Michael Oren: Obama passes the 'kishka test'

In a candid interview with the ‘Post,’ outgoing ambassador to the US looks not only at the last 3 anxious weeks dominated by the Syrian crisis, but also at the US president’s relationship with Israel.

Michael Oren 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Michael Oren 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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 words.
“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 bridge.
“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 stressful.
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 [1977] 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 Olmert.
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.
What follows are excerpts of his parting interview with The Jerusalem Post.What role 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 Beirut.
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.
With the outbreak of hostilities we continued to want Assad to go.
On the 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.
We were 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.
With 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 weapons.
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.
You 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 libertarians.
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 issues.
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 it.
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 this time.
I was struck by that comment and wondered about its significance.
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 important.
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 do.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 seeing things?
I think that in the last 64 years, there has probably never been a greater confluence of interest between us and several Gulf States.
With 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 them.
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 relationship?
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 imagined.
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 knew.
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 highlight.
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 line.
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 flags.
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 love.
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 Holocaust.
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 here.
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 years.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.
It 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 crisis.
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 nuclear weapons.
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 issues.
But we are still going to have disagreements.
There are 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 avery 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 issue.
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 opposite.
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 Washington?
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.
How 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.What goes through your mind when you are standing up there going through that?
I feel 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 exhilaration.
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 resonate.
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 US-Israel relationship?
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?
We make 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 equipment.
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 more difficult?
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.
And 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 issue.
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?
It changes 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 today.
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 possible.