Michael Oren Still 'Enjoying Every Minute' as Israel's Envoy to U.S.

Four months after taking over as ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren opens up to Haaretz.

WASHINGTON, D.C. - His office in the embassy - with the picture of Israel's president hanging above the desk, a statuette of appreciation from the Nahal Brigade behind it and a long row of books - is probably not too different from the offices of ambassadors the world over. But the tasks confronted by Israel's top diplomat to the United States, Michael Oren, are entirely different. Since taking over the job in May, he hasn't had a moment of peace and quiet. Nonetheless, he says, "There are no dramas," adding that, "There's not much time to sleep either, but I'm enjoying every minute."

He landed in Washington in the midst of a conflict between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama. After Netanyahu's announcement that he was going to give approval to continuing construction in the settlements, and the White House's response, in which it made clear that the U.S. administration found that unacceptable, the new ambassador needed all his powers of persuasion to explain that there is no crisis in relations between Israel and the United States. "The White House did not condemn the decision, it expressed regret, and the announcement ended with a constructive statement." He also wants to emphasize that he was not "called in for a clarification" at the U.S. State Department, but came "for a friendly and polite conversation."

"There was tension, but we understand their internal complexities and they understand ours. There may be a fear of an erosion in the U.S. commitment to maintaining Israel's qualitative military advantage, which had already begun during the Bush administration, but America renewed the guarantees, and we also reached an understanding about the Arrow missile [defense system]."

Michael Oren is not among the prime minister's close circle of friends. But the fact that he is a historian and was, until recently, a research fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem (a research and educational institute with a neoconservative orientation that is funded by Sheldon Adelson and Ron Lauder, among others), his American origin and his frequent appearances in the foreign media served as an excellent calling card for him. His appointment as ambassador "did not surprise me," admits Oren. "Netanyahu was looking for someone who is familiar with the U.S., who would know how to decipher and explain the Israeli situation to the Americans and the American situation to the Israelis. There's a new administration here, which relies partly on the support of sectors with which we had no connections in the past - the African-American and Hispanic communities - and it has a new worldview, in which Israel's place is different.

"But anyone who thinks that the Americans have lost direction doesn't remember what happened here in the 1970s. They say that America is tired after two wars in the Middle East? I remember it being tired after Vietnam."

How do you turn a historian without previous diplomatic experience into an ambassador?

"You throw him into the water. I worked in the past in the Israeli delegation to the United Nations, and that's an advantage. But you also learn and stay up to date. A week ago, for example, I logged on to Twitter, I answered the questions of YouTube users."

An Egyptian newspaper has already dubbed Oren "the most dangerous man in Washington," because of his ramified connections in the American administration. In Congress he is sometimes mistakenly introduced as "our ambassador in Israel." Oren is modest: "Although I'm not the first ambassador of American origin, it helps a lot even to be familiar with American speech, which is full of expressions from sports that every American knows. And yet, when they described me in Israel as 'an American Jewish scholar,' I was quite insulted. I've earned my Israeliness, I did everything to be considered as Israeli as possible, whether on the kibbutz or as a combat soldier in the army. And still, my children are totally Israeli - whereas I'm half American."

Oren, who for many years served as a commentator on American TV channels, now finds himself in the crossfire. In an interview on CNN, when Oren was asked about the possibility of an Israeli attack against Iran, the interviewer, Fareed Zakaria, interrupted his reply (in which he said that Israel supports U.S. efforts to open a dialogue with Iran) and said: "You don't mean that." Oren is not angry. "I can only ask of a journalist that the question be fair and to the point, and every question Fareed asked was to the point, even if not simple," he says.

In the fairly recent past, you supported unilateral withdrawal. How do you now explain that the territories belong to Israel and that the United States demand that Israel freeze construction in the settlements is unacceptable?

"In the past I was a writer, a researcher, a commentator. I could say whatever I pleased. Today I represent a government, a country. I don't ask people in the Obama administration how things they wrote five years ago accord with Obama's agenda. Anyone who is called to the flag stops being a private individual. But to this day I have not encountered a question about the government's position with which I had a serious problem.

"I received quite a lot of criticism when I said that there's no crisis in Israel-U.S. relations. But as a historian, I know that a crisis is what there was in 1956, when [president Dwight D.] Eisenhower threatened to impose sanctions on Israel in order to force it to withdraw from Sinai. Recently a senior senator asked to see me about a complaint he had received about a proposal to remove some sign in Arabic in the Jerusalem area. I reminded him that if you travel 20 miles south of Washington, you can see a sign that says, 'Manassas, Virginia.' There's no sign for the previous name of the place, 'Bull Run,' because in the Civil War there were two tough battles there that were won by the South, and the state of Virginia insisted that the name Bull Run be removed from the signs. I said to him: 'Here too there are battles over signs because of what happened 150 years ago.'"

'The only Jewish boy'

Oren's family immigrated to the United States from Ukraine. His grandmother, he says, spoke Yiddish all her life. Oren was born in 1955 as Michael Bornstein and grew up in New Jersey. His father had served as an officer in the U.S. Army, and participated in the D-Day invasion of Normandy in 1944, and in the Korean War. The family belonged to a Conservative synagogue, and Oren studied in an after-school Hebrew school. He says that, "during that period I was unable to learn Hebrew. I even did my bar mitzvah in a transliteration into English .... I was a restless child and I didn't have good grades, so I was channeled into a class for kids who were on the fast track to the gas station or to prison. In 10th grade, one of my teachers noticed that I could write and got me out of that class. I had to relearn basic things, but in the end I attended good universities." Oren received his B.A. at Columbia University, and a master's in international affairs there, and went on to complete a doctorate in Near East studies at Princeton. In recent years he served as a visiting professor at both Harvard and Yale Universities.

In high school, Oren experimented with scriptwriting, and even won a contest, but, he says, "from an early age I knew that I would immigrate to Israel. I was the only Jewish boy in a Catholic neighborhood, and in the 1960s, anti-Semitism was almost a daily experience for me. Once they shattered the windows of our house, another time they wrote hate slogans. I was quite an outsider because of my Judaism and I had fistfights with the Catholic children in the neighborhood. And maybe I actually went to Israel because of the picture of Yossi Ben Hanan at the Suez Canal with a Kalashnikov above his head on the cover of Life magazine after the Six-Day War."

When Oren was 15, he came as a volunteer to Kibbutz Gan Shmuel. After college, he spent a year working as an adviser in the Israeli delegation to the UN during the tenure of Yehuda Blum, and only in 1979 did he immigrate to Israel, at which point he changed his last name to Oren and enlisted in the Paratroops. "That was a wonderful period," he recalls. "I arrived, and within a month a peace agreement with Egypt was signed. The atmosphere in Israel was great. We also won the European basketball championship."

Oren's first war was the Lebanon War. "I was in a unit that was caught in a Syrian ambush on the second day of the war. My direct commander was killed, almost everyone was wounded, the unit fell apart, and I joined a Paratroops force that went up to Sidon. Part of the story that's described in 'Waltz With Bashir' - it's simply seeing my experiences on the screen. But the film has a political message that is hard for me to accept, to the effect that the Palestinians are innocent, whereas they are part of the conflict. In the summer of 1982, I got married, and the next day I returned to Beirut."

When he was discharged from the army, Oren was asked to be an emissary in the Soviet Union, operating as a liaison to Jews who were refused permission to immigrate to Israel. Those were the last days of general secretary Leonid Brezhnev (who died in November 1982), and Oren and the other emissaries were considered a subversive factor and were the targets of KGB surveillance. At every meeting with Jews, he says, "we knew that there was a possibility that we wouldn't return. In one city we arrived at such a meeting and when we entered the courtyard, behind the trees the KGB men were waiting in ambush. We didn't see them immediately, but the commander of the organization there saw the ambush from the third-floor window and she ran downstairs and attacked their commander. A tiny girl of 16 simply threw herself on him and began shouting in Russian, 'Help, help!' and all the windows opened. She said, 'What, will you beat me up too?' and they turned around and left. We entered and we knew that we had about 10 minutes until they returned. And in fact, after 10 minutes, the KGB people almost broke down the door, entered and shouted in Russian. They arrested us. We began to go downstairs. And the people from the underground stood on the third floor staircase and sang 'Hatikvah' as we were led off in arrest."

Oren gave up his American citizenship only this year, for the sake of the appointment; earlier he returned for periods of study and work in the United States. He completed his doctoral studies in 1986 at Princeton, where his eldest son was born. Upon his return to Israel he hoped to be appointed an adviser in the government, but that happened only in 1992 when prime minister Yitzhak Rabin appointed him director of inter-religious affairs. "Rabin had a wonderful trick," he recalls. "I would come to see him with a delegation of senators, for example, and he would say: 'Ask me any question.' And then he would give a 20-minute answer - exactly the same answer, no matter what the question was."

When he retired from reserve duty in the Paratroops, Oren was asked to be the IDF spokesman in English during Operation Cast Lead. Oren says that he personally has never regretted the decision to immigrate to Israel, not even when his sister-in-law, a teacher from the United States who had come for a sabbatical in Israel, was killed in a terror attack in 1995, and not when his eldest son, Yoav, was wounded in the second intifada. He says that his children support the decision, too.

In Oren's varied resume, there is also a period when he served as the CEO of a high-tech firm. "A friend of mine needed someone with an academic degree in his company," he explains. "That was when the high-tech bubble burst and every day a director resigned or collapsed, until I found myself in the job of CEO." The firm was sold in the end, at a good time for him, because then the Shalem Center opened in Jerusalem and he was accepted as a research fellow there. That's when he wrote what became his best-selling book about the Six-Day War. Just then, in the mid-1990s, the archives were opened in Israel and in other countries, says Oren. "I was the first to access these documents, and I also got to archives in Jordan, Syria and Russia."

The book, "Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East" (Oxford, 2002), was very successful. Oren says he wrote the book, "Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present," which was published in 2007, under the influence of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, in order to help the Americans bridge the gap in their minds between the romantic image of the Arabs as keffiyeh-wearing camel riders and those who crashed into the World Trade Center with commercial airplanes.

Oren admits that in spite of the success of his history books, he had quite a few disappointments as well. "I have a file at home as thick as a phone directory with all the rejection letters I've received. From the age of 12, I used to write one poem a day, and at the age of 13, I wanted to publish a book of poems. When they rejected me I took it very hard, I cried. Had I known at the time how many rejection letters I would eventually receive, maybe I would have stopped writing."

In his present job, it's not clear if and when he'll have an opportunity to write. "I glanced at the schedule for the coming year and I didn't see any vacations. In the U.S. there's a tradition of vacation for leaders, in Israel it's less common. The ambassador also customarily joins American leaders on their visits to Israel. Condoleezza Rice [the former U.S. secretary of state], for example, visited our region 26 times."

Oren doesn't believe that another intifada will break out, because "Palestinian society is tired, and on the West Bank the economic situation has improved, too," he says. He prefers to speak about peace from the viewpoint of the historian: "I know that you don't make peace from one day to the next, but there are also surprises in history. What happened in France and England, which fought one another for 1,000 years? In 1967 when IDF soldiers fought in the streets of Jerusalem, I don't think that anyone imagined that we would be able to board a bus and travel to Amman. We're living in an era of accelerated processes, with events taking place in short periods of time."

Iran, of course, is one of the most pressing issues the ambassador must deal with, as well as the talks that the Americans and other major powers are planning to conduct with the Islamic regime beginning next month. The date, claims Oren, is insignificant, but Iranian capability to assemble a nuclear bomb, is of great significance. "The moment they have a launching system and a mass of uranium, even at a low level of enrichment, the moment the Iranian leadership decides to go with the program, they can do it quite quickly, in one fell swoop. The U.S. administration promised us that if the Iranians don't give a clear answer to the American proposal, they are committed to going ahead with the sanctions."

Are the Americans questioning you regarding the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran?

"Have you ever asked how hotdogs are made?" he laughs. "There are things that it's better not to ask."