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Embassy Row: The best and the worst

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Israel may be surrounded by hostile nations that want to destroy it, but its ambassador in Washington still holds out hope for the future.

Ambassador Michael Oren cited Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities" on Tuesday, when he spoke with reporters at a lunch hosted by the Christian Science Monitor at the Hay-Adams Hotel.

"To paraphrase Dickens, this is the best of times and the worst of times. I'll start with the worst," he said.

Mr. Oren then offered a tour of terrorist threats that face Israel from Egypt's Sinai Desert in the southwest, to the Gaza Strip in the west, to Lebanon and Syria in the north, and Iran far to the east — but armed with missiles that can hit Israel.

The overthrow of Egypt's autocratic leader, Hosni Mubarak, last year led to a "power vacuum" now filled by the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Cairo and various terrorist groups in the Sinai, he said.

Mubarak had upheld the 1978 Camp David Accords that established formal relations between Israel and Egypt.

Israel last month fought an eight-day war against militants in the Gaza Strip, ruled by Hamas terrorists dedicated to the destruction of Israel and the eradication of Jews worldwide.

Hamas and ally Islamic Jihad fired more than 700 rockets at Israeli civilian targets over the summer and spring before Israel retaliated with massive airstrikes that destroyed Hamas military and government sites and killed top Hamas leaders.

"We left Hamas greatly impaired," Mr. Oren said.

He said the Israeli government, which supports the creation of a Palestinian state that respects Israel's right to exist, regrets the Hamas takeover of the coastal region, which Israel had occupied until it withdrew troops in 2005.

"We think it's tragic that the people of Gaza don't have better leadership," Mr. Oren said of Hamas. "They are not interested in any future except future conflict."

Israel also worries about the 21-month uprising in Syria, where President Bashar Assad may resort to chemical weapons to crush a rebel army.

Mr. Assad is "ruthless and reckless" and maintains a "strategic alliance" with Iran, Mr. Oren said. He called Syria part of a "strategic arch from Iran to Lebanon," ruled by pro-Iranian Hezbollah militants who often try to provoke Israel into war by firing rockets into northern towns.

On Iran, Mr. Oren said international sanctions have hurt the economy but have had "no impact" on its suspected nuclear weapons program. He said Iran will "spark a [nuclear] arms race throughout" the Middle East if it is allowed to develop the bomb.

After detailing the threats to Israel, Mr. Oren pivoted to promote developments he cited as evidence of "the best of times" for Israel.

He insisted that President Obama is "deeply committed to the defense of Israel," despite reports that the president repeatedly was dismissive of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Republican challenger Mitt Romney was welcomed warmly on a visit to Israel during the presidential campaign, but Mr. Oren said Mr. Netanyahu greeted Mr. Romney as he welcomed Mr. Obama when he visited Israel during the 2008 campaign.

"We went to great lengths to keep out of the American presidential elections," the ambassador insisted.

Mr. Oren said Israel values its relationship with the United States and is proud of its broad bipartisan support in Congress.

He praised Israel's anti-missile defense system, called "Iron Dome," noting that it is the only such system tested in combat when it shot down scores of rockets fired by Hamas during the recent conflict.

The ambassador also cited Israel's "robust economy" as a reason to see a brighter future. The economy is growing about 3 percent and exports are soaring, especially to China, Russia and Europe.

"We are selling wine to France and caviar to Russia," he said.

Mr. Oren noted that foreign investors are attracted to Israel because of its stable democracy and well-educated people. "And the food is great," he added.

Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297 or email jmorrison@washingtontimes.com. The column is published on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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