New York Times Profiles Israel’s Man in Washington


michael-orenBy Mark Landler of the New York Times reports:

For Michael B. Oren, the hardest thing about becoming Israel’s ambassador to the United States was giving up his American citizenship, a solemn ritual that involves signing an oath of renunciation. He said he got through it with the help of friends from the American Embassy in Tel Aviv who “stayed with me, and hugged me when it was over.”

Born in upstate New York, raised in suburban New Jersey and educated at Columbia and Princeton Universities, Mr. Oren considers himself genuinely American. But having lived most of his adult life in Israel – serving multiple tours in the Israeli Army, once as a paratrooper during the 1982 Lebanon war – he also considers himself genuinely Israeli.

“My decision to move to Israel was very much informed by my American experience,” Mr. Oren, 54, said over breakfast at his residence on a secluded, well-guarded street. “I felt a great deal of pride about being an American in Israel. I never thought there was any conflict in that.”

The state of Israel, however, does not allow dual citizens to represent it overseas. So when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Mr. Oren in the spring to be his man in Washington, he had to make a choice.

Now a foreign national in the land of his birth, Mr. Oren is drawing on his American roots to make Israel’s case, at a time when relations between the countries have been frayed by a dispute over the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Articulate, telegenic and steeped in American culture, he is a smooth spokesman. But he faces an increasingly skeptical audience.

This week, after President Obama voiced impatience with the lack of progress in peace talks while meeting in New York with Mr. Netanyahu and the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, Mr. Oren was on hand to give a raft of news media interviews.

“You had one gap narrowing between the United States and Israel,” he explained, “while another gap was opening and widening between the Israelis, the Palestinians and the United States.”

It is the kind of tidy formulation Mr. Oren might have used in one of the dozens of op-ed articles he has written for The New York Times and other newspapers, as a scholar of the Middle East. He has also written several books, including a widely praised account of the 1967 Middle East war and a sprawling study of America’s entanglement in the region, going back to the 1700s.

But now Mr. Oren is putting his intellect and persuasive powers into the service of a right-wing Israeli government that does not see eye to eye with the White House. Judging from Mr. Oren’s writing and lectures, it is not clear he is completely eye to eye with his new bosses either.

He is on the record as supporting Israel’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza, a decision that led Mr. Netanyahu to leave the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2005. He has also said Israel must withdraw from its settlements in the West Bank, to save itself as a Jewish state.

“I am the last of the standing unilateralists,” Mr. Oren declared in a lecture in March at Georgetown University, where he was a visiting professor in Jewish studies until being named ambassador.

A YouTube video of that talk was closely watched in Israel, where some papers questioned whether he was too much of a dove to serve Mr. Netanyahu. Others fretted that he was too much of a hawk, citing an article he wrote during the last American election in which he suggested – presciently, as it turned out – that a victory by Barack Obama could lead to friction with Israel.

Today, Mr. Oren is reluctant to discuss his views on settlements or to criticize Mr. Obama’s policies. But he insists, “I couldn’t serve in this government if I didn’t feel that the government’s positions closely, closely dovetail with what I’ve been feeling for a long, long time.”

CERTAINLY, Mr. Oren’s fervent Zionism dates from his childhood, though it was hardly inevitable. He grew up as Michael Bornstein in a conservative, but not politically active, family in West Orange, N.J. His father was the director of Newark Beth Israel Medical Center.

At 15, Mr. Oren told his parents he wanted to move to Israel to work on a kibbutz. His parents were aghast, but they did not stop him when he talked his way into a job on an alfalfa farm, even though he was two years shy of the minimum age. A job as a cowboy on the Golan Heights followed, as well as athletic glory as an oarsman in the Maccabiah Games, where thousands of Jewish athletes from around the world compete every four years.

“The thought of moving to Israel was completely alien to all of us,” Mr. Oren said. “But for someone who came from a really normal suburban upbringing, this was about as exciting and swashbuckling as you could get.”

After picking up two degrees at Columbia, he moved back to Israel in 1979 and joined the army. That began a three-decade association with the Israel Defense Forces, for which he was a spokesman during the 2006 war in Lebanon and the Israeli crackdown on the militant group Hamas in Gaza in 2008.

At 23, Mr. Oren took Israeli citizenship. Like many Jews who move to Israel, he changed his name: Oren means “pine tree” in Hebrew. He also met his wife, Sally, who came from a Zionist family in San Francisco. In 1995, her youngest sister was killed in a terrorist attack on a bus in Jerusalem.

The tragedy, he said, “deepened our commitment.” The couple have three children, all of whom have served in the Israeli military. Their eldest son, Yoav, was shot at close range and wounded by a Hamas fighter in 2004.

FOR the past two decades, Mr. Oren has mixed scholarship with public service. His book on the 1967 war drew on formerly classified documents from Israeli and Arab archives, and while it revealed blunders on both sides, scholars say it does not have a political bias.

“I would not call his work ideological,” said Robert J. Lieber, a professor of government at Georgetown who recruited Mr. Oren. “He’s a fine scholar who lets the scholarship lead him.”

But in his current job, Mr. Oren’s communication skills will be more important than his academic pedigree. He has lost no time cultivating Rahm Emanuel, Mr. Obama’s chief of staff, and David Axelrod, a senior adviser, both of whom are Jewish and have a keen interest in Middle East policy.

“The fact that Israel is having trouble with liberal America means we need to have someone who understands liberal America,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a longtime friend and journalist who worked with Mr. Oren at the Shalem Center, a center-right research institute in Jerusalem.

As a veteran of real wars and those that rage in academia, Mr. Oren said he was not daunted by the task of representing Israel during a fraught period. He disputes that there is a crisis in American-Israeli relations, characterizing it as a “disagreement about how to proceed along the peace process.”

In the hothouse world of Israeli politics, ambassadors to Washington rarely last more than a couple of years, Mr. Oren said. But he is relishing his shot at a job that he said had tantalized him since he was a teenager, reading about the man who was then Israel’s emissary, Yitzhak Rabin.

“States are often created with great upheaval and pain, and Israel is no exception,” Mr. Oren said. “The great excitement and challenge of living in Israel is that it is a work in progress. It’s like living in this country in 1776.”

{NY Times/ Newscenter}