continue to hone their skills. For instance, musicians could be drafted into the military orchestra, and athletes might be stationed near their homes so they can continue to practice. That said, they will still be serving in the IDF during this time, and will be wearing a uniform for 3 years.

5. Q: How and when do Israeli’s prepare for college?

A: Israelis are unique in that they complete their military service before entering college. They often take a year off between army and college to travel in South America or East Asia. This means that Israelis start college later in life, after they have already seen the world and experienced the structured and disciplined life of a soldier. As a result, many Israelis approach school with a maturity, focus, and sense of purpose that serves them well.

6. Q: What are your expectations for the upcoming negotiations, without preconditions, between the Palestinians and the State of Israel? In particular, given the great divide between the Palestinian factions, how can negotiations be conducted in the most productive manner?

A: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently captured the spirit necessary for successful peace talks when she stated that discussions should be “characterized by good faith”, and – as you note in your question – “without preconditions.” Negotiations will have to be about exchanging views and compromising, and not about dictating any particular outcome in advance.

Of course, there are many important issues to discuss, none of which have easy solutions. Still, there are reasons for optimism. For the first time in history, Israel’s Arab neighbors view another Middle Eastern country – Iran – as their major enemy. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is working to restore law, order, and economic prosperity in the West Bank, and he is a credible partner for peace. And President Obama has made achieving peace a top priority.

In the 1970’s, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat faced similar challenges and equally low expectations, yet overcame the odds to reach a peace that has lasted to this day. The key to their success rested in the fact that both men were dedicated to peace and determined to achieve it. Today, Prime Minister Netanyahu and the people of Israel remain committed to seeking peace. Together with Palestinian partners who are willing to recognize Israel, forswear violence, and work in good faith, we can reach a genuine agreement.

7. Q: In what ways has your background as an academic, author and historian helped you during your time as the Israeli Ambassador to the United States?

A: It is invaluable. I draw upon my background as a historian every day, using history as a source that greatly enhances my ability to understand the complexity of the US-Israel relationship.

8. Q: After being born and raised in the United States, moving to Israel and now being back in the US, do you see America differently now, and how do you think the way Americans see themselves in the world has changed?

A: My experience enables me to see America at once from the inside and the outside. I have the benefit of being able to analyze situations from both the American perspective and the Israeli perspective, and it really helps me to look at events through American eyes, as well as the eyes of a foreigner.

9. Q: How do you see events unfolding with Iran? Any hope for diplomacy?

A: The United States, along with its global partners, led a yearlong effort of diplomatic outreach toward Iran. Unfortunately, Iran rebuffed the international community’s outstretched hand at every turn, and persists in its race to acquire nuclear weapons. Iran continues to oppress its own people, harm American interests in Iraq and Afghanistan, support terrorists across the Middle East, and threaten Israel with destruction. An Iran with nuclear weapons would not only be a menace to Israel and the larger Middle East, but to the entire world.

Currently, the United States, United Nations, European Union, and other countries have all applied robust economic penalties on Iran, in the hope of encouraging changed behavior. Iran is starting to feel the effects of these sanctions, and we are hopeful that in the coming months, Iran will act in its own self-interest and change course.

10. Q: Environmental concerns top the list for many high school students around the globe. What does Israel do to address environmental issues?

A: Israel rests in the cradle of civilization, and Israelis intimately recognize the need to preserve the environment that has sustained our region and culture for millennia. Israel is the only country in the world that doubled its number of trees in the last century. Today, there are about 150 environmental NGOs working to make Israel greener and more sustainable, and last year Israel set a national goal of reducing its carbon emissions by 20 percent and getting 10 percent of its electricity from clean, renewable energy sources. Clean vehicles enjoy tax benefits and lower sale prices. And in one of my favorite projects, the country’s largest garbage pit is being transformed into Israel’s largest metropolitan park.

11. Q: Will Israel really have battery operated cars? If yes, how will Israel make this work?

A: Israel is making significant progress toward becoming a battery car capital. Locations to charge and switch batteries are being built around the country, and Israel is very well suited to do so: our population is centered in a number of major cities, and not very dispersed across great distances, making it easier to build the infrastructure that will give drivers easy access to recharge their batteries. Also, Israelis have the motivation to make this a reality – there is no country on Earth that has a stronger national security interest in reducing the global dependence on oil.

12. Q: Water is a valued resource in your region of the world. How does Israel deal with the scarcity of water? How does water affect diplomatic relations with your neighbors?

A: Israel has been a pioneer in conserving and reducing water use. After all, much of Israel is desert, and Israel has limited water supplies. Decades ago, Israeli scientists pioneered the use of “drip irrigation” to make the Negev desert blossom, and today that technology is used worldwide to conserve precious water supplies. In fact, the world’s largest drip irrigation company is Israeli, and Israel is so successful at saving water, we export hundreds of millions of dollars worth of citrus fruit to Europe every year. Israel is also at the forefront of desalination technology, boasting the world’s largest “reverse osmosis” facility. Of course, water is a critical component of Israel’s diplomacy. We work with Jordan on preserving the vitality of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. And the fact that the Sea of Galilee is Israel’s principle water source certainly affects our posture toward peace negotiations with Syria.

13. Q: According to Dan Senor and Saul Singer, coauthors of “Start-Up Nation: Israel’s Economic Miracle,” in 2008, Israel attracted 2.5 times more venture capital per capita than the United States and 30 times more than Europe. What lessons can be learned from Israel’s economic success? Why does Israel have the highest number of start-ups per capita in the world?

A: Israelis are a daring, vibrant people living in a society that rightly celebrates education, bold ideas, and innovation. Israelis are unafraid of failure, and we recognize the fruits of trying new ideas, challenging old assumptions, and pursuing big dreams. It helps that Israelis have a little chutzpah, and the same drive that helped us recreate a homeland after 2,000 years of exile makes us the ultimate “start-up” nation!

14. Q: Do you have a favorite band or composer? What sports do you enjoy playing and watching?

A: My favorite composer is Schubert. I also really love Yo-Yo Ma. I listen to a wide range of music, but I particularly like some lesser-known Irish bands – groups such as Evergreen or Danu.

I row along the Potomac, so crew is a favorite. I’m addicted to watching football.

15. Q: Are you and your wife happy you raised your children in Israel?

A: Yes, absolutely. In fact, a couple of years ago, during the height of the bombings in Jerusalem, our kids actually turned to Sally and me and thanked us for raising them in Israel.

About the author

Coach Kathy Kemper, known as “Coach” to many, is Founder and CEO of the Institute for Education, a non-profit foundation that recognizes and promotes leadership, civility, and finding common ground, locally, nationally, and in the world community.

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