Israel's new man in Washington reaches out to Jewish Left

Oren, an American by birth, has arrived in Washington at a time of shifting demographics and political allegiance.

Michael Oren 88 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Michael Oren 88 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
New Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren indicated Thursday that one of his top goals will be to make overtures to a more diverse array of groups than has been approached in the past. "I'm going to make it a priority to reach out to different groups, Jewish and non-Jewish, that have not felt a close attachment to the embassy in the past," said Oren, who took up his post earlier this summer. Oren, an American by birth, has arrived in Washington at a time of shifting demographics and political allegiance, as Democrats firmly control the executive and legislative branches and govern a more ethnically diverse population than ever before. At the same time, progressive Jewish groups, like other voices on the American Left, are staking out a larger role in Washington. On Monday, the White House included Americans for Peace Now and J Street among the select group of organizations invited to meet with US President Barack Obama. Until now, the 15-month-old J Street has not been invited to a single Israeli Embassy event or even had its phone calls returned, according to founder Jeremy Ben-Ami, who attributed the treatment largely to the group's new status. Now that the self-described "pro-Israel, pro-peace" lobby is more established, Ben-Ami hopes that posture will change, and he has been pleased by the message he's heard that Oren is trying to figure out how to "open the door to the progressive community." "I highly commend him on that attitude," said Ben-Ami, who hasn't met with Oren but hopes to. "There are things we are going to disagree on, but we have a lot more that we agree on." Americans for Peace Now spokesman Ori Nir described a feeling in the past among many progressive groups that they were getting "a cold shoulder" from the embassy, though he stressed that APN has been invited to many events and has had a strong relationship with embassy. Still, he said, "It's natural: The groups that are most likely to be agreeing with and supporting Israeli policies are those who are most sought after." Nir, though, added that the move by the embassy made sense now. "It's the right thing at the right time. At this moment in time the progressive organizations have more influence, have an easier time asserting their agenda both domestically and in foreign policy." APN has not yet made an appointment with Oren, either. The outreach push is not expected to begin in earnest until the fall when Oren is more settled. Progressive groups weren't the only ones that express support for Oren's approach. "It makes sense that the ambassador would have a 'big tent' view of who he should be meeting with," said William Daroff, director of the Washington office of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization for major Jewish community across North America. "To the extent that he can build as many relationships as he can for the State of Israel, he is doing his job well." But several representatives of mainstream Jewish organizations took a more skeptical approach. One suggested the outreach was a good strategy given the political realities, even though he opposed the agenda of the progressive organizations. "Clearly these left-wing groups have the president's ear, and to the extent that they're influencing the president and his people on the US-Israel relationship, the Israeli government shouldn't go out of its way to anger or ostracize them," he said. "Hopefully with an open door relationship at least their disagreements will be cordial." And Morris Amitay, who runs the staunchly pro-Israel Washington Political Action Committee, said, "Naturally part of his [Oren's] role is to reach out. I would hope that in reaching out he's able to educate them on the facts on the Middle East which they sorely need." Or as another Jewish community insider put it, speaking on condition of anonymity, "Ambassador Oren is a very persuasive person, so perhaps he will be able to persuade some of the outliers to curb their seemingly relentless and unhelpful criticism of Israel, and leave that to the many anti-Israel groups around town."