A peaceful Middle East without border disputes or nuclear threats seems impossible to achieve. But it isn’t, said Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren during Monday’s "Meet The Press at SIS" event.
In a spirited discussion with political talk show host and School of International Service alumnus David Gregory, Oren encouraged the audience to remain hopeful that peace would ultimately win out in the tumultuous region.
"Peacemaking takes leadership. It takes vision. Above all it takes guts," Oren said.
Middle East peace, in particular the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was a topic that couldn’t be avoided, especially when looking through the prism of John F. Kennedy’s "Strategy of Peace" speech and whether it was applicable in today’s Middle East.
The discussion began with a nod to Kennedy. He was the first American president to provide Israel with weapons, Oren said. He was also the first American president to meet with his Israeli counterpart. For their part, Israel has the only Kennedy memorial in the Middle East — Yad Kennedy, near Jerusalem — Oren said.
The conversation then moved to the topic of nuclear war and the distinct threat posed by an Iranian regime seeking nuclear capabilities. Because Iran is the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world, Oren said, the gravity of a nuclear Iran cannot be overstated.
"If [Iran] acquires a nuclear weapon, then the terrorists get the capability. And how do you defend the world from that?" Oren asked.
Oren contrasted what is happening in the Middle East now with the events of the Cold War. Whereas the Cold War was a "bipolar" conflict, the situation in the Middle East with Iran, Syria, and other shaky governments has created a "multipolar, unstable, possible nuclear region."
"What follows if Iran gets a nuclear weapon?" Gregory asked Oren.
"Then the window for diplomacy is not open for long," Oren replied.
Gregory then moved on to ask what relevant lessons could be gleaned from Kennedy’s speech. Oren was emphatic that peace was a precondition to any deals made in the region and that getting rid of weapons of mass destruction — a plank in Kennedy’s political platform — was the ultimate goal.
"Israel has the most skin in the game. If anyone does anything against Iran, they will exact vengeance on us," Oren said.
Oren, a historian trained at Princeton, offered regional context and urged the audience to consider history when evaluating conflicts in the Middle East. Israel, which achieved nationhood in 1948, is a Jewish state surrounded by Arab countries, many of which have borders created in 1916 by secret European deals as a part of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
He went on to explain that many of the wars in the region were not part of any Arab- Israeli conflict, but rather a product of the "unraveling of an order that was created by the Europeans" without regard for ethnic communities or tribal allegiances.
"It’s forced a lot of rethinking on our part, and certainly for our American allies, about how we’re going to grapple with the future and the tremendous amount of uncertainty," Oren said. "We hope for the emergence of coherent, peace-loving democratic governments in countries throughout the entire Middle East."
Oren proceeded to outline ways his government was working to positively effect change in the region and what it would take to achieve peace with the Palestinians.
After a lively question and answer session, which included queries posted to Twitter, Oren left the crowd with one message about the Middle East.
"Things can improve. They can move for the better," he said. "Don’t lose hope."