Opinion

The Undiplomatic Ex-diplomat: What in the World Has Happened to Michael Oren?

The Israeli deputy minister who now entertains conspiracy theories about Ahed Tamimi's family not being 'real' was once a respected historian and skillful diplomat. Something must have gone horribly wrong.

A 2012 image of Michael Oren, when he was Israel's ambassador to the United States.
Jay Mallin/Bloomberg

Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a highly respected Israeli ambassador to the United States named Michael Oren. A talented and articulate former historian, he was a popular figure in DC circles for the length of his stint from 2009-2013, a frequent face on network television, invited to all the right dinner parties.

A flattering 2012 profile in the New York Times portrayed him skillfully “working rooms all over town” as he navigated the stormy seas of the US-Israel relationship, making the New Jersey native the highest-profile Israeli with an American accent since Golda Meir.  

Today’s Michael Oren, now a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and head of public diplomacy, is an utterly different, and often unrecognizable person altogether. In recent months, he has advocated changing Israel Defense Forces directives so that soldiers be “ordered to shoot to kill, not neutralize” terrorists and called for “evicting” the United Nations from its Jerusalem headquarters.

But the real shocker came with the Alex Jones-level race-based conspiracy theorizing that appeared in his interview to Haaretz this week.  In his comments, which Oren has previously posted about on Twitter and Facebook, he entertains the conspiracy theory that the Tamimi family, the Nabi Saleh activist clan whose children regularly join in highly publicized protests of the Israeli occupation, incorporates “Pallywood” blond actors who are only pretending to be a family of committed Palestinian activists, deliberately costumed in clothing that Americans could relate to like backwards baseball caps.

Some trace the recent Oren weirdness to autumn 2016, when the combination of Oren landing in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office in a cabinet reshuffle and Donald Trump’s ascent to the White House inspired him to drink the hard-line Kool-aid.  

Something obviously shifted then. Shortly after he began his new job, Oren released a bizarre video New Year’s message called “Israel - The Antidote for Neo-Paganism,” in which he confessed that as a “weird kid” he had “conversations with God." He then launched into what appeared to be a bid to appeal to the Christian evangelical audience, bemoaning the fact that the “universal morality of the Old Testament” was being threatened by “neo-paganism.” The televangelist style video was ridiculed as embarrassing and surreal on social media.

At that point, Oren had already burned bridges in the run-up publicity for his memoir “Ally” in 2015. Comments about Barack Obama he penned in Foreign Policy Magazine speculating the president sought approval from Muslims after being “abandoned” by two Muslim fathers were slammed by then Anti-Defamation League head Abraham Foxman, as  “veer(ing) into the realm of conspiracy theories,” while Vox called them “soft birtherism.”

The negative portrayal of the Obama administration's Israel policy in his memoir severed Oren’s friendship with then-U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro. Shapiro was furious at what he saw as a personal betrayal by Oren, so much so that the head of Oren’s party apologized to Shapiro. Oren was unapologetic.

Oren’s allies are quick to defend him. “There’s a clear difference between being an ambassador and being a politician,”  his chief of staff, Hila Netaneli, told me. "When you’re a diplomat, your job is to build bridges and look for points of agreement and compromise. As a politician, you have to take a stand.”

Author Yossi Klein HaLevi, a fellow at the Hartman Institute and Oren’s close friend, acknowledged that his friend was “not predictable” and that his style has evolved over the years, attributing his recent outbursts to scars still carried from his Washington days.

His justification? “Eight years of Obama was devastating to Michael. When he was there, he experienced relentless attempts to undermine the US-Israel relationship from the highest levels,”  says HaLevi. The Iran nuclear deal “was a watershed for him. He believes our greatest ally has placed us in the most precarious position we have been in since 1973,” when Israel was caught by surprise by the Arab attacks that launched the Yom Kippur war.

Fair enough, but it doesn’t explain the spiky undiplomatic tone of what is emanating from Oren’s social media accounts and in the Haaretz interview, where he joked that his Knesset office had nicknamed the Tamimis “the Brady Bunch” when they were investigating their genetic authenticity.  

So what is the matter with Michael Oren? Those who know him say the proper diagnosis is the standard political cocktail of ambition, narcissism and need for approval - in his case, the approval of Netanyahu, Trump, and the right-wing religious Christian evangelical community. He may have decided that fire-breathing tweets and disturbing racial innuendo that earn him scorn from the media and the left are the path to success. At least, they keep him in the headlines and distract the public from the fact that his legislative accomplishments are few and far between and he has yet to show a taste or talent for grassroots political activity.  

In one of the more satiric reactions to his questioning of the Tamimi family’s authenticity the left-wing website +972’s editor-in-chief Michael Omer-Man launched a farcical investigation culminating in an article titled: “Is Michael Oren a ‘real’ person?”

His investigator, he wrote, looked into the question of whether, like the Tamimis, Oren was artificially concocted: chosen for his appearance – grey-haired, blue-eyed and light-skinned. “Also clothing. A real costume. Israeli dress in every respect, not American, with an unbuttoned shirt. Even Floridians don’t wear their collars like that,” Omer-Man’s investigator presumably told him. “It was all contrived. It’s what’s known as Hasbarollywood.” (Presumably the pro-Israel propagandist’s answer to “Pallywood”)

The website article’s fake conclusion – that Oren is actually a real person, but one onto whom “bits of crazy” were artificially “annexed” over the past year or so - actually feels surprisingly close to the real-life reactions of many people who knew, or thought they knew, the former ambassador.