Why did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu select Michael Oren as Israel’s next Ambassador to the United States?
That’s a question many among Israel’s political and religious right are asking in the wake of the Princeton-educated historian’s appointment to the country’s most important and high-profile diplomatic post.
“He supported the withdrawal from Gaza,” one leading activist told me. “I think it’s dreadful.”
Oren indeed supported Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, and in a speech last month argued that Israel do the same from the West Bank.
“The only alternative for Israel to save itself as a Jewish state is by unilaterally withdrawing from the West Bank and evacuating most of the settlements.” he told an audience at Georgetown University in March, when he was a visiting professor there.
As Haaretz reported:
Oren said he supported the disengagement from the Gaza Strip. After they started firing Qassam rockets from Gaza, he said Natan Sharansky asked him if the disengagement wasn’t a mistake.
Oren said he replied that it had not been. The mistake was Israel’s failure to react to the Qassam fire, which sent a message of weakness to the entire Middle East.
But while the appointment’s critic blast Netanyahu for the choice, they may also come to realize that he can be just what Israel needs about now: an articulate, appealing and highly intelligent public spokesman for the cause, as the country attempts to marshal American and international support to confront the existential threat that is Iran.
It was this subject that Oren focused on in his speech yesterday at the Aipac convention in Washington: ““Israel will not remain passive while a government that’s sworn to wipe it off the map acquires the means for doing that,” said Oren of the notion of a nuclear-armed Iran.
What understanding will Oren the historian bring to Oren the diplomat? I re-read an essay Oren sent The Jewish Journal to reprint on the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War. He has written a masterful book recounting that war (and his book on The Yom Kippur War isn’t chopped liver either).
This line stuck out: “In the final analysis, the Israelis held back from acting militarily until the very last opportunity for a diplomatic settlement had passed, even though they knew that every day they waited was costing them dearly in resources, readiness and morale and was likely to constrict their own maneuverability if war became unavoidable.”
Will Oren be in favor of waiting that long again, knowing the price the country paid, and knowing the stakes this time are even higher?
What Oren also brings to the table is a deep understanding of the history of American involvement in the Middle East. His book, “Power, Faith and Fantasy” is an essential primer on how oil, religious fervor, romantic Orientalism and plain ignorance compelled so much American involvement in the region.
As I wrote in my review of the book:
The book is the first comprehensive history of American involvement in the Middle East. Its title gives the central thesis away: Our involvement has largely revolved around the quest for financial, military and diplomatic power, the impact of religion and the pull of fiction and fantasy…
After reading the book, I called Oren, who had written for The Jewish Journal in the past, to discuss some of the implications of his research for American policy. Re-reading now what he told me then—in light of his appointment—may offer some clues into the approach of Israel’s newest, and most important, diplomat:
I called Oren at his home and asked him what the lesson for these people would be. “Nuance,” Oren said. “I keep coming back to that word. I hope they come to see that American involvement is far more nuanced than they may believe or have been led to believe.”
“On balance,” he said, “the good America has done in the Middle East has outweighed the damage it might have caused. The picture is far more multidimensional.”
An American-born Israeli, Oren is not a man without opinions, but his book lays out “the background and context” by which Americans can make their fateful decisions. “I was very careful not to be prescriptive,” he said.
Still, in reading the book, the lessons leap out. One is that America’s fate is strangely tied to the fate of the Middle East. Like it or not, that has been our lot since the founding. Another is that most of what Oren points to as our successes in the Middle East have to do with economic and political building and development, not war and confrontation (Oh, now he tells us).
Oren points out that the Civil War general, George B. McClellan, who made a post-bellum semiofficial trip up the Nile, wrote that education and widening exposure to the West could gradually transform the region.
“He had it about right,” Oren said.
And one more thing. I pointed out to Oren that after reading his book, it struck me that one massive black hole in American understanding of the Middle East is our lack of knowledge, or even of curiosity, about Islam, the dominant religion in that world.
“It’s astonishing,” he said. “President John Quincy Adams wrote a 40-page screed against Islam, and he had never met a Muslim in his life.”
Oren recalled the American media’s coverage of the sweeping Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections. The reporting focused solely on what possible negative conditions could lead otherwise normal Palestinians to vote for an Islamic party.
“The message was that only people who are driven by corruption or poverty or American perfidy would be drawn to Islam,” Oren said. “They don’t understand that it could have a positive and relevant message.”
To read Michael Oren’s essay on the importance of Israel’s Jewish identity, click here.
To read Michael Oren’s essay on the lessons of the Six Day War, click here.