Will the Real Michael Oren Please Stand Up?

Oren's image as a cautious scholar-diplomat has suddenly morphed into that of a politician on a ruthless crusade against the Obama White House.

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Former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren addressing an AIPAC conference in early March.
Former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren addressing an AIPAC conference in early March.Credit: AFP

The trio of Obama-bashing articles that dumped kerosene on the already-burning U.S.-Israel relationship has left many people who thought they knew Michael Oren – the former ambassador to the United States and current Knesset member – puzzled and disturbed.

Just last March, in an introduction to a wide-ranging interview with the diplomat-turned-politician on the eve of elections headlined “Undoing Netanyahu’s Damage to US-Israel Relations,” The Atlantic journalist Jeffrey Goldberg wrote glowingly that, “if Israel's government were organized in a semi-sane way, then Oren would obviously be the country's next foreign minister, or at least deputy foreign minister — or, at the very least, Adviser to the Prime Minister on Managing Relations With Other People.”

One wonders if Goldberg, a frequent Obama defender, would view Oren as a candidate for any of those jobs today after the three opinion pieces hit the headlines: How Obama Abandoned Israel in the Wall Street Journal, the second Why Obama is wrong about Iran being “rational” on Nukes in the Los Angeles Times and finally How Obama Opened His Heart to the Arab World in Foreign Policy. The articles were part of the advance publicity campaign for the publication of Oren’s memoir: "Ally: My Journal Across the American-Israeli Divide," due to be published on June 23.

The three Oren articles stood in stark contradiction to the messages he sent as ambassador – and as recent as those delivered in the March interview with Goldberg, following the crisis over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial speech to congress, in which Oren contrasted his conciliatory approach as Israeli ambassador to the one of current envoy Ron Dermer, saying that “I understood that preserving bipartisan support for Israel was a paramount strategic interest for us. And there was no place I wouldn’t go in order to preserve that.” He also said that “a primary difference in the political cultures of America and Israel is that Americans salute the rank, not the person. Israelis barely salute anyone. There is a tremendous amount of umbrage on the American side if you are seen to insult the presidency.”

It would be hard to interpret the charges against Obama in Oren’s articles, adapted from his book, as anything less than personal insult: the charge Obama deliberately pushed Israel aside while proclaiming friendship, the personal barb that his conciliatory gestures to the Muslim world were attributable to paternal abandonment issues and Obama’s “Muslim heritage.” In addition to angry reactions from the administration and particularly U.S. ambassador in Tel Aviv Dan Shapiro, Oren has been rapped for the articles by Abraham Foxman of the ADL – hardly a left-winger or an Obama apologist. Foxman has charged that Oren turned “very legitimate and sharp policy disagreements” into “an insensitive and unjustified attack on the president.” The Foreign Policy essay, Foxman said, “veers into the realm of conspiracy theories” and “amateur psychoanalysis” and the comments on Obama’s heritage “results in borderline stereotyping and insensitivity.”

The flap clearly came as a shock to Moshe Kahlon, who had tapped Michael Oren for the No. 4 on the Knesset list of his new centrist Kulanu party, as the man who would add diplomatic and foreign policy heft to his team, and who crafted a platform that made the U.S.-Israel relationship a top priority, and certainly must have never dreamed he’d be distancing himself or renounce controversial statements by Oren. While Netanyahu refused to follow suit, some of his Likud ministers joined the chorus of criticism, such as Gilad Erdan, who said that, “Oren is wrong to accuse President Obama of malicious intentions toward Israel.”

When asking those who know Oren what really happened, one hears three explanations.

The first, from Oren’s defenders, is that Oren is sincerely so appalled by the brewing nuclear deal with Iran that he made a conscious decision to take the diplomatic gloves off. His book, they say, traces his journey, and say that Oren deliberately hurried his book out, despite the expected political fall-out – normally such memoirs are not published when the same political players are still in power – because he is so worried about the Iran deal, and wanted to have an impact on the U.S. administration, Congress and the public. Those who read the whole book, they promise, will be able to follow the journey and understand how he evolved in that position.

Oren made that case himself in a public appearance Sunday in New York, telling his audience that he pressured Random House to publish his controversial new book “Ally” as quickly as possible, because “Israel is at a fateful juncture” before the deadline of the Iran talks and the vote on the French initiative on Palestine in the Security Council and he wanted to “motivate, animate and inspire my readers” in advance of these challenges “to do more than just stand there”.

His detractors, offer dual unflattering alternative explanations, paint Oren as less interested in the fate of Israel than his own future. They say that Oren the politician is no longer a diplomat or scholar and that he is positioning himself as a clear-cut rightist in a party dominated by Likudniks and a political culture that demands one takes a strong stand. There are also those who say that he is first and foremost a best-selling author, that he has sold out Israel in order to sell a few more books (that is the public position of furious Obama-ites)

Whether they agree or disagree with Oren on his framing of history and policy, the style and nature of the articles and the controversy they have sparked simply don’t fit the charming, handsome, popular and careful diplomat that they thought they knew and who repeatedly preached cultivating bi-partisan support for Israel, always looked on the bright side of the US-Israel relationship and who charmed the socks off the ladies of “The View”.

But did they really know him? Many see Oren - and his politics - as something of an enigma. He hit the public eye in 2002 as a historian and scholar, publishing the award-winning and critically praised book Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East. He wrote the book as a fellow at the Shalem Center, an undeniably right-wing think tank (now a college) founded in 1994, and funded by neo-conservative American Jews who happened to be some of the strongest supporters of Benjamin Netanyahu: Ronald Lauder, Sheldon Adelson and Zalman Bernstein. Between the years 2002-2009, following that success, Oren pursued what was essentially a dual career as an author/scholar/pundit and “hasbara-ist” for the IDF, making Israel’s case in front of the cameras, both during the Second Lebanon War, when he served as an officer in the IDF Spokesman's Office, and the 2008-2009 Gaza War.

He became such a media darling and favorite of American audiences that he was chosen for the job of Israeli ambassador to the United States by Netanyahu. It was a choice that was surprising: Oren was no career diplomat; he also wasn't a decorated and revered general or an experienced politician. He was not even, by most accounts, a trusted advisor of the prime minister, but the choice was seen as a sign that Netanyahu viewed the role of the U.S. ambassador as one of public diplomacy rather than real decision-making – and one can’t ignore that he was plucked from the think-tank of Netanyahu’s backers.

Pre-Shalem, Oren’s life has been spent, in the words of the title of his book, on the “American-Israeli divide” – but not always on the glamorous side. Originally Michael Scott Bornstein from New Jersey, he has said that he’s been fascinated by Israel and the Middle East since he was a child, first coming to Israel when he was 15 to work on kibbutz and later inspired by a meeting with Yitzhak Rabin, then the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., to immigrate to Israel. Oren earned his undergraduate and master’s degree from Columbia College and School of International and Public Affairs in 1977-78, where he lived in a group apartment with another young Middle East scholar who dreamed of moving to Israel – Netanyahu confidant Dore Gold, former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, now director-general of the Foreign Ministry. In 1979, at the age of 22, Oren emigrated to Israel, where he fought in the Lebanon War and met and married his wife Sally – famously heading for the front in Lebanon right after his wedding. The couple returned to the United States to continue his education, studying at Princeton University where he earned an MA and a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies in 1986.

Little has been written in Oren’s official biographies in the decade following his return to Israel from Princeton in the mid-80’s and joining Shalem in the mid-1990’s. By his own account and that of friends who knew him then, it wasn’t an easy period – he found short-term fellowships at Israeli universities, spent several years in the Negev desert at Sde Boker – teaching at the Ben-Gurion University institute there – but could not find a permanent academic home in Israel, and was not able to publish his books. Nor, as an American outsider, was he able to break into a government career as a policy advisor, despite a short stint there. He tried and failed to break into high-tech and among the miscellany of jobs he took to make ends meet was a translator at Haaretz.

One chapter from that period absent from his resume, which Oren would clearly rather forget, is remembered well by Akiva Eldar, veteran correspondent and former columnist for Haaretz: Oren’s short stint as the American Jewish Committee’s representative in Israel.

It was 1993, shortly after the Oslo Accords were signed, Eldar recalls, and while he was holding his job with the AJC, Oren made a foray into politics – distributing a document calling for a centrist bloc headed by Ehud Barak, who was still in IDF uniform, serving as army chief of staff, and MK Benny Begin.

His reasoning was that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had been pulled too far to the left and the opposition, led by Netanyahu, was too far right. The American Jewish Committee’s president, Al Moses, Eldar reported, was furious over Oren’s gambit, and told Eldar that Oren was finished. Oren left AJC shortly afterwards.

Eldar says what troubles him about this history – which he reported at the time and has recalled in the past when Oren made what he considered “impulsive” missteps as ambassador – is not how it reflects on Oren, but what it says about leaders like Netanyahu and Kahlon handing an express ticket to the highest levels of the diplomatic corps to someone with little real experience or knowledge in the field and without enough vetting. Some might see it as a clever move – sending attractive, intelligent, articulate, English-speaking representatives to Washington, instead of respected and experienced but gruff figures who don’t do public diplomacy well – like Oren’s hero Rabin. But Eldar sees the trend as worrisome.

“What really bothers me is the lack of filters in the highest echelons of the Israeli government that someone like him can reach the top. What kind of credibility and what kind of relationship with the U.S. build with any Israeli ambassador in the future after what happened with Ron Dermer and the congressional speech and now after this? It’s a sign that there’s something deeply wrong.”

In an age of some dubious native-born Israelis in the upper reaches of government, properly vetting and monitoring figures like Oren and Dermer seem like the least of Israel’s worries. But interestingly, in a video interview with Haaretz’s Aimee Amiga, when asked what the American political system did right that Israel could learn from, Oren mentioned the requirement for high-level policy makers and ambassadors – in addition to undergoing confirmation hearings – to, once in office, regularly appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and be held accountable by the legislative branch.

By contrast, he said “I sat in Washington for four years and nobody called me into Knesset to ask ‘Hey, what are you doing? What do things look like from there? What do you see from there that we don’t see from here?’”

Now, like the rest of us, they will have to read the book to find out.

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