By HILARY LEILA KRIEGER, JPOST CORRESPONDENT IN WASHINGTON
US President Barack Obama's low approval ratings among Israelis must improve for the Israeli-Arab peace process to advance, according to Israel's envoy to the United States.
Ambassador Michael Oren cited polls showing just 4 percent of the Israeli public believed Obama is pro-Israel, during a speech at the Washington Hudson Institute think tank Thursday. He said that if the Israeli public didn't trust the Obama administration it would be unwilling to take the steps necessary for a peace deal, and called the survey results "one of the greatest obstacles" to peace-making.
"Those Israelis who are going to make peace with their neighbors are going to be asked to take immense risks, extraordinary risks with themselves, their families, their children. In order to take those risks, they need to be able to trust the administration. It's crucial," he said.
"We have to get this number up," Oren stressed, noting that the White House and Congress were well aware of that need. "If we're going to move forward, it is a sine qua non for progress in the peace process."
At the same time, Oren pushed back against the characterization in the Israeli press of a "crisis" in US-Israel relations.
"I think I know what a crisis looks like in US-Israeli relations. As a historian, there's no crisis going on," said the author of a New York Times bestseller on US involvement in the Middle East. He rattled off accounts of worse breakdowns and near-ruptures with several previous administrations.
"That doesn't mean we agree on everything or there aren't obstacles to overcome," he acknowledged, but when it came to the fundamentals of the alliance and how the allies handle those differences, "There is nothing in my experience up to this point that would suggest in any way that that is changing."
He cited three major issues where Jerusalem and Washington didn't see eye-to-eye when the two new leaderships came into office - the endorsement of a Palestinian state, settlements, and dealing with Iran - but argued those differences had largely been resolved.
"There were certainly points where there could be significant friction," he said. "Much of this friction was reduced through extensive cooperation and communication between these two governments."
Oren pointed to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's acceptance of a demilitarized Palestinian state that couldn't sign treaties and had other limitations on its sovereignty as bridging the gap with the United States' position, which strongly supports the creation of a Palestinian state.
He also referred to ongoing conversations, including those held on Thursday, with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell over an arrangement for a settlement freeze.
"They have made significant progress on the idea of a time-limited freeze that would not really impact Jerusalem and that would provide for a certain amount of natural growth construction," he reported, describing the two countries as "much, much closer" than they were six months ago.
"The settlement issue as a major, major flashpoint is gone," he maintained.
And on Iran, Oren said Israel detected a shift in the American perception of Iran during the past several months. Particularly followed June's flawed presidential election and opposition crackdown, the US saw the threat as the Arab world's problem as well as an Israeli problem and a situation whereby "the administration had to engage a terror-supporting, Holocaust-denying, potentially genocidal, illegitimate regime."
"There were in some ways profound shifts in the American perception of the Iranian threat," he explained, referring to "a growing willingness on the part of the administration not only to put limits on engagement but to talk seriously about putting together a package of what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called 'crippling sanctions' against Iran."
Since then, he said, the two countries have "cooperated extremely closely" on sharing intelligence and putting together sanction options.
He said since then that "we are receiving assurances all the time by the administration that they will not be fooled by any attempt by the Iranians" to delay, avoid inspections and other subterfuge.
"We are continuing to support the administration's position on this, all the time keeping our eye on the clock," he concluded.
Oren also noted that the US and Israel had began this iteration of their relationship by electing leaders from different ends of the political spectrums - Right vs Left - but still he saw no great change in the basic contours of the relationship.
Oren also pointed out that Obama was very clear about the approach he was going to take upon assuming office: that he was going to try to engage America's adversaries; that he was going to try to reach out and establish new relationship with the Muslim world; that he was going to be personally active in the peace process in support of a two-state solution; and that he was no fan of the settlements.
There was "no surprise" about the policies he chose to pursue, Oren said. "It was actually a very impressive display of a politician keeping his campaign promises."
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