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Jewish Journal

Cheerful and diplomatic, Ambassador Oren addresses L.A.

by Jonah Lowenfeld

January 17, 2013 | 10:03 am

Michael Oren at the Saban Theatre on Jan. 15. Photo by Joseph Scarnici

Michael Oren at the Saban Theatre on Jan. 15. Photo by Joseph Scarnici

In a speech about the U.S.-Israel relationship delivered in Los Angeles on Tuesday evening, Jan. 15, Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States, drew on his expertise as a historian of the Middle East to illustrate the strength of the alliance between the two countries. Citing comments made by America’s presidents and founding fathers, Oren argued that the bond between the U.S. and Israel can be traced back to America’s Old Testament foundations.

“People read their Bible, and the spiritual connection between Israel and the United States is one of the reasons -- I think one of the primary reasons -- why support for Israel in this country is at a 20-year high right now,” Oren said.

Ever the polished diplomat, Oren, who has been stationed in Washington, D.C. since 2009, addressed the audience of more than 1,000 local Jewish leaders at the Saban Theater on Wilshire Boulevard at an event co-sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Consulate General of Los Angeles. It is the second address by a high-profile Israeli official to local Jewish community leaders in as many years, coming just 10 months after Israeli President Shimon Peres spoke to a somewhat larger crowd in Beverly Hills in March 2012.

But if Peres’ visit was a fete for a Nobel Laureate and an aging founder of the Jewish State, Oren’s served as a chance for local leaders to hear from the country’s top diplomat, the eloquent academic tasked with managing Israel’s most important international relationship.

“There is not a clearer thinker who better communicates what is happening in the world and what it means to us,” Federation Chairman Richard Sandler said in introducing Oren at the Saban.

Oren grew up in the United States and has taught history at Harvard, Yale and Georgetown Universities; he has, as ambassador, worked not just to strengthen America’s ties to Israel, but also to explain the relationship to audiences outside of Washington. While giving a 2010 speech at University of California, Irvine, Oren was interrupted repeatedly by Muslim protesters, who were subsequently tried and sentenced by a jury to perform community service for their disruptions.

That experience hasn’t driven Oren away from addressing university audiences -- his schedule for this trip to the Southland includes an appearance at University of Southern California.

His audience at the Saban was extremely friendly. Even the questions tossed at Oren by Steve Edwards, host of “Good Day L.A.” on Fox 11, were gentle. Edwards, clearly aware of the perils of interviewing a diplomat who can only say so much – even when he’s not on stage – twice anticipated Oren’s noncommittal responses even before he had finished asking his question.

“You’re an ambassador, you’re a diplomat, you probably don’t even want to talk about this,” Edwards said introducing a question about President Obama’s nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense. Hagel’s nomination has met with some opposition from right-leaning groups who have taken issue with some statements he has made about Israel’s supporters in Washington and the strategy that should be pursued regarding the Iranian nuclear threat.

“I know you can’t really say anything, but I want you to say something,” Edwards concluded.

Oren non-response was as expected.

“Israel, out of respect for its democratic ally the United States of America, does not comment on nominations or confirmations by the Congress. We just don’t comment on it.”

“We look forward to working with the next Secretary of Defense,” he added.

Oren is functioning as Israel’s mouthpiece in Washington at a time when it can seem like America and Israel are talking past one another, particularly on the subject of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to move forward on plans for a settlement in a controversial area of the West Bank called E-1 late last year, President Barack Obama is reported to have said “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are.” The quote first appeared in a report by Jeffrey Goldberg in Bloomberg News on Jan. 14.

On Jan. 15, asked about “liberal Americans” who say that Israel’s construction in the West Bank is an obstacle to peace, Oren repeated the Netanyahu government’s party line.

“I think of them as shortsighted and not necessarily constructive,” Oren said. “Settlements are not the core of this conflict.”

To hear Oren tell it, the alliance between America and Israel has never been stronger, with the two countries cooperating on intelligence-gathering and conducting joint military exercises. And the policies of each country vis-à-vis the not-so-friendly countries in Israel’s neighborhood, Oren said, are remarkably similar.

Even on Iran, where there has been some disagreement between Israel and the United States about when the deadline for military action might be – Oren said that Israel’s redline sat somewhere between the spring or early summer of 2013 – Oren emphasized the agreement.

“We also recognize and appreciate that President Obama has said that Israel has the right to defend itself, by itself if necessary, against any Middle Eastern threat or any combination of Middle Eastern threats,” Oren said. “Only Israel can best decide how to best defend its citizens.”

The parts of Oren’s presentation not focused on how deeply Americans love Israel were devoted to spelling out how wonderful Israel is. Oren crowed about the number of start-up companies in Israel and bragged that the Jewish state is now exporting wine to France.

Oren also explained how, before becoming ambassador, he had to officially renounce his American citizenship. David Siegel, Israel’s Consul General to Los Angeles, also a U.S.-born Israeli diplomat, had to go through the same process, as did Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.

“They read you your renunciation of rights,” Oren said, adding that he cried when they punched a hole through his American passport.

Oren said he’s still held onto his American accent, his “deep addiction to football,” and said that with all he’d given up to take his current position, the embassy officials still held out some hope.

“My wife, Sally, is still an American citizen, a dual citizen,” Oren said. “At the embassy, they told me that if she stays married to me, someday I can get a Green Card.”

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