When President Obama visited Israel last March, the long-awaited but largely symbolic trip marked his first to the country since taking office five years earlier — and Michael Oren was there to savor every moment of it.
“I remember accompanying the president to the Jerusalem Convention Center, where we were surrounded by Israeli and American flags,” Oren recalled with pride. “And as he spoke in front of 2,500 cheering students, I thought to myself, where else in the Middle East could this happen?”
For Oren, that evening in Jerusalem was the emotional high point in a four-year term of office punctuated by many lows. Case in point: Just last month he was summoned to Israel for emergency meetings to discuss U.S. furor over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to back out of a terrorism money laundering case against the Bank of China, reportedly to appease Beijing.
It was just the latest dustup between Oren’s boss and President Barack Obama, who haven’t exactly been the best of friends. Over the years, they’ve locked horns over Jewish settlements and Iran’s nuclear program, making Oren the “man in the middle,” as the New York Times put it in a September 2012 profile of the envoy.
Now he’s a man at the end of his posting, which began in June 2009 and will wrap up sometime this fall, when the 58-year-old author, historian, professor and ambassador will be replaced by Netanyahu confidante Ron Dermer.
Since the announcement of his departure, Oren — a telegenic, well-spoken envoy who’s been in the media limelight the last four years — embarked on a flurry of interviews. On June 28, he sat down with The Washington Diplomat in the embassy’s downstairs Jerusalem Room — the only place within Israel’s fortress-like mission where laptops are allowed. Our 45-minute interview touched on everything from settlements to Iran to Israel’s own track record on democracy and human rights.
“Israel is the only functioning democracy in the Middle East. It’s never known a second of non-democratic rule,” the ambassador said. “We have a very strong military that enables us to defend ourselves. But the crucial factor is that Israel is the only country in the Middle East that is unequivocally, exuberantly pro-American — and that has a huge impact.”
* * *
Oren is a prime example of the bonds that underpin this strategic alliance. Born in upstate New York and raised in West Orange, N.J., in a conservative Jewish household, he became active in pro-Israel activities early on. At the age of 15, he traveled to Washington with fellow young Zionists for a meeting with Israel’s top envoy to the United States at the time, Yitzhak Rabin.
“Upon meeting the ambassador, Oren told himself, ‘That is what I’d like to be when I grow up,'” according to an August 2009 profile of Oren by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA). In 1979, the aspiring diplomat immigrated to Israel, and in 1982 married San Francisco native Sally Edelstein, who had immigrated to Israel the year before.
Thirty years later, when his lifelong dream came true, Oren had to give up his U.S. citizenship as a condition of his appointment as ambassador.
Oren also had to give up his penchant for freely speaking his mind — especially when his views clashed with the official line in Jerusalem.
At a Feb. 22, 2009, lecture at Georgetown University, where he was a visiting professor, Oren was emphatic about the need to achieve a two-state solution before extremists on both sides made that option impossible.
“I believe that the only alternative Israel has to save itself as a Jewish state — and let’s be frank about that, the Jewish state is predicated on having a Jewish majority — the only way we can do that is by unilaterally withdrawing our border and withdrawing our settlements in the West Bank,” he told students at the time.
Yair Rosenberg, a commentator for the online Tablet Magazine, wondered whether Oren would go back to speaking his mind now that he’ll no longer be representing the Netanyahu government.
“Finally freed from the constraints of public office, will Oren return to the more centrist line he took during his prior academic career? Might he run for Knesset? Or will he embark on his next literary project, and pen another entry in the history of Israel and the Middle East?” he wrote July 5.
Oren, with his American-accented Hebrew and easygoing manner, certainly has the intellectual credentials to move on to the job of his choosing. He’s perhaps the only ambassador in Washington with two New York Times bestsellers to his credit.
But the Princeton- and Columbia-educated author is no meek bookworm. An officer in the Israel Defense Forces, he was a paratrooper in the Lebanon War, a liaison with the U.S. Sixth Fleet during the Gulf War, and an IDF spokesman during the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and Israel’s Gaza operation in January 2009.
The Jerusalem Post listed him as one of the world’s 10 most influential Jews. And by his own estimate, Oren penned no less than 45 original articles during his ambassadorship for major newspapers and magazines — including a controversial article in the May-June 2011 issue of Foreign Policy, “Israel: The Ultimate Ally,” that embassy staffers reprinted as a slick booklet and handed out by the thousands.
A familiar face on the TV talk-show circuit, Oren has mixed it up with the women of “The View” and gone toe to toe with acerbic comedian Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show.” But he also got into hot water when he reportedly tried to kill a “60 Minutes” piece on the plight of Arab Christians in Jerusalem. The effort backfired and Oren’s call to CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager lambasting the story became a central focus of the unflattering broadcast.
Oren also caught flak for jumping the gun on Twitter, erroneously blaming Iran for a 2012 attack at an Israeli border outpost before retracting the statement. Such stumbles, though, were rare for the polished envoy, who generally won plaudits for smoothing over bumps in the bilateral relationship. While Oren was a high-profile emissary for Israel, was he an effective one? The verdict is still out whether the ambassador will be remembered as a savvy interlocutor, perennial crisis manager or glorified messenger.
* * *
Uriel Heilman’s 2009 profile of Oren in JTA predicted that he would “play only a tertiary role” in maintaining Israel’s relationship with its most important ally. “Oren’s role will be largely ceremonial and explanatory,” he wrote.
Ultimately, that’s exactly what happened, according to Middle East hand Aaron David Miller.
“Over the last 15 years, both the U.S. and Israeli governments have been bypassing their own ambassadors in order to establish high-level channels. So when there’s a crisis or a need to communicate a particularly sensitive message, it doesn’t work the way it used to,” said Miller, vice president for new initiatives and a distinguished scholar at the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program.
“An ambassador must reflect the confidence of the prime minister, but there’s a difference between being a confidante and being an intimate,” Miller told us. “I think Michael, though he’s a talented diplomat and historian, was put in a difficult position under those circumstances — especially during the stormier years of the Obama-Bibi relationship. Michael could have played a bigger role had they decided to make him a primary point of contact.”
Michael Koplow, program director of the Israel Institute, disagrees, writing recently in Foreign Policy that, “Oren has been in the unique position of bypassing traditional channels and reporting directly to Netanyahu. This is because Oren didn’t come from within the ranks of the Foreign Ministry and so wasn’t in any way beholden to former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.”
Gary Rosenblatt, a well-known blogger for the New York Jewish Week, called Oren “a highly praised historian and author who was a highly effective public face of Israel here, though given low grades by colleagues for his managerial skills.”
Whatever the case, the job now falls to Ron Dermer, a senior advisor who was dubbed “Bibi’s brain” by Tablet Magazine. The appointment had been rumored for months, although some saw Dermer as a strange choice, given his strong Republican ties, hard-line conservative views (he’s publicly dismissed the two-state solution as “childish”) and speculation that he was behind Netanyahu’s support of Mitt Romney’s campaign to unseat Obama.
“But since November, he has worked to repair his reputation in Washington and has won over many in the White House,” wrote Jodi Rudoren in the New York Times of Dermer, whose father and brother both served as mayor of Miami Beach.
Oren, an avid Twitter fan who at last count had more than 13,500 followers, sent out a tweet congratulating Dermer on his appointment and also reminded friends on July 4 that “the democracy and freedom upon which this great nation was founded are the same values that help form the foundation of the unbreakable U.S.-Israel bond.”
Yet that bond was tested during Obama’s first term in the wake of Netanyahu’s determination to build Jewish settlements in the West Bank and expand existing ones in the face of White House opposition. To date, more than 350,000 Jews live among 2 million Palestinian Arabs throughout the landlocked territory, nearly double the number of Jews who lived there only 12 years ago. In addition, East Jerusalem — which Palestinians hope to one day make their capital — is now home to some 200,000 Jews beyond the internationally recognized green line.
* * *
The Palestinians say settlement construction must be frozen and that the 1967 borders should serve as the basis for any peace talks. For Oren, the deep gulf over land should be hashed out during talks, not beforehand.
“In 2010, we had a 10-month moratorium on settlement construction in order to bring the Palestinians back to the table. We have always felt the sense of urgency. Abu Mazen doesn’t,” said the ambassador in reference to Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority. “We understand that the settlements are a problematic issue — and not just for Palestinians — but we also know they are not the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict. We pulled up 21 settlements in Gaza in 2005 to get peace, and we didn’t get peace. Instead, we got thousands of rockets fired at us.”
That’s why he says “there are other, more urgent issues, like finding stability on our borders and reaching an arrangement that guarantees a negotiated peace will be maintained.”
But for Palestinians, settlements lie at the heart of the conflict, because there can be no peace as long as Israelis keep taking land on which they hope to build a nation. After all, what’s the point of negotiating over a piece of pie that’s steadily being eaten away while you talk?
“I think they believe that time is on their side, and that the longer they defer the resolution of the conflict, the better off the conditions and the position of Israel for any future engagement,” Maen Rashid Areikat, chief of the PLO’s delegation in the United States, told the Jerusalem Post in mid-July.
Some of Netanyahu’s hawkish allies aren’t shy about their territorial ambitions. In June, Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, a member of the prime minister’s Likud Party, said the majority of Israelis had “given up the idea of land for peace.” Israeli politician Naftali Bennett was more blunt.
“Speaking to a settlers’ conference, Bennett urged Israel to ‘build, build, build’ in order to establish an ‘Israeli presence everywhere,’ called for the rapid annexation of more than 60 percent of the West Bank, declared that the land had been Israel’s for 3,000 years, and characterized the quest for a two-state solution as a colossal exercise in futility,” wrote Roger Cohen of the New York Times. “In short, two states? Fuhgeddaboutit.”
Netanyahu though seems more open to territorial concessions than ever before, and Oren insisted that the toxic issue of settlements can be negotiated. He noted that 80 percent of the 125 or so settlements scattered throughout the West Bank are in two blocs adjacent to the pre-1967 border.
“It’s widely understood that these blocs would be incorporated into Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu said we have to be honest with ourselves, that [some] Israeli settlements would lie beyond Israel’s borders. We acknowledge there will be a permanent internationally recognized border, and that not all Israeli settlements will be a part of it.”
But for Oren, land is secondary to the real issue: recognizing Israel as a specifically Jewish state. “We’re committed to the solution of the conflict based on two states for two peoples. We’ll say that but the Palestinians won’t. If you ask me, that’s the core of the conflict: the Palestinians’ refusal to accept Israel as a Jewish state.”
Nonsense, Palestinians counter, saying it’s not up to them to declare what religion Israelis should be and that the demand — a relatively new condition that only surfaced after the 2007 Annapolis peace conference — is just a stalling tactic. They warn that recognizing Israel as an expressly Jewish state would effectively turn the country’s sizeable Muslim and minority communities — estimated to be a quarter of the population — into second-class citizens. It would also, they fear, negate any discussion on the right of return for Palestinian refugees, a key demand in any peace deal.
* * *
Whether it’s recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, curbing settlement growth, sharing the holy city of Jerusalem, or settling the question of Palestinian refugees, the chasm between the two sides is as deep as ever. Which is why Secretary of State John Kerry surprised many Mideast watchers when he made reviving the comatose peace talks a priority. But following his sixth visit to the region in July, he finally had something to show for his efforts, announcing the first direct talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials in three years.
Formal talks will begin in mid-August, with the ambitious goal of forging a comprehensive agreement in the next nine months. In a big victory for Netanyahu, Kerry said there won’t be any preconditions attached to the talks.
Instead, negotiations — shepherded by former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk — will dive right into the so-called “final status” issues that have bedeviled past talks for decades: borders, Jerusalem, Israeli security and Palestinian refugees.
Oren said the biggest challenge will be getting Abbas to “come to the table and stay at the table. It would be very unfortunate if he tries to achieve outside of negotiations for free what he’d have to achieve by giving up and making compromises. We believe this will not create peace.”
By that, the envoy means unilateral efforts by the Palestinians to achieve international recognition. In November 2012, the U.N. General Assembly passed a motion upgrading Palestine from “entity” to “non-member observer” status, and so far, 132 of the U.N.’s 193 member states have recognized Palestine, despite Israeli lobbying urging them not to do so.
That’s the impetus behind Kerry’s plunge into the Israeli-Palestinian impasse — so that he can show a wisp of progress before the U.N. General Assembly meets in September, when the Palestinians could take advantage of their newfound observer status to consolidate their international legitimacy and lodge legal complaints against Israel. (Rumor is that the Palestinians would hold off on such moves for six months if talks move forward.)
Oren said he’s “deeply appreciative” of Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy — and that Kerry might get better results than did his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, if only because of his persistence.
“In terms of substance, the basic parameters of the negotiations remain, but Kerry has chosen to put a particular focus on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whereas during Secretary Clinton’s term, we saw the Palestinians continuously refuse to negotiate with us. Without Palestinian cooperation, and with the U.S. planning to pivot toward different regions, she crafted a policy that put greater emphasis on women’s rights, minority rights and on outreach to many countries outside of the Middle East,” he said.
But Natan Sachs, a fellow at Brookings’ Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said Kerry should husband his energy on a more modest diplomatic effort that doesn’t promise comprehensive solutions. “A Washington tenet of Middle East peace negotiating is that the United States cannot want peace more than the parties themselves,” he recently wrote. “If Israel and its Arab neighbors are not serious in pushing forward with diplomacy, no amount of U.S. cajoling can achieve a lasting agreement between them.”
The Wilson Center’s Miller, who was a Mideast negotiator under six U.S. secretaries of state, also doesn’t see the point of bringing the Israelis and Palestinians to the bargaining table if neither side wants to budge on the real issues that divide them.
“The reason we don’t have an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is because neither Abbas nor Netanyahu are prepared to pay the price on the four core issues: security, borders, refugees and Jerusalem,” he said.
Indeed, Kerry’s bid to dive into final status negotiations has puzzled some observers, who suspect he’s wasting his time. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg said it was a “delusion” that Kerry thinks he can succeed where all other secretaries of state have failed. Haaretz called Kerry’s gambit “naïve.”
* * *
The skepticism is warranted. The Palestinian government remains hopelessly split between Abbas’s Fatah party in the West Bank and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. Abbas also lost his highly regarded technocratic prime minister, Salam Fayyad, who resigned earlier this year. Fayyad’s replacement quit just a few weeks after taking office, reportedly because of political infighting.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian economy is in shambles, propped up largely by foreign aid. And no amount of financial enticements (Kerry recently announced a plan to boost private investment in the territories by $4 billion) will get around the Israeli checkpoints and bureaucratic roadblocks that strangle the potential for real growth in the West Bank.
On the flip side, many Israelis seem content, even secure with the status quo — for good reason. Their economy is humming along, with GDP growth of 3.1 percent last year. Terrorist attacks are no longer a major concern for beach-going urbanites in Tel Aviv — largely thanks to a separation barrier that at times snakes deep into Palestinian neighborhoods and farms. The huge concrete barrier may be reviled by peaceniks, but it’s brought unprecedented peace inside Israel. Outside the wall, however, the region is more volatile than ever.
With Syria engulfed in civil war, Egypt convulsing, and the Arab world teetering under the weight of sclerotic regimes, analysts doubt Israel would stick its neck out and give up territory to strike an elusive deal amid such turbulence.
At the same time, others point out that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the raw nerve that electrifies Western resentment in the region — and the Arab Spring is exactly why a peace deal is more urgent than ever. “Together, Israelis and Palestinians actually have the power to model what a decent, postauthoritarian, multireligious Arab state could look like,” wrote columnist Thomas Friedman last month. “Nothing would address both people’s long-term strategic needs better.”
* * *
That may be, but short-term pessimism abounds on both sides. A June poll by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah showed that a majority of Israelis (68 percent) and Palestinians (69 percent) view the chances of establishing an independent Palestinian state next to Israel in the next five years as low or non-existent — although majorities on both sides still support the idea of a two-state solution.
The growing complacency over a peace deal belies the stark choice many experts say Israelis will face in the near future: let go of the West Bank and agree to an independent Palestinian state, or absorb masses of Palestinians in the occupied territories and Israel proper. It’s a tired but true refrain: Israel will have to choose whether it wants to be a Jewish or a democratic state.
“One day, maybe five years from now, maybe fifteen, maybe it has already happened, the green line will disappear: West Bank settlers will have grown so numerous and so entrenched within the Israeli government, rabbinate, and army that it will be impossible to remove enough of them to create a viable Palestinian state,” warned liberal writer Peter Beinart in his controversial book “The Crisis of Zionism.”
“If Israel honors the promise in its declaration of independence to provide ‘full equality of social and political rights’ to all the people under its domain…. Israel will commit suicide as a Jewish state,” he wrote.
Netanyahu seems to sense this danger. Though many observers still doubt whether the prime minister really believes in a two-state solution, he has increasingly talked about the threat of Israel becoming “a binational country.” Oren too said that the government is “aware of the dangers inherent in maintaining the status quo” in the West Bank. He also disputed the notion that because Israel is a prosperous, technologically superior nation whose military dwarfs its Arab neighbors that it can afford to drag its feet on the peace process.
“History has proven just the opposite,” he insisted. “During periods of economic distress and dislocations at the beginning of this century, there was low support for a two-state solution. Now, 70 percent of Israelis support it. Some Israelis would say that with the Middle East in such a fluid state, we have to be very careful about creating another state along our border. The record of Arab countries in recent years has not been one of stability. On the contrary, there’s been a tremendous surge of extremism.”
The ambassador pointed to the civil war in Syria, which has taken more than 100,000 lives, as well as political unrest in neighboring Egypt — one of only two Arab states (the other is Jordan) that have signed a peace treaty with Israel.
“We have long warned our allies well before the outbreak of fighting about the instability generated by the regime of Bashar al-Assad,” Oren said of the Syrian leader. “Certainly his departure would be a blow to Iran and Hezbollah. We’re not naïve and we know there are Islamic extremist groups [among the rebels]. We’re not making any recommendation to the United States whether or not to arm the Syrian rebels. All we’re saying is that they should be seriously vetted.”
He added: “We may not be able to affect the internal situation in Egypt or Syria, but one of the few areas where we can really make a material difference is our relationship with the Palestinians.”
* * *
Yet a plan has been quietly floating around since 2002 that its supporters say could not only redefine Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians, but with the entire Arab world.
The Arab Peace Initiative was first proposed by Saudi Arabia and endorsed by the 22-member Arab League and the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation. It offers Israel normalized relations with all its Arab neighbors in exchange for a full withdrawal from territories captured in 1967 to create a Palestinian state and a “just solution” for Palestinian refugees.
The initiative languished until this past April, when Kerry persuaded Arab officials to agree that final borders could be modified from the 1967 lines through mutual land swaps.
Israeli officials, though, have been largely mum on the sweeping peace plan. The ambassador said the initiative is a “positive contribution” to the peace process, but not much more than that. “We welcomed it, but the Arab initiative doesn’t call for negotiations. It calls for Israel to withdraw from territory, and then the Arab world would normalize relations [with Israel]. There’s no sense of give and take.”
Fellow Israeli scholar Alon Ben-Meir, a professor of Middle East studies at New York University, says the response to the Arab Peace Initiative (API) has been shortsighted.
“By rejecting the API, successive Israeli governments have made a mistake of historic proportions,” he wrote in the April 2013 commentary “Resurrecting the Arab Peace Initiative.”
“The API stands out singularly as the most viable framework, especially because it was the initiative of the collective Arab political body,” he wrote. “The sweeping upheavals in the Middle East and the concerns over renewed Israeli-Palestinian violent confrontations resulting from the continuing stalemate are making the Arab states increasingly concerned. Thus, settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which they view as the main source of regional instability, has assumed greater urgency. The API provides the vehicle around which all Palestinian factions can coalesce with the full backing of the Arab states in search for an equitable solution.”
Ben-Meir, talking to The Diplomat, also had some stinging criticism for Oren.
“As an ambassador, Michael Oren was certainly a bright person and understood the issues, but from my perspective, he acted more like a messenger than a diplomat. He pretty much conveyed messages from one side to the other without interjecting his own views, which could have specifically advanced the Israeli-American relationship at a time of tension,” Ben-Meir argued.
To be fair, an ambassador is usually more messenger than policymaker. Still, the NYU academic, who like Oren has written numerous articles for newspapers, magazines and scholarly journals, criticized what he called the departing ambassador’s lack of creativity.
“I don’t think Israel has been able to project itself in a positive way in connection with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Oren made very little effort, if any, to improve that narrative,” he said. “The perception here is that Israel is losing the PR battle and the Palestinians are gaining. But he pretty much repeated Netanyahu’s position rather than trying to put a positive spin on it, in a manner that’s going to resonate with the American public. He did not use his knowledge and experience to the best of his abilities. You need to demonstrate sensitivity to the other side, and I think he failed in that regard.”
* * *
For his part, Maen Rashid Areikat, the Palestinians’ representative in Washington, said he knew Oren but declined to talk about what he thought of him personally, saying “it’s not my responsibility to publicly comment on that.”
“We ran into each other during TV interviews and receptions, and we exchanged greetings, but I never had a meeting with him, neither formally or informally,” Areikat told us.
For a while, Oren refused to meet with J Street, a liberal Jewish advocacy group that opposes Israeli settlement building in the West Bank. Oren, who turned down an invitation to speak at J Street’s first conference in 2009, once blasted the dovish group as “significantly out of the mainstream.”
The two eventually made amends and Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, had nothing but warm words for the departing diplomat.
“Ambassador Oren has served the State of Israel as a passionate advocate for the U.S.-Israel alliance,” he said. “We have valued our interactions with him over these past four years and wish him luck in his future endeavors.”
Oren has gone out of his way to interact with students at college campuses across the country, where he occasionally faced hostile audiences, including younger American Jews disillusioned with Israel’s increasingly hard-line religious nationalism.
Oren said one of the most rewarding, yet frustrating, aspects of his job has been placating the Jewish community in the United States, which numbers around 5.5 million — almost as many as the 6 million Jews who live in Israel itself.
“The American Jewish community is politically and intellectually vibrant and diverse, and that’s a wellspring of its strength,” Oren told us. “AIPAC [the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee] is different than just about any other Jewish organization because by mandate it supports the policies of the Israeli government. J Street has had a high media profile, but some Jewish groups on the right are very critical of Israel for being too lenient, while others think we’re not liberal enough. Part of my job has been interacting with all these organizations, keeping them in the pro-Israel tent.”
Oren’s job was certainly easier in Congress, many of whose members are ardent supporters of Israel. But the ambassador says this devotion doesn’t spring from powerful lobby shops like AIPAC.
“Understand that members of Congress are pro-Israel because they’re reflecting American public opinion. The United States is a religiously observant country, and that impacts people’s worldviews. They read in the Bible that God promised this land to his people, and they take that very seriously,” Oren told The Diplomat.
“The $3 billion [Israel receives in annual U.S. foreign aid] is an investment not just in Israel’s security but in American security — whether it be in the development of joint missiles or intelligence sharing. It’s the use of our airfields and ports, and it’s weapons pre-positioning, and it enables America’s military to focus on other areas of the Middle East and not just on us,” he said, adding that 75 percent of that aid is spent in the United States, where it creates tens of thousands of American jobs.
* * *
In fact, despite the early friction between Barack and Bibi, cooperation between the United States and Israel has never been stronger.
“The public atmosphere was one of tension, but behind the scenes we worked together as allies on the Iron Dome, on the Marmara affair, on the Palestinians’ unilateral moves in the United Nations and on Iran as well,” Oren told Israel’s Haaretz in a July 11 interview. “The intelligence cooperation between our two countries is unlike the cooperation the U.S. has with any other country.”
But Iran, especially now that it’s under new leadership, will continue to test that cooperation. Oren told us the Netanyahu government has no illusions about the clerical regime, despite recent elections that saw former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — who called his denial of the Holocaust “one of the greatest achievements” of his career — replaced by the presumably more moderate Hassan Rouhani.
Even though Rouhani described Ahmadinejad’s anti-Israel rants as “hate rhetoric” during the election campaign, Oren said “he was selected by the supreme leader. They were vetted down to five people. This puts a tremendous onus on the Iranians. Let’s see if he’s such a moderate.” So far, he said, “they haven’t moved at all.”
The official Israeli assessment is that Iran has edged ever closer to Bibi’s infamous “red line” presented during a September 2012 speech at the United Nations and tweeted around the world.
“They have not crossed it yet, but are continuing to enrich uranium at higher levels. They’re installing 3,000 centrifuges that can increase the rate of enrichment five-fold, and they continue to build underground,” Oren said. “We have been very supportive of the sanctions programs. They’ve been singularly successful and have made an immense impact on the Iranian economy, but they have not succeeded in stopping the nuclear program. In fact, it keeps accelerating.”
But Washington and its European allies are likely to give diplomacy more time to bear fruit following the surprise victory of Rouhani, who showed a pragmatic, flexible streak when he was Iran’s top nuclear negotiator. But will Netanyahu have that same kind of patience?
Asked the million-dollar question if Israel would launch a unilateral military strike against Iran in the event it does cross that red line — even without a green light from Washington — Oren smiled.
“I’m not going to go into tactical details with you, but Israel is a sovereign nation — a tiny nation with an Iranian proxy along our border,” he responded. “We’re the ultimate ally of the United States. We not only have the right, but the duty, to defend ourselves.”
* * *
Israelis are naturally worried about the volatility all around them, but they’re equally, if not more, concerned with challenges at home — and there are plenty. Income disparities are widening and poverty is on the rise. There’s also a growing rift between Israel’s secular majority and its expanding ultra-Orthodox minority. Parliament is currently debating a contentious law to end wholesale military draft exemptions for Jewish seminary students, and women have waged a high-profile protest to demand equal praying rights at the Western Wall.
“Israel has gone through a profound social and economic transformation,” Oren said. “We’ve had a high-tech boom. Our average income is surpassing that of Western European countries. But you have the emergence of an income gap that didn’t exist before. We also have large traditional Arab and ultra-Orthodox populations where women don’t work. We have to address all of those challenges, acknowledging the fact that we are an economic success story. We have to encourage Arab women and ultra-Orthodox men to get into the workforce. It’s important that they share the burden.”
In fact, according to a recent survey conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Israel ranked a dismal 25th out of 36 countries in overall quality of life — even though Israeli respondents consistently say they’re happier than most of their Western European counterparts.
Furthermore, Israeli political and cultural institutions are said to be among the most corrupt of all OECD member countries; 73 percent of Israelis surveyed by Transparency International say their government is controlled by special interests, as compared to 62 percent of Mexicans, 49 percent of Turks and 5 percent of Norwegians.
Even so, Oren took pains to highlight Israel’s impressive economic achievements in its 65-year history — pointing out the country’s leading role in everything from software development to water desalinization to telecommunications (among Israel’s many inventions are the USB flash drive, drip-irrigation technology, the cherry tomato and the PillCam, a tiny camera designed to record video images of the digestive tract).
“With all of these transformations that Israel has faced, we still offer extensive safety nets to those who have fallen below the poverty line,” Oren said. “We have universal medical care that is world famous, and of our six universities, three are among the world’s top 100. The total cost of an Israeli bachelor’s degree is under $10,000, so we haven’t abandoned our socialist legacy.”
Oren also said Israel hasn’t abandoned the liberal values upon which it was founded. As ambassador, he made a point to reach out to people who might have otherwise never connected with the Jewish state — an activity he clearly enjoyed.
“We had a Hispanic concert with David Broza and dinner with Latino leaders. We had an LGBT night. We did an Irish night and even had Martin O’Malley play,” Oren recalled, smiling at his own mention of Maryland’s governor — a likely candidate for president in 2016 who led a trade delegation to Israel earlier this year. “We had an Iranian night and brought in Rita [Jahanforuz, a singer]. We had a Palestinian-Israeli band, Shesh Besh, and members of the Israeli Philharmonic playing fusion. Jews and Muslims were dancing together in my house. We jammed all night. These people were incredible.”
Despite such feel-good multiculturalism — including several high-profile Iftar dinners held at the ambassador’s residence with Muslim leaders — Oren acknowledged that his little country still has a long way to go.
“Israeli Arabs represent us in the Knesset, in the Supreme Court and in our universities. Israeli Christian Arabs are better educated and more affluent than Israeli Jews, but sadly, like every country in the world, we’re not free of discrimination,” he said. “Israel in that way is a work in progress.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.