In a hint at how he might approach dealing with diplomacy should he be named Israel’s next ambassador to Washington, as widely reported, Michael Oren said in New York on Monday that “it would be preferable to excise the word ‘solution’” when dealing with Mideast tensions and talk rather “about better managing the conflict and moving toward” answers.
Perhaps not what Washington would like to hear, but an indication that whoever is appointed to the key diplomatic position will seek to tamp down expectations in the Obama administration of a high-speed approach to resolving the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Oren is considered less ideological than the other likely candidate, Dore Gold, who served as Benjamin Netanyahu’s ambassador to the United Nations in the late 1990s.
Oren was in town to speak about the America-Israel relationship at a lunch with two dozen supporters of Beit Morasha, a Zionist educational and leadership training institute in Jerusalem he praised highly, particularly for its work with the IDF.
But what the group wanted to hear most was whether the reports in the Israeli press over the weekend were true that Oren was about to be named as the Netanyahu administration’s top choice to replace Sallai Meridor as Israel’s envoy to Washington — always a vital post, and especially now, with strains predicted between the Netanyahu and Obama governments.
Oren acknowledged at the outset that he is one of several candidates for the position, and said he was honored simply to be considered. Others being discussed besides Gold, also a U.S. native who heads a Jerusalem-based think tank, are Zalman Shoval, who turns 79 this week and served twice as Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., and Alon Pinkas, who was Israel’s consul general in New York under Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon.
Oren’s would be an out-of-the-box appointment that some call inspired and others ill fated. He is given high marks across the board for his intelligence, integrity and “camera appeal,” American English and personable demeanor. But critics say his politics would make his appointment in Washington problematic.
Born in upstate New York and raised in West Orange, N.J., Oren, 53, made aliyah 30 years ago and served in an IDF combat unit. He is a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, and presently is a visiting professor at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington.
Princeton- and Columbia-educated, articulate and charismatic, he is an historian with an expertise in the relationship between the U.S. and the Mideast that goes back to the birth of our country. (His most recent book, “Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present” was a best-seller, as was his “Six Days of War,” considered by many to be the definitive study of the 1967 Arab-Israel war.)
Oren has served as an adviser to Israel’s UN delegation and is a veteran, skilled communicator, serving as the Middle East expert for CBS News and contributing editor to The New Republic. He writes op-ed pieces frequently for the Wall Street Journal and other publications, including The Jewish Week.
The fact that he has been criticized by both the political right and left in Israel is something of a point of pride with Oren.
His association with Shalem, a center-right think tank funded heavily by billionaire Sheldon Adelson, makes the left suspicious of him, as does an article he wrote during the 2008 presidential campaign that was perceived by many, though he denies it, as favoring John McCain in terms of Israel’s interests.
“McCain’s priorities are unlikely to ruffle the U.S.-Israel relationship; Obama’s are liable to strain the alliance,” Oren wrote in the Fall 2008 issue of the Journal of International Security Affairs.
Critics on the right fault Oren for favoring Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. David Bedein, founder of the Israel Resource News Agency, described Oren as “a guru of disengagement. He is advocating a policy that would be suicidal to Israel.”
“I can only say in my own defense, I don’t fit into any ideological category,” Oren told the Jewish Week. “I’ve been called a neoconservative, yet I was a strong opponent of the Iraq war. Conversely, if you believe last Friday’s Haaretz, I’m a leftist.”
“To tell you the truth,” Oren continued with a laugh, “I find it funny that there’s so much disagreement. Maybe it indicates that I’m doing something right.”
Oren rejects the notion that Netanyahu and Obama, two strong-willed individuals, will constantly be at loggerheads over such key issues as settlements, how to deal with Iran and the future of Jerusalem.
“I think that the American-Israel relationship is very strong and deep rooted. Yes, there may be nuances of difference but ultimately we aspire to the same goals and live by the same principals.”
Obama’s willingness to engage rogue states “isn’t such a radical departure,” Oren said, noting the numerous times President Bill Clinton sent envoys to speak with the Syrians and Iranians.
“It’s not Israel’s job to dictate America’s foreign policy. Israel would welcome any policy that would result in the elimination of Iran’s nuclear program and an end to Iranian-Syrian support for terror.”
Israeli diplomats should place “tremendous emphasis” on what Oren called “public diplomacy” (“I hate the word hasbara”), utilizing every modern media tool at their disposal to promote Israel’s agenda and image.
Given his background, Oren said he feels “attuned to the nuances of American culture. When I say on TV in the U.S. that Israel runs interference for America against terror, people know I’m using a football phrase and understand what I’m talking about. I spent my youth in America. It’s a matter of language, of wavelength. I know American campuses well and can speak to the younger generations of Americans.”
What does Oren tell the groups he addresses?
“I have one ideology: I’m a Zionist. I believe in the existence of an independent, sovereign, strong and secure Jewish state. A state that is closely allied with the U.S,” he said.
In his presentation here on Monday, Oren gave a detailed, erudite talk (no notes) in 40 minutes on the six-decade Washington-Jerusalem relationship, apologizing for keeping it off the record, no doubt because he is feeling diplomatically cautious this week.
Oren traced the ups and downs of the U.S.-Israel alliance, noting that it should not come as surprise that even while the two countries enjoy a solid and close relationship, there can be strong differences of opinion leading to tensions.
Whoever is named Israel’s next ambassador in Washington, as soon as next week, will be charged with minimizing those tensions.
Michele Chabin is an Israel correspondent of The Jewish Week; Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher.