TheDC interview: Michael Oren, Israel’s face in America
“What do you need to know about our situation in the Middle East?” asked Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, at the beginning of an extensive interview with The Daily Caller at the Israeli Embassy in Northwest Washington last Wednesday.
I wanted to know a lot. About Israeli policy. About Israel’s position on breaking news in the region. About Oren himself.
And Oren the man is fascinating. Raised in New Jersey, Oren moved to Israel shortly after earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Columbia University. He joined the Israeli Defense Forces, serving as a paratrooper during the Lebanon War. He was among the first Israeli troops to enter Beirut in 1982, where he said in a C-Span interview his “unit was decimated in an ambush.” Oren returned to the United States to pursue a Ph.D. in Middle East Studies at Princeton, which he was awarded in 1986.
Lebanon was not the last conflict in which Oren served. He was one of the few Israelis to participate in the first Gulf War as a “strategic liaison” between the U.S. Sixth fleet and the Israeli army, and would go on to serve in some capacity – more recently a media relations role – in just about every major conflict Israel has engaged in during the last three decades, including the 2008-2009 Gaza war just months before he was offered the ambassadorship.
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tapped Oren in 2009 to become ambassador, he was a visiting professor at Georgetown University and the author of what many consider the most authoritative account of the Six Day War, “Six Days of War.” Previously a dual American and Israeli citizen, he had to sacrifice his U.S. citizenship to take the job, which he told the New York Times was the hardest part of accepting the post. With no political experience, Oren was an interesting choice to be Israel’s face in America. He was also in some respects the perfect choice. Few are as familiar with America’s role in the Middle East as Oren, who wrote a New York Times bestseller, “Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East,” detailing U.S. involvement in the region dating back to 1776.
To understand Oren’s worldview, I asked what books most shaped his outlook.
This question appealed to him and his intellect. He approached it seriously, taking time to sit quietly and think it through. He broke it down into two categories – books that shaped his view of the Middle East and books that shaped his worldview generally.
For the Middle East, Oren pointed to “The Arab Predicament” by Hoover Institution fellow Fouad Ajami, “Islam in Modern History” by the late religion scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith, the whole corpus of writings of Princeton Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis, the Quran, and the writings of the medieval Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyyah, one of whose books Oren said “was probably the most important book I’ve ever read on the Middle East.”
“I learned more from a medieval Islamic philosopher than anybody,” Oren said.
Taymiyyah’s writings, which I read in graduate school, were somewhat obscure until they became frequently cited by Islamists justifying the wave of terrorism that threatens the Western world today.
He also cited the Philip Roth novel “Portnoy’s Complaint,” which inspired his press aides to jump in with their favorite Philip Roth quotes and novels.
“Don’t miss a Philip Roth book,” the ambassador advised, summing up the Philip Roth discussion.
Asked what he’s learned about the U.S-Israel relationship that he didn’t anticipate before taking the job, Oren said he came to greater appreciate the commercial side of the partnership.
“I learned about the U.S.-Israel commercial relationship, which I knew nothing about, which is quite big and getting bigger all the time,” he said. “I’m always learning about it. I just learned last week that an Israeli plant in Puerto Rico makes 70 percent of the antibiotics in North America. Think about that. It’s the Teva plant. All the generic antibiotics.”
“I learned that an Israeli-made bandage saved [Ariz. Democratic Rep.] Gabby Giffords’s life,” Oren added. “A special bandage that clots blood.”
The tenure of an Israeli ambassador to the U.S. usually ranges from two to four years, at least over the last three decades. With Oren nearing the low end of that window, is he considering stepping down in the near future?
“The longevity of Israeli ambassadors is subject to a couple of factors,” he explained. “One, is the person who appointed you still in government? Do you enjoy the job? … Not all Israeli ambassadors enjoyed it. Do you feel like you’re getting anywhere?”
While Oren said he has “no plans of leaving” and he enjoys the job “immensely,” he did note that it is “physically challenging.”
“It’s a wear and tear, it’s a major outlay of energy,” he said. “Last week I went to visit Miami and Puerto Rico. The average day began around 7 and 8 and ended around midnight or 1 in the morning. That’s a day’s work, typical. So it’s very similar to work in the White House in that way. So it’s physically challenging.”
So “endlessly fascinating” is the job, that Oren says he “sometimes think[s] about how I go back to sitting in a room and writing books after this.”
But go back to writing books he ultimately will.
“I had signed a contract for a book just before I got into the job. I didn’t know I was getting the job and I had signed a contract with Random House for my next book, which was going to be a four- or five-year project,” he explained. “Each of these books take four or five years to write, with no breaks. And the next book was going to be on the creation of the State of Israel because we don’t really have a book that talks about how Israel was created. We have a lot of books on the ’48 war but no books on how a Jewish state after 2,000 years actually came into being and three years after the Holocaust, which I think is the most extraordinary story in history.”
One area that that is impossible to avoid when discussing Israel’s situation in the Middle East is the seeming tension in the U.S.-Israel relationship since Barack Obama was elected president. Oren’s job is to improve relations, so it is unlikely he will speak ill of the American president to any journalist. So, instead of asking Oren whether President Obama was a good friend of Israel, I asked him whether the president could be considered the best friend Israel has ever had in an American president?
“I think Obama is the best friend in ways that are different sometimes than other best friends,” Oren said diplomatically. “We have had a number of best friends as president.”
“Here, I’ll give you an example,” Oren elaborated. “December 2 there was a Hanukkah party at the White House. That was the night that a huge fire broke out in the Carmel forest. It was our largest natural disaster. And I’m walking into the White House and I get a call from Prime Minister Netanyahu saying we need emergency, right now we need planes, firefighting planes, we don’t have any firefighting planes. Go ask the president of the United States for firefighting planes. So I go in the White House, meet the president, tell him the message from the prime minister. He turns to Reggie Love [the president’s personal assistant] and says, ‘Whatever Israel wants, get Israel immediately.’ And then that night he flew off to Afghanistan … The first call he made when he arrived in Afghanistan was back to the White House to find out if Israel had gotten the planes … Of the 11 fire fighting planes that the United States had, we got eight of them — including special firefighting units, these commando units, amazing, called hot spots. All within 24 hours. Now that’s what I call a best friend.”
But does Obama rise to the Bush standard?
That isn’t just a standard TheDC invented. It is, in fact, a standard that Oren wrote about before he was ever under consideration for the job of Israeli ambassador. He outlined the new Bush standard of pro-Israel presidential friendship in an article he wrote during the 2008 campaign discussing whether John McCain or Barack Obama would be a better president for Israel to have in the White House.
“During his eight years in office, George W. Bush established new standards for the term ‘pro-Israel.’ He repeatedly affirmed Israel’s right to defend itself against terror, and praised its value as America’s primary Middle Eastern ally. He also expressed a deep ideological attachment to Israel as a democracy and, spiritually, to Israel as the biblical homeland,” Oren wrote at the time in the fall 2008 edition of the Journal of International Security Affairs. “Less publicly, the president also authorized an unprecedented level of cooperation between the U.S. military and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), including intelligence sharing, anti-terror training, and the joint development of missile defense systems.”
Has Obama really lived up to the Bush standard, as outlined by Oren himself?
“I think he’s on that standard,” Oren posited, a point many of Israel’s supporters in the United States would certainly contend with. “Bush had said that the United States, that the relationship between the Israel and the United States was unshakable, unbreakable. He had put that commitment into words with a 10-year memorandum of understanding of $30 billion dollars in military aid. And he had undertaken to ensure Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME), which means simply that Israel can defend itself by itself against any Middle Eastern adversary, any combination of Middle Eastern adversaries. These were the historic undertakings that Bush had made. Obama’s held up all of them and QME, on the question of Qualitative Military, he has even gone further and tried to redress some of the imbalance and erosion that has occurred over the years.”
What about the peace process? Hasn’t the Obama administration shown a stunning naïveté, at best, by seemingly making the issue of Israeli settlements the overriding issue in the Middle East, or at the very least in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations? Indeed, Mr. Ambassador, was it not you who hit the nail on the head in that same aforementioned 2008 article when you wrote that, “An Obama presidency … may well launch an entirely new [peace] initiative, one based on zero tolerance for Israeli settlement-building and checkpoints, as well as on the belief that the road to Baghdad and Tehran runs through Bethlehem and Nabulus.”
“That was the article I wrote on McCain and Obama, I invested a lot of energy in that,” Oren said proudly, before saying, “Listen I don’t want to comment on anything I wrote before I got into this job ’cause this is like government service. Once you’re in government service anything you wrote previously is irrelevant.”
He then proceeded to comment on what he wrote previously.
“But the Obama administration made, and the president-elect before made his position on the settlements clear. It’s not a new position, I mean the American administrations going back to Nixon have had problems with settlements,” he explained. “This was very much a doctrine of Obama’s dealing with the Middle East, that linkage, and I want to give it fair voice here, that the United States and its allies could better handle the Iranian nuclear threat if there were peace between Israel and the Arabs — and the Palestinians. Our position was more that unless you deal with the Iranian threat, making peace would be vastly more difficult because the Iranians can stop it at anytime. They can get Hamas to stop it, they can get Hezbollah to stop it.”
But don’t the Wikileaks releases show the president’s whole guiding Middle East philosophy is off-base by illustrating that even Arab leaders are obsessed with the threat of Iranian nuclear proliferation and not the Arab-Israeli peace process?
“We’re only getting a partial picture from Wikileaks,” Oren cautioned. “You should know that we regard them as irresponsible and reckless. I mean, people who supposedly care about peace are the people who are undermining diplomacy, which is the best way to avoid war.”
“But,” he continued, after providing that necessary caveat, “the Arab leaders in the documents leaked so far seemed to care about one thing and one thing only, and that’s Iran. They weren’t quoted as expressing any particularly urgency about the need for Arab-Israeli peace.”
Anyone who has followed Israeli issues in the past decade knows that the Iranian nuclear threat is the Jewish state’s greatest concern. So I asked Oren about the comments reportedly made earlier this month by now-former Mossad chief Meir Dagan. Dagan reportedly said, “If the world stands by and does nothing, the soonest Iran will have a nuclear device is 2015, if that.”
Many credit this reality to Dagan himself, who may or may not have been the catalyst for the creation of Stuxnet, the computer worm praised for doing electronically what some once thought Israel or America might have had to do militarily to set back Iran’s nuclear program. Considering Dagan’s reported statement, is Iran the pressing, existential threat it once was?
“I have great regard for Meir Dagan but his assessment is one assessment of one person. It’s not an assessment that reflects all of Israel’s intelligence community or Israel’s military community or Israel’s political echelon,” Oren said. “There are other opinions out there and the other opinions are that we do not have a lot of time here.”
Translation: Iran remains at the top of Israel’s concerns, Stuxnet or no Stuxnet.
Another concern is the Arab uprisings erupting across the region. When I met with Oren, it was just after the Egyptian protests began, and while noteworthy, they had yet to intensify to the level of crisis they have since become. I asked Oren what he and the Israeli government made of the protests in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere.
“Well I think Israel welcomes democratization of the Middle East. I think we see democratization as a factor for stability. Looking forward to any future Palestinian state, we want that Palestinian state to be democratic,” he said. “At the same time we have concerns about the stability of some neighboring states where stability is very important for us and the peace process. And we are concerned lest the uprising in Tunisia goes the way of the uprising in Iran in 1979 — what began as a sort of secular, very diffuse, popular movement was rather quickly hijacked by Islamic extremists because they are the most organized and best-funded of these groups. And they’re very focused. They know exactly what they want. And it’s always a danger in the Middle East that these movements can be hijacked.”
What is true of Oren’s fear for Tunisia, is certainly 10 times more poignant as it applies to Egypt, Israel’s direct neighbor.
Towards the end of the interview, I asked Oren about the “Palestine Papers,” which according to some demonstrate that the Palestinians were willing in 2008 to make major concessions for peace. Specifically, I asked him to respond to comments by Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, the self-proclaimed “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby. Ben-Ami said that the “Palestine Papers” show that the Palestinians were willing to make peace in 2008 and that the documents reveal the “ongoing intransigence of the Israeli government” which must be overcome by “bold American leadership.”
Oren dismissed the charge, saying, in part, “the fact of the matter is at the end of the day — and this you will hear from all the participants, particularly from Condoleezza Rice who went to the Middle East 26 times to try to mediate this – it was [Palestinian President] Abu Mazen that turned the deal down. It wasn’t [former Israeli Prime Minister] Ehud Olmert who turned it down. That’s a matter of record. And just because it is not in these records, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Everybody knows it. He turned it down.”
As Oren’s assistant came in for a third time to urge the ambassador to wrap up so he could get to his next appointment, I asked a final question, whether the ambassador actually considered J Street, some of whose supporters incidentally don’t think it is a bad idea to have Israeli leaders tried for war crimes, a pro-Israel organization?
“They claim they’re pro-Israel,” he said, providing a less than ringing endorsement of the George Soros-funded organization. “They are calling for Israel to be condemned in the Security Council for the settlements and they are condemning some of our best friends on the Hill. So they can call themselves what they like.”