For Israel, Shalit case is personal

Ambassador says capture resonates across the nation

NATIONAL CONNECTION Michael Oren said, 'To understand Gilad Shalit is to understand the state of Israel, and who we are.' NATIONAL CONNECTION
Michael Oren said, "To understand Gilad Shalit is to understand the state of Israel, and who we are."
By James F. Smith
Globe Staff / November 24, 2009

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Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael B. Oren, said yesterday that in his first few months on the job, one of his tasks has been to get American military commanders to understand why Israel has become so obsessively focused on winning the release of captured soldier Gilad Shalit, held by Hamas fighters in Gaza since 2006.

In an interview during his first trip to Boston since being appointed ambassador in May, Oren declined to comment on news reports suggesting that Shalit’s release could be imminent, in a swap for hundreds or even 1,000 Palestinians held in Israeli jails. Oren said there had been false alarms in the past, and he didn’t want to raise any expectations.

A historian with degrees from Princeton and Columbia, Oren said Americans don’t always understand why “when we have one prisoner from our military, the country tears its heart over it. To understand Gilad Shalit is to understand the state of Israel, and who we are.’’

Oren, who was born in New Jersey, immigrated to Israel in 1979 and served as a paratrooper in the Israeli military and as a reservist for 30 years. He said two of his children have gone into the army, as do nearly all young Israelis. “It’s not just some distant force. It’s us, it’s our family, it’s our kids. The Shalit family is our family,’’ he said.

“And even though we may have to release people who may further endanger us, we also have to know that when we send our children out to the battlefield to defend our country, should they fall captive, we’re going to do everything possible to secure their release,’’ he added.

“It’s a point of weakness that the terrorists know about, and they exploit. But it’s also our greatest strength,’’ Oren said, “because when we do have to fight, we fight to defend our families.’’

The capture of three Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah fighters on the northern border with Lebanon in 2006 triggered Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon that year.

Oren would not speculate about the potential for an improved climate for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations if Shalit were released. He said the Israeli government and the Obama administration are both committed to strengthening the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas, who heads the Fatah government in the West Bank, as the best option for reopening peace negotiations.

Oren said the US and Israeli governments have narrowed their differences over Israeli settlements and also are coordinating closely on Iran, thereby reducing tensions on two thorny issues that had strained US-Israeli relations early in President Obama’s term.

He said the Obama administration’s demand for a halt to any construction within settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank had asked more of Israel than any previous American administration, and effectively was telling “several hundred thousand people that they couldn’t build a new room. It was not just a political impossibility but a physical impossibility.’’

In recent weeks, Oren said, “I think we have come a long way toward working out a workable compromise with the Obama administration. Now it’s the problem of selling it to the Palestinians . . . to come back to the negotiating table.’’

On Iran, Oren said the administration had sought to engage Iran, but that the crackdown on election demonstrators in Iran had made the United States much more skeptical, and more closely aligned with Israel’s approach.

Oren spoke yesterday at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and was also addressing Jewish community groups during his visit to the region.