Should Israel Depend on the US? (with Michael Oren)
Feb 5 2024

Depositphotos_8705801_S-300x300.jpgFor decades, American aid to Israel has sent a strategic message: the greatest superpower in the world stands behind the Jewish state. But does it really? Historian and former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren tells EconTalk's Russ Roberts that it's time for Israel to stop accepting U.S. foreign aid. He also explains why he's optimistic about Israel's future even as the Gaza War drags on.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Shalom Freedman
Feb 5 2024 at 9:52am

This is one of the best of the conversations I have listened to on Econtalk. Michael Oren’s experience as historian of the Middle East, as ambassador of Israel to the United States, as ordinary citizen and soldier of Israel for over fifty years give him an unusual depth of understanding not only of Israel and the Middle East but also of American-Israel relations. His optimism about the future of Israel at this most difficult time is based on a real understanding of the development of Israel since its founding. In speaking of the current conflict with Hamas he rejects the criticisms commonly made in the major media of the world and gives evidence showing that Israel’s Army is in fact most careful about protecting the non-combatant citizens of the other side. He understands the difficulties that Israeli soldiers face in confronting a ruthless immoral enemy that hides behind not only its own civilians. He is troubled by the zigzagging policies of the United States in dealing with the Middle East and the reluctance of recent US Administrations to truly confront the mastermind state Iran which through its proxies is working to drive the United States from the Middle East. He understands the goal of the Islamic radical fundamentalists whether Shiite or Sunnite is not a state for the Palestinians but domination first of the Middle East and then the world. He argues at the beginning of the conversation that Israel should in time reduce greatly the strings-attached aid it receives from the US as it now strong enough economically and militarily to manage without this. He gives a clear description of the unique dilemma Israel faces now in its needing to both defeat Hamas militarily and redeem the more than one -hundred hostages still in Hamas hands. He does not prophesy how this will turn out but has an optimism based on how many crises Israel has faced and come through in the seventy-five years of its existence as a state.



William Hope
Feb 5 2024 at 12:32pm

As an outsider it’s been interesting to hear these podcasts on Israel, although the level of substance in the podcasts has slipped from the extremely high standards. Things like “arguing” over impossible to measure wartime statistics (or comparing morality!) wouldn’t normally fly on the program. I’m hopeful the level of discourse will improve as time goes on, but I have no idea if critical discussions about the topic are allowed culturally or legally.

It seemed like this episode was focused on addressing an Israeli audience with the aid argument, which seemed compelling to an outsider like myself, but the rest of it mostly devolved into something you might see on the news in the US.

Robert W Tucker
Feb 5 2024 at 5:39pm

Your comments were more or less in my head when I opened this URL to voice my opinion. Beyond agreeing with your opinion, I can only add that I feel some disappointment that Russ is positioning this and a few previous unidimensional discussions on Israel as if they took place under the same standards of skepticism and objectivity that have come to characterize EconTalk programs over the years. I hope we see a reversal soon.

Hunter McDaniel
Feb 5 2024 at 5:54pm

I’m still hoping for an episode that digs into the judicial reform controversy and explains the undercurrents which made it such a flashpoint.

Feb 5 2024 at 6:06pm

It’s so funny when people say “what about America’s war in Iraq?” Don’t they remember how poorly America’s war was received internationally? What was notable about the “coalition of the willing” was how small it was, after GB and Australia it was “what about Poland?” France and Germany criticized us relentlessly. Our allies told us we were destabilizing the Middle East and playing into Iran’s hands. U.S. public opinion has changed over the years to side with the opposition to war. Both major parties are putting forth candidates that now view the war in Iraq as a mistake.

I don’t think it’s a good analogy for Israel. We weren’t actually attacked by Iraq, Israel was attacked by Hamas. We weren’t under real threat from Iraq, Israel is.

But I just think it’s strange to cite American foreign policy when arguing Israel is being treated unfairly by the international community, when the international community relentlessly criticizes America foreign.

David Henderson
Feb 5 2024 at 6:38pm

Russ states:

So, I looked up and I looked around the room as I was telling this story about the Crusades, and a lot of people were looking at their shoes. They were horrified. They were unaware of this. It was not part of their Christian history. They didn’t know about it. They were ashamed, they stuttered and struggled to respond to what I was telling them.

I can see why they were horrified. I’m not clear why they were ashamed. It seems an extreme reaction to be ashamed just because you don’t know something. So I’m guessing they were ashamed because they somehow felt responsibility. But why? These things happened centuries ago and the Christians whom Russ was talking to had nothing to do with it. Are the Christians so tribal that they take responsibility for actions of other Christians centuries ago?

Ben Service
Feb 6 2024 at 1:00am

A little bit off topic as I struggle to know what to think about these episodes and the whole Israel Gaza situation.  I do like to listen to them because I know Russ is a thoughtful and caring human being.

The thing that struck me was the work load of an ambassador and I am guessing any high level person in lots of jobs.  Surely there is a better way to make this a more sustainable and realistic workload.  But then how do you spread around an ambassador?  I guess someone feels snubbed if one event on a night gets the ambassador and another event on the same night gets the representative from the next level down.  Is this maybe why some companies have duel CEO’s, are peoples expectations set too high.  I’d be interested to know how high level people think of going to the next marginal event.  It does feel like you could spend time to raise the profile and star power of a bunch of other people in the next level down to spread the workload but maybe high up people feel threatened in their position when they do that.

I am only a worked bee so I don’t get the thinking and office politics behind this type of stuff but it feels like the way Michael described it is not a good solution.

Tim Stranske
Feb 6 2024 at 11:26am

I don’t come to this issue as a neutral because I begin with the understanding that Israel has developed institutions to check abuses and has a greater share of it’s citizens who have high regard for principles of general human rights than do the groups with whom Israel finds itself in intense conflict. But listening to this episode in particular, as well as several like it, leaves me less favorably disposed. A very strong self-regard pervades Oren’s communication. Self-regard frequently attaches itself rhetorically to “excessive”, but sometimes it’s justified and the person or group who holds it for themselves deserves the superlatives with which they characterize themselves. I don’t know Israeli society well enough to know whether it merits this self-regard. However, experience suggests to me that when, on paper, regard is warranted, a person or group has found itself in an easy life situation or has experienced deep suffering and developed the fortitude to bear it patiently. Israel finds itself in a very difficult situation and apparently has resolved that those with whom it finds itself in conflict will experience much greater suffering than will its citizens. So I also come to the situation with the expectation that pursuing its goals entails strong temptations to violate its values.

If a person hears the episode and shares this strong self-regard, I expect they will find some nuance in the presentation that leaves them hoping for an even stronger expression of its fortitude and moral excellence in its recent undertakings. For those who don’t begin from that perspective, though, how will a typical hearer respond? If the hearer wouldn’t accept the justification from any group that a challenge to the ethics of its military endeavors is conclusively answered with the understanding, “People like me have conducted them; we have the highest ethical standards and the least inclination to do wrong of any people attempting something similar”, where would that hearer find evidence or see an argument that ought to persuade? The participants in this conversation appear to find conclusive with respect to the issue of a two state solution the understanding, “It’s not what WE want right now.” With respect to civilian casualties, prodding about excesses is conclusively answered by pointing to the fact that 9 Israeli soldiers died on the day the prodding occurred. The unstated assumption appears to be, “And with that level of suffering, who could reasonably ask us to even begin to think about whether our opponents suffering merits restraint?” This understanding will be shared by a great many of those in the middle of suffering the horrors of war. But because that experience is universal, who will expect it to persuade outsiders except for those with strong self-regard?

Self-regard presented itself very strongly in the juxtaposition of the discussion of tropes about Jews with the use of tropes about Arabs. When considering offenses against Jews, imagery connected with the slaughter of the innocents, description of 1st century Jewish political figures’ roles in the death of Jesus, claims about offenses against children by Jews in medieval Europe – in none of these situations does the historical validity of the claims figure as relevant because each trope appears regularly in mistreatment of Jews through history. When describing the instrumentality of violence against Gazans, we are to remember that Arab conduct of war has been barbarous. Oren doesn’t quite say so himself, but I don’t see a way to view this presentation as persuasive if a person doesn’t come to it with the additions, “It’s the kind of people they are” and “People like them won’t respond appropriately to our kind of morality so we need to respond in a way that fits with their barbarous nature.”

History shows a number of instances of a group suffering unjustified horror and responding with justified anger that increasingly becomes a shared understanding of the importance of prioritizing “us” against “them.” I think a great many Israelis haven’t accepted that system of values despite very high levels of suffering in recent centuries. However, most of what I hear in this episode seems to prioritize group solidarity and to justify this through self-regard. A question like, “How will Israel know when it ought to accept higher military casualties to limit an opponents civilian casualties”, or “Is it really true that 60% of building in areas within Gaza are destroyed because Hamas fighters fired from within each destroyed building”, or “When people affirm that they fire at everything that moves because their opponents so completely accept immoral tactics in war, will they institutionalize and therefore cover up unjustified violence” appears to be answered with self-regard. How could you think to ask US that question? The effects of violence on Gazans, it’s political future and whether Israel’s actions now could shape a better outcome appear tertiary concerns. “Not our problem.”

I think you intend these episodes to help outside viewers understand Israel’s state of mind and historical perspective. I fear, increasingly, that I do understand and will then have to oppose.

Ron Spinner
Feb 7 2024 at 7:14am

I think you may find this article by a West Point scholar interesting: ISRAEL – HAMAS 2023 SYMPOSIUM – THE IDF, HAMAS, AND THE DUTY TO WARN. By Michael N. Schmitt.
It is on the West Point website:
Here is a quote:
However, there is no question that the IDF’s warnings practice, in general, is the gold standard. Indeed, as a matter of policy, the IDF typically exceeds what the law requires. It is likewise clear that its warning to evacuate northern Gaza constitutes an “effective warning,” as that concept is understood in IHL.
This is in sharp contrast to Hamas’s failure to provide any warnings to the civilian population of Gaza and its efforts to neutralize the effectiveness of the IDF’s. That Hamas has violated its own warning obligation under IHL is simply indisputable.

John H Wolfe
Feb 8 2024 at 10:39am

I do not doubt that the IDF provides warnings. But, my understanding is that Gaza has limited fuel, electricity, and, food. Also, it is reported that there is no place for the Palestinians to flee to once the IDF has issued the warning.

Krishnan Chittur
Feb 6 2024 at 12:15pm

Incredibly depressing at times – and yet, it was good to hear optimism at the end – the nation of Israel will prevail, continue to exist, thrive … we can hope the Abraham Accords are expanded to bring together many more of the nations that are now seemingly at “war” with Israel (i.e. the Jews) – after all, if people can live in peace, prosper, thrive even – the effect of radical ideas of martyrdom and so on, we can hope, will lessen.

Ben Service
Feb 6 2024 at 9:05pm

I was a bit saddened when Russ said the end game isn’t our problem near the end of the podcast.  The war will end and something needs to be done I hope to stop it flaring up again.  On the Goodfellows podcast the other week one of them made a point that after Japan and Germany were beaten in WW2 the peace worked out pretty well.  Both the Germans and the Japanese were pretty fanatical in their warring efforts and it is surprising that the peace was able to be kept without a heap of uprisings, guerrilla activity etc… in either country following the peace (maybe there was as I am not very knowledgeable on history).  Maybe the current situation is different because religion is involved and it is actually a wider war of Muslims vs Jews in the area that just happens to be being fought out in Gaza and south western Israel at the moment.

The Goodfellows didn’t have a good end game solution either but it would be great for smart thoughtful people to be working on it, maybe it doesn’t end until Iran is overthrown and even then maybe that might not be enough, I am not sure.  I don’t really get religion and why it makes people do what they do, the Christians were no saints in the Americas and beyond, neither are Muslims or Buddhists etc…  I don’t know much about Jewish history in terms of if they tried to use force to push religious views on others or conquer areas, maybe Judaism is the outlier.

Dr G
Feb 7 2024 at 9:04am

I was also struck by this. It I made me think of a point earlier in the podcast when Russ asked about “PR”, and Michael went straight to 2,500 years ago. This focus on history over more recent events has been a theme of many of these recent podcasts. Anecdotally, Israelis seem to see this conflict as (1) Israel v. the forces of radical Islam (particularly, but not limited to, Iran), and (2) Israel v. global antisemitism. In these frameworks, it’s clear why the broad historical perspective is important. But notably, in these frameworks the Palestinian people aren’t really central figures. They’re proxies for larger forces or bystanders who are in the wrong place at the wrong time.


On the other hand, the 20-year-old Harvard student who’s protesting against Israel sees this primarily as a conflict between Israel and Palestine. Where the lack of rights for Palestinians are the central issue. This difference in framework causes a lot of misunderstanding, and a lot of what Israelis see as “bad PR”. But in the framework where the rights of Palestinians are central, “the tactics are the strategy” and “not our problem” are deeply immoral stances for Israel to take.


Now, Israelis might say, “This is a totally unfair standard. Look at how the US was founded and what happened to the Native Americans.” And I think that’s a fair point – if you look back in history, something nasty was done to someone at the founding of most (all?) countries. But if you put that to the 20-year-old Harvard student mentioned above, my guess is that they would say something like… “what happened to the Native Americans was one of the worst humanitarian atrocities in world history, it’s a black mark on America and will forever stain our country”. Again, it’s a very different framework.


I think both frameworks are relevant. Many on the American left are naïve about Iran’s involvement in the current conflict, and naïve about what a cease fire would mean for Israel. But it’s also true that the founding of the state of Israel is connected to the current situation in Palestine. And if you really want to understand why a 20-year-old Harvard student is so sympathetic to Palestinians, what has happened to the Palestinians in the last 20 years is much more relevant than what happened to the Jewish people during the Crusades.

Lucas Bertrand
Feb 7 2024 at 8:05am

“Yes, we damaged and destroyed a lot of buildings, but we also lost over 500 soldiers, which is an almost insufferable burden for this country of this size. To see what it is in per capita American terms, but something the equivalent of say 15-, 20,000 soldiers killed already in a hundred days.”

I fail to understand what the per-capita math is relevant. If it is relevant, I fail to understand why the same logic could not be used by the other side.

Mr. Oren has the civil casualty number at ~14,000 minus the 30% Palestinians killed by their own rockets (I am not sure where I can verify this 30% number but let’s take it at face value for this exercise). It is therefore ~10,000 civil casualties out of a population of 2mn Gazans in total.

This means in “per capita American terms”, the IDF has killed 1.6mn civils or the equivalent of the population of the city of Philadelphia.

This stat is nonsensical, in my view. I have the impression a lot of the stats thrown out are more rhetorical devices to elicit emotions.

Ironically, after arguing in favor of the strong moral code of the IDF and how it does what it can to prevent civilian casualties, Mr. Oren says:

“And, our soldiers will fire at anything. They’re just trying to stay alive. Anything that moves. That’s how, unfortunately, our own three hostages were killed and why no one was arrested afterward, because this is the state of our soldiers in Gaza.”

Which is it?

Feb 12 2024 at 3:24pm

Your examples stuck out in my head during my listen as well.

In this talk and previous ones, Russ talks about his skepticism of the death tolls. Has he ever mentioned what tolerance he thinks they’re within though? 10%? 20%? And how likely it is we’ll ever know for sure? And does anything really change if it’s off by 10%.

Unless the numbers are drastically off, I fear the skepticism he and others have of the number of dead civilians can lead down some paths of denialism. Especially since it seems like we’ll never really be able to 100% verify these numbers.

Feb 7 2024 at 2:55pm

This was a breath of realism, though I do want to point out one thing that wasn’t mentioned: I agree that Israel needs to stop the aid package from the US, but that won’t deter all those people who use the aid package as the reason why they only criticize Israel and no one else.  They are not going to suddenly change their skin. It’s pretty clear that that’s only an excuse, and what lies behind their selective outrage is something else altogether.

Feb 23 2024 at 10:01am

This was rough.  It is understandable that Russ Roberts has recently focused Econtalk on the Israel-Hamas war.  It is disappointing to see Roberts allow Oren to voice Israeli government propaganda with no critical discussion, pushback, nothing.

For example no discussion of Oren’s admission that IDF soldiers will “Fire at anything”.

Oren: “we also lost over 500 soldiers, which is an almost insufferable burden for this country of this size”  – no thought to how bearable the death of 10’s of thousands of Gazan civilians is to their society?  What are the inevitable long term effects of destroying this many families?

Oren: “but, the easiest thing that we could have done was to go into Gaza, filled up all the tunnels either with saltwater or with flammable material and thrown in a match, and it’s over.

But, we can’t do that because of the hostages.”  Okay, if this were actually possible then negotiate a cease-fire, exchange all the hostages, and then when Hamas inevitably breaks the ceasefire, go in and destroy the tunnels?  No comment from Roberts here either.

This episode was an uncritical airing of Israeli government propaganda and nowhere near the skeptical standard econtalk used to hold itself to.


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TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: January 16, 2024.]

Russ Roberts: Today is January 16th, 2024 and my guest is Michael Oren. Between 2009 and 2013, he was Israel's Ambassador to the United States. He was later a member of the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset. He is the author of many books, but I particularly want to recommend Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, which is a superb treatment of the Six-Day War. Michael's Substack is entitled, Clarity. Michael, welcome to EconTalk.

Michael Oren: Hey, Russ, good to be with you.


Russ Roberts: You're a former ambassador of the United States. In 2011, you published Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present. How do you understand the United States' role in the Middle East right now, in this intense moment?

Michael Oren: Unclear. Unclear. If I'd been asked to define President Biden's Administration's policy in the Middle East--this is going back to the inception of his Administration till today--I can't. There's no clear line. There's a tremendous amount of zigzagging.

For a small example, for several years the Administration cold-shouldered Netanyahu--for whatever reason. They cold-shouldered him. That was a fact. They didn't invite him to the White House. They cold-shouldered the Saudis--because of the Khashoggi affair, they cold-shouldered the Saudis. And then suddenly, last summer, they turned around and started bear-hugging both the Saudis and Bibi [Netanyahu--Econlib Ed.] in an attempt to broker a peace agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia. But, the total volte face, as they say: about face.

In this crisis, they started out unequivocally in support of Israel--the President's astonishing speech of October 10th. I've never heard a speech like it in my many years of following U.S.'s relations. Unequivocal support for Israel, categorical condemnation of terror, and signing on to our goal of destroying Hamas.

Secretary Blinken came a few days later; he reiterated that pledge. But in both their remarks, they also stated they expected Israel to conform with international law regarding warfare. And then, over the coming months, criticism began to mount that Israel was, to quote Secretary Blinken, 'killing entirely too many Palestinians.' Which begs the question: How many Palestinians killed would have been enough? Okay, it's a strange thing to say. And, one wonders, what did they expect in a brutal urban warfare against an enemy that's deeply embedded behind a civilian population?

America has had similar experiences in Fallujah and Mosul. They know what it's like. And in fact, in both those battles, as well in Kosovo, the civilian-to-soldier ratio of dead was much higher on the American side than it is on the Israeli side.

But the criticism kept on mounting. And then it was tied into the day after--whether we're going to have a two-state solution, whether the Palestinian Authority would be involved in that, whether Palestinian refugees from in the south of Gaza would be admitted to the north, back to the north. It was like one issue after another.

And throughout, the Administration kept up two principle policies which were crucial for Israel's security. One was casting vetoes in the Security Council [United Nations Security Council--Econlib Ed.] over attempts to impose a ceasefire. And, the second was to maintain a steady and a sometimes expedited flow of vital ammunition: we'd run low on ammunition.

And, those two core policies have remained, but everything around it is very confusing.

For example, if you're a leader of Hamas and you're dug in a tunnel and you hear the Secretary of State say this, what you would conclude is: I've got to dig in my heels and hold on for a little while longer, get Israel to kill more civilians. And that's eventually going to cause a rupture. And, at that point, the United States will start demanding a ceasefire. And, that's what I need as a leader of Hamas. Hamas needs a ceasefire in order to win the war. Ceasefire simply means Hamas wins. So, the message is very, very confusing.

And, with regarding Iran: So here, U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria have been attacked something like 135 times by rockets and drones. United States has for the most part withheld its fire. There's been some return fire, but very little. The Houthis, backed by Iran, have closed international--all but closed--international shipping through the vital Bab al-Mandab waterway. The United States has returned fire, but ineffectively. With some Western allies. Today, the Houthis are firing again.

And, this Administration simply refuses to say the 'I-word'--refuses to say 'Iran.' And, it's extraordinary. Iran, I would say, bears something close to 97% of all the warfare interruption violence going on in the region today. And, it's the one country that has paid zero price. Zero. And, I haven't heard any utterances from Washington saying, 'Iran, you're going to pay a price if you keep on doing this,' and backing up with the [inaudible 00:05:50].

So, if you ask me, I'm confused as an Israeli and as a person who personally knows Joe Biden fairly well--I worked with him. I'm deeply appreciative of the fact that he's maintained these two core policies. But, I'm confused/deeply concerned. And I'm asked on the Israeli Press, 'How long will that continue?' And, my response is always, 'Not indefinitely.'


Russ Roberts: I want to go back to something you said in passing that is a little mystifying to me as an outsider. You talked about the two things the United States is doing for Israel: supplying munitions, which they have done briskly and thoroughly; they have also worked at the United Nations to veto condemnation of Israel.

At the same time--last week--the International Court of Justice through South Africa brought a case against Israel, therefore accusing Israel of genocide. Now, reasonable people might disagree about what exactly genocide is. I don't think it's what Israel is doing in Gaza. But, maybe someone could make the case. Well, they have made the case. Someone might find it persuasive: thoughtful people might find it persuasive.

But what's the significance--the practical significance--to Israel of those two kinds of condemnations: either the United Nations demanding a ceasefire, say; or whatever statement they might make condemning Israel for its actions, or the International Court of Justice?

As a lowly citizen, I look at those things and see it as--the old-fashioned expression would be so much 'chin music.' That probably doesn't communicate to many younger people these days. Is it important? and why? And, as a former Ambassador, I assume you were involved in attempts to stop those things from happening, in your time. Why are they important?

Michael Oren: For one reason, and one reason only. They can serve as a basis for boycotts and sanctions. They could put further pressure on the Biden Administration to cease applying those two policies that are essential for our security. That's why they are important.


Russ Roberts: Okay. Well, they are. The munitions are important. Which raises a question that my colleague, Danny Gordis, has raised, and I'm sure other people have as well, and you probably have, too: One of the wake-up calls of this moment is Israel's dependence on the United States for, one, munitions and, two, some level of deterrence of Iran in the area. We don't know exactly what's going on behind the scenes. Probably: yes, they haven't mentioned Iran; but they did bring two large aircraft carriers into the Mediterranean. I think one of them went home to fuel up. But it's a significant step. Do you think the United States-Israel relationship is now from Israel's side more important than ever? That--evidently we have a nuclear weapon, it's the worst kept secret in the world--is that not a sufficient deterrent? And, how much does Israel depend on the United States and what might Israel do about that going forward?

Michael Oren: That's about five different questions. So, let's unpack it.

First of all, cards on the table. I was the only member of the Israeli government who in 2016 opposed the MOU--the Memorandum of Understanding--renewing the 10-year package of American Aid. The Obama package replaced the Bush package. It was slightly improved monetarily, but with harsher terms.

And I have long been opponent--me, Mr. America-Israel, right?--I've been an opponent of the aid. For many, many reasons. And, it's everything from the fact that we are an affluent society. We're a strong society. Receiving aid at this point is not consonant with our being. It sends the wrong message to the region of dependency and weakness--certainly at a time when America's foreign policy is unclear, when America is withdrawing from many areas of foreign affairs. The value of the aid was always greater than its monetary [inaudible 00:10:26], the strategic value of that aid. It sent a message to everybody: Look, the greatest superpower in the world stands behind the State of Israel, and everyone should get that message. Well, how strong is that message today?

And, we pay a price for the aid. We pay a price in terms of opportunity costs. You're an economist. And, we pay a price in the fact that we don't actually get to buy what we want to buy. And, sometimes we buy things that we may not need that remain very costly. And, I'm thinking of one thing is the F-35 jet, which costs twice as much as any other jet to maintain. And, it is the last manned fighter aircraft in history. And, we've got it now for about 30, 40 years. Very, very expensive jet. Many issues like that.

But, the biggest issue now is the control it gives [?] over our foreign policy. It is a concession of sovereignty and the decision-making. And we see it now very poignantly. If you would have asked most Israelis on October 6th whether they believed that Israel could defend itself, by itself, against any Middle Eastern adversary or any combination of Middle Eastern adversaries, most Israelis would have said, 'Of course, we can.' Ask the same question to Israelis on October 7th, and you get the same percentage of Israelis saying, 'We can't do that.' We can't get these [?]--we can't tell the aircraft carrier strike groups, 'Okay guys, we got it. You can go home. We're in control here.' And, no one's willing to say that.

And here we have the Secretary of State [U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken] sitting in our War Cabinet--which is an extraordinary concession of sovereignty. I think there's a deepening realization in this country--and I hate being the person ahead of his time--that we're going to have to move on to something else. That one of the great goals of Israel, post-Gaza War, will be to achieve strategic independence from the United States of America.

That doesn't mean that America doesn't remain our principal ally, that we don't share the democratic values, that we don't have close, close relationships with American Jewry.

But the relationship should be one of partnership. We should be cooperating in fields that are vital to both our security establishments: in cyber, in laser technology--it's called reinforced energy--computer science, and joint maneuvers. We should continue that; but not on the basis of someone giving and someone receiving. Because as we know, there is no such thing as a free lunch. And, this lunch is anything but free.

Russ Roberts: I just want to clarify to listeners who may not know: Aid to[?from?]] the United States to Israel is essentially--and correct me if I'm wrong, Michael--is essentially vouchers for purchasing military equipment. To say there's strings attached--it's not strings are attached. It's more like puppeteer strings. It's explicitly in the form of in-kind transfers of military products, as you say, some of which we may or may not want, and others which are more expensive. And it's certainly--and I totally agree with you--as a wealthy--now--sovereign nation, which we were not in the past, but Israel is now a wealthy sovereign nation, the idea that we are on welfare for the United States is very bad I think for our relationship with our neighbors. It gives them excuses and stories to tell that I don't think are helpful to us. But, is that a correct characterization of U.S. aid?

Michael Oren: I also think it gives our enemies--even in the United States, they say, 'We can criticize Israel because we pay taxes.' And, 'We pay Israel, and, our bombs--'

Russ Roberts: And they're right.

Michael Oren: Well, actually, if you do the math, it comes out to something like $1 a month per American in aid to Israel. I mean, by the way, the aid is about $4 billion a year. And, you know what $4 billion buys you today in military terms? It buys you half of one Zumwalt-class destroyer. So, you're paying a huge price for an aid package, which--okay, 40 years ago was 50% of our defense budget, but now it's closer to 16%. And, you're right.

Now, in the past, one of the reasons I opposed the Obama MOU--Memorandum of Understanding--as opposed to the Bush one, was because of three initials. Three initials, by the way, categorize all our relationship with the United States. There's QME--Qualitative Military Edge. MOU--Memorandum of Understanding. And, there is OSP--OSP is Off-Shore Procurement. And, under the Bush package, Israel could retain more than 26% of the aid to do with that aid what we needed to do, of course[?first of all it?] [inaudible 00:15:08] created several tens of thousands of jobs in this country. But beyond that, our military has to create capabilities that the United States doesn't need, that we need.

The Obama MOU eliminated the 26%. So, all of the aid has to be spent in the United States.

There were also [?] strings put on our request to get what's known as plus-ups from Congress. We go back to Congress and say, 'Listen, we got the $4 billion dollars, but we need more money for Iron Dome, for David's Sling,'--which is an interim-level anti-ballistic system. And, Obama wanted to cut out our ability to go to Congress. Our friends--Lindsey Graham--taught us how to end-run that. But, there were a lot of strings attached--even more strings attached and[?] MOU--for $4 billion a year.

And, you ask yourself, is it worth it? And the answer, of course, is No.

Now we have a problem that we're deeply dependent on the United States for ammunition. There is a global--certainly Western--depletion of ammunition because of Ukraine. Underneath where we're sitting are station warehouses with pre-positioned American munitions and equipment, about $2 billion worth. They were put there by George Bush--beginning of the [21st--Econlib Ed.] century--to serve American military personnel in the Middle East. They have mostly withdrawn. And the myth remains that these munitions serve those forces, but everyone knows they're for us.

And, what happens is when we run low on ammunition, we get the keys--literally the keys--to these warehouses. We go down, we take what we need, we write it down, we pay for it.

But in 2014, during an earlier war with Hamas, President Obama denied us the keys for certain forms of ammunition because, quote-unquote, "We were killing too many Palestinians."

And, so that makes us dependent on American munitions.

I can give you one case in the Second Lebanon War. And I remember this very succinctly because I was there. In the army we were using American cluster bombs and the United States was criticizing us harshly for using cluster bombs. And so, after the war, we developed our own cluster bombs, and we became independent in terms of cluster bombs, which were an important part of munitions for fighting a deeply embedded enemy like Hamas. We're going to have to do that. We're going to have to do that with 105 millimeter tank munitions. We're going to have to do that with 155 millimeter artillery. And, most important, we're going to have to do that with missile--with jet-fired air-to-ground missiles known as JDAMs [Joint Direct Attack Munitions].


Russ Roberts: I want to talk about your tenure as Ambassador, if you can. I think most of us think of ambassadorial life--it depends on what country you're representing and where you're visiting--but, some dinners, some occasional ceremony. I have a feeling being Ambassador from Israel and the United States is a little different. So, reflect on that. Give us a picture of what that was like when you were there and what it might be like now for Michael Herzog, who is the current Ambassador from Israel to the United States? How is it different? Might it be different in wartime?

Michael Oren: Okay. First of all: ambassadorial day, okay--you can't really talk about a day because it's 24/7.

So, what it is: I mean, just on the surface that you are the nexus between 435 members of Congress, 120 members of Knesset, how many ministers we have here--the Cabinet, the President, the Prime Minister, the IDF [Israel Defense Forces], the American Armed Forces, the Pentagon, the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency], the Mossad, FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation], Shabak [Sherut haBitachon haKlali, General Security Services], the economic community, commerce, the scientific community, the Jewish communities in the state of Israel, various Christian communities, African-American communities, Latino communities, state governments, local governments, the Press, the Israeli Press. How should we go on? I mean, I could literally spend an hour telling you this. And that's just the daily routine.

And then, of course, you do have a social schedule. And my social schedule was something like Superman. Why? You'd go to maybe two or three different events a night. Each one required a different change of clothing. So, you'd run in with a business suit, put on a tux, then run into something and put on tails; and back and forth and back and forth. The hardest thing for me was at seven o'clock when the rest of the Embassy went home, I began another day.

Then you come in at 11:00, 12:00 at night from having schmoozed professionally for several hours and being on your feet. Then the phone starts ringing because it's morning in Israel. And you're called in, you can be called in to the Embassy, 2:00, 3:00, 4:00 in the morning, to have a secure phone call there. And, you are constantly, constantly sleep-deprived and depressed.

Now, in my period, we didn't have crises in U.S.-Israel relations. We had daily, revolving crises, and they sort of blended into one another.

And, the Obama period was the toughest period. I'll tell you what, for someone who is a historian, it was the toughest period in U.S.-Israel relations. And so, it was constant. And then you're also sitting on a volcano known as the Israeli Embassy, which has 125 people in it, and all sorts of interesting shenanigans going on there. And then, you try to get out of Washington as often as possible. There is a very big place called the United States of America, so you try to get out and travel and speak, get to campuses.

And, I was-- this is to answer your question about Mike Herzog. I am very fond of Mike. We go way back. I've worked with all the Herzogs, by the way. I've worked with his brother, I worked with his father, and I worked with his uncle. I was the last adviser to Abba Eban. And so, I know the Herzogs very well and deeply respect them.

But, every ambassador is different. I can say that--Ron Dermer, my successor, he was very much Bibi's ambassador to Obama and Trump. I was not that. First of all, I wasn't[?] a member of the Likud. I was a professional appointment, not a political appointment. And, I saw myself as being the Ambassador of the State of Israel to the people of the United States.

Mike Herzog comes from the world of diplomacy and quiet diplomacy. He's very much the diplomats' diplomat. He's not a person who is going to get on CNN [Cable News Network] or MSNBC [Microsoft-National Broadcasting Company] and start arguing with people and firing back.

There were days and nights where I would sleep in my vehicle outside the studios in Washington because I'd be going from one after another--and I continue to do that now--because I saw that the way to attain influence, because I wasn't such a close protege of Netanyahu, which is a source of most ambassadors' strength. You think it's the Plenipotentiary idea: that when you're talking to the Ambassador, you're talking to the Prime Minister--the same guy. That was certainly the case of Ron Dermer. It was not my case. So, I had to get influence and achieve influence and access by constantly being in the press, constantly being on TV. And, the Obama Administration was an administration that was very sensitive to the media because it was actually composed of a lot of people from the media. And, it worked. It was a successful policy.


Russ Roberts: You know, people like to say that Israel is not very good at hasbara, which is Hebrew for--I don't know--I'll call it communications. You could call it PR [public relations], you could call it propaganda. But that Israel doesn't make its case. Israelis are gruff. They don't really care what the rest of the world thinks. And so, they give it short shrift.

And, having lived here now for two and a half years and living through the middle of this, I have a very different perspective. I think Israel desperately wants to be loved by the rest of the world--which is a human, but I don't think a very helpful emotion. Israelis feel that way. And, hasbara--communications--can only go so far when social media is just relentlessly amplifying lies--on both sides, I'm sure. But, it of course feels like to me that it's a little one-sided, but I could be wrong. What are your thoughts on that question of whether Israel is doing a good or bad job in making its case in this current moment?

Michael Oren: As someone who has been representing Israel in one form or another literally for a half a century, that is the most frequently asked question: Why is Israel's PR so bad? There's almost never a meeting where that question isn't asked.

And, there are many answers to it. It's the old Ben-Gurion adage that it's not important what the non-Jews think, it's important what the Jews do. There is a parochialism here, provincialism, in Israel. Even--you look at what our military spokesmen are speaking to the world: They put on TV to speak to the world the same people they put on TV to speak to Israelis. And so, when you speak to Israelis, you want a gruff, tough officer. But, when you speak to the world, you may want a pleasantly-speaking woman officer from a different ethnic background. They don't do that. They don't understand they're talking to different audiences. But, these are very technical things.

So, I must tell you what the conclusion after 50 years--and I bring this conclusion to government meetings--is: we can invest another billion dollars. We can train a generation of spokespeople. Something I tried to do many years at the Shalem Center was to train a generation of what I called the Cadet Program. Recently pitched it to Tel Aviv University as much as two years ago: that we'd have to get young people out of the army who speak different languages and come from different backgrounds. Not much interest. Okay.

But the basic reason our public diplomacy--I would call it--is so bad is because we are the Jewish State. And, as much as we like to think we're not--that we're a normal state, we're just like any other state--we are far from being like any other state. e judged by a completely different set of criteria. Held under that microscope of a power that no other country is examined. And, much of the criticism leveled out of us, if you would look at it closely, echoes classic antisemitic tropes. Whether it be the Massacre of the Innocents from the Book of Matthew, whether it be the blood libel, whether it be deicide. And it just comes up.

Listen: How many times have you read since this war, first of all, that we've killed 23,000 Gazans? Which is an inflated number that includes the number of terrorists we've killed and the number of Palestinians killed by their own rockets. Okay? But no one says that. And, the source of that statistic is Hamas. How many times have you seen that cited multiple times a day? And then, they'll always add, 'Mostly women and children.' Is that verifiable? or is someone just trying to say that Jews like killing women and children? Now, in the BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation] they'll simply say, 'Hey, you guys like killing women and children.'

I have to give a credit to AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] in New York. She actually came out on Christmas and mentioned the Murder of the Innocents and attached it to what was going on in Gaza. She's the first one to actually come out and do that. But, I've noticed this for years.

And, when we are dealing with the media, we are dealing with hatreds that go back 2,500 years. And so, we have to be humble and realistic, and noting that: Okay, we can respond to this. We must respond to this. We have to defend ourselves as best as we can. At the end of the day, we are Jews and we are up against--and a hatred that has very deep and ancient roots.

Russ Roberts: So, on this question on the Murder of the Innocents--it's a reference to the Christian Bible, correct?

Michael Oren: Yes. Matthew.

Russ Roberts: I think--I just want to say to listeners, it's not a--I'll try to say it briefly; it would take a very long time to explain this fully--but, it's hard for non-Jews to understand the Jewish historical legacy that we carry around. Once a year, religious Jews fast for 25 hours, not drinking water, not eating, because the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed 2000 years ago--and beforehand. And we also commemorate lots of other things.

But one I want to mention--I want to tell a brief story. I was asked by colleagues--I was at George Mason University and I was asked by colleagues--as a Jew who is publicly identified, and people knew me as Jewish, why I was not interested in--or my reaction to Mel Gibson's movie about the life of Jesus. And I said, 'Well, I'm not going to see it, so I don't know if it's interesting to you, what I'm going to say about it, because I don't plan to see it.' And, they were surprised. 'Well, why wouldn't you see it?' I said, 'Why don't we talk?'

So, we had a session and invited people to come, and there were, I don't know, 15, 20 people there. Some were very serious Christians. Some were just interested: they weren't religious at all. Some were probably Christian in name only. I think I was the only Jew--I'm not sure. But, I think I was the only Jew. These were staffers and colleagues of mine. And, I started off by saying that there's a long history of Christian anti-Semitism where we were accused of killing Jesus. And that the Crusades, for example, loomed large in Jewish consciousness when on the way to the Middle East, the Christian Crusaders practiced on the Jews. They swept through Europe and killed hundreds and thousands of Jews in France and Germany and elsewhere--and in the name of Jesus Christ, their Lord.

So, I looked up and I looked around the room as I was telling this story about the Crusades, and a lot of people were looking at their shoes. They were horrified. They were unaware of this. It was not part of their Christian history. They didn't know about it. They were ashamed, they stuttered and struggled to respond to what I was telling them. Of course, in the Middle Ages, Jews were accused of using the blood of Christian children to make matzahs for Passover.

So, these kind of things loom large in Jewish consciousness. And the rest of the world--many educated people know about this, but many don't. And, they think, 'Well, Jews are so obsessed with this anti-semitism thing. I mean, like, enough already.'

By the way, I don't like to call it antisemitism anymore. I call it Jew hatred. It's a little more straightforward. [More to come, 30:29]

So, when you have murderers, rapists, and kidnappers broadcasting their escapades with the light and reveling in the fact that they're bragging to their parents even that they're killing Jews--which we have recordings of--it strikes a historical chord for Jews that I think may be difficult for non-Jews to understand how it resonates with us.

So, it is tough that we do seem to be held to a double standard. I don't want to--I'll just add that if you work for National Public Radio [NPR] or the New York Times, I know you get criticized from both sides that your coverage is grossly unfair. And of course, it probably is. It's a very complicated issue and it is hard to cover it objectively and with balance. So, I want to recognize that. But I think, as you say, I think the very fundamental--we could do better, Israel could do better defending itself, but I do think--I happen to agree with you: we're held to a double standard.


Russ Roberts: Let's move to the current moment, which you're writing about a lot on your Substack, and let's dig into it. Let's start with the question of the number of civilian dead in Gaza, which is horrifying. And, the situation there is horrifying.

You said you see the number over and over again of 23,000. That will stop soon, because it will go up--for many possible reasons--but it may sadly go up because more people will die as this war continues. And, I don't know what the actual number is. Like you, I recognize Israel says that 9,000 of the 23,000 were Hamas fighters. So it's, quote, "only 14,000 civilians." That's still an enormous number. Still a tragedy. What should Israel do, if anything, to fight this war humanely and whatever that--I don't even know what--that's a hard phrase to define. But, what might it mean to you? And, certainly as someone who has been involved in the government in a number of different ways, how could Israel--how can it do better? Should it? And how should we think about it as observers?

Michael Oren: Yeah. We have to also add, Russ, that out of the 23,000, 9,000 are terrorists, but about 30% of the remaining 14,000 are casualties caused by Palestinian rockets.

So, you're down to--I said it before--a ratio of about two to one, civilian to soldier. Soldier to combatant deaths: that is roughly half the ratio of United States and Iraq and Afghanistan, half the rate of NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] and Kosovo--something of a world record by the way. Certainly a world record for intense urban combat against an enemy that is dug in and using its civilian population as a shield.

The criticism in this country is not that we're killing too many Palestinians. The criticism in this country is not doing enough to protect our soldiers and that we are taking unnecessary risks with our soldiers' lives in order to curry favor internationally.

Now, that argument, of course, is more complex because we need that favor in order to gain time and space for the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] to get ammunition, for example, from the United States. If we killed too many Palestinians, that supply of ammunition might be threatened.

So, even that--even the way we're conducting this war and trying to minimize Palestinian deaths also has not just a moral component, but a strategic component.

And then, there's the notion that we aren't just any state, and we aren't just any army. We are the Democratic Jewish State of Israel with that army, which has a strong moral code. I spent about 35 years in that army, and I've fought in Gaza. I know what that's like. We are facing--you know, we are having this conversation with our nice libraries behind us. But, as we're speaking, there are tens of thousands of Israelis who are engaged in week after week after week, 24/7 of intense combat. Now, I've been in several wars, but I've never experienced anything remotely like this.

And the soldiers I'm talking to are coming out and saying to me: Gaza is hell. Everything is booby-trapped. The cats are booby-trapped. The roosters are booby-trapped. The babies are booby-trapped. Every single second you don't know if the last second is your last. You don't know whether the entrance to a tunnel is behind you and someone's going to come up and shoot you in the back. You don't know this. You're living in constant fear. You're living in constant toxic environments, physical environments. And they say it's hell.

And, if you say to these soldiers, 'We should take greater care in trying to limit the number of Palestinian casualties,' they'll look at you like you're crazy, you're detached from reality. You're dealing with the--and we don't even have a word in the English language to describe Hamas and their barbarism and their Satanism--it's pure evil. And, our soldiers will fire at anything. They're just trying to stay alive. Anything that moves. That's how, unfortunately, our own three hostages were killed and why no one was arrested afterward, because this is the state of our soldiers in Gaza.

So, we can have a nice academic discussion about this, but there's a reality discussion. And that is: This is war. It's a brutal war. It is a war of national survival for this country in which tens, and at some point, even hundreds of thousands of our citizens were involved defending us.

And yes, it's painful. It's agonizing to see the pictures. And I'm on the international presses all day. The press you've seen in Israel was completely different than what you see internationally. And, I go on the Israeli--

Russ Roberts: Explain.

Michael Oren: Well, I go on the Israeli news every day almost. And, their coverage is about heroism, stories of survival, stories of bereavement.

The stories in the international press are almost uniformly about Palestinian suffering--in great detail. Particularly the suffering of children, children, children. It's always children. Right? And, they are detached from that reality.

The question is, you know, in order to sort of placate that international opinion, do we have to risk the lives of our soldiers?

This is one of the many grueling, fundamental dilemmas we face. We face a whole series of dilemmas around the hostages. But, this is one of them. And, go tell the parents who have just lost their 21-year-old son or daughter, that that son or daughter had to die in order to take greater care to limit Palestinian casualties.

This was the lesson of the Jenin Battle in 2002 where we lost something like 24 paratroopers trying to limit civilian casualties. And afterwards we were accused of perpetrating a massacre, the Jenin massacre. So, we lost the 24 soldiers and we still got blamed for producing a massacre that never occurred, by the way--completely fabricated.

And within Israeli society--that was within the IDF--in the Israeli society, people said, 'Enough. We're not going to do this anymore.' And, those 24 were reservists with kids and we're just not going to do this anymore.

So, we have a moral code. We have a strict moral code. We are not leveling Gaza. Many people would like to. We have the ability: Sure, we have the military ability to level Gaza. We're not going to do that, because we are the IDF. Because we are the Jewish state. And because we have to, yes, function in the world.

But, I don't think you can say to the Israeli Army--as the Americans have been saying to us, I think unfairly and disingenuously--that we have to slow down and be more precise: 'You get into Gaza, and be more precise.' You send your soldiers in there and see how precise they're going to be: about as precise as they were in Fallujah and Mosul.

By the way, the Americans are giving us--and as I told you earlier about mixed messages--the mixed message from Washington yesterday is: 'The operation is going too slowly.' Okay? 'It should be going faster.' But they want us to slow down. Go figure that one out. All right.


Russ Roberts: So, just to clarify, the IDF is the Israel Defense Forces. It's what people call the army here. You said we're not leveling Gaza. My limited viewing of the news--I don't watch the news much, the TV news here--but I do spend way too much time on X, formerly known as Twitter, looking at video and hearing people discuss and describe it. Northern Gaza looks like a moonscape, at least the part that's being broadcast. It does look leveled.

Now, one thoughtful observer said to me--those videos, which are disturbing and look something like Dresden, they're not like Dresden, by the way, because most of the people were not in those buildings when they were leveled. It's an important distinction. But, it looks like a moonscape.

And, this thoughtful observer said to me, 'Well, those videos are not for the West.'--and they do make Israel look bad for the West--'Those are for the Middle East. Those are for our neighbors to say,'--where there's a very different culture, I should emphasize, here, and you become very aware of it when you live here for any length of time. It's a different culture here in the Middle East. And, those pictures are designed to say to our neighbors: 'Don't mess with us because you will bring this onto yourself.'

Respond to that. It looks to me like we've pushed about a million people south. They don't have enough food. That's not our fault, Israel's fault: that's probably Hamas's fault. But, we are going to lose that battle of information--that info-battle, info-war--because the pictures are horrible and it does not look good. It looks like we're leveling Gaza and we have no plan for tomorrow. We'll turn to tomorrow in a second, but just react to this claim that we are in fact--it sure looks like we're leveling Gaza.

Michael Oren: Well, we have destroyed between--they say between 40% and 60% of the houses have been damaged or destroyed. And, that is a result of Hamas because Hamas is hiding in those buildings, and we have no choice. And, they're shooting from the buildings.

Again, we didn't go in there to level Gaza. And, again, we could: we could have no buildings standing. We didn't have to have the 1.2 million Palestinians leave the battlefield. We're paying a huge price for that--for saving them, the best we can.

There are just no easy answers here. And I, for the life of me--I've been involved in government for many years, involved in the military many years--I don't see where Israel at any point had any choice other than to exhibit greater cruelty. Which is what many Israelis want because they feel that we're paying too high a price in terms of our own soldiers' blood.

Israelis oppose the humanitarian quarters, which the United States pressured us to make. Israelis oppose the supply of fuel to Gazans because they're saying, 'Listen, Hamas has now a 132 of our hostages,'--back then it was up to 242 hostages--'Why should we give them anything? This is the only leverage we have over them. They won't even let the Red Cross in to visit these people. This is the leverage we have.' So, it wasn't just vengeance. It was just an attempt to simply get these hostages back.

One of the hardest things I have to explain to Israelis, Russ, is that the events of October 7th--we talked about barbarism and evil and the satanic nature of them--were pretty much par for the course for the Middle East. This is what Arab peoples have done to one another. It's what the Syrians did to their own population.

You don't think they beheaded and burned and raped them, and dismembered them? Of course they did. It's what the Lebanese did to one another; and I spent a long time in Lebanon. It's exactly what they did to one another. Whether it be the massacres in Damour or the massacres in Sabra and Shatila, it is exactly what they did to one another. Why would they treat the Jews any differently?

You talk about cultural differences. This is the Middle East way of war.

I was interviewing for a major American network two days ago, and the interviewer was Iranian, and she was talking about how the Iranian regime has treated the protesters of the revolt--the most recent revolt, about two years ago, the Women's Revolt--how they arrested thousands of women, threw them in prisons, and raped them every single day. Every single day. Welcome to the Middle East, folks.

Yes, there is an element of sending a message, and that message has to be internalized.

Just, if I can go on for one second?

Russ Roberts: Sure.

Michael Oren: A good friend of mine was--Jeff Goldberg; he's the Editor of The Atlantic. And, after one of the many rounds of fighting with Hamas, Jeff called me and says, 'I get what Israel's tactics are, but what's the strategy?'

And I said, 'Jeff, you don't understand. The tactics are the strategy. Since coming into being in 1948, every couple of years, they're going to try to destroy us again. And, every couple of years we're going to have to remind them that it's not a good idea. And, that buys us a certain number of years. And, during those years, we build the society: we build Israel, one of the world's most successful nation-states; and we live our lives. The Middle East stays where it stays. It doesn't go anywhere.'

And, every once in a while, there will be Arab leaders who say, 'Okay, enough of this.'

The Egyptians waged, not one but four wars of national destruction against us. And, afterwards they said, 'okay, enough.'

Jordanians, two wars of national destruction against us. Afterwards, they said, 'Enough.'

Now we have the Abraham Accords, signatory countries. So, it's not as if the tactic cum strategy goes on indefinitely, maybe with some factions, like Hamas will go on indefinitely, but not with everybody. Even the PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organization] at a certain point realized enough is enough. Maybe. At least superficially.

So, I remain optimistic that, you know, this is a strategy. Maybe it's a strategy--a tactic cum strategy that many countries in the world are going to have to adapt in the Twenty-First century.


Russ Roberts: So, yesterday somebody posted--maybe it wasn't yesterday--somebody posted a video on Twitter--on X--that appeared to show a crowd of Gazans, or I think it was Gazans, running and being shot at. And, it was posted by saying, 'The IDF is trying to mow down civilians.' They were looking for food evidently or coming to receive humanitarian aid, and they were being sniped at and killed. Observers, when I said, 'How do you know this is Israeli snipers?' It was a claim. They said, 'Well, how do you know it's not?' Which is a tough standard. But I said--my answer, by the way, many people weighed in and said, 'You can tell from the noise of the gunfire. These are AK-47s. They're not the Israeli rifle, the M16. So it's not Israelis.'

But, put that to the side. When people ask me, 'How do I know?' I say things like, 'Well, my students here at Shalem College serve in the Army. I talk to them.' I know what they're told to do. I know what codes of conduct they are expected to live up to. Certainly IDF soldiers sometimes fail that code of conduct. Under the stress of war, they fail. We often have--almost always, we have investigations when egregious mistakes are made, and if they're not mistakes and they're actually decisions made by people, sometimes those folks are punished, Israeli soldiers. But, at the same time, I'm not naive. I know that under war really horrible things can happen. And I also know that spokespeople lie in the name of their country's reputation.

So, I've heard, for example, that yes, Israel pushed the northern Gazan residents into the south--which by the way, not only is it an unusual wartime strategy to tell your enemy that you're coming: your enemy is not dressed in a uniform. So surely many of the people who went south were not average Gazan citizens, but were in fact Hamas fighters with hostages dressed in clothing to hide them from Israelis when they went south. So, it's a rather remarkable moment in military history.

But, having said that, many people respond to me when I say that and say, 'Yeah, but when they went down South, Israel targeted them and killed them.' True? False? In your own personal experience in the Israeli army, do you really believe that we have moral codes of conduct where we expect more of our soldiers than other people?

Michael Oren: We do. And we do have the moral conduct. And, I know it personally. And, by the way, I was an army spokesman for, oh, let's see, 20 years and never lied once. I mean it: never had to lie not once, not in that context--

Russ Roberts: As far as you know, Michael, I appreciate that--

Michael Oren: No, I didn't lie once. Never once.

Russ Roberts: Never intentionally.

Michael Oren: Never intentionally. And, sometimes you get different information from the field and sometimes it cuts different ways.

I remember one case where a mine went off on a Gaza beach and killed nine members of one family, and Israel immediately came out and apologized. Until three days later, when it found out that the mine was not an Israeli bomb, but a Hamas torpedo that exploded. They were killed by Hamas, not by us, and we ended up apologizing for it.

So as long as you tell untruths that cut the other way, they harm us. We've learned not to apologize so quickly.

Look at the Al-Ahli hospital issue. We didn't rush to apologize for that, thankfully. Thankfully. But yes, mistakes happen. What I call the Kafr Kana Syndrome: Twice in 1996 during the Grapes of Wrath Operation, and again in 2006 during the Second Lebanon [War--Econlib Ed.] in the same village, Kafr Kana, in South Lebanon, one of our tank shells hit a target and killed between 70 and a hundred civilians. It wasn't done on purpose. We were accused of doing it on purpose. And, both times it had immediate tactical, diplomatic ramifications to our detriment. Doesn't matter: The default assumption is that we're killing civilians on purpose.

But let's put it this way: If we were the Syrian army, if we were any of the factions in Lebanon's civil war, if we were Hezbollah, we wouldn't have told those Palestinians to leave. We would have bombed them right where they were. And, I think we would have sent an unequivocal message to the entire Middle East, 'Don't screw with us. You don't do this.'

We didn't do that. And, instead we went in on the ground. Yes, we damaged and destroyed a lot of buildings, but we also lost over 500 soldiers, which is an almost insufferable burden for this country of this size. To see what it is in per capita American terms, but something the equivalent of say 15-, 20,000 soldiers killed already in a hundred days.

Russ Roberts: Just to be clear, the majority of the soldiers we have lost died on October 7th. I'd love for this war to be over and for that ratio to stay where it is, but we'll find out.


Russ Roberts: Let's talk about the goals of the war, which are in conflict. Every Israeli likes to hear that we're going to get the hostages back and we're going to eliminate Hamas. There's a huge amount of resolve to achieve both those goals; but of course, they're in conflict. And, you wrote a poignant essay recently--we'll post it--about the dilemma that Israel faces. How do you think that's going to work going forward as perhaps the world gets less patient and Israel has to decide how to proceed?

Michael Oren: I've written several articles about this, Russ, because it is, as a case study, it's sui generis. I don't know of--there's no incident like it in history facing a leadership, facing a society. But particularly this society. Israel comes into being in 1948 with a dual identity: We're Jewish and democratic. And you know how hard that's been to reconcile those two, particularly in the period leading up to this war.

But, we have another dual identity: it's a defense identity. Israel was created three years after the Holocaust--almost to the date--and it comes into being on the basis of a promise, a covenant, which is: This state exists in order to ensure that that will never happen again. We'll defend the state, we'll defend its people.

And there's another part of that covenant which says that: If in defending the state, some of our soldiers fall captive, we will do everything in our power to get them back. That's the basis of the Entebbe Raid, certainly many other instances in Israel; and it's on the basis of that understanding--that covenant--that Israelis send their children to the army.

On October 7th, Hamas hit us between the "I"s--not these eyes--the pronoun "I"s [plural of "I" as a pronoun--Econlib Ed.], the two identities we have. It got us--the defense of the state, the defense of the people, we broke that promise. But it also presented us with an impossible dilemma: How do we then, in restoring the deterrence power, destroying the security, the covenant of the state, how do we do that and at the same time redeem the hostages? And, they are largely mutually exclusive and irreconcilable goals. Because, the easiest thing for the IDF to do--besides I just talked about carpet-bombing Gaza; we're not going to do that--but, the easiest thing that we could have done was to go into Gaza, filled up all the tunnels either with saltwater or with flammable material and thrown in a match, and it's over.

But, we can't do that because of the hostages.

And tremendous pressure on the government now to make a deal with Hamas, cut a deal--as if such a deal is actually on the table for Hamas. I don't think it is. They either want victory or they want martyrdom.

But even if it were on the table, at what price? It would mean emptying all of our jails of terrorists who have killed Jews. And, you have to go to all those families and say, 'Hey, I'm sorry, the guy who killed your son or your daughter is going to go scot-free.' And what that means for Israeli society.

But it means something else also in sort of a security way: It means that every terrorist organization knows that the more hostages it gets, the more bargaining it's going to have. And that every terrorist gets who kills a Jew knows he can kill a Jew and sit in prison for a couple of years and then get out in a prisoner-for-hostage exchange.

And so, terror goes way, way up. And, hostage chasing goes way, way up. The long run we've learn from Gilad Shalit, it ends up costing you more than you've saved.

Russ Roberts: Explain the Gilad Shalit case to listeners.

Michael Oren: He [Gilad Shalit] was taken in a cross-border Hamas raid in 2006, spent five years in captivity. We negotiated for his release and we paid for it with the freeing of 1,027 terrorists from our jail. Among those terrorists, almost all of them went back to committing acts of terror. And, one of them was Yahya Sinwar, the head of Hamas. And so, that release to just get that one soldier back, we not only encouraged the next round of hostage-taking on a vastly greater scale, but it cost us. We saved one life, but we've lost now well over 1300. So, there we go. That's the kind of dilemma facing the state of Israel today.

I've quoted my daughter often. I should quote her again. She says, 'We should recognize that we lost the war on October 7th. There's no winning this war. And, we have one goal and one goal only, and that is to release the hostages, redeem the hostages. Because if you don't, I won't be able to send my kids to the army.' To which my son replies, 'If we don't destroy Hamas, you will not have an army to send your children to.' And, there you have it.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, that's a cheerful note.


Russ Roberts: Let's turn to 1967 for a minute, if we could.

You spent a lot of time immersed in that war, in your writing in the history of it. In many ways, that war feels like the opposite of this one. It was short. It was six days. It ended with a total victory, which is literally impossible. This war, it may end with some positive things, but we can't call it a total victory remotely. It will have too many tragic deaths on both sides. It will have unbearable psychological damage to this country. And, the day after, which we'll talk about in a minute, is also, of course very, very uncertain.

So, it was short in 1967, and it ended euphorically. And that ushered in a tragically overconfident period, which of course helped create the world that led to the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

As you think back on that time and your study of it, what are your thoughts with its efforts? Any lessons for this moment that come to you or that have crossed your mind or that haunt you? What are your thoughts?

Michael Oren: Oh, many. Many, many. I mean, completely different world. We fought an enemy that was wearing a uniform and tanks and planes. For the most part except for the battles of Jerusalem very far from urban centers with very few civilian casualties. Very different war.

And yes, a very short war, with a conclusive--I call it a Mount Mitsubishi moment. You know? The Temple Mount is in our hands. There's actually a moment where we declare victory over the flag. That's certainly not going to happen in Gaza.

The world was with us, too; and that was the last gasp in the West of heroism. In 1967 was an inflection point in the West generally, where the people who had been victims before were looked down upon. And, all of a sudden it became, in 1967, cool to be a victim. And it became uncool to be a victor. We sort of missed--we came out a little bit too late with that victory. And, you see the switches in Hollywood. I grew up with the cowboys being good and the Indians being bad. And, it switched to 1967 and 1968.

So, very, very different. Different country, different world. The press celebrated our victory internationally. And, the other side were the bad guys. Nasser was the bad guys. The Syrians were the bad guys. The word 'Palestinian,' nobody had ever heard of yet. It's amazing how the Palestinians don't figure in.

The most important lesson of 1967 is this: That the United States did not want us to go to war. President Johnson was adamant and reiterated over and over again that if Israel decided to go to war, it would go to war alone. United States--he was very disturbed when he got the word on the morning of June 5th that Israel had launched this attack against the Egyptian Air Force.

And, the lesson is this, not just in 1967, but of all of wars--1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, I can go on and on 1982, 1991, the First Gulf War, Second Lebanon War, all our wars with Gaza, and I'm probably leaving out a few--in almost every case, the United States said to us, 'Don't go to war.' Every case. Even the Iraq nuclear operation, 1981, they said 'No.' And, every time we said, 'Thank you, but we have to defend ourselves,' the Americans got angry and later they respected us for it.

Johnson turned around in 1967, and he was the architect of the US-Israel Defensive Alliance. They respected us for it. Happened with Ronald Reagan after the Osirak nuclear bomb in 1981, they condemned it, United States condemned it. United States joined with Iraq in condemning us on the Security Council. United States delayed the sale of delivery of F-15 jets, and then turned around; Reagan became one of our best friends. George Bush, by the way, was very tough with Israel at the beginning of the second Intifada. I remember we sent five tanks into somewhere in Ramallah, and he forced us to get them out in the same day. And then, finally in 2002, when we launched Operation Defensive Shield and we occupied the cities, the Palestinian Cities, George Bush became our strongest ally.

America likes a country--maybe it's human nature--it likes a country that stands up for itself. Every time the United States has said to us, 'Don't go to war,' and we didn't go to war, not only did we end up paying a price, but we ended up getting contempt from the United States. Disdain. That was the case in 1973, where Kissinger said to Golda, 'Don't launch a preemptive strike.' Did we get respect after 1973? We got a lot of pressure for territorialist[?] discussions. 1991, we were getting hit by dozens of Scud missiles fired by Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and George Bush Senior said to Yitzhak Shamir, 'Don't respond. Don't respond.' Shamir didn't respond. And, what did we get? We got Madrid with pressure to make territorial concessions, but no respect for them. No, thank you. Zero, zero.

And that's the lesson I take away. It's a historical lesson. We have to stand up for ourselves. And that is a crucial lesson for right now. Because if tomorrow the Administration's position changes to: one, We need to ceasefire. If the Administration says you cannot open a second front against Hezbollah up north at a time when Hezbollah has basically made the northern part of Israel Judenrein--

Russ Roberts: Free of Jews--

Michael Oren: Free of Jews. And is outdoing Hamas in the firing of missiles--the number of missiles fired daily--we're going to have to say to the United States, 'Thank you, but.' And my, if the empirical record here is any indication, we'll get a lot of anger at us. At the end of the day we'll get respect.

Russ Roberts: I don't know how much taste there's going to be here for a second war against Hezbollah after, however Gaza winds down.


Russ Roberts: But, let's focus on that winding down for a minute and close.

Israel takes a lot of criticism that we don't have an end game for Gaza. My response to that is: that's not our problem. I'm sure we will contribute to that rebuilding if the world wants us to. If the Gazans want us to. We certainly have a strong interest in seeing Gaza be a successful place for people to flourish rather than to be poor and angry.

We may through this response, of course, if people say we're going to create a lot more people who are sympathetic to Hamas--possible--we certainly create a lot of people who are not sympathetic to Hamas, they're very angry at them, which is also part of that reality. But, there's not an obvious end-game for the day after. But, we could speculate about it. And, I am curious: you wrote a piece on it that we'll post. What's your answer for where Hamas is likely to be whenever this war is effectively not a military war any longer?

And then, what is your longer run view for where this region is headed in?

Certainly after the beginning of the war when President Biden started talking about a two-state solution, I'm thinking, 'Do you know what it's like here?' I guess not, because whatever sympathy there was in the past--and there was quite a bit for the two-state solution. And, over time it has slowly, and then sometimes decisively and briskly waned because of the facts on the ground from the perspective of the people who live in this very small country.

And right now there's zero, I think, taste for it. Virtually zero. And, it's nice to say, maybe it's just PR [public relations] on the part of the--it's just politicking on the part of the President and others. But, if that's out--which it is, I think for the at least short-, medium-run--what might be in?

So, talk about first the day after in Gaza and then the day after in the region in the aftermath of whatever this war leads to.

Michael Oren: Let me first say: We can destroy Hamas--and I think we have to destroy Hamas. You can't destroy the idea of Hamas, because the idea of Hamas is the same idea as ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria], and as Al-Qaeda, as Hezbollah. These are the hottest organizations that seek to recreate the medieval caliphate in the Middle East. And then, to expand that caliphate to global dimensions.

Hamas differs only in the sense in it is ordering priorities. First you create a Palestinian Islamic state in the place of Israel, and then that expands to encompass the region and ultimately the world. No different. You can't kill that idea with bombs and bullets. You can kill it with education. Let's see if anybody's going to do that.

But, what you can do is degrade them to a degree that they can't threaten you as much. I mean, there are neo-Nazis running around the world today, but they're a lot less threatening because there's no Nazi Germany. There are ISIS cells around the world. They're a lot less threatening without the Islamic state.

So, this is what we have to do. The day after--and again, I've written about this, will be the demilitarization of the Gaza Strip--the internationalization of the Gaza problem so it won't be just an Israeli problem or even an Israeli-Egyptian problem. It will almost certainly involve a creation of a cordon sanitaire around Gaza. No one is going to get close to that border again.

Right now we have two security zones in Israel. They're both in Israel, both in the north and the south. We have to expand that again.

We need international force, hopefully with a large Arab component, to supervise the reconstruction of Gaza, giving it an infrastructure it never had--as Hamas didn't care about an infrastructure.

And, looking for an indigenous Palestinian leadership that cares more about their children and grandchildren than they do care about killing our kids and grandkids. It shan't be easy. That's the hardest stage.

The hardest stage is finding the Palestinian leadership--not necessarily importing one from the West Bank and one from the West Bank that was in turn was imported from Tunis. Right? There's no confluence of interest or grassroots of confluence of interest. It really needs someone who is homegrown.

But, all this may take a very long time. And, I understand the political exigencies of the Administration's pressure for the day-after scenario, and for the two-state solution. Most recently in the Secretary of State's comments, he used to say that we sign on to Israel's goal of destroying Hamas. In his recent press conference here in Israel he said, 'Our goal is to prevent the recurrence of the events of October 7th.' And, being an old diplomat, I said, 'Whoa, that's a huge difference.' And, my gut feeling said that this means the Administration no longer supports the destruction of Hamas. Maybe they don't believe it's possible we can do it because that's what they've been leaking to the press in Washington, and that they support the creation of a Palestinian unity government that may have Hamas elements in it, technocrats. And, I thought that was just a gut feeling. But, I was asked by a journalist several days ago from the United States, 'What do you think about the Administration's plan to create a Palestinian unity government?'

So, I mean, this is all pie-in-the-sky stuff.

And, there actually is a country here with--we are a democracy and we have public opinion. My family here in this country is overwhelmingly left of center. If you say to them today, two states, Palestine, they'll tell you, 'You are crazy. Are you off your rocker?' For us, it's not politics. For us, it's life and death.

I'm sitting here in my--in spite of the books behind me, this is my bomb shelter. And off to the left of me is a bulletproof window. I'm sitting in Jaffa. I look out that window and I see the Hills of Hebron.

You put a Palestinian state there that's going to fall apart into a Hamas state within a matter of days, then this room will not be in rocket range. It will be in rifle range.

And no Israeli is willing to take that risk [inaudible 01:08:39] once again. I thought that--personally, the Secretary's remarks here, totally look any Israeli feelings--he was talking again about too many Palestinians killed on a day that nine Israeli soldiers were killed. And, there's a total detachment from our reality.


Russ Roberts: So, do you have any long-run--long-run, meaning, say, within a generation--optimism for how--I mean the way you described our world, Israel is 75 years old, older than more than half the countries in the world. Which is quite extraordinary. It's amazing that we're still here. You have a book, by the way, Israel 2048, referencing the hundredth anniversary of the founding of Israel, which we hope will be here in 24 years. I have not read it. I look forward to reading it. Maybe we'll talk about that another time. But, the way you described it before is that, 'Well, we buy a few years and maybe somebody makes peace with us.' Is that, you think, our best long-run strategy?

Michael Oren: No. Our best long-run strategy is to create the State of Israel. Every once in a while we're going to have to defend ourselves and remind our enemies that attacking us is not a good idea. And, in between we create this.

And, what do I mean by "this"? So, you mentioned I've been here a long time. I've been here a long time. And I came here for the first time in 1970, and there was nothing here. Our major export item was orange juice. Lower middle class country that had no relations with China, no relations with India, no relations with the Soviet Bloc countries, no relations with Africa, no relations with almost all South America. Nice relationship with the United States. Not a strategic alliance by any stretch of the imagination. No peace with Egypt, no peace with Jordan. Three million Jews caught behind the Iron Curtain, prisoners; hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian Jews, prisoners.

You cannot have my historical experience--and, we're not talking about centuries here--in the decades I've been here, and not be optimistic about this country's future. Cannot. If you would have told me the first time that I landed here, that someday we would have relations with all these countries--complex relationships sometimes, but relationships--that we'd have probably the deepest strategic alliance with the United States had with any foreign country in the post-World War II period, that we would be a technological powerhouse; our per capita GDP [Gross Domestic Product] would be vying with Japan's and closing in on Germany's?; that every Jew in the world would be free today? I'd say you're nuts. That we'd have peace with a major share of the Arab world and other Arab countries that want to make peace with us? I'd say you're insane. I'd want to know what drug you're on.

And, you can't look at that and not be optimistic.

And, even in this most despairing time--and it is a time that's rife with despondency: antisemitism in the world, the human cause, our sense of loneliness--and truly there's a sense of loneliness here--in every crisis there are immense opportunities. And this is an opportunity to correct some of the flaws in this country. That's what the book 2048 is about, is the issues we have to address. Most of them relate to sovereignty, extending sovereignty over the Negev, 62% percent of the country. How the country extending sovereignty over populations like the Haredi population, which is really not under our sovereignty. Correcting flaws in our healthcare system, our educational system. It's a huge, huge opportunity.

And, we've learned something about ourselves. We've learned that Israeli society, I think, without competition, is the strongest, most resilient society in the planet. And, what an asset that is. What an asset it is to learn something about ourselves.

So, I--as despondent as I even get sometimes--yes, like I said, I'm overwhelmingly optimistic about the future. We're going to pull through this as we pulled through much harder things; and we'll come out stronger and better for it.

Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Michael Oren. Michael, thanks for being part of EconTalk.

Michael Oren: Great, Russ. Thanks for having me.