When Michael Oren was Israel’s ambassador to the United States, he always had interesting things to say. Five months after leaving office, he is saying interesting things again.
- How John Kerry Won Me Over
- Israel or Palestine: Who Will Take in the Settlers?
- Michael Oren Joins CNN as Middle East Commentator
- Patriotism in the Service of Silencing Dissent
Oren, who served in Washington from 2009 to 2013, was an aggressive and effective defender of the government of Israel during that period. An American-born academic, articulate and media savvy, he was respected by American officials and popular among American Jews of all political and religious orientations. Unlike many diplomats, he knew how to listen; in addition, he brought to his job the “big picture” sophistication of a serious scholar. According to most sources, Oren also had the ear of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who appreciated his skills and his insight.
Oren has now decided to offer some advice to his former boss, and it is a pretty dramatic departure from what has been the Likud party line. In an interview that appeared in the Israeli daily Maariv on February 26, Oren declared that if the current Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations fail, Israel should secure American backing for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from parts of the West Bank. Until now, Netanyahu has shown no interest in unilateral action; just this week, in fact, in response to a question on the subject from Israel Radio, he rejected again the idea of unilateral moves.
Oren acknowledged in his interview that a mutually agreed-upon peace would be preferable; but if the talks collapse and the Palestinians go to the United Nations to gain recognition for a Palestinian state, he argued that Israel should take the initiative and set her own borders through unilateral action.
Now a commentator for CNN, Oren is a careful man, and his proposal was carefully stated. He refused to suggest specifics about where the borders would be drawn. He was content to say that the key was to minimize the number of Israeli settlers evacuated and to coordinate with the Americans; Israel’s army, he suggested, would remain in areas critical for Israel’s security, and thus the withdrawal would be far less problematic for Israel than the withdrawal in Gaza in 2005. In fact, he said, his plan should be seen not as “unilateral” but as simply “Zionist” − because taking your fate into your own hands is the essence of Zionism.
Nonetheless, Oren’s remarks, without exactly saying so, contained a damning critique of Israel’s current policy and a pointed reminder of diplomatic realities. If Kerry’s efforts fail and the Palestinians go to their “Plan B,” which is an appeal for economic boycotts and the support of international bodies, Israel will be besieged and vulnerable. Oren, therefore, is proposing that Israel have a “Plan B” of its own, built around unilateral action that will improve Israel’s international standing and win over allies who might otherwise point the finger of blame at Israel for any collapse of the talks.
In short, Oren is telling us what any practiced diplomat knows but what many of those on the political right − in both Israel and America − have yet to figure out: If the Kerry initiative fails, it is madness to think that the status quo can be maintained. It cannot be. Even if the Palestinian Authority is primarily responsible for the collapse of the talks, the Palestinians will still be seen in Europe and much of the world as the “occupied” side and thus in the right; and in addition, the Israeli government will almost certainly make things worse by continuing to announce construction in the settlements, as it has been doing for decades. A wise man, Oren looks upon the danger with concern, sees the many advantages of Israel having defined borders, and offers what would be, in those circumstances, an imperfect but reasonable solution to the pressures that Israel will confront.
In his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg published on March 2, President Obama noted that he had yet to hear from Netanyahu how Israel would survive as a democracy and a Jewish state in the absence of a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians. The president stated: “The only thing that I’ve heard [from Israeli leaders] is, ‘We’ll just keep on doing what we’re doing, and deal with problems as they arise. And we’ll build settlements where we can.’”
The Oren proposal, which appeared the previous week, reflected Oren’s concern at how widespread these sentiments are among Israel’s allies, while making clear that even if a full peace is not now within reach, Israel is looking to stabilize the situation and reduce the occupation − and not to increase it through creeping annexation.
The Kerry initiative is not yet dead. I remain hopeful that the secretary of state will somehow extract from the uncertainties of the current diplomatic situation an agreement that will win the support of both sides.
But with the deadline approaching, it is not too early for Israel to be considering her next step if agreement is not reached. And I can’t help thinking that Oren, realizing how grim the prospects might be for Israel, came forward for precisely that reason. Since he was Israel’s most widely respected diplomat for a reason, let us hope that Israel’s leaders − and American Jews − are listening.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.