Michael Oren’s loss is a tragedy for all Israelis

The Knesset is a place where many talented, qualified people can’t survive, but vulgarians, serial harassers and terrorism-supporters get elected over and over again.

Michael Oren, former ambassador to the US, speaking infront of  Christians United for Israel.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Michael Oren, former ambassador to the US, speaking infront of Christians United for Israel.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It’s hard to imagine a more qualified candidate than Michael Oren in national politics. With decades of public service behind him – working as an adviser to former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and ambassador to the US appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, writing bestselling books on the history of Israel and the Middle East, and being an excellent public speaker in English and Hebrew – Oren seemed like a great candidate for the Knesset and even a cabinet post.
But now it seems that unless there’s a surprise change of events, and after four years, Oren’s short-lived Knesset career is over. The Kulanu MK and deputy minister for diplomacy announced that he won’t be running with the party again. And while he left his options open for another party to invite him into the fold, his political prospects seem dim.
That’s not just bad news for Michael Oren, it’s bad news for all Israelis.
The Knesset is a place where many talented, qualified people can’t survive, but vulgarians, serial harassers and terrorism-supporters get elected over and over again.
Oren is far from the first highly qualified person to drop out of national politics. But he wasn’t plagued by one of the problems that such people often have when they enter the Knesset, when they’re used to being the big boss and then have trouble working as a team as a regular Knesset member, equal to many others.
Oren seemed to do what he was supposed to, and more. He did reasonably well as a parliamentarian, making an effort to propose bills and take part in legislative meetings and caucuses, as well as meeting with international delegations visiting the Knesset. He made the jump the deputy minister, where he dealt with his area of expertise, international relations, and engaged in diplomacy at the highest levels, bringing his unique talents to the Knesset.
And while Oren is a veritable celebrity among Anglo-Israelis, he understood he needed to make a genuine effort to keep his name in the news in Hebrew, as well, commenting on international affairs and writing dozens of op-eds in various newspapers. When spotted in the Knesset during the AIPAC Policy Conference this year, and asked why he was not in Washington, he remarked, “Because the voters are here.”
But Oren hit a few walls. First of all, as he explained to The Jerusalem Post on Sunday, in Israel’s parliamentary system, parties try to “build a mosaic. They try to have someone Russian, someone Ethiopian, someone from the South and the North.” Kulanu’s natural constituency is “voters on the periphery and people under the poverty line,” Oren explained. His natural supporters are immigrants from the West. “My bid to [Finance Minister Moshe] Kahlon before the last election was that people who come from an Anglo background have a strong social conscience,” he recalled – and lone soldiers, whose interests he made sure to represent in the Knesset.
But Anglos are not a strong constituency. Sure, there are nearly a quarter-million of us, but we encompass the full political spectrum in Israel. In Tel Aviv and other central cities, Anglos tend toward the Left and far Left. There are plenty of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Anglos. And in Judea and Samaria and other parts of Israel with many Anglos, there are many on the Right voting for the Likud or Bayit Yehudi. Some of the leadership of extreme-right party Otzma L’Yisrael is Anglo. No one has successfully organized English-speaking Israelis to an extent that really made it worthwhile to have an Anglo candidate in that mosaic of constituencies for a party. And party leaders seem to know it.
Then there’s Oren’s area of focus: International relations.
“Israeli society views foreign policy as the poor stepchild of security. It doesn’t acknowledge that it’s a vital component of our security,” Oren said. He has tried to raise awareness of foreign policy’s importance at parlor meetings around the country, but it hasn’t made the necessary impact.
This is a lament that we often hear from Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well. Two weeks ago in the Knesset, Netanyahu complained that there isn’t enough coverage of foreign leaders’ visits to Israel and how many countries he meets with. But that lack of news coverage reflects what Israelis seem to be interested in. As Henry Kissinger once said, “Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic politics.”
In addition, it seems like the key to political success in the Knesset these days is outrageous stunts and proposing as many populist bills as possible, regardless of whether they have any chance.
“I’m not built for that,” Oren admitted.
Oren’s one stunt did not quite land with Israelis. After the European Union decided to label products coming from settlements, the MK went to a supermarket in Jerusalem to label EU products with stickers, and social media did what it does so well – turned him into a target for mockery. The same thing happened when Oren made a video called “Israel: The Antidote to Neo-Paganism,” in which he talked about his relationship with God, among other things. Secular Israelis found it perplexing and said he was talking like Evangelical Christians, a bogeyman of the Left. The video is genuine. It wasn’t meant to be a stunt. But it ended with a “Who said it? Michael Oren or Kanye West?” quiz on a popular Israeli news site.
Of course, these things shouldn’t shadow many years of public service and four productive years in the Knesset.
But in the end, it seemed that Oren couldn’t convince Kahlon that he’s an asset, probably because of a combination of the tricky Anglo vote and the fact that Kulanu is an economic party while Oren is a foreign policy wonk.
Oren said he’ll continue to be in public life and work for the Israeli people, and hopefully that is what happens. Because his loss to the Knesset is a loss to all Israelis – even if many of them don’t understand the point of foreign policy – and it may discourage other qualified people from trying their hand in national politics. If someone like him can’t make it, they may ask, how can we? And that would truly be tragic.