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Oren navigates waters among Israel, U.S. government and American Jews

By Ron Kampeas, JTA

August 17, 2009 | 3:20 pm

Tweeted, a diplomat’s job would look something like this: Explain home abroad, explain abroad home.

In recent weeks, it’s seemed as if the job description for Israeli envoys would encroach on the 140-character limit: Explain home abroad, explain abroad home, explain Jews abroad home, explain home to Jews abroad, explain, explain, explain.

Michael Oren, the new Israeli ambassador to Washington, has had a busy six weeks, and he acknowledges that some of his difficulties have had to do with a debate within his government about whether to even engage with liberal American Jews.

“There is a debate, I won’t say there isn’t,” Oren said.

He also made clear which side he is on: “I am committed to reaching out to several groups, Jewish and non-Jewish, that I feel have drifted away from Israel,” he said. “It’s important we reach out and try and bring them back.”

Oren’s criterion: Groups must be committed to Israel’s right to “exist as a free and Jewish state.”

Reports have emerged that some influential officials around Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu favor dealing only with organizations sympathetic to the government’s line on settlements and peace-making. Others counsel engagement with the community’s broad spectrum, with a focus on what unites Israel and the Jews.

Oren would not confirm reports that he has told friends and colleagues that he especially wants to engage Jewish groups widely viewed as being on the liberal end of the Jewish political spectrum such as J Street, or that in general he wants to reach out to forces on the American left. In fact, he would not utter the word “progressive.”

Such an explicit recommendation of engagement with progressives, coupled with a warning that Israel’s posture was eroding U.S. Jewish support, earned the consul general in Boston, Nadav Tamir, a formal reprimand last week when his memo was leaked.

Oren, 54, makes it clear such an outcome is unlikely in his case. He is a historian by training and he is fresh to diplomacy, but already he is committed to professionalism.

“It’s like going from free verse to writing rhymed haiku” is how Oren described his transition from opinionated historian to diplomat.

Still, Oren conveys real joy in his job. He likes recounting how as a 15-year-old from New Jersey, he was part of a youth group that met then-ambassador Yitzhak Rabin in Washington. Oren recalls telling himself that one day he’d love to be Israel’s top envoy to the United States.

Meeting last week with journalists from the Jewish media, Oren would not be drawn into comment on his pre-appointment writings in which he favored unilateral withdrawal from Gaza—a position directly at odds with that of Netanyahu, who has described its effects there as disastrous.

“My opinions I had before I came into this job are irrelevant now,” he said.

It can’t make his job any easier that much of the leaking about U.S.-Israel tensions—and tensions between Israel and some U.S. Jews—appears to be emanating from Oren’s own government. (He won’t comment, saying he doesn’t know the provenance of the leaks.)

Oren found himself scrambling last month to put out such a fire: Ha’aretz had reported that Netanyahu was prone to describe Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s chief of staff, and David Axelrod, the president’s top political adviser, as “self-hating Jews.”

“Here’s an unattributed flying quote,” Oren said, shaking his head. Netanyahu was “furious” and asked Oren to reach out to Emanuel and Axelrod and reassure them that the prime minister had never said those words.

And yet the claim resurfaced again and again—twice on the op-ed page of The New York Times.

“It’s like the end of ‘Fatal Attraction,’ ” Oren said. “It keeps coming back.”

Oren acknowledged that Israel should have been more aggressive in countering the notion in the press. He added that the embassy is, along with the U.S. State Department, more proactive in countering misimpressions.

“We are together working to dispel any attempt to fabricate any sense of a crisis,” Oren said.

A State Department spokesman did not return a call from JTA.

For instance, it has been reported that Oren was twice “summoned” to the State Department to discuss Jewish settlements in Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem.

Oren insisted that he was never “summoned,” an invitation that implies a crisis. The first conversation, he said, took place during a courtesy call that covered a range of issues. The second was a “soft-spoken” phone call from Jeffrey Feltman, who runs the Near East desk.

Oren says everyone at the Foreign Ministry predicted a hard time for him, from its upper reaches “to the guy who signed off on my cell phone.”

“I came expecting significant tensions, if not a crisis,” he said. “By and large it’s business as usual, if not better than usual.”

Obama and Netanyahu get along “like two intellectual men educated in Cambridge, Mass.,” a reference to the leaders’ respective stints at Harvard and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Their last conversation, Oren said, suggested two men who had just had a beer.

“There was an ease with one another,” he said.

Israel is especially relieved that the United States has toughened its posture on Iran, moving up a review of its engagement policy from December to September.

“Iran was a potential for disagreement,” he said. “It’s not now.”

Appearing Sunday on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS,” Oren dismissed claims that Israel is planning to strike Iran, a reassurance that was aimed as much at the Obama administration as it was to Sunday talk show viewers.

“We are far from even contemplating such things right now,” he said on CNN. “The government of Israel has supported President Obama in his approach to Iran, initially the engagement, the outreach to Iran.”

The Iran issue nonetheless begs a question: Given that Israel for nearly two decades has named Iran as its gravest potential threat, why would its government complicate a relationship with a sympathetic White House by not doing more to avoid friction with the administration over settlements and peace talks with the Palestinians?

Israel, Oren answered, must be “mindful of the basic needs of our citizens and the security of the state as a whole. You don’t want to railroad through a Palestinian state.”

Furthermore, he said, advancing the efforts to shut down Iran’s suspected nuclear program was not incompatible with disagreements over settlement policy.
Oren wanted to end the interview with a Rosh Hashanah message of Jewish unity and a looking forward to peace; he eked it out as if he was still testing the waters of this diplomacy business.

Oren was late for his next appointment, but when a reporter managed to ask a final question about what he thought of predictions of the death of Zionism, the envoy sat back down and became animated. It was then that the diplomat and historian merged, and Oren made a passionate case for why Zionism is still thriving.

“The ‘death of Zionism’ is demonstrably untrue,” he said. “More people speak Hebrew than Danish, Israel publishes more poetry per capita than any other country, it’s a global leader in high tech and biotech, it can field one of the world’s most proficient and moral armies—and it has great rock music.”

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