Michael Oren: 'Obama Is a True Friend, Israelis Misunderstood His Outreach to Arab World'

Israel's outgoing ambassador to U.S. looks back on four and a half eventful years in Washington, looks ahead to yet greater dramas.

Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit
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Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit

Michael Oren's four and a half years as Israel's ambassador in Washington have not been easy. Every few months, the American president and Israeli prime minister would set off some widely publicized fire that the ambassador would try to extinguish. Every few months religious-nationalist Israel would come up with some embarrassing event that the ambassador would have to smooth over.

Oren, who grew up in New Jersey and made aliyah to Gan Shmuel, had to continually defend an Israel that progressive America had ceased to understand. The man who studied at Columbia and Princeton had to explain Israel on campuses where the Jewish state's very legitimacy was being called into question.

Bibi's man in America reached out to those Americas [Hispanic, black, gay] that Bibi didn't know, while simultaneously representing Bibi in a hostile White House and before a hostile media.

The historian of the Six-Day War found himself waging a critical diplomatic struggle during a period of equal significance, in his view, to the period preceding that fateful war. As he nears the end of his term as ambassador, soon to be succeeded by Ron Dermer, Oren shares some of his insights with Haaretz readers. His words of farewell indicate that no matter what has happened already, the biggest drama still lies ahead. Fasten your seatbelts.

Haaretz: Ambassador Oren, Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu are an odd, inscrutable and dysfunctional political pair. You lived among them and mediated between them. What was the basic problem in their relationship and has it been

"President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu are very intelligent, very strong and pragmatic people. Both wanted to achieve the same aims a solution of two states for two peoples, and preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. So their disagreements were not strategic but tactical. They met 11 times. Obama says that he met with Bibi more than he met with any other world leader. They've spent hours talking on the phone. I can attest that the conversations were open, candid and friendly. There were laughs, too. Obama is a very funny guy with a sharp, quick and witty sense of humor. I'm not trying to whitewash anything here. There were disagreements and there were some difficult moments. But we did not experience any genuine crises in the past four and a half years.

"In the past there were such crises: during the siege of Beirut, at the time of the Pollard affair, over the sale of the AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia and over the Israeli arms sale to China. The crisis that arose from the arms sale to China was a very deep and serious crisis that is still having an unsettling effect on our ties with Washington. But that crisis was hidden from view. In contrast, during the Obama-Netanyahu era there was a whole series of supposed crises, none of which was a genuine crisis. The public atmosphere was one of tension but behind the scenes we worked together as allies on the Iron Dome, on the Marmara affair, on the Palestinians' unilateral moves in the United Nations and on Iran as well. The intelligence cooperation between our two countries is unlike the cooperation the U.S. has with any other country."

'Obama is a true friend'

Would you agree that the right deal was an obvious deal: Palestine for Iran. But this deal was not brought to fruition. Obama did not stop Iran and Netanyahu did not take historic action on Palestine.

"That's correct. And it is disappointing. But we haven't reached the end of the story yet. Look where we were in the spring of 2009 and look where we are now. Today there's no talk of containment of a nuclear Iran and they're not demanding a settlement freeze from us. There's been a dynamic in U.S. policy and the dynamic was in our direction."

If everything's so great, then why is it so bad? Why was the first-term President Obama perceived as a president hostile to Israel and why was Netanyahu perceived as trying to replace the president of the United States with the Republican candidate?

"The Bush administration left behind the legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan and the alienation between the United States and the Arab and Muslim world. Obama wanted to act differently and to try a different approach. He reached out to the Arab-Muslim world, he reached out to the Iranians and the Syrians and he gave the Cairo speech. His message was very refreshing. He tried to make peace with the Arab world. This was misunderstood in Israel because in Israel everything is measured on the basis of the sense of security and insecurity. And when an American president goes to Egypt and goes to Turkey and doesn't come to visit us, it causes a sense of insecurity.

"The Cairo speech and the demand for a construction freeze throughout the West Bank and in Jerusalem created a feeling in the summer of 2009 that the president is not sufficiently committed to Israel's security. But even though relations seemingly got off on the wrong foot, I can tell you with certainty that this feeling is mistaken. What has happened in the security realm in the past four years and Obama's visit to Jerusalem earlier this year prove it. Obama is a true friend and he is a most serious person and one shouldn't underestimate him and his determination."

Netanyahu didn't err in doing things that were perceived as interfering in the U.S. presidential election, and as an attempt to work together with Sheldon Adelson to oust Obama and replace him with Romney?

"What happened in the spring and summer of 2012 was that some administration officials said certain things on the Iranian issue to which the prime minister felt compelled to respond. In the United States Netanyahu's response was perceived as interference in the election campaign. It was a tough time.

"There was a lack of understanding between the two sides. My job as ambassador was to explain America in Israel and to explain Israel in America. Eventually, the comments stopped and after Netanyahu's speech at the UN there was a warm conversation between him and the president. American support for Israel is bipartisan and we absolutely must not do anything to endanger that."

'We cannot outsource our national security.'

The Israel of the settlements, exclusion of women from the public sphere and keeping the Women of the Wall away from the Western Wall isn’t distancing itself from the American left? We’re not making ourselves unpopular with the new and progressive America, including liberal Jews?

“In recent years and especially in the past few months, I find myself explaining to Israeli leaders that what’s happening at the Western Wall could have strategic implications. In Israel, [what’s been happening at] the Western Wall is perceived as a marginal question of law and order. When the Women of the Wall were arrested a few months ago, there was only the briefest mention of it in Yedioth Ahronoth. Meanwhile, the New York Times covered the story on the front page, because Americans see it as an issue of human rights and women’s status and freedom of worship. These are extremely sensitive issues for Americans, and Israelis need to understand this. We mustn’t be perceived as harming basic human rights.”

At center-stage is the issue of the Iranian nukes. For Netanyahu, Ali Khamenei’s Iran is Adolph Hitler’s Germany. He is Winston Churchill and Barack Obama is Franklin Roosevelt. His historic challenge is to get the U.S. to join the battle against evil and to defeat this evil. Has Netanyahu succeeded? If Iran makes a nuclear breakthrough the U.S. stop it?

“In the campaign against Iran, there is a historic achievement: the sanctions. The prime minister deserves a huge amount of credit for this. A hundred years from now they’ll write about how the leader of a tiny country in the Middle East managed to spearhead a vast worldwide move. He was like the drop of water that moves the iceberg. His success here is tremendous. But this success is not sufficient. There can be no resting on laurels. The Iranian nuclear program is progressing, growing stronger and expanding. The Iranians are currently installing 3,000 advanced centrifuges that can increase their enrichment capacity five times over. Consequently, the Iranians’ breakthrough to a nuclear weapon will be a matter of weeks and not months, and as Prime Minister Netanyahu said at the UN, the question is not when Iran will obtain a nuclear weapon but when it will no longer be possible to prevent it from obtaining nuclear weapons. That moment is quickly approaching.”

So that just underscores my question. Bottom line, have we convinced the Americans or not? If the Iranians make the breakthrough – will Obama attack or not?

“The question isn’t whether or not we believe Obama. The question is what our responsibility is as a sovereign nation. We cannot outsource our national security. The American clock is big and slow, and the Israeli clock is small and fast. We are a small country with certain capabilities that is facing existential threats on a daily basis, and the United States is a far-off country with great capabilities that is not threatened with destruction. I’m in the midst of the discussion between the two countries, and I’m telling you that it’s a serious and meaningful discussion between allies. But we returned to Israel after 2,000 years of exile so as not to be in the situation we were in during the Holocaust; so that we could defend ourselves; so that we won’t be dependent upon others. That is our raison d’etre. All diplomatic options must be exhausted – but we cannot flee from this responsibility.”

And is Netanyahu capable of handling such a mission? Is he the right person in the right place at the right time?

“Certainly. I see this person from up close. He has a lot on his plate: Egypt, Jordan, Syria. Not to mention all the challenging domestic issues. But he’s the man who understood the magnitude of the threat 20 years ago. He was the one who succeeded in drawing the world’s attention to the threat. He jumpstarted an unprecedented process of imposing sanctions, one that goes beyond anything that was done with North Korea or Pakistan. Netanyahu truly managed to budge the world. But this success is not enough. Therefore Netanyahu now faces a [first Israeli Prime Minister David] Ben-Gurion-type dilemma. The question he faces is similar to the question that faced Ben-Gurion in May 1948 and the question that Levi Eshkol faced in May 1967.”

Do you really see a similarity between the Ben-Gurion of 1948 and the Eshkol of 1967, and the Netanyahu of 2013?

“Yes. These comparisons are constantly on my mind.

“In 1948, the Haganah and Palmach [pre-state Zionist paramilitary organizations] commanders told Ben-Gurion that they only had enough ammunition for a week of fighting and that they would not be able defend the country. The Americans pressed very hard and Secretary of State George Marshall told [Moshe] Sharett that establishing a state was an invitation to genocide and that the Arabs would slaughter the Jews. As a result, Sharett became panicked and Ben-Gurion barely had a majority in the government, but he understood that he had a very brief window of opportunity within which he could make the historic decision, and he understood what sovereignty meant and when a leader must take responsibility and decide.

“In 1967, there was a very friendly American president who just loved us, but still he asked [then-Prime Minister Levi] Eshkol not to do anything. The equivalent of the sanctions at the time was an international flotilla that was supposed to break the blockade of the Straits of Tiran. The United States was weary of war – sound familiar? – since it was mired in Vietnam, and so [then-foreign-minister] Abba Eban returned from Washington with a red light, and even Mossad chief Meir Amit returned with just a flashing yellow that he received not from the president but from the head of the CIA. Eshkol didn’t sleep all night because he feared the American response, but like Ben-Gurion 19 years earlier, he understood the responsibility that falls to the prime minister of Israel. He waited, he exhausted the diplomatic process, but in the end, he made a decision.”

And you’re saying that there’s a parallel between our situation in 1948 and our situation in 1967 and our situation today?

“There are big differences. In ’48 and ’67 we did not have a deep strategic alliance with the United States, and our international standing was much flimsier, and the IDF was a lot less strong than it is today. But there is a lot of similarity in that we are facing a big country that is threatening to destroy us and busy developing the means to actually do so. Iran is a Holocaust denier that is planning to perpetrate Holocaust II. And the similarity is also that there is a limited window of time. So the responsibility that the prime minister holds today is a historic responsibility similar to the one that fell to Ben-Gurion in 1948 and to Eshkol in 1967.”

What you’re saying is that Netanyahu may have to go to war against Iran despite the international and domestic pressure not to do so.

“As prime minister of a sovereign state, Netanyahu has the responsibility to defend the country. When the country is a Jewish state with a painful and tragic history – the responsibility is even greater and heavier. Israel has a supreme interest in reaching a diplomatic solution just as Eshkol tried to do in May 1967. But one mustn’t flee from the responsibility that conferred by both our history and our sovereignty. Defending Israel is not an option – it’s a duty.”

'This suit is my uniform'

Is Netanyahu capable of going to war? Does he have the necessary emotional wherewithal?

“I think so. He doesn’t sleep at night. He bears a tremendous responsibility on his shoulders. And he has restraint; he isn’t dragged into unnecessary wars. But this restraint is actually a sign of strength – as it was with Eshkol.”

You’re saying things that won’t register in Israel. Here in Tel Aviv the sky is blue, the beaches are filled and there isn’t a cloud on the horizon.

“I’ll tell you a story. President Obama’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon, asked me how, as a historian, I view Israel’s strategic situation. I told him that in terms of the spectrum of threats facing us, in the best case, it’s May 1967 and in the worst case, we’re at May 1948. It’s hard for me to point to any moment in our history when we faced so many threats simultaneously. The upheavals in Egypt, the question of Jordan’s stability, Syria, 70,000 Hezbollah rockets, Hamas’ long-range rockets, terrorists in the Sinai Peninsula – and above all that, the colossal Himalaya of the Iranian nuclear threat that casts a shadow over everything.

"But geopolitically, I told Donilon, our situation is better than it has been at any point in history. The alliance with the United States, the membership in the OECD, our relations with China and India, relations with the former Warsaw Pact nations, the state of our economy and our military. In 1948 and 1967, the Israeli public saw the hostile forces massing at the borders. In comparison, the Iranian threat is abstract. What’s happening is far away and hidden and hard to understand – but it’s a genuine existential danger to the country. This is what makes it hard for the prime minister. Precisely that complacency that you describe – that derives from Israel’s success and strength – is making Netanyahu’s mission even harder than the missions that Ben-Gurion and Eshkol faced."

To be able to face Iran and hold its own in a tumultuous Middle East, Israel needs a close alliance with the U.S. What is the situation on the American front? What’s the good news, and what’s the bad news?

“The rate of American support for Israel is currently at an all-time high. There hasn’t been this much sympathy for Israel since the First Gulf War. Most Americans view Israel as an important ally, and some would even be willing to send military forces to defend it. But we can’t fall into complacency. When I come to Jerusalem, I always say that I’m the bearer of bad news. Among the American elite, our situation is not good. The media tends to be critical, as does a significant portion of the academic world. The communities that are on the rise in America are Latinos, blacks and gays, who do not have historic ties with the State of Israel.

“And besides that, there is a great weariness now in America that is leading to a kind of neo-isolationism. In the past decade, this great nation has been through two difficult wars and a traumatic economic shakeup. So you have this exhaustion and cutbacks in the defense budget and a shrinking of the military and an aversion to any more overseas intervention. Lawmakers are asking why send money to Egypt or the Palestinians rather than invest that money in a new bridge. Americans are tired of the Middle East. They don’t want to hear about it, and they don’t want to know what is happening in Egypt and Syria and Iran. And what I am compelled to repeat here over and over is that when the helicopters took off from the Saigon embassy in 1975, the Vietcong did not chase the Americans all the way to Fifth Avenue. But it won’t be the same with the Middle East. You can’t run away from the Middle East, because if you run away from the Middle East, the Middle East will come running after you. I think President Obama understands this. Secretary of State [John] Kerry certainly understands this. But a mood of weariness and isolationism is making it difficult for them. America in 2013 is an America that is tired of the Middle East.”

If so, then the likelihood of an American operation in Iran is basically nil.

“It’s a paradoxical situation. The three leading newspapers in America – the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal – support intervention in Syria, for instance, even though just 17 percent of the American public supports it. But in operative terms, the challenge involved in intervening in Syria is much more complicated than intervention in Iran.”

So what you’re basically telling me is that an American operation in Iran that removes the existential threat to us and removes a strategic threat to the U.S. could be a surgical operation, while an American operation in Syria could create a war situation that wouldn’t lead anywhere.

“You said it. I cannot refer to this matter. All I can say is, it's an ironic situation.”

Michael Oren, you are not a rightist. You were on a kibbutz, you were in the disengagement, you hold centrist views. Why did you agree to represent in Washington a right-wing Israeli government?

“First of all, I saw that Netanyahu’s commitment to the peace process is genuine. I’m telling you honestly, Ari: Netanyahu is serious. In regard to peace, the prime minister is serious. He really does want to enter talks, and he really does want quick and brief talks, and he really does want to arrive at a solution. Netanyahu is aware of the danger posed by an absence of peace, both in terms of Israel’s perceived legitimacy and in terms of the risk to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Few have noticed, but aside from the Bar-Ilan [University] speech and the construction freeze, he also said that when peace is achieved, some settlements will remain outside the border – in the territory of the Palestinian state. He meant it. I’ve gotten to know him very well in the past four years, and I’m telling you that he is not just paying lip service. He is truly committed to peace.

“Beyond that – the Iranian issue is very close to my heart. I take the threat seriously. My fundamental belief is that a nuclear-armed Iran will create a number of existential threats to Israel. The Iran challenge is the great challenge of our time, and I did all I could in Washington to help grapple with it.

“But ultimately, there is also civic aspect. I am an Israeli. I served in the army for 30 years – in compulsory service and as a reservist. And although here I put on a suit every morning, to me, this suit is my uniform. What I did in America was four and a half years of reserve duty. I did my best in this reserve duty in my dealings with the administration and with the American public, and I’m proud of what I achieved. But now this period of reserve duty is ending. My wife Sally and I are packing up the uniforms and returning home.”

Michael Oren.Credit: Bloomberg

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