The change in Turkey’s orientation and its return to the Middle East is an event of historic magnitude and nobody quite knows where it will lead, Israel’s ambassador to the US Michael Oren told The Jerusalem Post on Monday.

Oren, in a briefing with the Post’s editorial board, said there was “deepening discomfort” and “uneasiness” about Turkey on Capital Hill.

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“We are living in a sea of change,” said Oren, a historian who has written two books on the Middle East.

“The change in Turkey’s orientation – literally toward the Orient – is an event of historical proportions. Turkey’s return to the Middle East after a hiatus of 90 years is huge, and nobody knows where this is going.”

Oren said that in addition to a “sea of change” in Turkish policy, there has also been a major shift in US foreign policy, with US President Barack Obama coming into power determined and serious about bringing change to American domestic and foreign policies alike.

By contrast, he said, the positions of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government have, in most respects, been indistinguishable from those of previous governments, and that what is changing is not Israeli policy, but rather US and Turkish foreign policy.

After Israeli-US relations suffered an extremely difficult month of March that saw the visit here of US Vice President Joe Biden, followed by a less than sterling visit by Netanyahu to Obama (one which Oren said was not as bad as reported in the press), the tone from the Obama administration has since changed significantly.

Oren says US tone has changed

“The tone changed within a week,” Oren said, citing as reasons both US domestic political considerations and a realization in Washington that the policy was not helping the diplomatic process and leading to negotiations.

Once the tone changed, Oren said, “The Palestinians came back to the negotiation table, albeit proximity talks, but they came back, and it happened very quickly.”

Oren said that the Palestinians believed they could “sit back and watch a wrestling match between the US and Israel,” and that the US administration’s change of tone toward Israel “disabused” them of that notion.

Contrary to popular perceptions in Israel, Oren said emphatically that Obama’s powerful chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel was “not a problem,” and indeed a “great asset.”

“He is a person who understands us deeply,” Oren said. “He doesn’t agree with everything we say, but he understands us deeply and has been someone I could talk to when I needed to.”

Oren said Emanuel, who the Daily Telegraph reported Monday was going to step down in six to eight months time, called him in tears last month during his visit to Israel for his son’s bar mitzvah.

“He had an amazing visit here,” Oren said.

“He was overwhelmed that he went jogging on the beach with his wife and everyone came up to him and wished him a mazel tov, and that everyone was great to his kid.”

Israel becoming a bi-partisan issue in US

Oren said that one of the great new challenges Israel faces in Washington is that it is becoming an increasingly partisan issue. His comments come as polls consistently show a sharp increase in support for Israel among Republicans, and a decline among Democrats.

“Bi-partisan support for Israel is a national strategic interest for us, and I’m sometimes in the difficult position of having to tell some of Israel’s most outspoken supporters to be aware of this,” Oren said.

“I’m concerned about the drift toward partisanship, and while the American people remain overwhelmingly supportive of Israel, pro-Israel, when you break it down by party you get a more nuanced picture, and for me a more troubling picture,” he said.

Oren advised Israel supporters against “ad hominem attacks on the president as if he is anti- Israel. Barack Obama is not anti-Israel, he has different policies than some of his predecessors, but he is not anti-Israel. You can debate the relative value of his policies toward us, but let’s not couch it in saying someone is pro-Israel or anti- Israel.”

Regarding J Street, the left-wing Washington lobby whose first convention meeting he did not attend last year, Oren said that the group was an issue that “took up a lot of press” but does not “occupy a major share of my time.”

J Street not influential in Washington

Asked about J Street’s influence on the White House or its sway in Congress, the ambassador said, “I don’t think that they have proven decisive on any major issue we’ve encountered.”

Oren said J Street was fundamentally different than the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

“AIPAC’s mandate is to support the decisions of the democratically elected government of Israel, be it left, right or center,” he said. “J Street makes its own policy and does not necessarily, to say the least, accept the decisions of the policies of the government of Israel.”

“Listen, I represent the democratically elected government, and that government reflects the will of the people of Israel, and what they perceive as the interests of Israel,” he said, adding that J Street was an organization “taking issue with that, and that in itself is a source of disagreement.”

Oren said he has met with J Street head Jeremy Ben-Ami, adding that he and Ben-Ami tried to keep their disagreements “civil” and find areas where they can cooperate.

He said J Street has been helpful in combating divestment moves at the University of California at Berkeley, and during the brouhaha over his recent invitation to speak at Brandeis University’s commencement ceremony.

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