Israela Oron, Fmr. Israeli General, Says Engaging Hamas Critical To Mideast Peace

The Huffington Post recently sat down with the former deputy of Israel's National Security Council Brig. Gen (Ret.) Israela Oron to discuss prospects for peace efforts between the Israelis and Palestinians, how to engage Hamas, recent allegations against the Israeli army during the Gaza conflict, and the political crisis in Iran. Gen. Oron, currently an analyst and commentator on security and strategic affairs, also had a lengthy military career and served as Commander of the Israeli Defense Forces' Women's Corp.

You support a non-military approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. How will that be achieved, and what will a solution to the crisis look like to you?

That would entail us not using violence in order to get to a solution. Rather we will negotiate to come to a compromise. Everybody will have to give up something. The Palestinians will have a state of their own, with their own borders. But Palestinians will have to give up the idea of a right of return. Palestinians will have to accept that Israel exists and is the homeland of the Jewish people. Israelis will have to compromise about the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem.

In your view, how should the Israelis and Palestinians compromise over Jerusalem?

I don't want to use the term to "share" Jerusalem. But there are Arabic parts of Jerusalem that will be part of the future Palestinian state.

Much of the international community including the United States and Britain have come out strongly against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's construction plans in east Jerusalem. Do you also condemn Netanyahu for this?

I am not in a position to condemn anybody. However, if the attitude of my government is towards peace, we need to act in a way that will prove our good intentions. We should prevent anything that will be another obstacle -- there are enough obstacles already -- to get there. Doing changes and building in areas that everybody knows will be a future Palestinian state will be a big mistake.

You have written about the need for Israel to engage Hamas. How should Israel go about doing this?

Hamas is really the bottleneck. When we cut a deal with Fatah, what will happen with the other half of the population in Gaza? Theoretically, we could sign an agreement with Fatah and hopefully Hamas will join later. We could also completely ignore Hamas. And the third option is to find a way to bring Hamas in. Since Hamas is refusing the Quartet conditions, this is a problem. This is what diplomacy is for -- to find a way to engage Hamas. A third party, which is somebody that has an influence on Hamas, must be involved. It could be countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Turkey

The Arab Peace Initiative is not only the best way to deal with Hamas, it is the only way. If we want to sign an agreement with a Palestinian government we have to deal with a government that represents all the people.

Why shouldn't Israel engage Hamas directly?

Because Israelis, even the ones seeking peace, are not suicidal. I am willing to deal with Hamas if it accepts basic demands that I can live in Israel as a Jew. If they say that they want to destroy Israel, I have a great difficulty to deal with them.

Why shouldn't the United States be the one to engage Hamas?

We expect Hamas to accept certain obligations -- Hamas basically supports and has conducted terror acts against Israel. Under those circumstances one cannot accept Hamas as a partner to dialogue. But if Hamas would agree to stop using violence, recognize Israel and respect past agreements with Israel it will change the situation.

Hamas is a big issue, and the Arab Peace Initiative is the only way to deal with it. I don't think any other country is able or willing to deal with it.

The problem with the Arab Peace Initiative is that the prize for Israel lies at the end of the road. If we make peace with the Palestinians, and the Syrians and the Lebanese, than the Arab League will make peace with Israel. But if it was so easy to make peace, it would have happened a while ago. We need the help of the Arabs not only afterwards, we need their help along the way to get there.

The Arab Peace Initiative doesn't want to deal with [the three big obstacles to peace -- borders between Israel and the future Palestinian state, Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees]. They want to deal with the final result. We need their help now.

A group of former Israeli soldiers recently formed a group called Breaking the Silence and released a report in which they accused the Israeli army of being reckless during the Gaza war, using Palestinians as human shields and committing war crimes. As someone who spent much of your career in the army, what did you think of its actions during the Gaza conflict? Do you think the Israeli army has changed over the years and lost respect for Palestinian life?

In Israel, almost every Israeli Jew and some Muslims serve in the military. We have a compulsory service. It is different from the US. There is a soldier almost in every family. Soldiers come home, they are telling their families. You cannot keep secrets in Israel. If those acts were done the way it was published, everybody would have known it.

The Israeli military has basic codes, which every soldier is obligated to. This is something I truly believe. Intentionally hurting people is something that is not done. The only way for me to explain [the Breaking the Silence allegations] is there are some situations when you are very afraid, and you don't know where [an attack] will come from -- [soldiers] can make the wrong choices. I refuse to believe that somebody did those things on purpose. And if somebody did, he should be punished severely -- the most severe punishment -- and it should be published so that other Israeli soldiers know that this is not to be done.

What do you make of allegations that the Israeli army is shifting to the right?

In my opinion, there is no shift to the right in the public, and the army reflects the public. I believe there is a shift to the center, from the left to the center and from the right to the center. Twenty years ago, nobody in Likud was talking about a two-state solution.

Ethan Bronner with the New York Times wrote a piece in March about a clash within the Israeli army between secular liberals and religious nationalists. Do you see religious nationalists having a growing impact on the army?

No, I have not seen that. What is seen in Israeli media as a new religious trend is very bad for the military, because it contradicts the fundamental thing the IDF was built upon. Soldiers should obey their commanders regardless how religious they are and what religion they belong to. If you bring in the religion component to military considerations, it becomes a mess. Another example are male soldiers refusing to serve with female soldiers because their rabbis say so.

Bronner's article also states that some rabbis in the army portrayed the Gaza conflict as a religious war.

Our war is not a religious war. Our war is about the existence of the state of Israel as it was established in 1948 to be a homeland for the Jewish people. This is wrong -- very wrong -- to try to present our war as a religious war. This is against everything we believe in.

What are your views on how the Iranian crisis affects Israel?

It is very clear that Iran is using Israel as an excuse for many things. Using Israel is very popular among extreme Muslim countries. I think the only way to change Iran's policy is to make Iran understand it will be in a better position if they will cooperate with the world with regard to the nuclear project. But Israel is not the only country threatened by Iran. Iran is a problem for all the region. And not only to the region!

If Iranians leaders will not respond in a positive way, the Western world has enough means to convince them that they are better off to cooperate.

How has the crackdown in Iran affected relations between Iran and Israel, and Iran and the West?

This is a very delicate situation. On the one hand, it is clear that in Iran there is a viable opposition, and people there are seeking more liberalization. The reaction of this regime is to use violence against it. But since the regime has not changed, this is the regime one has to deal with. This is a tough call for every country in the world that believes in democracy. We should try to find a reasonable approach that will prevent Iran from using violence against other countries and within Iran.

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