Feud Between Top Diplomats Leaves Israel's Embassy in U.S. in Turmoil

Deputy Ambassador Barukh Binah claims that Ambassador Michael Oren is sidelining him in communications with the U.S. administration.

Israel's embassy in Washington has been in turmoil for weeks because of conflict between Israel's ambassador and his deputy, Foreign Ministry sources in Jerusalem say.

Deputy Ambassador Barukh Binah claims that Ambassador Michael Oren is sidelining him in communications with the U.S. administration. The sources say Binah, who took up his post just six months ago, wants to leave Washington and apply for an ambassadorial position elsewhere.

Around a dozen Israeli diplomats, both at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem and at the embassy in Washington, have told Haaretz about the very tense relations between Oren and Binah.

"There is no great love there; relations are correct at best," one diplomat said. Other diplomats, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, described relations between the two men as a "partial disconnect." Some described the situation as a crisis.

Binah came to Washington after his predecessor, Dan Arbel, was dismissed because of alleged leaks to the media. Deputy ambassador is considered an extremely important position in Washington, because traditionally the ambassador is not a career diplomat but rather a political appointee of the prime minister.

The ministry said at the time that the transfer of Binah, a former head of the ministry's North America desk and consul in Chicago, to Washington was meant to ensure the embassy a quick return to normal functioning.

An Israeli diplomat in Washington said Binah pushed through a number of improvements in teamwork and management, in coordination with the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. But tensions soon began to mount between Binah and Oren.

Binah said Oren was keeping him and others out of the loop when it came to contacts with senior American officials. He said Oren reported mainly to the prime minister's advisers - Ron Dermer, Yaakov Amidror and Isaac Molho - and did not keep the Foreign Ministry apprised.

Binah told a senior official at the Foreign Ministry that in some cases, when cables arrived from the Foreign Ministry with instructions for action vis-a-vis the U.S. government, Oren ordered that they not be carried out until he received the go-ahead from the Prime Minister's Office.

But sources close to Oren responded that the ambassador reports to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and the Foreign Ministry director general both in writing and over the phone. They said messages frequently had to be discretely conveyed directly between the leaders of the two countries and that the work was coordinated between the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister's Office.

"That's the way it has always been with every ambassador in Washington," a source close to Oren said.

One incident that led to tension between Oren and Binah involved Oren's decision, contrary to the advice of Binah and other career diplomats at the Washington embassy, to clash with a "60 Minutes" reporter in a segment on Palestinian Christians. The clash was widely discussed in the American media.

"I told Michael that's what would happen, but he didn't listen to me," a senior Foreign Ministry official quoted Binah as saying.

Oren also has complaints about Binah. He is said to feel that Binah has undermined him and that, contrary to Binah's claims, he has assisted Binah and backed him up on numerous occasions.

Oren has also criticized Binah for his deputy's conduct vis-a-vis certain American Jewish groups. For example, Oren was reportedly unhappy with an address Binah gave to a conference of left-leaning group J Street in Washington. The address was important because it was the first time an Israeli official had addressed a J Street event.

So far, the tension has not caused diplomatic damage or mishaps in areas involving Israel's security. But embassy officials said such damage could occur if the issue is not resolved.

Binah recently told senior Foreign Ministry officials that he wants to apply to become ambassador to Canada or Denmark when these posts become available next summer.

Senior officials have spoken to Oren about complaints by Binah. Oren is said to have played down the matter and is now trying to patch things up with his deputy.

A source close to Oren rejected Binah's claims, saying Oren prefers to focus on issues critical to Israel's security. The Israeli Embassy in Washington responded: "Professional and personal relations between the ambassador and his deputy are excellent."

Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren.
Tomer Appelbaum