Michael Oren: Living the Zionist dream — in Washington


When Michael Oren (né Bornstein) was a 15-year-old boy growing up in New Jersey, he traveled to Washington with a Zionist group for a memorable meeting with Israel’s representative to the United States. Upon meeting the ambassador, Yitzhak Rabin, Oren told himself, “That is what I’d like to be when I grow up.”

Now Oren, a respected historian and author, has arrived at that moment.

As a condition of his appointment as ambassador, Oren, who immigrated to Israel in 1979, had to forfeit his U.S. citizenship. But he hasn’t left his American accented-Hebrew or his easy demeanor with American Jews behind in Jerusalem.

At a welcome reception for Oren on Tuesday in New York, Jewish organizational officials feted the new ambassador and presented him with the gift of a shofar, which Oren gamely blew.

At first all Oren could manage was some hot air. But after a squeak or two, the ambassador finally coaxed a tekiah out of the ram’s horn, albeit a shaky one.

American Jewish friends of Israel in the United States may be waiting for a similar sort of breakthrough to resolve recent U.S.-Israel tensions, which some say began when Netanyahu came into office spouting a lot of hot air about supporting Palestinian self-governance in the West Bank but backing away from previous Israeli commitments to a two-state solution. Then, in a speech in June, Netanyahu expressed squeaky support for the two-state model (squeaky because it came with many caveats), coming around to a position endorsed by every Israeli prime minister since 1999, when Netanyahu last occupied held the premiership.

But several months in, observers of the Israel-U.S. relationship are still waiting for the all-clear horn when it comes to ties between the two countries’ relatively new leaders.

“Americans had turned leftward in their voting patterns,” Oren said. “Israelis, by contrast, had voted conservative.”

On Tuesday, Oren outlined the points of tension, noting that the two governments have differences when it comes to the peace process, Jerusalem and confronting Iran’s nuclear program.

  • On the peace process, Oren said the Obama administration no longer views as valid the understanding the Israelis thought they had with Washington on settlement construction. That has led to a dustup over Obama’s call for a full Jewish settlement freeze in the West Bank. Netanyahu wants allowances for natural growth.
  • On Jerusalem, Oren said the Netanyahu administration believe Israeli Jews and Arabs have the right to live anywhere in the united city, whereas the Obama administration views eastern Jerusalem as occupied territory to which Israelis do not have settlement rights – a policy in keeping with previous U.S. administrations.
  • On Iran, Oren said Netanyahu and Obama differ on when and how the U.S. administration would enact crippling sanctions on an uncooperative Iranian regime, and what would happen if a key international partner, such as Russia, refused to enforce a sanctions policy. Sept. 23 is the date the Americans have agreed to reassess the efficacy of Obama’s engagement policy toward Tehran, Oren noted. As for what happens afterward, he said, “What does the phrase mean: ‘All options are on the table’? We still need some answers.”

Despite these points of tension, Oren cited history to argue that this by no means constitutes a crisis in U.S.-Israel ties.

“The stage was set, many seemed to feel, for an inevitable clash between these two governments,” Oren said. “No such crisis ensued.”

The ambassador described recent talks between U.S. and Israeli officials, including Obama and Netanyahu during their White House meeting in May, as “conducted without acrimony and resentment, but rather in earnestness and with full friendship.”

Oren also called George Mitchell, the administration’s special envoy for Middle East peace, a “mensch.”

Oren did not mention reports that Netanyahu, in private conversations, has called Obama chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel and senior adviser David Axelrod “self-hating Jews.” Netanyahu officials have denied the reports.

On Tuesday, Oren demonstrated his proficiency at glad-handing American Jewish organizational leaders, and they’re clearly happy to have a native son as Israel’s ambassador. “Your English is excellent!” joked one official from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which organized the reception.

Ultimately, Oren will play only a tertiary role in maintaining Israel’s relationship with its most important ally. Officials from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry will make frequent trips to Washington, and Oren’s role will be largely ceremonial and explanatory.

But insofar as Israel needs someone who understands the American psyche, who can explain Israeli positions to American audiences, and who can serve as a bridge between Israel and American Jewry, there are few Israelis as well-suited to the job as Ambassador Oren.

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