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State of the Union

Lee Smith

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 Statesincluding 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 haikuit 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 rightsnot a particularly special distinction, given that many of its neighbors consider homosexuality a sin punishable by deathbut 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 dauntingfor Egypt and Israelis 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 tableand we remain committed to that policy.”

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