8 questions with former Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
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Recent U.S. Israeli ambassador Michael Oren argues the U.S.-Israel relationship remains strong — even if President Barack Obama does not have the “deep spiritual connection” Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had with the Jewish State.

Oren, who served as ambassador from July 2009 until stepping down in September 2013, is back in Israel now, where he is teaching and writing a book. While speaking to The Daily Caller by phone late last month, the distinguished historian opened up about his time as ambassador.

He also answered TheDC’s questions about the Obama administration’s relationship with Israel. Oren, who authored a history of America’s relationship with the Middle East since 1776, wasn’t particularly critical of President Obama, but he did argue that Bush and Clinton were “exceptions” among American presidents in their connection to Israel.

“Clinton and Bush had both grown up in churches in which they acquired a very deep appreciation for Israel. So it was deep rooted in their worldview,” he said.

Check out the interview below:

At the level of leader-to-leader — President Obama to Benjamin Netanyahu — how do you evaluate the state of the U.S.-Israel relationship in historical terms?

Well, I think the relationship is good. There were in the past Israeli prime ministers who had very close personal friendships with presidents but that was the exception, not the rule. [Founding Israeli Prime Minister David] Ben Gurion wasn’t a close friend of [Presidents] Eisenhower or Kennedy. So it is not the exception. What they do have is a very open relationship. Obama’s talked with Netanyahu more frequently than any other foreign leader in the world. They have had seven face-to-face meetings — that’s very high — many hours of call conversations, so they know each other very well.

There are issues … which the United States and Israel have had differences, particularly tactical differences, on how to achieve our common goal of preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons, how to reach the common goal of two states for two people — the Palestinian state living side-by-side with the Jewish State. And we’ve had those differences. By the way, none of them are new. None of them are particular to the period of Netanyahu and Obama.

But there is an impression in many quarters that, unlike previous American presidents, Obama is not as pro-Israel on a visceral or emotional level. What do you say to that?

I think Obama has a deep commitment to Israel’s security, certainly to Israel’s identity as a Jewish State. I accompanied him here to his visit in Israel last year and he spoke about it again and again. But I think the question you asked is “visceral” attachment — I don’t know if the president has a visceral attachment to any foreign country. As close allies as we are, we are a foreign nation. Each president brings his own particular worldview and personality to the White House. Clinton and Bush had both grown up in churches in which they acquired a very deep appreciation for Israel. So it was deep rooted in their worldview.

I was present when Clinton used to tell the story about the Baptist minister, who was sort of a surrogate father. The minister got sick and was dying when Clinton was 16 and he called him to his deathbed and made Clinton promise that he would always stand beside Israel. There was a deep spiritual connection. But, again, these are not necessarily the rules. These are more of the exceptions. Again, Eisenhower didn’t have that deep connection, that spiritual connection.

Let me ask you to compare the major actors you worked with and observed in the U.S. government while you were ambassador. How would you compare and contrast President Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and John Kerry in their dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and their understanding of Middle East dynamics more generally?

Well, I’ll tell you someone I very much admired in the administration — not in the administration now — was Dennis Ross. Dennis Ross had more than a quarter century of experience in the region. And in contrast to many of the experts involved in the State Department and the White House who were focused on one area — you get an expert on Syria/Lebanon, an expert on Egypt — Dennis wasn’t stovepiped. He had a horizontal regional perspective in the sense that he saw the entire region and how the parts came together or didn’t come together. And he also had a vertical historical understanding of the region. He could look back and see what had been done and tried and didn’t work in previous decades. And that’s a unique perspective and there is always a need for that perspective.

Just to get a finer point on this. I asked this in a slightly different way earlier, but this impression that the relationship between President Obama and the Israeli government is not as good as the relationship some of the most recent American administrations have had with Israel — you think that’s a false narrative? President Obama is as good a friend of Israel as George W. Bush and Bill Clinton? 

No, that’s not what I am saying. I am saying that some presidents have close personal friendships with prime ministers. And again, they were the exception rather than the rule. I said that, you know, that Eisenhower and Kennedy didn’t have close professional or personal relations with the founding father of Israel, which is David ben Gurion. So there was that personal relationship, for example, between Bill Clinton and Yitzhak Rabin. I think there was a close personal relationship between [George W.] Bush and [Ariel] Sharon. But that doesn’t mean that the U.S.-Israel relationship is not a special relationship and is not one of the closest, if not the closest, alliances out there in the international field today, because it is so multi-layered. America may have a close strategic alliance with a country like, for example, Turkey, but I don’t know if 74 percent of the American people define themselves as pro-Turkish.

But it sounds like you are saying that the U.S.-Israel relationship is strong in spite of the Obama administration, not because of it — that there is this multilayered relationship that can weather an administration that isn’t as viscerally pro-Israel as previous administrations.

No, nothing like that. You are confusing the [U.S.-Israel] relationship with the personal relationship between the prime minister and the president. But I am trying to draw a very important distinction. I think it is a crucial distinction. You can’t confuse personal relationships — in this case, the relationship is fine, it’s open. I like to mention they speak together more frequently than any two foreign leaders. That’s not an insignificant statistic. But during the Obama administration Israel has received an unprecedented level of military aid, giving aid to vital systems like Iron Dome. In the international forums as well. The Obama administration has used its veto only once in the Security Council and that was in support of Israel. The administration stood up for Israel during the 2010 flotilla incident with Turkey. Does that mean we agree on everything? We don’t agree on everything. That’s the point. It’s not sort of looking at the disagreements we have — which are sometimes serious disagreements; they’re honest disagreements – and concluding the relationship is across the board strained because that would be an inaccurate picture.

Do you have a high point and a low point that you remember from your time as ambassador?

The high point would be the support I got from Congress for Iron Dome, which was amazing — just an outpouring of support. And this was the story about how I wrote an op-ed for Politico saying that Iron Dome not only saved lives, it prevented wars because it gave the Israeli government time to mediate ceasefires because it was a situation where we didn’t have to send our army into Gaza. And the next day my phone went off the hook with all these members of Congress calling up and asking to sponsor additional aid for Iron Dome. And as a consequence we went from having two batteries to having seven batteries, which is a huge difference. That was definitely a highpoint. …

The low point was when a year ago last November five million Israelis were under rocket fire in the southern part of the country and I was sitting in Washington and my daughter was down in a bomb shelter. That was a low point.

When I profiled you 3 years ago, you had mentioned you were planning on writing a book when you ended your tenure as ambassador. 

The book will be published by Random House and it deals with the U.S.-Israeli relationship during a time of profound transformations in the Middle East.

So it will be a memoir of your time as ambassador?

It will be a personal and historic perspective.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

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