This past weekend, Israel’s 10-month moratorium on West Bank settlement construction ended, jeopardizing the recently resumed peace talks with the Palestinians. Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren discussed the progress of the talks, the nuclear threat from Iran and other issues on Tuesday with USA TODAY’s Editorial Board. The following Q&A is adapted from that session and edited for length and clarity.
Question: With the end of the settlement moratorium, and the threat by Palestinians to walk away from the negotiating table, where do the peace talks stand?
Answer: Everyone’s interested in where we go from here and whether the talks will be resumed next week. It’s a very easy answer: “I don’t know.”
Q: What steps are you taking to try to keep the talks going?
A: We are in close contact with the (Obama) administration, exploring ways in which we could devise things that could keep the Palestinians at the table, through various confidence-building measures. … I personally am optimistic, but I can’t say that my optimism is shared by everybody. I just feel like the process has gained some sort of inexorable momentum and that if we can get over this hurdle, I think we can move swiftly.
Q: If you can get by the dispute over the settlements, then what would happen?
A: The obvious issue would be the border issue (regarding boundaries in a two-state solution). But the border issue is almost a subcategory of the security issue. Our security issues are for the demilitarization of the Palestinian state, that it won’t have missiles that it can fire into our cities. Also, we’re concerned about the ability of the Palestinian state to sign treaties with Iran, treaties with hostile enemies. We want defensible borders, but we also understand the need for a viable Palestinian state.
Q: Do you want that for the West Bank or for Gaza as well?
A: We are proceeding under the assumption that some day Gaza will be part of this deal. Right now, it’s not part of this deal because it’s under Hamas. So when President Obama talks about a contiguous Palestinian state, that has two meanings. One, it means there being no settlement blocks dividing the Palestinian state, but also that there be some kind of connection between West Bank and Gaza.
Q: That’s been the strategy for a while. Do you see any sign that it would cause people in Gaza to dispose of the Hamas government?
A: No, not yet. Hamas has now been reinforced politically by Turkey, it continues to receive immense support from Iran, and Iran is perceived in the region as the country that’s standing up to the West, standing up to Israel. They had a lot of popularity in the Arab street.