February 10, 2010
This week, Michael Oren kept up a very busy schedule in Los Angeles.
Israel’s ambassador to the United States spoke at a major mainstream church, addressed private groups of staunch Israel supporters, met with public officials, Latino and Catholic leaders, faced two not always pleasant university audiences (see story, Page 17) and squeezed press into the open slots.
I caught up to him on Sunday afternoon, just after an American Israel Public Affairs Committee event at a sumptuous Beverly Hills home and a Super Bowl viewing at an even more sumptuous Bel Air home.
“I will fight in any number of wars, and I will give up the pleasures of suburban New Jersey to serve my country,” Oren said. “But I will not miss the Super Bowl.”
Oren was born Michael Bornstein and raised and educated in the United States before immigrating to Israel in 1979. His life there has been marked with success and tribulation. His sister-in-law was killed in a terror attack, and his eldest son, Yoav, was seriously wounded in the Second Intifada. Oren himself served as a paratrooper in the 1982 Lebanon War, surviving an ambush that killed or wounded most of his unit.
Oren’s passion for Israel has informed his accomplishments as a much-lauded author (“Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East”  and “Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present” ), a scholar and, now, a diplomat.
We sat by a lake-sized pool. Under an impossibly warm winter sun, with his dark shades, his crop of graying hair and sharp gray suit, he could be a studio executive — a studio executive who answers his cell phone in flawless Hebrew.
I wanted to speak of the three pressing conflicts. Israel and Iran, Israel and the Palestinians, and, I said with a bit of tongue in cheek, American Jews versus American Jews.
“You know something,” Oren said, “you’re absolutely right.”
The news that day reported that Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had ordered the nation’s atomic energy agency to begin producing more highly enriched uranium, a move that could take Iran closer to possessing material for nuclear weapons.
I asked Oren if Ahmadinejad’s statement in and of itself ratcheted up the threat to Israel, and how, as both an ambassador and a historian, he could discern between posturing and a real threat.
“No one, at the end of the day, knows what’s happening internally in Iran, no one can predict,” Oren said. “It could have to do with shoring up the regime’s sagging popularity; it could have to do with schisms in the leadership. It’s not the first time they’ve threatened. Their ability to increase enrichment remains questionable right now. That doesn’t mean they’re not working assiduously to achieve that.”
Oren said his government is “very much on board” with the steps the Congress and Obama administration have taken to pressure Iran, including an initiative for a fourth and more far-reaching sanctions resolution. Getting the Russians to go along, he acknowledged, will be difficult; the Chinese even more so. The Chinese have to be made to see that their oil supply will be safer in a world in which Iran doesn’t have nuclear weapons, he said, but they don’t see that yet.
Oren said he’s not among those, like former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, who believes sanctions are a fool’s errand.
“There are serious experts in Israel who believe sanctions can work, who believe sanctions have worked, have brought about a modification of Iranian behavior,” Oren said. “There’s no way of knowing a priori whether the sanctions will work, because we haven’t tried them yet.”
On to the next conflict. The compelling argument for a Palestinian state, at least for those who long opposed it like Oren’s boss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is the threat that the Palestinian population in Israel and the West Bank will eventually outnumber Jewish Israelis.
Do you find the evidence of a demographic threat to Israel compelling? I asked Oren.
“Let’s see,” Oren said, “I’m a diplomat now, right? So I’m going to say this diplomatically: The two-state solution is the best way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state.”
Is there a sense of urgency attached to that? I asked.
“I think there’s a sense of urgency,” Oren said, “not because of the demographic threat, but because of Hamas. Hamas is assiduously trying to penetrate the West Bank all the time. And without a discernable political horizon for the Palestinians, the chance for the spread of Hamas’ influence is greatly augmented. If you stand back, who’s going to win? Hamas.”
Oren had a simple explanation that morning for what was holding up the works: “The Palestinians won’t come to the negotiating table,” he said. “Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] believes he can get more by staying out of negotiations than by being in negotiations.”
He dismissed press reports that the Obama administration has been standing back from any peace process as a way to pressure the Israelis and Palestinians to pick up the slack.
“America is committed to the peace process,” Oren said. “I’ve seen no evidence of any backing away. [U.S. Middle East Envoy Sen. George] Mitchell is indefatigable. I think the U.S. understands as we ourselves understand that time’s not working in our favor.”
Is the Obama administration pro-Israel? I asked.
“Yes, unequivocally. Maybe not in the same way that the previous administration was, but on the crucial issues of security, yes.”
As for Obama and Netanyahu, Oren said the two had good chemistry. “Two smart Cambridge-educated guys,” he said. “Cambridge, Mass.”
(An hour after I interviewed Oren, Haaretz reported that Abu Mazen had responded to American pressure and agreed to resume negotiations. Welcome to the Middle East. )
Then there’s American Jewry. Oren assumed his post in July 2009, and quickly found himself embroiled in controversy when he refused to speak at the Washington, D.C., conference of J Street, an American left-leaning pro-Israel lobbying group.
“The J Street controversy has come a long way toward resolving,” he said. “The major concern with J Street was their position on security issues, not the peace process. J Street has now come and supported Congressman [Howard] Berman’s Iran sanction bill; it has condemned the Goldstone report; it has denounced the British court’s decision to try Tzipi Livni for war crimes, which puts J Street much more into the mainstream.”
Oren said his goal is to build a big tent of support for Israel among American Jews, not just lean on the traditional supporters.
“Particularly, I want to reach out to those parts of the Jewish community, especially the young American Jewish community, that have grown distant from Israel,” Oren said. He made certain to mention his embrace of the New Israel Fund, a liberal American group attacked by some of the Israeli right last week.
“One of the first things I did when I took office is meet with New Israel Fund,” he said. “They were in my office. I want to be as inclusive as possible. With that, I also have to uphold what I see as Israel’s essential security interests. It’s a bit of a balancing act.”
The criticism, he said, comes from the right and the left. Oren said he seeks out the broadest array of Jewish groups. I asked him if that included Israelis living abroad.
“That is an interesting question,” he said. “I don’t really have an answer for that one. I’m encountering Israelis all the time. In principle I have no problem meeting with them; it just hasn’t occurred.”
Reflecting on his first months in office, the scholar/author/diplomat said that bridging the gaps among Jews may be among his toughest portfolios.
“What I thought was going to be challenging and what I thought was going to be easy turned out to be just the opposite,” Oren said. “I thought it would be challenging dealing with this administration that came in with certain policies, like outreach to Iran and construction freeze in settlements, and drew support from populations that hadn’t traditionally been close to Israel. I thought that would be a challenge.
“And I thought coming myself from an American Jewish background, having gone to a Conservative synagogue and a Reform synagogue, that I would be a natural nexus between Israel and the American Jewish community. But it turned out working with the Obama administration has turned out to be not simple, but it has never approached a crisis point. I don’t care what they write in the press, the overwhelming amount of my interaction with the Obama administration has been favorable and warm and constructive.
“With the American Jewish community, I’ve been surprised by the complexity of it.”
He paused. I took the pause to mean that by “complexity” he meant “contentiousness,” but he didn’t say that.
“The challenge is this,” he said, choosing his words more carefully than he had in our entire conversation. “It’s saying, OK, we may disagree about x, y and z, but can we maintain ... but can we unite around a set of bedrock principles. For example: Israel’s right to defend itself. Israel’s legitimacy as the nation state of the Jewish people. Respect for the Israeli democratic process. And for the decisions made by those people whose lives will be most impacted by those decisions. Not all segments of the American Jewish community are pleased by the decisions of the democratic elected government. I’m asking them to respect them. It deserves respect, but it’s also because the people of Israel bear the consequences.”