A week after Israel’s fatal raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla, which left nine dead, Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, appeared on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.” It was not an easy assignment. Stephen Colbert plays a satirical version of a right-wing television host who regularly and mercilessly mocks his guests. In introducing Oren, he had already feigned sympathy for the raid by saying that it was tragic, but “you can’t make a challah without breaking a few eggs.”
Oren acquitted himself well. A very tall man whose bony, broad shoulders make it look as if he has forgotten to remove the hanger from his suit jacket, he wore a crisp blue tie and never stopped smiling. In short, declarative sentences, he made the best case possible for an Israel then very much on the defensive. Even when Colbert tried to trip him up, Oren was unfazed. Referring to recent comments by octogenarian Helen Thomas, who told Jews to “get the hell out of Palestine” and go back to Poland and Germany, Colbert said: “Israel is for the Israelis. If anything, the Palestinians should go back to where they came from.”
Oren smiled at the attempted sabotage, shook his head and then answered as only an expert diplomat could. “I think there is room for us to share this homeland,” he said. “Palestinians in their homeland, Israelis living in their homeland, in a position of permanent and legitimate peace.”
This was the ambassador that American Jews had dreamed about when Oren was first appointed in May 2009 by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in what appeared to be an inspired move. A public intellectual who had written two critically acclaimed and best-selling books, American-born and exceedingly articulate, Oren, 55, was considered a perfect fit with the culture of Ivy League intellectualism that Barack Obama had ushered into Washington. As observers pointed out at the time, he was exactly the type of diplomat Israel needed when the “special relationship” with the United States seemed more in jeopardy than it had been in decades.
But the Oren that appeared on “The Colbert Report” has come into view only recently. He has been ambassador for a year and a half now, and for much of that time, he seemed to fall short of the great expectations that followed his appointment. Whether it was alienating the very constituencies that he had promised to engage, or contributing to the tension with awkward gaffes (speaking of a “rift” when he meant to say “shift” in America-Israel relations), Oren has not had a smooth transition to this new role. Lately, it seems, he has begun to discover the best use of his office. As he did during the flotilla incident, Oren has engaged in the kind of public diplomacy that Israel has sorely needed in the United States — putting his intelligence and eloquence to work.
Oren, who declined to be interviewed for this story, took up his assignment at a time when the new American administration seemed to be tactically distancing itself from Israel. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton waited nearly a year before meeting with him for the first time. The uncertain atmosphere placed a limit on his clout. No matter how well respected he was in Washington circles, it made him look powerless and lacking in the access that would have accompanied friendlier periods.
“He’s come at a time when there is an administration that believed until March that sharpening differences with Israel might have had a policy advantage,” said David Makovsky, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “To be an ambassador in the middle of that, you’re trying to avoid an oncoming train wreck. He’s been doing a lot of damage control.”
On top of this, Oren suffered — and, some say, continues to suffer — from a problem shared by many previous Israeli ambassadors. So much of the sensitive bilateral relationship is conducted directly between the White House and the prime minister’s office. Oren was never a part of Netanyahu’s inner circle, which even further exacerbates his status as an outsider who needs to prove that he can be trusted.
“He is not as close to the prime minister as, for example, Danny Ayalon was to Ariel Sharon (having been his diplomatic adviser) but that is rare,” wrote Elliott Abrams, deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush, in an e-mail to the Forward. “Moreover, I’m not sure how valuable it would have been in the last 18 months; the Administration seems to have decided to have a fight with Netanyahu before he was even sworn in or Oren was selected. Nothing Oren or anyone else could have done would have changed U.S. policy or made relations easier.”
This new atmosphere has also heightened splits within the Jewish community, with a more vocally critical segment willing to voice its opposition to Israeli policies. The biggest example of this was the debate that erupted when Brandeis University asked Oren to give this year’s commencement address. An invitation that would have gone without incident in the past turned into a fight over whether a representative of Israel was too controversial a figure to speak at a university graduation.
Yossi Klein Halevi, now a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, has been a good friend of Oren’s for many years. The two were colleagues at the Shalem Center, the right-leaning Jerusalem think tank. Halevi said that Oren was “pained and disappointed” that for so much of the Jewish community, there has been an “erosion of love for Israel.”
“If there was any real surprise on the job, it was how many American Jews have forgotten how to treat the State of Israel with respect,” Halevi said. “And Michael did not take this personally, but he took it very hard, because he felt this was not quite the same Jewish community that he had left 30 years ago.”
For many people who have observed Oren’s tenure thus far — both approvingly and critically — it is his dealings with J Street that illustrate the kind of challenges he faces as Israeli ambassador.
The previous ambassador had refused to meet with the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby and its president, Jeremy Ben-Ami. Oren himself admitted that there was a real debate inside Netanyahu’s government about whether to deal with groups such as J Street, which are critical of Israeli policies. To complicate matters further, Oren declared not long after being appointed that he wanted to “reach out to different groups, Jewish and non-Jewish, that have not felt a close attachment to the embassy in the past,” putting himself on the side of engagement.
A series of incidents at the end of 2009 made this debate very public. Oren declined an invitation to speak at J Street’s annual conference. He then denounced the group, saying that it constituted a “unique problem” and was “fooling around with the lives of 7 million people.”
There are different interpretations of what happened next, but the relationship now, it appears, has been repaired and, according to J Street, is even close.
Ben-Ami said that he and Oren made efforts after the blowup to move toward each other. J Street took positions, such as its support of the Iran sanctions bill, and opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, that earned it legitimacy in Oren’s eyes. And Oren, Ben-Ami said, learned more about the group’s constituency and came to understand what Ben-Ami called its “nuanced stance.”
“I take him at his word that he is committed to a more robust and open dialogue and relationship,” Ben-Ami said, “though I think there are people within the government that he works for that don’t share that point of view.”
Halevi voiced a different view; he believes it was “one of the most successful moments” of Oren’s tenure. Halevi said that Oren, rather than coming to an understanding with the group, defined in strong terms what it would take for J Street to be included in the mainstream, and J Street complied.
“What Michael did was draw a necessary red line in terms of basic Jewish legitimacy,” Halevi said. “If you want to be considered a mainstream pro-Israel organization, here is what the State of Israel expects of you. I can tell you unequivocally that it was J Street that learned from Michael, and Michael had nothing to learn from J Street. What Michael learned was that when you hold the line against criticism, it pays off in the long term.”
However he got to his accommodation with J Street, Oren has clearly indicated that he does not want to alienate the group anymore. With the next J Street conference planned for this coming winter, Ben-Ami said he is hopeful that this time, Oren will accept his invitation.
The reason that his relationship with J Street is important is that Oren has had to act as a bridge between the American Jewish community and Israel. If Netanyahu appointed him because he wanted someone who could work well with the administration, Oren has instead found his true role in reaching out to the American public and to American Jews in particular. It’s a task for which he is well suited.
“So much of his job is about image,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “Think about the impact that Abba Eban had. Michael Oren is much more in that mold than most of his predecessors were. He conveys an aesthetic filter through which people see Israel in the Jewish community that should be a source of pride for us and is a crucial intangible ingredient for a successful ambassador from Israel. He has done very, very well in that regard. After several years, we’ll feel that as one of the more important parts of his legacy.”
Saperstein also said that Oren has done a good job translating the feelings of American Jews to the Israeli government — a job performed mostly behind the scenes. During the recent crisis over a proposed conversion bill in the Knesset that angered Reform and Conservative Jews who felt that it would define Jewish identity in a way that excluded them, Saperstein said that Oren played a critical role in helping to avert a breach.
“He was extremely effective in accurately conveying the intensity and depth of the concerns of us in the United States to people at the highest level of the Israeli government,” Saperstein said.
This is the work that Oren has settled into — translating Israel to American Jews, and vice versa. And many observers believe that he is doing as good a job as could be expected, given all the external political realities that are out of his control.
An important variable will be whether Netanyahu has built up more confidence in him over his 18 months as ambassador. The relationship with the United States has warmed slightly, and if it grows warmer, Oren might be invited to meet the secretary of state more often than he has. But even if his role remains circumscribed, the critical question is still how much real power he has.
Itamar Rabinovich, who served as Israeli ambassador to Washington from 1993 to 1996, an intellectual who made the switch to being a diplomat, said that having Yitzchak Rabin’s strong backing — Rabinovich was leading negotiations with Syria at the time — made every aspect of his job easier.
“If you are indeed perceived as a real ambassador, as the real channel between the two governments, and therefore you are, in a way, a policymaker, the media wants to interview you, and the Jewish community wants to meet with you,” Rabinovich said.
This was the critical element that made his own tenure very rewarding.
“Rabin made it clear to the Americans that I was his person and I was their channel to him,” Rabinovich said. “So that actually made my life quite comfortable. I hope that Netanyahu and his office are doing the same. I can only hope that they are.”
Contact Gal Beckerman at firstname.lastname@example.org
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman