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State of the Union

After Barack Obama’s rejection of the Palestinian U.N. statehood move last week, Israeli envoy Michael Oren sees the U.S.-Israel relationship as strong

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Michael Oren in Washington, 2009. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

After a week at the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, where he joined Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in pushing back against the Palestinians’ statehood bid, Israel’s ambassador to the United States is satisfied that 5772 will begin with the Jewish state as healthy as it has been in recent memory. Part of the reason for that, Michael Oren explained to me yesterday in his office in Washington, is that there is broad, bipartisan support for Israel in the United States—including robust support from the White House.

In spite of the Obama Administration’s snubs and slights, in the wake of the U.N. meeting Oren believes that “relations between the two countries are closer than any time in the last two and a half years.” Differences between the Obama Administration and Netanyahu regarding the peace process have been “tactical,” he told me. “Both agreed on the principle of two states, but the question was how to get there.”

Oren says that the White House and Netanyahu’s office closely coordinated their efforts to dissuade Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas from making his unilateral bid for statehood, which the United States also sees as contrary to its national interests. Both sides of the aisle in the U.S. House of Representatives support President Barack Obama’s stance on the matter. Rep. Gary Ackerman, a New York Democrat, has already threatened to suspend aid to the Palestinian Authority. I asked Oren if he thinks that’s a good idea, given that the relative stability currently prevailing in the West Bank is generally attributed to American financial support. “We believe that if the Palestinians breach their commitments, avoid negotiations, and make an end-run around the peace process, there should be consequences,” the ambassador answered, suggesting that cutting off aid to the P.A. is hardly anathema to Israel.

Oren said his transition from life as an academic with opinions to being a statesman with official policy positions is a little like going from “writing slam poetry to composing rhymed haiku—it takes a lot of discipline.” He is certainly disciplined about his workout regiment: The 56-year-old New Jersey native looks about as trim as he did when he won a gold medal in rowing at the Maccabiah Games in 1977. Oren said he still rows every day, adding that the only way to keep up with a daily grind that includes a busy evening social schedule is to stay in shape.

Oren had to renounce his U.S. citizenship in 2009 when he accepted Netanyahu’s offer to take the job he’d dreamed of since childhood, but he said there was little in academia (including teaching posts at Harvard, Yale, and Georgetown) or the think-tank world (the Shalem Center in Jerusalem) that prepared him for the challenges of his current job.

“Sure, I had a couple advantages,” Oren admitted. “I knew America very well. I not only grew up here; I also knew about American foreign policy from a historical perspective. For instance, I knew that this was the third time that America had been involved in Libya, and that back in 1801 Thomas Jefferson was talking about bringing democracy to the Libyans.”

Even though Oren understood that America’s relationship with Israel was the closest and most multifaceted relationship with a foreign country in post-World War II history, “It’s hard,” he said, “to understand the vast breadth and depth of the position until you’ve actually begun it.” He pointed to his desk and explained that the innocuous-looking piece of furniture is the “nexus among 535 members of Congress, the Pentagon, the State Department, the White House, the U.S. intelligence community, the American Jewish community, and American churches” on one hand and, on the other, “the Israeli government, the IDF, the Knesset, 30 ministers, and Israeli society and culture.”

In the American context, at least, Israel is anything but isolated as far as the ambassador is concerned. He’s hosted first-time events for Americans not typically known as natural friends of Israel, like the gay community. Oren explained that Israel isn’t merely a regional leader in gay rights—not a particularly special distinction, given that many of its neighbors consider homosexuality a sin punishable by death—but also an international leader. “We never had anything like ‘don’t ask don’t tell’,” he noted.

Oren hosted the Israeli Embassy’s first iftar last month, with 65 Muslim leaders in attendance, and he recently reached out to the Muslim community at the University of California, Irvine. Last week, 10 Muslim students in the so-called Irvine 11 were found guilty of misdemeanor charges for disrupting Oren’s February talk at the school. “That was the community I was intending to address,” said Oren. “I issued another letter to the students at Irvine and said I was willing to go back, and discuss anything, everything, as long as they were civil. The offer still stands.”

The Israel of the popular international imagination is the one held responsible for alienating Turkey when Israeli commandos boarded a Gaza-bound boat in May 2010 and killed nine activists after being attacked. It is apparently lost on most of Israel’s critics that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has deliberately turned his country’s foreign policy against the Jewish state in order to project power throughout the Muslim world. Still, Oren said, “It’s hurtful because Turkey was a long-standing ally.” Moreover, explained the ambassador, “There’s the friendship between Jews and Turks that goes back hundreds of years. It was Turkey that took in the Jews when we were banished from Spain.”

Losing Turkey has opened up other opportunities for Israel, like building strategic relationships with longtime Turkish adversaries Greece and Bulgaria. Still, Israel’s immediate region, Oren said, “is a particularly flammable Middle East, where all our assumptions as of a year ago are called into question.” Egypt is perhaps the biggest wild card, and Oren demurred when I asked what the consequences might have been if the staff of the Israeli embassy in Cairo hadn’t been rescued by Egyptian commandos. But he did challenge reports that the Egyptian military neglected to answer Netanyahu’s calls. “We eventually got through to the Egyptians,” he said, adding that Israeli officials are in close regular contact with Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which rules the country. “They are as committed to keeping the peace as we are,” he said.

Most daunting—for Egypt and Israel—is the prospect of a weak and disorganized democratic current in that country coming up against a well-funded and well-disciplined Islamist movement. That movement includes the Muslim Brotherhood and assorted Salafist organizations, which, said Oren, “want to see a universal sharia state in the Middle East, and one without Israel in it.”

Syria is one of the few places in the region where Oren and Israeli officials are guardedly optimistic. “The opportunity there,” he said, “is seeing a leader who is not Bashar, weakening the link with Iran and dealing a blow to Hezbollah.”

Israel’s key strategic concern remains Iran. “The Iranians have overcome their technical difficulties and are experimenting with missiles capable of reaching throughout the region and beyond,” Oren said. An Iranian bomb, he added, is “a game-changer. We have some time to stop them but not much time.”

When I asked if the Arab Spring has pushed concerns over Iran out of the news cycle over the last six months, the ambassador looked at me incredulously. “We’ve been shouting about Iran as much as possible,” he said. “And in this country, too, there’s a firm awareness of the threat posed by Iran.”

I mentioned a recent poll, conducted by the American Jewish Committee, which found that among Jewish voters a plurality of 45 percent disapproved of how the White House has handled the Iranian nuclear issue. Oren said that those polled don’t understand what’s going on behind the scenes. “The administration’s policy has unfolded,” he said. “First, it was the president believed an Iranian nuclear program was unacceptable, which morphed into Obama is determined to stop the nuclear program, which reflected substantive movement. Now the U.S. is ratcheting up sanctions. Our policy and the U.S.’s is that all options are on the table—and we remain committed to that policy.”

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Bill Pearlman says:

The only reason Obama backed Israel at the UN was because of the election in NY

Oren is living in a fantasy bubble which is beginning to burst. It would behoove all Americans who support Israel to be earnestly mindful of this and break up their banal clique thinking and do the actual hard work to foster peace instead of intransigent denial of clear realities.

The only fantasy bubble is the one surrounding the Arab Spring/Palestinian Spring. Abbas & co cannot say ‘Jewish State’ since their aim is to replace the State of Israel. The Arab/Muslims have yet to accept a sovereign Jewish State in the Middle East … we’ll know their willing to compromise & make concessions when they can mouth these words … ISRAEL IS THE JEWISH STATE … at that point … real peace negotiations can take place … certainly NOT BEFORE.

Abbas is making Netanyahu and his standing still radical Likud that foolishly and provocatively paves forward with illegal Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank look like a bullying ass, which is exactly what he is.

Support from Obama is meaningless because Mideasterners have learned not to have respect for him. If fellow Americans see him as wishy-washy, you can imagine what America’s enemies and doubters feel.

One reason Obama is having problems is because he made settlements a pre-condition instead of a negotiable item, but liberal columnists blame Israel for the subsequent problems with the Palestinians as well as the problems with Egypt, Turkey, and the anger of the Arab Spring.

This is partly because Netanyahu is on the right and therefore to the left can’t do anything right, and partly because it’s Israel.

The other scapegoat is AIPAC, a well-run lobby supported by Jews and Christians who are pro-Israel. To the political left, AIPAC is a cabal of witches who have supernatural control over the President and the world,and anyone who supports Israel is an unthinking flunky of AIPAC.

Perhaps I should mention that I’m moderate Independent and if I were Israeli, I would have voted for Tzipi, which most Israelis did. Netanyahu came to power because Tzipi couldn’t form a coalition and he could.

As an American, I don’t understand what happened to moderation. The Democrats have been taken over by the liberals and the Republicans by the conservatives.

I don’t see Abbas as moderate at all. He hasn’t come out from under Arafat’s thumb. He is looking forward to retirement, and wants to be remembered, as Arafat was, as someone who stood up to Israel.

Long before Erogan started his illogical rants against Israel, Wikileaks revealed that whatever he says, Erogan has a visceral hatred of Israel.

Tzatz – maybe you should take a look at the actual text of the resolution. But I suppose the facts would get in way of your rhetoric.

Michael Oren is being foolish if he thinks he can praise Obama in one breath for opposing Palestine’s statehood bid and then publicly chide him for negligence on the Iran issue.

The fact remains; Netanyahu cannot have his cake and eat it. If he wants to enlist unqualified American support in the effort to contain Iran, he must yield to demands that show more flexibility with respect to negotiations with the Palestinians. And that will inevitably entail concessions.

Palestine may be in breach of agreements regarding the process of negotiations, may even be refusing to sit down at all, but this is all the more reason for Netanyahu to ingratiate himself with the world public by extending himself further to try to rekindle some kind of prospect of a deal, with Fatah alone if necessary. In this climate, Netanyahu, and Israel by extension, has been thought to be out of compliance with the dictates of the peace process. That perception may be inaccurate, but it is a reality with repercussions for Israel.

I don’t know what kind of fool severs ties with every international ally save one, and with only one political party in that particular country. Israel for the Republicans is not a plank in their platform; it is a wedge issue in election season. If the Republicans fare badly–and they are fielding an especially lackluster slate of candidates–they will jettison that issue like freight on a sinking ship. There are other movements afoot within the Republican party, including an isolationism that plays well with the libertarian crowd, and which is only going to assume more prominence in a future in which the government is compelled to make budget cuts. It may not be hostile to Israel outright, but it will view it as a foreign nation without a singular claim on American allegiances or money. And if Israel goes to war with Iran, forget it. One Iranian attack on an American base or City and we will head for Swiss-like neutrality, clothed in appropriate rhetoric.

Here is something typical of Natanyahu’s occupational penchant for embracing occupation and IDF ultra-violence. It is by no means an isolated occurrence, it is an everyday fact of brutality.

Israel, would be totally insane, to accept
Palestine to be a State with current Two separate Palestinian territories (Gaza Strip and West Bank)
1st step on their agenda s/be to exchange
land to make Palestine ONE contingent territory…Nothing in the past have I ever heard any discussion addressing this

E.J.Bender 09/30/2011

Jules says:

Israel would be insane to continue on as a staunch apartheid state and occupier of land under an ugly arm of occupation beyond the green line that just glibly goes forward into infamy in the open eyes of the world and an American public that is more aware and informed than it was 20 years ago and in the process of which is weary of this constant centrifuge towards finding and fostering a peaceful settlement.

Barry Meislin says:

Michael Oren is trying his diplomatic best to remind us that regarding the Obama administration’s reliability vis a vis the State of Israel, the glass is about 20% full.

(And that’s an optimistic assessment.)

isaac says:

Obama going against statehood for the Palestinians through the UN is favorab le though it is a election year and he wants the Jewish Vote. There can be no chance for a Palestinian state with out the Muslim Arabs recognizing the state of Israel and next that they stop the violence and go for real honest concrete concessions for Peaceful Coexistence and can they be honest and hold to an agreeable peace agreement.

Arik Elman says:

Ambassador Oren is a very honest man who’d got REALLY good in the art of lying for his country. Let’s hope he isn’t lying to himself.

Jules says:

Oren is an ass and an embarrassment to both America and Israel.

Dani ben Leb says:

Iran is next. They need to be put in their place.

Dani ben Leb says:

you are mondoscheiss on meth.

Dani, if you’re huffing the paint thinner again (which you clearly are) it’s pretty much clearly a personal problem you have to pretty much contend with pretty much on your own.

Bill Pearlman says:

Dani is right. Jules appears to be a devoted follower of Phil ( Hitler should have finished the job ) Weiss

Good link on the gay issue. Mike brags about his knowledge of US Libyan relations in the early 19th century but doesnt know the history of that one.

PS: U know that it’s regimen don’t you.

Spot on with this write-up, I truly think this website needs far more consideration. I’ll most likely be once more to read way more, thanks for that info.


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State of the Union

After Barack Obama’s rejection of the Palestinian U.N. statehood move last week, Israeli envoy Michael Oren sees the U.S.-Israel relationship as strong

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