During his four-year tenure as Israel’s ambassador to the United States, marked by an often-stormy relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama, Michael Oren was the consummate diplomat. He was dignified, thoughtful, articulate, knowledgeable and tactful.
But those days are over.
Fourteen months after returning to Israel, where he is lecturing at the IDC Herzliya College and writing a book about his experiences in Washington, the 59-year-old Oren is speaking out about his deep concerns over Israel’s standing in the world, and particularly its relationship with its most important ally, the U.S.
In a dialogue at The Plaza here last week at the annual Scholar-Statesman dinner of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he and another former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Tel Aviv University President Itamar Rabinovich, were the honorees, Oren said that “this administration [in Washington] has a worldview that is not in accord with any Israeli government,” not just the current one. Describing the Obama administration as “ideological” on the Mideast, with the president’s 2009 outreach-to-the-Arab-world Cairo speech as its source, Oren said the White House views east Jerusalem communities like Gilo, for example, as not necessarily part of the Jewish state, a position he said no Israeli government would accept.
(Gilo is over the Green Line but part of the Jerusalem municipality, with a largely Jewish population.)
After the March 17 elections, Israel’s next government “likely will move to the right,” Oren predicted, “and America may be going a different way.”
Though he said the U.S.-Israel relationship is crucial — “we [Washington and Jerusalem] have no choice but to be allies” — he asserted on several occasions that “Israel has to take responsibility for itself.”
It was clear, if not explicitly stated, that Oren feels the Obama administration has not lived up to its “no daylight” pledge to be in sync with Israel on key strategic and diplomatic issues. (On security matters, it should be noted, Israeli officials give the U.S. high marks on cooperation. The relative quiet on the West Bank and support for Iron Dome during the Gaza war are examples.)
But the sentiment that the president views Israel at times as a stubborn child, if not an adversary, rather than a major ally adds to the speculation that Oren’s first-person memoir, which in part will deal with his 2009-2013 stint in D.C., will be highly critical of the president’s dealings with Israel.
The book is almost completed and is due out next June.
Asked by moderator Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute, about the West’s negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, Oren first noted that Israel’s “margin for error is exactly zero” on this issue, given Iran’s longstanding threat to destroy the Jewish state.
Then, his voice rising, he said that if you believe that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is indeed the moderate he claims to be, if you believe that Iran has reversed its policy of being the world’s leading exporter of terror, if you believe that its leaders have changed their long pattern of lying about the nuclear program, and if you believe the West is capable of and willing to respond militarily to prevent the production of a nuclear bomb, then yes, you should support the U.S. effort to reach an agreement with Iran.
“But if your children and grandchildren’s’ lives depended on it, you may reach a different conclusion,” he asserted, adding: “We [the Jewish people] have not come back after 2,000 years to disappear.”
(During the course of the discussion, Rabinovich and Oren largely agreed on key points, but Rabinovich sounded less emotional, more diplomatic. In discussing how to improve relations with the White House, for example, he said the next Israeli prime minister should be up front with Obama and encourage him to work together to improve relations. On Iran, Rabinovich said the U.S. seemed “too eager” in the negotiations, giving Iran a critical advantage.)
‘Solution’ Not Possible Now
Oren, a native of New Jersey who made aliyah more than 30 years ago, was a surprise choice as ambassador when he was tapped for the job five years ago. He was not a professional diplomat but came from the academic world, building a solid reputation as an historian and author. His books on the 1967 conflict, “Six Days of War,” and history of the U.S. involvement in the Mideast since 1776, “Power, Faith and Fantasy,” were widely acclaimed. His years as ambassador were marked by tensions between Netanyahu and Obama, though Oren received high marks for making Israel’s case in the U.S.
He offered an historian’s perspective at the Scholar-Statesman program when he said that the chaos in the Arab world we are witnessing now is “the unraveling of the post-World War I plan for the region.” When the allies carved up the region based on geography rather than by affinity groups, he said, they created states that cannot sustain themselves.
As for the prospect of peace with the Palestinians, he said he is “very skeptical,” adding, “I’ve erased the wold ‘solution’ from my vocabulary.”
What can be achieved, he said, is “a two-state situation” that calls for “movement” with the Palestinians incrementally. He spoke of “managing the conflict” and seeking to enhance the lives of Israelis and Palestinians through cooperation in trade, exports, etc., until conditions improve enough to explore a real peace.
Amplifying those thoughts this past weekend at the Saban Forum on the Mideast, sponsored annually by the Brookings Institute in Washington, Oren asserted that “the left in Israel has crashed because it has not yet internalized that the Palestinians are not part of the negotiations, and aren’t interested in being so. The Palestinians have chosen a different path, the destructive path of delegitimization of Israel.
“On the other hand,” he added, “the right doesn’t yet have the courage to admit that Israel isn’t able to protect its identity and its alliance with the U.S., while ruling 2.5 million Palestinians.
“Inaction isn’t an option,” he said. “Israel needs to take its fate into its own hands, and to come out with a political initiative that will serve its interests.”
Many believe that Oren has his sights on a political career in Israel and that his experience in seeking to improve the relationship with the U.S. will stand him in good stead.
An ‘Overdraft’ With Washington
In a follow-up interview the day after the Scholar-Statesman event, Oren was critical of Israel’s lack of a viable narrative regarding the Palestinians. “We have outsourced our security” to the Palestinians, he told me. “They’re calling the shots, and we need to come up with an initiative of our own.” He favors setting out a plan for Israel’s borders that “would include as many Jews as possible” and end Israel’s rule over 2.5 million Palestinians.
Oren worries that the Palestinian Authority’s planned diplomatic initiative at the United Nations is “insufficiently appreciated” as “a strategic threat” by Israel and its supporters. The Palestinian effort to take its case to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, arguing that Israel commits war crimes, and to seek statehood at the UN, would not only delegitimize Jerusalem diplomatically but also hurt it economically, he said.
Will the U.S. stand by Israel? Oren compares the U.S.-Israel relationship to a bank account where Israel has to make deposits and is then able to write a check. He said that Israeli deposits, like agreeing to a 10-month halt on settlements a few years ago, endorsing a two-state solution and taking part in peace talks, resulted in U.S. support for Israel in its wars with Hezbollah (2006) and Hamas (2008-2009).
“Last summer we had an overdraft, an empty bank account,” he said, referring to the most recent Hamas war, with its heavy civilian casualties in Gaza, coming after Secretary of State Kerry’s failed peace initiative. He said Israel needs “space and time,” adding that he would be wary of any new settlement building plans by Israel on disputed land, certain to further darken the mood in Washington.
Discussing his memoir in general terms, he said it will include his family history — his dad is a World War II hero — and his wife Sally’s journey from her San Francisco youth as a fan and muse of rock groups like Jefferson Airplane, to settling in Israel. There will be sections on the U.S.-Israel alliance, media coverage of Israel, and the American Jewish community, where, he said, “the biggest challenge” in promoting support for Israel among younger Jews, “is apathy.”
If Oren’s book lives up to its promise as an insider’s critique of American Mideast policy during the Obama years, it will be worth the wait.