Michael Oren outlines what may be his toughest assignment: Making the case to a skeptical public for a leader who’s hard to pin down.
Pitching Bibi to the Americans?
No, that’s an easy one.
The real problem for the Israeli ambassador to Washington is how to make Israelis understand President Obama.
“Obama often doesn’t get the credit he deserves in Israel,” Oren said in a pre-Rosh Hashanah interview with the U.S. Jewish media. “I think it’s important at some point that he visits us.”
The interview appeared to represent Oren’s most intensive effort yet to counteract speculation in some Jewish and Israeli corners that the Obama administration has been chilly, if not outright hostile, toward the Netanyahu government. It comes at the start of renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks and a new anti-Iran sanctions regime, two developments seen as bolstering Israel’s need to be seen as enjoying strong relations with the White House.
In the interview, Oren reviewed the strides of the past year and the challenges facing Israel and the Jewish world looking ahead.
Among the accomplishments, he counted the renewed peace talks with the Palestinians and overcoming the public disagreements between the United States and Israel over those talks. Along the same lines, he also listed his ability to settle public disagreements with J Street, a left-wing pro-Israel group that has faced heavy criticism from centrist and right-wing critics.
As for future challenges, Oren said the prospect of a nuclear Iran loomed large. Less threatening, but nonetheless clearly a concern for him, was handling criticism from pro-Israel hawks now that the Jewish state was plunging into peace talks that would involve compromise.
Oren, who was born and raised in New Jersey, brings to his understanding of the Obama administration the nuance of a historian versed in the trajectories of both nations. He said that a major part of his job is explaining the Obama administration to Israelis, through interviews with Israeli media.
“I try to put it in perspective, Israelis are tough,” he said, using a Hebrew colloquialism that means “You can’t put one over on them.”
“I don’t try to polish things up. We’ve had disagreements over settlements, we’ve had disagreements over Jerusalem—but you’ve got to see a big picture. The U.S.-Israel relationship is vast.”
Oren went on to outline areas of cooperation—defense, commerce, intelligence sharing—that would characterize any American administration, Republican or Democrat, until a reporter asked the ambassador to get specific about Obama.
“I have a different take on the Cairo speech,” Oren said, referring to Obama’s June 2009 speech to the Muslim world.
The speech was lambasted in Israel and some U.S. Jewish circles for emphasizing Holocaust denial as an Arab failing but not making a broader case for ancient Jewish claims to Israel.
“A lot of people in Israel said the Cairo speech, they weren’t thrilled with the Cairo speech. I said, wait a second, this is the first time a president of the United States has gone to the heart of the Arab world and introduced Israel’s legitimacy, and said to the Arab world you’ve got to recognize the legitimate Jewish state,” Oren said. “It was an amazing thing; he didn’t get credit for it.”
Oren also praised Obama for making good on his pledge to ramp up pressure on Iran through sanctions to make transparent its suspected nuclear program. The ambassador asserted that the multilateral sanctions are “biting” the Iranian regime.
“He’s had a very robust position on Iran,” the ambassador said. “Again, I don’t think people understand fully just how determined he is to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”
Tellingly, the success surprises Oren.
“We had the Iranian issue, which could have been the source of the greatest divisions between the Israeli and American governments, and over the course of this year you saw no daylight between our governments,” he said.
Still, Oren implied that the harmony on this front might not last.
“They have not yet in any way stopped enriching uranium or pressing on with their nuclear program,” he said of Iran. “So that’s going to be the true test, six or nine months down the road we’re going to have to reassess and see where the sanctions are going.”
The Obama administration has said it wants a full year to test the Iranians. The Israeli and U.S. governments could conceivably fall out over whether a military strike is necessary to stop the nuclear program.
Oren played a role in speculation about U.S.-Israel differences when his conversations in conference calls with fellow diplomats were leaked to the media. His follow-up explanation at the time was the object of some derision: Oren insisted that he never said there was a “rift” in the relationship but a “shift.”
He went some way in explaining the issue in his recent interview.
“The administration promised change, and it’s an administration of change,” he said. “Obama is not a status quo president; he promised change domestically, he promised a change in foreign policy. One of my jobs was to figure out what this change was and report it back.”
Change is scary, Oren suggested, and Obama needed to make his case directly to the Israeli public.
“The timing has to be right,” Oren said. “I think that when he does come, when he reaches out, I think there will be a greater sense of support for him. It will be very important for the peace process—we’re going to be asked to take some big risks.”
Restarting direct talks helped put behind Israel and the Palestinians the issues that had vexed them—settlements in the West Bank and building in eastern Jerusalem—for the moment. Oren noted that the end of a 10-month Israeli partial moratorium on settlement building looms Sept. 26, and that while Israel understands the pressures leading Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, to demand its extension, Netanyahu is under pressure, too.
Netanyahu’s “credibility is an asset for the peace process,” Oren said, anticipating a time—within a year, according to Israel’s timetable—that Netanyahu will have to make the case to the Israeli public for territorial concessions. “You don’t want in any way to impair his credibility.”
Notably, Oren described the negotiations as among three entities—Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the United States. And he described the moratorium in terms of negotiations with the United States.
“We’re discussing this with the administration very intensely, we’re looking for ways to get around the hurdle,” he said.
Oren also anticipated resistance from the American Jewish right.
“The moratorium was very unpopular with the American Jewish right,” he said. “I anticipate further, if we move down this road toward an agreement with the Palestinians, that’s just going to begin.”
Oren said his tensions with J Street were overblown and are in any case behind them. He said he communicates regularly with the organization’s director, Jeremy Ben-Ami.
“Does everything they do please me? They do not,” Oren said, referring to J Street’s criticism of both Israel and Hamas in the 2009 Gaza war. He hastened to add that “We understand that the American Jewish community is politically pluralistic, but the tent of pro-Israel organizations is a very big tent, is very inclusive.”
Including J Street in a “pro-Israel” tent is bound to be jarring to some ears, particularly among some centrist and right-wing pro-Israel groups that have endeavored to describe the organization as representing the interests of a detached U.S. Jewish minority, if not an anti-Israel agenda.
Oren clearly sees himself, however, as a bridge between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora. He noted his role in interim success having to do with women who want to worship equally at the Western Wall and in concerns about a Knesset bill that would have negated successes in getting Israel to recognize Reform and Conservative conversions.
In the former case, he noted that the Prime Minister’s Office is now monitoring the situation and ensuring that women—while still unable to hold services at the Wall—have easy access to a nearby alternative site.
In the matter of conversions, Oren noted that the matter has been put on hold for six months while a commission examines how to reconcile overseas conversions with the demand among Israelis from the former Soviet Union who are demanding a streamlined Israeli process.
Oren finished the interview on a hopeful note.
“It’s going to be a year of challenges on many levels, but it’s a year of great opportunities and hope, of peace, security of Israelis and our Palestnian neighbors,” he said. “And a year of continued support, understanding and love between Israel and Jewish communities.”
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