Presidential candidates should face facts on Israel

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  • Michael Oren: America's alliance with Israel is a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy
  • But U.S. presidential candidates talking about Israel should know the facts, he says

Michael B. Oren, formerly Israel's ambassador to the United States and a member of Knesset, is the author of "Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Israelis are reeling from the terrorist bombing of Jerusalem bus that wounded at least 21 civilians. Earlier in the day, Israeli forces revealed they had found a tunnel leading from Gaza under our southern border, dug by Hamas terrorists, potentially placing huge numbers of Israelis in danger.

These outrages underscore the need for all the U.S. presidential candidates to know the facts about Israel and the brutal neighborhood in which we live -- especially as Israel has increasingly been making headlines in the campaign.
    Sadly, inaccurate figures have been cited, as well as slanted descriptions of Israeli policies.
    This does not mean that the topic should not be honestly debated by those aspiring to the leadership of the free world. On the contrary, America's alliance with Israel is a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy, the formulation of which should be a key issue in any national contest. The only condition must be that Israel be discussed on the basis of facts, not misconceptions.
    The facts are these: Israel remains committed to the two-state solution with the Palestinians. Indeed, a higher percentage of Israelis support that solution than do Americans. Yet that same Israeli majority understands that Palestinian leaders have repeatedly rejected offers of statehood and are currently either unable or unwilling to make peace.
    Rather, they work to delegitimize and sanction Israel internationally while educating Palestinian youths to hate Israel and murder its citizens. And even if a Palestinian state were created tomorrow, it would have no transparent institutions and no elected leaders.
    Given the chaotic situation in the Middle East today, such a state would swiftly fall to Hamas, at best, or to ISIS, endangering not only Israel's security but Jordan and the Gulf States as well.
    Another salient fact is that every area evacuated by Israel -- whether in southern Lebanon or in Gaza -- has been transformed into a terror base for the firing thousands of rockets at Israeli neighborhoods. All the candidates agree that Israel has the right to defend itself against these onslaughts, yet questions have been raised about the extent to which Israel should exercise that right.
    The answer is simple.
    As a sovereign state, Israel takes all reasonable steps to protect its civilians from terrorists as well as all reasonable steps to avoid inflicting civilian casualties on the other side. Those steps, however, cannot be judged separately from a situation in which the terrorists are doing their utmost to kill our civilians while using their own as human shields. Israel does not bomb hospitals, but the terrorists hide out beneath them and hide their rockets in schools and homes. Any appearance of disproportionality is the terrorists' fault, not Israel's.
    Terror is not, of course, only Israel's scourge.
    The same murderous theology has struck at innocent targets around the world, most recently in Europe and the United States. The fact is that Israel's long experience in combating terror while upholding its democratic values is of paramount value to America and its allies. Without a strong Israel blocking its path, ISIS and other jihadist groups would spread across Egypt, Jordan, and the entire Middle East, gouging a vast black hole on the rim of Western civilization.
    None of this means that Israel's policies are immune to criticism.
    Israelis themselves fiercely debate the settlement issue and many feel distressed by what the world calls the occupation. Yet we all realize that our territorial dispute with the Palestinians can only be resolved through direct negotiations which they have long rejected. We all agree that any peace treaty will have to address Israel's vital security needs as well as its permanent legitimacy. Only when the Palestinians consent to demilitarize their state and to reciprocate Israel's recognition of their right to self-determination in their homeland, will true peace be achieved.
    Until that time, Israel is committed to improving the quality and security of Palestinian life.
    This is a fact not only in the West Bank but also in Gaza. Unfortunately, Hamas' stranglehold over the Strip and the organization's ruthlessness in commandeering construction supplies for building terror tunnels and bunkers, blocks virtually all attempts to renovate the area.
    With that, Israel facilitates the entry of more than 700 trucks a day to enter Gaza, eliminating any humanitarian shortage. Whether from the West Bank or Gaza, all Palestinian produce is exported through Israel.
    Candidates should be aware of other crucial facts.
    Among them are the more than 2,000 casualties in the Syrian civil war who have been treated at Israeli hospitals and by Israeli relief organizations -- the only ones with Arabic-speaking staffs -- helping refugees in Jordan and Greece.
    Israeli rescuers were also first responders to natural disasters in Haiti, Japan, Nepal and the Philippines. Thousands of children, including many from hostile countries, have received free heart surgery in Israel. Israel is one of a handful of countries that has never known a second of nondemocratic government. Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druze openly and loudly debate in the Knesset, our parliament, situated just a short drive from the world's most savage fighting.
    And in spite of terrorist bombings and tunnels, Israel will remain democratic.
    We will continue to respect America's democratic process and refrain from any semblance of interference. But Israel must retain the right to correct any misinformation and to expect the candidates, all of whom have expressed support for us, to also know the facts.