Sitting in his office at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, Michael Oren must lick his chops at times thinking about what it might be like for him, a historian, to write a history of the “Obibi era” – Israeli-US relations in the age of President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – in a few years time.
Because if Oren, relying on secondary and tertiary sources was able to piece together a highly readable and informative 791-page book tracing the US involvement in the Middle East since the days of the Barbary pirates (Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present), then imagine what he could do to a book on Israeli-US relations under Obama and Netanyahu based on his own first-hand notes.
And, considering the storms that have accompanied the “special relationship” during the 14 months he has served as ambassador to the US, there will obviously be a great deal of material for him to put into historical context.
But Oren the historian is now Oren the diplomat, and his job is not to record history, but rather to navigate Israeli-US relations through what he acknowledges are sea changes taking place in the US and the region, and to keep the ties from deteriorating to historic lows.
In a 90-minute conversation he conducted this week with the editorial board of The Jerusalem Post
, one of the key messages Oren the diplomat tried to get across was that relations with the US are not as bad as most people like to think.
True, there was a huge dustup during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit here in March; the US acquiesced in signing off on a UN NPT document that singled out Israel in May; and Washington in June wasn’t as robust in its support of Israel at the UN during the Gaza flotilla episode as some would have liked. But, Oren insisted, the sky over the US-Israeli relationship is not falling.
In fact, he said, running against the grain of conventional wisdom, the Obama administration was “as good if not better” on Israel than “many previous administrations,” and Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, often portrayed in the Israeli media as the “bad guy” on Israel issues in the White House, was actually “a great asset.”
“There are disagreements, I’m not going to be Pollyannaish,” the personable and animated Oren said. “But there are two qualifiers you have to attach. One, we have had disagreements with other administrations in the past, and the litmus test with the relationship is not whether there are disagreements, but how you approach the disagreements.”
Oren said that both the NPT and Gaza flotilla issues were “very severe tests to our relationship that we dealt with through intensive communication and coordination. Again, the result was not perfect, probably not for either side, but it could have been very different if we didn’t have the intensive communication and interaction. And I am speaking very first hand here.”
Oren said the US positions on both matters, as reflected in various statements, were considerably different at the end than they were at the beginning.
A SUBSTANTIVE difference in the quality of communications was the main change Oren has felt since the Obama administration went from publicly dressing down Israel in March following the Biden visit, to its launch of a “charm offensive” in April that signaled a change in its public tone.
While saying that Obama’s snub of Netanyahu at their White House meeting in late March was “widely, widely misreported,” Oren did acknowledge that this has not been a golden period in Israeli-US ties. But, he said, the tone changed within a week both because of domestic US concerns – the elections in November are now just a few moths away – and a realization in Washington that this tone was pushing the Palestinians further away from negotiations, not bringing them closer to the table.
Oren said the change was not just superficial, but substantive. Asked to be specific, he said, “There was some pressure put on [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas, and there was a deeper communication between us.”
Oren said that up until March he had not had a one-on-one meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. As a result of the “tone change,” a “direct conversation between us was opened,” which he described as “substantive – it wasn’t formal, it wasn’t window dressing.” Oren said he always had access to the White House, but there is access, and then there is ACCESS.
“The question is what is being transferred back and forth in that access. There has been a palpable improvement in the substance of the communications. It is not just, ‘This is what we feel, this is what you feel,’ it is more, ‘Let’s work out this problem together.’ I have seen how we have started out on issues relatively far apart and moved to the center. Again, it may not be everything we want, or they want, but it’s the product of a dialogue that has improved and been deepened.”
Oren said that when looking at Washington it was important to understand that the Obama administration was different than any Israel has known before, with a president who came into power promising change and determined to bring it about both domestically and in foreign policy.
Oren denied that there was any crisis in the relations, and that “what often looks like a crisis is in fact a product of a shift” in both US foreign policy, and in the policies of some other major actors in the region, such as Turkey.
“We are a small pixel in the general picture of change,” he said. “We tend to see everything through our prism, but we are one dot, although a relatively central dot, as the administration itself will say.”
Obama, according to Oren, “is committed to ending our conflict, and sees it in the context of Middle East conflicts. He sees a problem for the United States in this part of the world – we are part of that complex relationship – and he wants to put it on a better footing. I don’t think he is under the illusion that Islamist extremism is going to go away tomorrow, or that the Middle East is going to become a bastion of stability. But he is committed to working to make it better.”
At the same time, he stressed, “Our security relationship with the US is very important for the US, not just for us. We provide security benefits that the US can’t get from any other country in the world, whether in intelligence sharing, weapons development or just the mere fact that Israel has a sizable army that is highly trained, highly motivated, highly disciplined and under the authority of a democratically elected government that can field that army in a matter of 12 hours. Think about that. What other country in the Middle East can remotely do that – remotely. There is no substitute for Israel in the American security universe – nothing.”
Oren dismissed as “nonsense” the so-called “realist” foreign policy camp in the US which argues that that Israel is a strategic liability for America. “What are they going to do, build a strategic alliance with Syria, with Kuwait – where is the benefit? There are people in Washington who say this, there are think tank people who say it, but I have never heard anyone in the administration remotely intimate it.”
One thing Oren bewailed, however, was that there were not enough people making these counterarguments on US campuses, where he has been booed, heckled and – in the case of a Brandeis University commencement speech – faced with a petition signed by those questioning whether he should even have been invited to speak at all.
Asked what it was like to be heckled and prevented from speaking, as was the case at the University of California at Irvine where he was temporarily booed off the stage in March by anti-Israel protesters, Oren said the “greatest challenge I face on campus is not the protesters, not the hecklers, it is the indifference.
“I try to remind American Jewish leaders that you go to a campus that
has a 25 percent-30 percent Jewish population, and the Israel activists
on campus are maybe 10 people. It is the indifference that is the great
danger here, and that is dismaying; that is what we have to address.”
The Birthright program is a great tool to addressing that indifference,
he said, adding it was “inexcusable” and “unjustifiable” that there are
currently not enough funds to send every American Jewish kid to Israel
who wants to visit.
Oren used the “big bang theory” to describe the current trends in the
American Jewish community, saying it was a community “expanding and
contracting at the same time.”
“It is contracting on the outer ridges from assimilation and
intermarriage, but the core – which is people very committed to Israel,
and particularly people who come from religious backgrounds – is
Oren said that three days after the speech at Brandeis, he delivered
the commencement address at Yeshiva University in New York. “My theme
of that talk was that this was the only campus in the US where I will
never be asked the question, ‘Why I moved to Israel,’ because 15% of
the class is going to move to Israel, and almost all the class has
spent a year studying in Israel. That part of the Jewish community is
expanding. How long will it take for that core to make up for what is
lost in assimilation is something I don’t know.”
But, then again, how should he know. Oren, first a historian, now a diplomat, is not a demographer.