Israel’s outgoing US Ambassador Michael Oren has one piece of advice for
successor Ron Dermer: Get an exercise machine.
Stay in shape? That’s the
sage wisdom from a man who has served in Washington for four-and-a-half years,
during an extremely turbulent period both in the Middle East and in the
US-Israel relationship? What has Oren become, a personal trainer? Who does he
think he is, Jane Fonda? But still, there is a degree of acumen in his
“This is a 24/7 job that is physically and emotionally very
demanding,” the ambassador says in an hour-plus cellphone interview Sunday
conducted from his car in Washington. The interview was broken up once by a
two-hour meeting Oren attended in the middle, and a second time by a far shorter
interruption due to the absence of phone reception under a Washington
“One of the ways I’ve dealt with the stress is staying in the
gym,” he says.
Good thing – because the job, by definition, is extremely
And what better way to deal with all that stress – Jerusalem
pulling one way, Washington the other; the media hounding, Israel bashers
bashing, American Jews fretting – than to pump some iron. Or, in Oren’s case,
hit the river.
“I’m still an oarsman,” he says. “I was an oarsman in the
 Maccabiah [where he won two gold medals]. I’ll go out to the river for an
hour and row hard.”
But paddling in the Potomac River is nothing compared
to the heavy rowing he has had to do in his formal capacity as Israel’s
ambassador to Washington since the summer of 2009. Some envoys, such as Itamar
Rabinovich and Sallai Meridor, were blessed to serve in Washington when the US
president and the Israeli prime minister saw things pretty much eye-to-eye, as
was the case with Bill Clinton and Yitzhak Rabin, and George W. Bush and Ehud
Such was not Oren’s luck. Rather, his lot was to be a key
middleman in an often fraught relationship between the man who sent him to
Washington, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and US President Barack Obama. To
hear Oren tell it, it wasn’t really all that bad; the US-Israel relationship
during this time – despite what you might have heard – was never in crisis. But,
then again, Oren is a diplomat, and he rows hard, very hard.
are excerpts of his parting interview with The Jerusalem Post.
have you played during the Syrian crisis?
I’ve been very busy, day and often
night. First of all, our role has been informational – finding out the
administration’s position, the position of the leaders of both houses of
Congress in both parties, getting a sense of American public opinion, gauging
the directions taken by the American Jewish community… and then conveying
Israel’s perspectives back to those same actors.
When you were asked what
Israel wants in Syria, what did you say?
It depends at what point. This is an
issue than has gone on for several weeks now, and it has gone through some
rather dramatic transformations since it started.
Initially, we were
keeping a very low profile; I haven’t appeared in the press for a few weeks,
with the exception of very carefully crafted and calibrated messages. The
initial message about the Syrian issue was that we always wanted [Syrian
President] Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t
backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran.
Even if those bad
guys are al-Qaida or [Jabhat] al-Nusra?
We understand that they are pretty bad
guys. Not everyone in the opposition is a bad guy. Still, the greatest danger to
Israel was by the strategic arc that extends from Tehran to Damascus, to
And we saw the Assad regime as the keystone in that arc. That is
a position we had well before the outbreak of hostilities in Syria.
the outbreak of hostilities we continued to want Assad to go.
question of whether America should arm the rebels, we said you could arm the
rebels, but just be very careful in vetting them. This is because we have had
bad experience with arms proliferation in the Middle East, particularly after
the fall of [Muammar] Gaddafi in Libya – anti-aircraft ordnance proliferated
very quickly and showed up in our backyard.
Then there were the chemical
weapons. The chemical weapons were red line was that if Iran and Syria try to
convey chemical weapons or game-changing weaponry to Hezbollah or other
terrorist organizations, Israel would not remain passive.
prepared to stand by the red line, and still are.
There are already
reports Assad is starting to move chemical weapons out?
I can’t speak to the
veracity of the reports, but he is not moving them out to Hezbollah.
the question of whether America would stand by its red line about these chemical
weapons, our position was that we agreed with President Obama that the use of
chemical weapons by the Assad regime was a horrendous act, which the regime had
to be held accountable for by the international community.
We agreed with
Obama that the use of chemical weapons promote proliferation of weapons of mass
destruction, and encouraged regimes that want to build nuclear
Now, since the US-Russian negotiations on removing the WMDs, we
see this as a development that could be an important precedent not just for
Syria, but for Iran – especially if all the WMDs are removed. And we continue to
believe that in order for diplomacy to be effective, it has to be backed up by a
credible threat – which is also our position on Iran.
That is something
Prime Minister Netanyahu always says, and I always asked myself what exactly
constitutes that credible military threat.
Well, it is either they
believe it or they don’t believe it. I think the Russians believed it
sufficiently to be open to the possibility of diplomacy.
Do you think
that same type of model could work with Iran?
Not exactly the same model, but it
is a precedent. The principle of international cooperation to remove WMDs from a
radical regime – and that principle being backed up by a credible military
threat – that is an important precedent.
You said in the beginning Israel
prefers Assad gone, so on the balance, how are we doing here?
We got rid of
chemical weapons, but he stays? Chemical weapons are an important part of his
arsenal, and I think that removing those weapons will weaken him.
mentioned Israel’s carefully calibrated message.
But even with that
carefully calibrated message, the storyline in the press was that Israel was –
through the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee – getting sucked into the
Syrian situation against its will. Did it? No, I don’t think it did. Distinguish
between what appears in the press and the reality on the ground. The press
narrative was that Israel was behind the AIPAC move. AIPAC makes its own
decisions, they consult with us but certainly don’t take instructions from us,
and our position was to stay out of the internal debate in the US. It was an
internal American decision.
Another press narrative out there was that
Israel has an interest in the perpetuation of the Syrian conflict, because it
was Sunni jihadis weakening Shi’ite jihadis and vice-versa. That wasn’t our
perspective at all. We warned that the longer this would go on, the greater
would be the foreign jihadi presence in Syria – and that would pose a threat not
only to Israel, but to the West in general. So we did not have an interest in
prolonging the conflict.
As a historian of the US-Israeli relationship,
do you remember another time when the administration actually turned to AIPAC
and asked it to go to bat for it on such a cardinal issue?
Not during my tenure.
There have certainly been times when the administration has turned to AIPAC on
other issues, but nothing that was so high-profile.
How concerned are you
about the rising isolationist mood in the US?
It is something I have been aware
of for a long time. I have been talking about it for at least a year –
particularly the connection between the progressives and the
It is not only on our issues, it is on issues relating to
American use of drone strikes, the IRS, Egypt aid. It is on a whole spectrum of
We have to be cognizant that America – after two traumatizing
wars in the Middle East, after an economic crisis, political polarization, deep
budget cuts and frustration – all of that impacts us. We have to be aware of
So when the president gets up the other night and says that if Israel
is attacked it will respond with overwhelming force, and the US will stand by
Israel’s side, that is a very important reassurance to the people of Israel at
I was struck by that comment and wondered about its
We were concerned that advocates of both [US] action and
inaction were citing Israel as a reason either for acting or not acting. It was
very important that the message go out from Washington and the president that
Israel can defend itself, and that Israel would not be a reason for acting or
not acting, and that if the Syrians were to commit any aggression against it,
Israel would respond overwhelmingly and the US would support it. That was a very
We were very satisfied with that line.
Because it took
the argument away from those who said America was going to go fight for Israel?
Also because the isolationist camp was saying that if America would act, Israel
would be the recipient of a major retaliation. We did not want that message out
either. It is an internal American decision; America has to do what it has to
Regarding the Palestinian track, [Justice Minister and head of
Israeli negotiating team] Tzipi Livni wrote on her Facebook page recently that
the restart of the talks with the Palestinians have already led to an
improvement of ties in the international arena. Do you feel that in the States?
Yes. Americans are not particularly focused on the peace process, it is not a
headline issue here. It was when it first started, but it has gone off the
headlines. I gave seven speeches over Yom Kippur, and the fact that I could
report that multiple rounds of peace talks have occurred – some without American
participation –was greeted warmly by these Jewish audiences.
I was struck
when the push for the restart of talks began that while the whole region was
imploding, US Secretary of State John Kerry was dedicating so much time and
energy to this issue.
Why? It was precisely because the region was in
turmoil that it made sense to move on the Palestinian front.
Israel has a
limited degree to which it can impact the situation in Egypt, Syria or anywhere
else in the Middle East. One area where we could actually make a material
change, and a change for the better, would be on the Palestinian front –
provided that the Palestinians would be willing to negotiate with us in good
faith and seriousness.
Why not try to bring stability on one front, and a
very crucial front for us… It puts us in a position that maybe we will have one
less front to worry about, it gives us a little more credibility with part of
the Middle Eastern street.
Do you have any contact there with ambassadors
from the Persian Gulf?
Do you notice a change in how they are
I think that in the last 64 years, there has probably never been
a greater confluence of interest between us and several Gulf States.
these Gulf States we have agreements on Syria, on Egypt, on the Palestinian
issue. We certainly have agreements on Iran. This is one of those opportunities
presented by the Arab Spring.
The Arab Spring has presented us with many
challenges, but it also has some opportunities.
This is one of
Allow me to ask you some general questions about your term. You are
American-born and a historian. What surprised you the most about the US-Israel
I spent about 30 years studying the relationship, and I thought I
knew it very well. I knew it was a very deep and multifaceted relationship, but
it turned out to be deeper and more multifaceted then anything I
What does that mean?
I’m referring to the commercial
relationship, and how Israel has become a commercial interest for the United
States. Israel today is America’s 20th-largest customer in the world, and the
12th-largest export destination.
Tens of thousands of Americans are
employed in American businesses. At a time when American enterprises are
outsourcing jobs to Asia, Israeli corporations are outsourcing jobs to the US.
The technological aspects, the R& D, is big – much bigger than I
That has been a real eye-opener for me.
What was the
highlight of your tenure there?
Certainly Obama’s visit to Israel was a
I often use a public diplomacy line that there is one country
in the Middle East that is politically stable; that has never known a second of
non-democratic governance; that is exceedingly robust militarily,
technologically and academically; and which is unequivocally pro-American. That
was the line, and I think Obama’s visit was the ultimate demonstration of that
It is true. Obama is up there giving a speech before 2,500 Israeli
students who are cheering him, and he is surrounded by American
Where else in the Middle East is that going to happen today? I
know that it had an impact on the White House staff. They were deeply moved by
what they encountered in Israel.
Moved by what?
Moved by the outpouring
of love. There is not a lot of love for America right now. And here was this
unqualified, unconditional love.
There was some hard messaging as well in
some of the things that Obama said at [his speech in] the Jerusalem
International Convention Center. But even with the hard messaging, there was
One of my favorite lines of the visit was when Obama came out of
Yad Vashem and said Israel does not exist because of the Holocaust, Israel
exists to ensure that there will never be another Holocaust. And that flies in
the face of the Arab narrative that Israel exists because of the
You were in the middle of what was perceived as a
dysfunctional relationship between Netanyahu and Obama. Since the election,
stories of the dysfunctional relationship have pretty much disappeared. To what
is this attributable? First of all, I don’t think the relationship was ever
dysfunctional. I want to say something without reservation: I know what a crisis
looks like in Israel-US relations, and we never experienced a single crisis
You were quoted during the 2010 brouhaha over the
announcement of construction plans in Ramat Shlomo during US Vice President Joe
Biden’s visit as saying this was the worst point in US-Israel ties in 35
That was a unique combination of a leak and a distortion. A
“leakation,” let’s call it, or a “misleak.” I was misquoted. What I did say –
referring to a statement made by the State Department spokesman who said this
would impact Israel-US relations – was that was the first time since the
reassessment under [president Gerald] Ford, where a spokesman had come out and
threatened the future of the relationship. This is historically true.
wasn’t the worst crisis. Even if it was a crisis, which it wasn’t, it certainly
wasn’t the worse. How do you compare that to the siege of Beirut in 1982, or the
sale of AWACS [Airborne Warning and Control Systems] in the 1980s? Those were
crisis. And the most recent crisis was actually in the Bush years, the sale of
weaponry to China – I am still grappling with the ramifications of that
This does not mean there were not public tensions. I am
distinguishing between tensions and a crisis… We had a lot of public tension,
most over the tactical aspects of the peace process, and the tactical aspect of
the Iranian issue. How do you reach the goal? We both share common goals: the
goal of two states for two people, and the goal of stopping Iran from getting
But we have had disagreements on how to get there. They
are now pretty much gone because we have managed to iron out a good number of
But we are still going to have disagreements.
still going to be differences over Iran because the US is a big country with
lots of capabilities, which is far away from Iran and not faced with immediate
annihilation. We [Israel] are also a small country with smaller capabilities,
that is threatened by Iran.
But what happened? How did we reach that
point that you don’t see those public tensions anymore?
One thing that happened
is that last year at the UN General Assembly, the prime minister, by drawing a
red line [on Iran’s nuclear program], gave the president time and space for more
diplomacy… That was appreciated by the president. After that speech, there was a
very warm conversation on the phone.
The settlements, which were such a
huge issue the first two years of Obama’s presidency, have fallen off as an
I think they realized that focusing on the settlement issue was
not going to advance the peace process; it was going to do just the
People often ask whether Obama passes the “kishka test,”
whether he likes Israel special, not in the same way he likes Taiwan or South
Korea? Does he? I think the kishka test was decided when he visited Israel. I
think the reaction there was emotional and genuine.
I asked about the
highlight of your tenure. How about the lowest point? I think that when 5
million Israelis were under rocket fire, that was a low point. The flotilla
incident in May 2010 was a tough period.
Why was that difficult in
It wasn’t difficult in Washington; it was just difficult in terms of
public diplomacy. You had people writing full-page op-eds against us.
about when you were heckled badly at the UC-Irvine campus?
A lot of people made
a lot of that. It was very dramatic, but I encounter a lot of demonstrations on
campuses. I actually I had a more potentially dangerous encounter a few months
ago at the University of Texas, where protestors came up near the stage and came
perilously close to my security detail, which you don’t want to do.
goes through your mind when you are standing up there going through that?
a sense of mission, and even pride standing up for Israel… You encounter the
same questions on different campuses. Rarely do you encounter a question you
haven’t encountered many times before.
It happened to me recently at a
think tank, someone asked me, ‘What has been harder for you, to explain Israel
to America, or America to Israel?’ I said without reservation that it has been
to explain America to Israel.
Why? Apart from some issues like
settlements, Israel is pretty easy to get for Americans. People come to a
homeland and have to defend that homeland against tens of thousands of terrorist
rockets or an Iranian nuclear threat; they get it.
Explaining America to
Israel, where American values play a very big role in the formulation of
American foreign policy, particularly during the Arab Spring period, was
sometimes very difficult to explain.
The events in [Cairo’s] Tahrir
Square, for example: Israelis viewed them with a certain degree of trepidation,
while in America it was a cause for bipartisan, across-the-board
Explain to Israelis that for Americans it doesn’t matter if
you are Republican, Democrat, Progressive, or Tea Party – to see a million
people out demonstrating for democracy is something that is going to
Do Israelis understand what makes America tick?
Some do, but I
think it is not easy. America is a unique place. The value part of American
foreign policy is something I think is very laudable, but it is uniquely
American. And it is part of what makes America special.
When you look
down the road, what do you identify as the greatest threat to a continued strong
I think the great challenge we face is the continued
trend to look inward, and further, across-the-board budget cuts, which affect us
in different ways. This affects us not only in terms of aid, but also in terms
of the American ability to project power.
Is there anything we can do
beyond identifying the threats, to soften the blow or influence policy?
the case, and I do so unreservedly, that American aid to Israel is vital for
American security, not just for Israeli security, and that it is money that is
well and economically spent.
You are spending $3.1 billion a year, and
this is what you are getting: an exceedingly robust military loyal to a
democratically elected government, an unabashedly pro-American country at the
center of the most strategically crucial crossroads in the world, intelligence
sharing, ports, airports and storage of close to $1b. of US military
Is that pitch getting more difficult now?
No, actually, in
some ways it is getting easier.
Americans, first of all, have seen the
great turmoil in the Middle East, they understand that Israel as a stable,
democratic, pro-American ally is an immense asset... Right now, we are receiving
what we need.
How about the demographic changes, is that making things
On the one hand, support for Israel in this country is very
high; on the other hand, there are demographic shifts that present us with
challenges. The growth, for example, of the Hispanic community is both a
challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is that there are large parts of
this community that don’t know us, or maybe what they do know is not accurate,
we have to reach out. Whenever I travel in an area of the country that has a
large Hispanic community I will always meet with the leadership. I do a lot of
interviews on Spanish television.
We are always reaching out.
then you have to reach out to different parts of the American Jewish community.
One of the surprises I had was I did not anticipate the amount of time I would
spend on some of the very complex and controversial issues [with the American
Jewish community]. Not the least of which was the Western Wall issue [with Women
of the Wall demanding to be allowed to pray in non-Orthodox fashion there]. I
would say that just in the last month I have spent dozens of hours on this
There are fascinating trends going on in the American Jewish
community. Everyone is always pointing out the supposed alienation from Israel
among young people. I think that is overblown, and statistics have proven that
it is overblown. One trend that does exist is the increasing involvement of the
Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox in American Jewish organizational life. Ten to 15
years ago you would go the conventions of one of these American Jewish
organizations and you would see relatively few kippot. Now you see a great
number, and some of them are black.
Is that changing anything?
if you look at the broad picture about what is happening demographically in the
American Jewish community.
Certain physicists say that the universe is
expanding and contracting at the same time – and the same thing is true of the
American Jewish community. It is contracting through assimilation, but there is
a core of the American Jewish community coming out of day schools, Orthodox
environments, which is Jewishly educated and deeply connected to Israel and the
Jewish people. And that core is expanding.
I am actually optimistic about
the future of American Jewry. I don’t know whether American Jewry will be the
same size as it is now in some 30 years, but it will be more Jewishly educated
and committed and attached to Israel.
Is the Western Wall issue as big an
issue now as it was a few months back?
It is still quite an issue. There is the
broader issue of the relationship between Israel and the majority of American
Jews who are Conservative and Reform… What we had to convey to people in Israel
was that the Western Wall was an issue that could have strategic implications;
that it was not just about our relationship with American Jews, but with
America. Keep in mind that a big apart of our relationship with the US is shared
values. These are very hallowed values for America: freedom of worship,
expression, women’s rights.
We had one period where the Western Wall
issue was making a half a line of news in the back of the Israeli press, but was
making front page news in the US. Here was a case where we had to raise awareness
on the Israeli side on how serious this issue could be.
Has the J Street
“fissure” blown over?
J Street got a lot of press coverage. I never boycotted
them… If they consider themselves pro-Israel, I am not going to say they are not
pro-Israel. We have had some strong policy issues, they are much less so
They are less of a curiosity, or a news item, today. It is an
organization still trying to find its footing. When AIPAC came out very
supportive of the president’s position on Syria, J Street had no position. That
was ironic because they had fashioned themselves as the wing of the Obama
administration in the American Jewish community.
There are some good
people there. It is very important to keep the pro-Israel tent as wide as