Analysis: Oren's vital credibility

Were envoy's remarks deliberately misrepresented?

Oren 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Oren 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Newspapers around the world ran reports Monday quoting Israel’s ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, as saying at a Foreign Ministry briefing in Jerusalem last week there was a “tectonic rift” in US-Israeli ties. These reports were based on two stories that appeared Sunday in the Hebrew media.
Given that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is set to meet with US President Barack Obama in Washington next week; that there has been palpable friction between Washington and Jerusalem since Obama and Netanyahu took over; and that both sides are now obviously looking to put the relationship on a better footing, this type of comment is toxic and understandably a headline-grabbing statement.
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But the question is whether the statement was ever actually made.
According to a report in Haaretz, Oren “painted a dark picture of US-Israeli relations” during the briefing, and “described the current situation as a ‘tectonic rift.’” The report cited five diplomats, “some of whom took part in the briefing or were informed about the details,” as saying that “Oren described relations between the two countries in bleak terms.”
According to the report, “Oren said relations between the two countries are not in a crisis because a crisis is something that passes. Oren opted to use terms from geology: ‘Relations are in the state of a tectonic rift in which continents are drifting apart.’” A very similar description of the briefing appeared in Yediot Aharonot, an indication that both papers were told about the meeting by the same person.
Oren emphatically denied ever having said anything of the kind, telling The Jerusalem Post that “the alleged leak from the Foreign Ministry is an egregious distortion of what I in fact said. There are tectonic shifts – not rifts – in America’s foreign and domestic polices, reflecting President Obama’s commitment to changing the status quo, and these are posing new challenges for Israel. There is no rift in Israel’s relations with the Obama administration, and no crisis.”
One thing for certain is that just a few days before the Foreign Ministry meeting, at a briefing with The Jerusalem Post editorial board, Oren painted a much brighter picture of relations with the US, saying that the Obama administration was “as good if not better” on Israel than “many previous administrations.”
“There are disagreements, I’m not going to be Pollyannaish,” 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 with the relationship is not whether there are disagreements, but how you approach the disagreements.”
Indeed, Oren used the exact same geological metaphor in his briefing with the Post as he did at the Foreign Ministry, but he used it to illustrate something completely different from what he allegedly said at the ministry.
Here is a direct transcript of what Oren told the Post: “Let’s take it back, and talk about Obama and where we are in our relationship with the US,” he said, framing the discussion.
“It is a different administration than an administration we have known before. It is an administration with a president who comes in promising change, and he is not a status quo president in any way. He is very serious about the change. He is serious about the change domestically; he is serious about the change in foreign policy. Domestically it is a greater role for government, it is more services. The health care debate was sort of the iconic debate, and there will be more debates like it.
“One of my favorite comments from the health care debate was by [Speaker of the House] Nancy Pelosi, who said that for the first time in American history, family care and child care have been put on the same level of priority as foreign policy and defense. For me that basically says it all. That is a sea shift.
“There has been much talk of various crises in our relationship with the Obama administration, and I am always going out there saying there is no crisis, there is no crisis. What often looks like a crisis is in fact a product of the shift. Like, you know you have tectonic shifts and they can create a tsunami. But the tsunami is symptomatic of the shift, and not vice versa. So the shift in the foreign policy is a shift – you all know the outreach to the Muslim world, the Cairo speech, the Turkey visit. It is a greater emphasis on cooperation with international organizations, a greater emphasis on outreach negotiation, engagement.”
And then, to illustrate the shift in foreign policy, Oren suggested reading a paper written two years ago by two State Department officials, James Steinberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter.
“Where do we fit in all of this? We are a small pixel in the general picture of change,” Oren went on at his meeting with the Post. “We tend to see everything through our prism, but we are one dot, although a relatively central dot, as the administration itself will say.”
Nothing in those words about a tectonic or seismic shift creating a geological chasm between the two countries, rather about how the Obama administration was shifting its own emphasis, and how that was impacting on everything else around it.
Given that Oren used a geological metaphor both with the Post, and then again with the Foreign Ministry, it does not seem logical that he would use the same metaphor to illustrate completely different conclusions. Oren, by the way, said the overall message of the briefing he gave the Post was exactly the same as he gave the Foreign Ministry.
Which raises an important question: What in the world is going on here? Clearly someone briefed the Hebrew papers, and – apparently – was a bit free and loose with what Oren said. So why would someone leak an erroneous quote? The possible explanations are as varied as the continents.
The first is that it was a simple mistake, and that the person who leaked the information simply did not understand what Oren meant. Stuff happens.
The second is that someone was deliberately trying to poison Netanyahu’s visit before he travels to Washington. There are, obviously, people in the foreign service and other governmental organizations who – for various reasons – are not exactly rooting for Netanyahu to have a successful term and an easy ride with the US, and who could be interested in poisoning the atmosphere of the US visit, and torpedoing the prime minister’s meeting with Obama.
A third explanation is that the Foreign Ministry is an institution like all other institutions, full of internal jealousies and rivalries – only even more so. Someone there just might not like Oren – an intellectual outsider who leapfrogged over the Foreign Ministry’s own ranks to secure the plum job in the foreign service – and who want to embarrass him. Or, it could be someone’s effort to send a message to Netanyahu to make sure that the next two plum foreign policy jobs soon to be given out – ambassador to the UN and consul- general in New York – remain in-house.
There is, of course, another explanation, that what was leaked and reported was indeed what Oren said.
However, using the words “tectonic rift” to describe US-Israel ties run contrary to what Oren said he believes, which is that there is no crisis with the US. Also, from a personal perspective it makes no sense for him to make such a characterization since this description will obviously make his job in Washington more difficult; will not exactly endear him with Netanyahu; and will make him look bad since he must share some responsibility if the ties with the US are that appalling.
Some will say that it is likely Oren, an accomplished historian but inexperienced diplomat, really did make the comment attributed to him because he has a track record of putting his foot in his mouth.
To back up their point, these Oren detractors will point to the recent interview on a Washington radio station where Oren said Jonathan Pollard was “run by a rogue organization in the Israeli intelligence community,” a comment he latter retracted. Oren’s critics could also point to the briefing he gave by phone to Israel’s consul-generals after the dustup in March with US Vice President Joe Biden regarding the building in Ramat Shlomo, in which he was quoted as saying that US-Israeli relations were at their lowest point in 35 years.
Oren denied making that comment as well, saying that what he actually said was that this was the first time in 35 years that the administration – in this case State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley – drew a link between the nature of the US-Israel relationship and movement in the peace process.
But Oren’s comment then assumed a life of its own and entered the public debate and consciousness, regardless of whether it was actually ever uttered. The same thing is happening with the newest remark, something that is both sad and frightening.
Israel’s envoy to the US should be able to hold a meeting with colleagues at the Foreign Ministry with confidence that what is said remains in the room, or – at the very least – if leaked, then at least is leaked accurately.
If Oren is afraid to speak with the ministry, then not only does he lose – it has to be lonely not being able to openly talk with anyone; not only does the ministry lose – fewer and fewer people will actually want to speak candidly there; but the country will lose, because in this type of environment one can forget about ever being able to forge a coherent policy.
And, heaven only knows, this country badly needs the tools to fashion coherent policies.