Michael Oren’s Trainwreck Interview Shows Israelis No Longer Care What We Think
On Saturday, Isaac Chotiner at the New Yorker tried to interview Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the United States. He failed. After a series of tense arguments, Oren hung up, claiming that Chotiner was “not interested in anything I have to say” and asking him to “withdraw” the interview.
I am not surprised that the New Yorker and Michael Oren do not get along, any more than I am that Oren said some awful things. In the past, he has claimed that Obama’s supposed anti-Israel stance resulted from his “abandonment” by his father and stepfather; he called no less than Leon Wieseltier a self-hating Jew; and he advanced bizarre conspiracy theories about a Palestinian teenager arrested by the Israeli army.
No, what surprises me is that a center-right Israeli politician—a man who worked professionally in public relations and diplomacy for several decades—can no longer have a coherent conversation with a liberal American journalist.
It’s not just that Oren and Chotiner disagree. It’s worse than that. Repeatedly and embarrassingly, they cannot even understand what the other is talking about.
Take the question of West Bank settlements, for instance. Chotiner asked whether Oren is disturbed that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is “promising annexation of West Bank settlements.” Oren replied that, “to be right wing in Israel today, which is to say just about everybody, because the left is pretty moribund, you have to support annexation.”
From that, Chotiner assumed that Oren opposes annexation but was defending Netanyahu’s choice as politically necessary. But he was wrong.
Oren went on to explain. “My position has always been annexation, but only within the framework of an American-brokered peace arrangement,” he said. Later, when Chotiner asked Oren what he thought about settlements, Oren responded, “I have to distinguish between what’s right and what’s smart.” Chotiner had no idea what he was talking about (“Increasing settlements is which?”), and Oren didn’t immediately clarify: “Again, you want to put this in black-and-white terms, but it is not black and white.”
Chotiner was obviously confused, and rightfully so; Oren wasn’t making sense.
Part of the problem is the widening gap between American liberals and Israeli conservatives. Chotiner and Oren could not even agree on whether an Israeli Left exists or what that would entail. Oren said that “Our military and industrial élites are left wing,” and Chotiner replied, “Left wing? Not just center left?” Oren didn’t want to argue: “Let’s not parse it. They are not right wing.” But Chotiner was incredulous:
They are not right wing historically? They are not right wing in whether they wanted Bibi to be Prime Minister? They are left wing in some sort of ideological sense? I know previous heads of the military have come out more for peace than politicians have, but is it fair to call them left wing?
The gap in worldviews is painfully obvious. Chotiner, who recently interviewed Bhaskar Sunkara, the socialist editor of Jacobin, lives in a country in which the Left is newly vibrant and radical. Oren lives in Israel, in which a center-“left” candidate runs campaign ads boasting about flattening Gaza.
But the problem runs deeper. Oren assumes that he, as the Israeli authority, gets to interpret the murky Middle East for a passive American audience. He constantly condescends to Chotiner, answering his questions not with clear arguments but with “explanations” of Israeli society. Pressed on settlements, he says, “Remember, this is a deeply traumatized generation. This is a generation that—virtually everyone in it has lost friends and family members to terror.”
This pablum has nothing to do with the real disagreements between Chotiner and Oren. Rather, Oren is working as a high-class tour-guide, answering Chotiner as if he were a naive college student on a Birthright bus, giving him vague stereotypes about Israeli society.
Oren cannot argue with Chotiner, because he does not really believe that an American journalist will seriously challenge him. Oren believes his job is to explain, to pronounce, to pontificate. “Let me finish this,” he insists, cutting off Chotiner’s question. “If you want to understand this, you have to let me finish.”
Chotiner needs to understand, to have things clarified.
Oren has spent decades speaking to American Jews who eat up this act. I remember when I was a seventeen-year-old, he came to speak to a summer trip I was in, dressed in his military uniform. Here was the military officer who had also written respected histories; who was going to challenge him?
But since Trump’s election, this problem has gotten far worse. For in the Trump administration, the Israeli right has found, not only allies and supporters, but also people looking for exactly these condescending, pandering, non-answers.
More alarming than the fact that Trump leans right on Israel is that he clearly does not want clear answers. He did not understand previous American policy on Jerusalem, and he did not care to understand. He has deputized Jared Kushner to negotiate, but he has given no explanation of what the plans or strategies for negotiations will be.
For his ambassador to Israel, Trump selected David Friedman: not only a right-wing funder of settlements, but also a man with no knowledge of or expertise in the conflict, a man who learns his politics at his Shabbos table.
Trump understands the Israeli-Palestinian conflict entirely (as he does much else) in emotional terms, as a fight between good guys and bad guys. He, and his administration, relate to the conflict the way older American Jews do, and they are a perfect audience for Oren’s and Netanyahu’s sermons.
Eventually, Oren angrily told Chotiner, “You guys are just into delegitimization.” Then he cut the interview short. “I am not interested, because you are not interested in anything I have to say,” he said, and hung up.
That’s the Israeli right’s line these days with anyone who won’t swallow the hasbarah unquestioningly. For years, they honed a passive-aggressive style of insisting they are negotiating while refusing to respond to any serious critique on Palestinians; now, Oren is turning it on the New Yorker as well.
Like Netanyahu with the Palestinians, Oren wants to talk just long enough to insist that the other party doesn’t want to talk.
The Israeli Right has concluded that they simply don’t need liberals anymore. Now that they have a direct pipeline to a totally credulous, sentimental, and uneducated administration, they don’t need the New Yorker and its readership. They don’t need young American Jews either; if they talk back to their Birthright guides, they kick them off the bus.
In fact, they don’t need American Jews at all. And if that means cozying up to a white-nationalist-adjacent president and covering up for his anti-Semitic friends, so be it.
The project of hasbarah, paradoxically, has lost its communicative dimension entirely; it preaches entirely to the faithful (literally): the Orthodox right, evangelical Christians, those who want sermons rather than arguments.
Michael Oren may sound confused and vacuous, but he doesn’t think he has to care what you think. And the thing is, he’s probably right.
Raphael Magarik is a graduate student in English Literature at UC Berkeley. His work has appeared in The Atlantic and The Forward.