Oren: Concerns about J Street policies not sufficiently allayed

Oren Concerns about J S

October 28, 2009 01:32
3 minute read.

A week after he rebuffed an invitation to attend the J Street conference in Washington, Ambassador to the US Michael Oren addressed another Jewish audience, some 300 kilometers away. Inside a packed auditorium at New York City's 92nd Street Y on Monday, Oren said J Street - whose conference has been taking place this week - has "certain policies that caused concerns, aroused concerns." "I conveyed these concerns to J Street," he said, but as yet they are not "sufficiently allayed." In his place, a "high-ranking diplomat" was sent to the conference as an observer. "If J Street allays those concerns there's no reason why we can't have a constructive dialogue," Oren said. After that, no mention of the pro-peace group filtered into a wide-ranging conversation on Oren's American approach to Israeli diplomacy; raising children in Israel; his reaction to Israeli demonization by critics, and prospects for a peace process. Oren was on familiar territory, appearing onstage with his longtime friend, journalist Yossi Klein Halevi and moderator Thane Rosenbaum. Oren and Klein Halevi are American-born Israelis - Oren, whose parents were in the audience, grew up in New Jersey, and Klein Halevi is from Brooklyn - and their work at the Shalem Center overlapped. "We need someone who speaks American," Klein Halevi said, of Oren's appointment. "Someone who can act as a translator between these two experiences." Oren, who said his children have thanked him for raising them in Israel, said he approaches his job with an American and Israeli sensibility. "We know what life is like without Jewish sovereignty," he said. But the two spoke from divergent perspectives: Oren as a diplomat and Klein Halevi as the Israeli man on the street - or, as they joked, a cab driver from Bat Yam. In Israel, both agreed, Israelis harbor visceral fears of an Iranian threat. "It's always here, it's filtered into our consciousness," Klein Halevi said. Asked about recent negotiations in Vienna, Oren said: "The government of Israel supports the Obama administration's position on this package." Did Klein Halevi, the Israeli everyman, agree? "No, not at all," he said, describing a "devastatingly skeptical" perception among Israelis, who would prefer "crippling sanctions" on Iran. Quickly, the conversation turned to the demonization of Israel and in particular, the recent report on Israel's military operation in Gaza headed by South African jurist Richard Goldstone. "I think the Goldstone report came as a genuine shock," Klein Halevi said. "The nature of this shock was, 'How could it really have come to this?'" He described direct implications for the peace process, citing the Oslo accords as a reaction to the collapse of the Soviet Union. "Only in that atmosphere of acceptance, I think, did the Israel public feel safer and say, 'OK, let's test the waters.' That's not at all the mood in Israel today." Oren described a "tactical" problem of Israel having its hands tied behind its back and left with an inability to defend itself or face prosecution. He said "no one in Israel buys" that the IDF targeted civilians during Operation Cast Lead. "It goes not just against all of our principles, but the personal knowledge of people who participated in the operation," he said, adding that he was speaking from personal experience. He described hundreds of thousands of text messages and leaflets that Israeli forces sent as a warning. "We sacrificed the element of surprise," he said. Both praised the US response, which was to reject the mandate of the report. Given pressure by the US for Israelis and Palestinians to resume peace talks, Oren was asked if the Obama administration had taken a less-friendly tone toward Israel. He answered with an emphatic, "No." "President Obama has not changed the fundamental relationship with Israel," a relationship Oren described as "deep, multi-faceted and far reaching." Present at Oval Office meetings between Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, he described the tenor of their discussion as "very warm," and of a high intellectual, almost cerebral, caliber. "That is a bedrock alliance," he said, of US-Israel relations. "What has changed is a different approach to international affairs" on the part of the United States, meaning greater engagement with adversaries. "We've been able to iron out most of our differences," including an "understanding" about restraint in the construction of settlements. Oren ended on a positive note, drawing on his experience as an historian. "Everything in our past gives us reason to believe," he said. "I'm not a prophet, I'm an historian. I remain optimistic, not Pollyanish, but guardedly optimistic."

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