Michael Oren: An Ambassador for All Seasons

Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. on Iran, peace process and how to explain the 'Women at the Wall' episode to Americans.

Natasha Mozgovaya
Natasha Mozgovaya
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Natasha Mozgovaya
Natasha Mozgovaya

For Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, personal and professional are closely linked. When Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast last week, the diplomat – born in New York and raised in New Jersey – spent a frustrating day trying to reach his parents, who still live in West Orange. Land lines in the area were useless. Finally, he managed to reach the local rabbi who wended his way across town to make sure Marilyn and Lester Bornstein were all right.

By last Wednesday, his parents were on their way to Oren’s home in Washington, D.C.

“I am giving refuge to my parents; they’re coming down to stay with me, with all the frozen food in the trunk,” he jokes. “I know many of these communities along the Jersey shore; I grew up there. I was looking at the news seeing the widespread destruction in places where I basically hung out as a kid.”

Switching to a solemn, ambassadorial tone, Oren says: “The government and the State of Israel express their deepest condolences for the people who lost their dear ones in this horrible catastrophe and we express our wishes for the speedy recovery of those injured, and communities that sustained damage.”

We met at the Israeli embassy less than a week before the U.S. elections, with Israeli political parties shifting gears in preparation for the January vote in Israel. The ambassador is more cautious than ever, trying not to step on any potential land mines. One can assume that Oren, a historian and accomplished author, has developed his own perspective on the relationship between the two countries after four years in the job, but he keeps it off the record.

“I spent several decades studying Israeli diplomacy, I read myriad documents on the relationship. I had a good idea who a responsible ambassador was the one who acts on his government’s instructions, and only on his government’s instructions,” he says. “My job is to represent my government as closely and as responsibly as possible, so I don’t take any criticism personally. I am not on reserve duty here, but this is my uniform,” he declares, pointing to his blazer.

“I have ideas, I have opinions, but in this job I represent the democratically elected government of Israel,” he adds. “It is the most ineffable privilege I ever had but it means I have to put my opinions aside, until I take off my uniform. When I publish op-eds” (so far Oren has contributed about 40 of these to the American media), “it’s the opinion of the government of Israel. The same goes for TV interviews.” Recently Oren joined the women of the ABC morning talk show “The View” and looks proud of it. The most challenging interview, he says, was his visit to the studio of “The Colbert Report” in 2010, where he was grilled on the fatal clash between Israel Defense Forces soldiers and Turkish activists aboard the Mavi Marmara, when the flotilla tried to break the blockade on Gaza. “There is no way you can prep for it,” he says, shaking his head.

Proactive outreach

Despite the intense focus on Israeli security and the not-so-rare periods of tension, Oren is proud of reaching out to the Latino and African-American communities by speaking in churches. “We brought David Broza in for a Latino-Jewish evening; Ivri Lider for a LGBT evening. We had an Irish evening, a Chinese-Israeli night. I instituted a tradition of iftar [the meal that breaks the daily fast during Ramadan]; we have already held two iftars. We couldn’t afford not to be proactive in our outreach.”

But politics is still the first priority. I comment that Washington is not thrilled about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political coupling with Avigdor Lieberman’s ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party. Does the ambassador expect more bumps on the road between Washington and Jerusalem if Netanyahu wins the upcoming election?

Oren prefers to stay on firm ground. “There are differences between the U.S. and Israel on some issues they have possibly the deepest and most multifaceted alliance the U.S. has had with any other country since World War II. There are so many parts to it the spiritual part, the democratic part, the strategic part; now it has a commercial part growing very, very fast. It also can be very anomalous it’s the only alliance I know in which one of the partners does not recognize the capital of the other.

“For the record,” he smiles, “Israel does recognize Washington as the capital of the U.S. It is an anomaly, but it doesn’t mean it’s not a close alliance. Allies can disagree the U.S. and Britain’s during World War II was one of the greatest alliances, but they disagreed all the time. The litmus test of any alliance is not disagreements, but how you deal with them. The situation in the Middle East is fluid and flammable; we are dealing with historic challenges both to the U.S. and Israel. I am fully confident the U.S. and Israel will continue to communicate fully about these changes. We are sovereign countries, very different and we’ll maintain this alliance in spite of all challenges that might cause bumps.”

These days, he points out, American forces have the largest joint maneuver with Israeli forces about 1,400 American soldiers and thousands of Israeli troops are participating “particularly trying out our antiballistic capabilities and the interfaces between them.”

In 1990, Oren himself took part in the first exercise of this kind, as a liaison of the U.S. Sixth Fleet. “Back then everybody thought it was theoretical; we’ll never use this stuff just over a year later [the Gulf War in 1991] we used it and it proved essential to our security. There is satisfaction in seeing how these exercises have grown and became a key component in the U.S.-Israel strategic alliance. Let’s just hope we won’t have to use the experience of the last maneuvers.”

Oren also challenges the belief that the Israeli government has turned to the right. “As an historian, I can say this so-called shift to the right is inaccurate. If you look at where the Netanyahu government is today it’s significantly to the left of where the Rabin government was in the ’90s. Rabin never came out in favor of the creation of a Palestinian state, never expressed readiness to discuss all the core issues so positions today are in a different place. On security issues, too. If you put Netanyahu’s [current] term together with his previous one, you have the longest term when Israel did not have a war. There is an amazing restraint in the face of just this year close to 700 rockets that fell on Israel. I don’t see any other government in the world that would show such restraint in the face of such an attack. On social issues creating a commission following the social protests, instituting free education from age 3 on it’s a social breakthrough. For the first time, Reform and Conservative rabbis were given state grants. Improving and renovating the egalitarian part of the Kotel [Western Wall] ... These are significant moves that have not been taken before. Addressing the question of ultra-Orthodox participation in military service and the economy, Arab women and the economy all of these issues are not right- wing policy, these are very progressive policies. There has been movement on the Israeli side; I am not sure there has been movement on the Palestinian side.”

Prudent on peace

As he often does, Oren replaces his historian hat with the diplomat’s: “Now the ambassador’s answer: The position of the government is immediate direct talks without preconditions on all the core issues borders, refugees, Jerusalem, mutual recognition – leading to a solution based on two states the nation-state of the Jewish people living side by side in peace, security and mutual recognition with the Palestinian people. This is the position of the Israeli government, of the U.S. government, of the Quartet. I don’t know what’s right-wing about it it’s a very prudent, open and responsible position on the peace process.”

Still, Netanyahu does not seem to be in a hurry to define Israel’s borders he seems to want to wait and see how the Arab Spring developments proceed.

“Two years ago at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, the prime minister said he believes he could reach an agreement with Mahmoud Abbas in a year. It’s in our interest to conclude an agreement as swiftly as possible. But we can’t conclude an agreement without including measures to protect ourselves in case it breaks down. We saw it when we withdrew from South Lebanon or Gaza the vacuum was filled with Iran, very fast. We can’t do that. And we can’t resume negotiations if the Palestinians are not willing to sit at the table with us. Except for six hours in fall 2012, they won’t sit and negotiate. We have contacts with them now; they are reluctant to describe them as official contacts, certainly not talks. And we hope they’ll return to the table. Their moving unilaterally to the UN is very destructive it won’t bring them any closer to a state. We put together, with the U.S. and Jordan, a list of confidence-building measures that were greatly to the Palestinians’ benefit. We are willing to discuss all of the core issues leading swiftly to an agreement and the implementation of the two-state solution.”

And you put the blame squarely on the Palestinians? Mitt Romney recently accused the Obama administration of failing the peace process.

“Nobody has a monopoly on making mistakes in the peace process. Diplomacy is not an art of perfection. There were things we could have done differently, there were things the Obama administration could have done differently. At the end of the day, if I had to point to one mistake it would have been the Palestinian refusal to negotiate.”

How involved should the U.S. be?

“I favor American involvement on the day the Palestinians are willing to come back to the table, when there is a willing and strong partner on the other side. I think there is a solution for this. I’ve been disappointed. I thought that in my term, the Palestinians would come to the negotiating table, and they missed some amazing opportunities. They had a strong and stable Israeli coalition, they had a lot of sympathy in this administration, and they could have concluded an agreement.”

There is still a chance for an agreement, he says, but rejects the idea of negotiations in parallel with the Palestinian request for nonmember status at the UN.

“Going to the UN is a violation of the Palestinian commitment to us under the Oslo Accords not to seek an alternative to direct negotiations. It’s a violation to the U.S., which cosigned these treaties. Our position is that there is no alternative to direct negotiations; it’s the position of the Obama administration too.”

The fact that Israel was high on the U.S. presidential election agenda often puts Israeli diplomats in the U.S. on alert. But Oren admits he actually enjoyed the country being mentioned by the candidates over two dozen times during the final televised debate.

“I thought, isn’t it wonderful? Candidates from the two American parties are competing over who is more pro-Israeli. I think it’s great; it shows the extraordinary historical alliance between Israel and the U.S. In the vice presidential debate, candidates referred to the Israeli prime minister as Bibi. What other world leader would not only be known by his first name, but by his nickname? I thought it showed the unique intimacy of the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

I thought you were not particularly comfortable with Israel being so high on the campaign’s agenda. Especially when excerpts from the Netanyahu and Ehud Barak TV interviews are used in ads in support of the two rival parties.

“I don’t want it to be a wedge issue, because preserving bipartisan support for Israel is crucial for us. But the fact that both candidates declared that they are unreservedly, unequivocally pro-Israel is a very good thing. Bipartisan support for Israel in this country is an Israeli national interest. It should never become the purview of any party. Israel is a vital issue in this country, and we know that because the support for Israel is close to an all-time high. It’s a foreign policy issue that a majority of the Americans feel strongly, [they] feel toward Israel in a very positive way, and it finds expression in national and local elections. Israel has a paramount interest in a strong and united U.S. My biggest concern would be for full recovery of the U.S. economy, and easing of the political polarization that’s characterized American politics in recent years. We care deeply about the U.S., but it’s also in our interest a strong America.”

Despite some vocal disagreements between the capitals in the last four years, Oren is not worried that support for Israel is slipping away.

“I get so many surveys, and all the surveys point to the same thing that the support is very high. The only point when it was higher was during the Gulf War, when the Tel Aviv area was pummeled by Scud missiles. There are many reasons for this particularly now in the Middle East when there is such upheaval. They see a country that is stable, that has not known anything other than democratic rule, that has a very robust army that can defend itself and a country that is unequivocally pro-American.”

Are you worried that the Iranian issue will lose attention because of the Israeli elections?

“I think there is a wide consensus in Israel on the nature of the Iranian nuclear threat and that Iran shouldn’t acquire a nuclear weapon. There might be some disagreements about what type of action should be taken, but there is a wide agreement that Iran presents not only one but several existential threats to Israel. The one place it is not going to go is away. And while the sanctions have taken a bite at the Iranian economy and have done particular damage to the Iranian currency, we haven’t seen sanctions having any effect on the Iranian nuclear program in fact, that program has accelerated, and accelerated significantly, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

“Diplomacy has, over the course of many years, not brought one millimeter of movement in the Iranian position. And as PM, Netanyahu declared at the UN podium back in September, Iran is rapidly approaching the red line he gave an estimate of six to nine months. It’s not something that is going away, we’ll have to grapple with it Israel, the U.S. and the international community in the near future. The question is at what point we can’t stop Iran from getting the bomb, and we are holding discussions with the Obama administration about determining that point.”

But there is no consensus on a unilateral strike, that it would be a war of no choice. And no candidate here responded to Netanyahu’s call to set a red line.

“I think it’s understood that the U.S. and Israeli clocks are ticking at different speeds. Our clock runs faster, and this has been acknowledged. We are a small state, located in Iran’s backyard; we are threatened daily with annihilation by the Iranian regime. And we have certain difficulties. The U.S. is a big country, far from the Middle East, and it’s not threatened with immediate annihilation by the Iranian regime. And it has far greater capabilities, it can wait longer. We are continuing our consultations with the U.S. to find a point at which we will agree that neither Israel nor the U.S. will be able to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. And that point will be reached before Iran completes building nuclear weapons. There are different parts of the nuclear program, but we can monitor only one part that remains vulnerable the enrichment program.”

One week we see reports that the U.S. and Israel are planning a surgical strike, and then that the U.S. plans direct talks after the elections, which President Obama denies.

“They are not contradictory we do have discussions with the U.S., there have been negotiations with the Iranians. Iran, more than any other country in the world, would have been happier had those negotiations succeeded. We have the most skin in the game. But negotiations haven’t produced anything other than time for the Iranians to enrich more uranium, and they shouldn’t be rewarded with further negotiations.”

How different would things look for Israel the day after Iran gets the bomb?

“Iran is not going to get a nuclear weapon. There is no coexistence with it. Iranian leaders said it again and again, and we have to take them seriously.”

Oren firmly rejects the assumption that the ayatollahs’ regime is “radical, but rational.”

“I think a rational regime does not plan to blow up a restaurant in downtown D.C. or this embassy, which they were planning to do as well. I think a rational regime does not put plastic keys around their kids’ necks and send them to clear mine fields. It’s not just their nuclear capabilities other Middle Eastern states will move to get nuclear weapons. Their missiles can reach any city. It will enable terrorists to access nuclear military technology and then we’ll have to fear the bomb not on a missile but in a ship container, and they can do that. It’s not just Iran we’ll have to live in a profoundly unstable nuclear Middle East. We won’t have to worry about chemical weapons in some disintegrating nations, but nuclear weapons.”

The Arab Spring, he says, is a risk but still an opportunity. “We have concerns about the situation in Syria, concerns about the chemical weapon arsenal, stability in Sinai. As long as the Egyptians have reassured their commitment to the peace treaty both Egypt and Jordan have sent new ambassadors to Israel, their messages are reassuring there is an opportunity there. The Middle East is in a new stage, and many assumptions we had for decades are questioned. We are going to have to reevaluate and readjust. Where are these revolutions going? Nobody knows. Remember the famous Zhou Enlai line, when asked about the impact of the French Revolution? ‘Too soon to say.’ It’s too early, we don’t know. Our immediate concern is security.”

Next week, Ambassador Oren will be giving the keynote address at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, which will gather in Baltimore, Maryland, an East Coast city spared by the storm. Sure to be raised are some unresolved tensions with community leaders a recent one being the arrest of Anat Hoffman, leader of Women of the Wall, for praying at the Wall. Hoffman said she was shackled and treated violently.

“I take it very seriously,” Oren says. “Leading rabbis called me.” He says he immediately called the public security minister and the police commissioner, and consulted with the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry. “I requested full details of the incident at the Wall, because there were very serious charges brought against the Israeli police and I wanted to give the police a chance to respond to them, and they responded very quickly and in detail. That satisfied me. Later I made two conference calls one with Reform rabbinical leaders, one with Conservative leaders – to discuss the findings of the police, and I stressed a number of issues. One is that we have to distinguish the status of the Wall as a holy site in Jerusalem, and in particular the question of the Women of the Wall within the context of the status quo established by the Israeli Supreme Court. It determined that rituals at the Wall will be set by the rabbi in charge of the Wall, who is an Orthodox rabbi. But a portion of the Wall under the arch will be reserved for egalitarian prayer. I stressed that in the next two years the government will conduct major renovations in [the arch] area, so that it will have room for 800 worshipers. It will actually have more room per square meter for worshipers than the Kotel itself. It will have 24-hour lighting, full access for the disabled. That’s a very respectable space.”

He notes the status quo agreements on all the holy places in the Old City. “When I worked for the Rabin government in the ’90s I was in charge of the Holy Sepulcher. There are six major churches, there are minor churches there in a very delicate status quo. At Easter they have a fire procession; if someone is late by a second it might cause physical violence. We must preserve it very carefully. [As for] the Temple Mount, the Supreme Court has ruled that the holiest place in Judaism is off-limits to organized prayer for Orthodox Jews, Conservative Jews and Reform Jews, because of public safety it can cause riots and endanger lives. You need to distinguish between the status of the Wall and this particular incident, understanding there is a sensitive issue here, particularly an issue of women’s rights.

“I urged both the Conservative and Reform rabbis firstly to have a conversation among themselves on what they would regard as a limit to what is permissible at the Wall and if they don’t like the existing status quo, there are ways of challenging it through the Knesset, the legal system. Every Israeli has a right to civil disobedience, but every one who is pursuing it knows it can lead to legal consequences.”

Is this practicing freedom of religion, or civil disobedience?

“There is a law and they know they are going to break the law. That’s classic civil disobedience. The police there are afraid things can get out of hand and people can get hurt. I also questioned whether in the Israeli context it’s very effective, because it didn’t garner a tremendous amount of support in Israel, while other routes might. But still, I urged them first to have a conversation among themselves. I think it was a very productive, constructive and caring discussion. There has to be more thought about the status quo. In Israel it is a matter of law, and the Supreme Court has made a decision that ultimately has to be made by the Supreme Court. The ultimate answer could be to make several million Jews from the U.S. move to Israel. In Israel we always have to find the correct balance between the two values democracy and pluralism. You have to respect minority rights, but you also have to respect majority rights. And the Holy Places can be a source of great inspiration but historically also have been places of contention.”

Did you convey the message to Jerusalem that this status quo might harm the relations between Israel and U.S. Jewry?

“First of all, I come from a Conservative background, and have also been a member of a Reform synagogue, so I have that perspective. My job is also to report to the Israeli government the impact of incidents like this on U.S. Jewry. And this particular incident didn’t reverberate much in the American media, but others have in the past. It didn’t make it to the Israeli press we scoured the Israeli media and found two half-lines.”

Is there room for improvement on the Israeli side?

“There is a place for heightened awareness of the sensitivity of the issue here, among American Jews. Changing the status quo is a legal issue. I represent the laws of the State of Israel. There are ways to change it, but I don’t see it as my job. For many years, going back to the beginning of the Zionist movement and the creation of the State of Israel, the U.S. Jewish community and the State of Israel had a certain relationship, and that relationship went well for many years. But now we are in a period of very accelerated changes in both communities, and we have to engage in serious conversation and introspection about how we move forward.”

Michel OrenCredit: Bloomberg