Netanyahu's Pick For New Israeli Envoy Often at Odds With U.S.

But Michael Oren’s Main Job Is To Marshal Jewish Support

By Nathan Guttman

Published April 29, 2009, issue of May 08, 2009.
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Michael Oren, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pick to represent Israel in Washington, is a highly regarded writer and an articulate and telegenic speaker. But his public viewpoints on a number of key issues clash sharply with those of the Obama administration, to which he soon may be credentialed.

That, Washington insiders say, may not actually interfere much with his main function as Israel’s ambassador to Washington: marshaling Jewish and broader American support for the policies Israel favors. For that job, Oren’s background seems, in many respects, tailor-made.

“It’s becoming harder and harder for ambassadors to maintain their presence in the diplomatic realm, particularly given that Israel’s preference is for conducting diplomacy from Jerusalem,” said Scott Lasensky, a Middle East expert at the United States Institute of Peace. He stressed that outreach to media and the Jewish community “has long been a huge part of the job” for Israeli ambassadors, and that only those with close ties to the leadership in Jerusalem managed to play a significant diplomatic role.

Oren, who was born and raised in the United States, moved to Israel in 1979. A senior scholar at Israel’s right-leaning think tank, the Shalem Center (funded by American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson), he first gained wide praise here in 2003, for his popular history, “Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East.”

If he accepts the position of Washington’s Israel representative, Oren, currently a visiting professor at Georgetown University, will step into the role of ambassador to an administration that has made initiating dialogue with Iran a priority. But Oren, in tune with the government whose views he soon may represent, has voiced strong skepticism about the value of such dialogue.

As ambassador, he also would be dealing with a White House and State Department that have stressed repeatedly the importance of moving forward on a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Oren holds out no hope for such an approach. On the other hand, in a recent lecture at Georgetown, he strongly advocated a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from most of the Jewish state’s settlements on the West Bank.

Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, said that his colleague’s views represent the current attitudes of the Israeli public: disenchantment with the peace process, and concern about the looming Iranian threat.

“The essence of Michael’s politics is centrism,” Halevi said, explaining that, in Israel, “centrism is a combination of hawkishness on security and pragmatism on territory.”

But in Washington, Oren’s centrism aligns itself with an approach widely considered as hard line. It remains to be seen how well he could advance those views in the Democratic-led American capital.

The position of ambassador to the United States is seen as especially important for Netanyahu. He is known to place great importance on relations with Washington. Furthermore, Israeli political commentators view him as heading toward a possible clash with the Obama administration over the issue of promoting Israeli-Arab peace. The choice of Oren for the post would signal the prime minister’s willingness to search outside his close political circle in order to get out the right message to Washington.

An indication of the seriousness of Oren’s candidacy can be seen in the fact that he was recently asked not to give any more media interviews — presumably, a sign that the nomination is imminent.

“I can only say I was not given an actual offer,” he told the Forward, “but if I will be offered, I will be delighted and privileged to serve my country.”

Serving Israel on the public relations front and international arena has been Oren’s side job for the past two decades. In the latest Gaza conflict, Oren returned to Israel from Georgetown, put on his military uniform and served as a reservist in the Spokesman Unit of the Israel Defense Forces. He stood outside the Gaza border, giving on-camera analysis and network interviews that explained Israel’s position and justified the military actions.

Months later, speaking to an audience of scholars and students at Georgetown, he said of the recent conflict, “I will never forget that the people of Gaza elected a government unequivocally committed to the destruction of my family, my state and my people.”

On Iran, Israel’s main international focus, Oren is on record opposing the idea of diplomatic engagement with the government in Tehran.

“The Iranian issue is possibly the greatest source of disagreement on international issues between the United States and Israel in recent history,” Oren said in a February 13 presentation at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Obama is inclined toward rapprochement with Iran, but Israel is highly skeptical of this approach. This skepticism is one of the few issues on which all the major players in Israel agree.”

The new Israeli government, led by Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, has made clear that it will not oppose American engagement with Iran, as long as such engagement includes clear benchmarks and is limited in time.

At the beginning of the 2006 Lebanon War, Oren advocated, in a Washington Post opinion piece, taking direct action against Syria and Iran, since they are the sponsors of terror groups attacking Israel. “If Israeli soldiers and civilians are the targets of Iranian- and Syrian-backed terror, then the Iranian and Syrian militaries must become targets for Israel,” he wrote.

Yet, surprisingly, given Netanyahu’s record of commitment to Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Oren, along with the Israeli army, has publicly called for unilateral removal of West Bank settlements.

“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,” Oren said in a lecture he gave in March at Georgetown.

According to an article on the lecture, published in the Israeli daily Haaretz, Oren emphasized that he did not represent the majority of Israelis on this. “I may be the last of the standing unilateralists,” he said.

Oren stressed that he did not believe a solution to the conflict could be achieved at this stage. Instead, he said, Israel should find ways to “better manage the conflict, to relieve tensions and ameliorate the conditions under which people live, to ensure against future flare-ups.”

“Peace as a solution is not a question of next week, but a generational issue,” he said.

In the Israeli press, Oren has also come under fire for an article he wrote before America’s presidential election, in which he spoke about the future of the relationship between the United States and Israel if Barack Obama were to win. In the article, published in The Journal of International Security Affairs, Oren wrote, “Obama is liable to strain the alliance, especially if, as recent polls predict, Netanyahu and the Likud return to power.”

Oren later explained in an interview with Israel’s Channel 10 News that the article was merely an academic study of the views expressed by Obama and John McCain. “I did not present any opinion for or against any candidate,” he said.

Halevi came to his support, arguing that those who claim Oren is a neoconservative or is opposed to the Democrats’ ideology simply don’t understand his views. On the day of Obama’s inauguration, Halevi got a phone call from Oren, who was standing with the crowd in Washington’s national mall. “He told me this is one of the most moving moments of his life,” Halevi said.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com.

Updated: May 2, 2009 at 6:11 p.m.


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