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Diplomat Talks of Relations: Near, Far and In-Between

October 29, 2009 By:
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Michael Oren

As Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren would be expected to grapple with the latest diplomatic challenges facing the Jewish state -- the Goldstone report accusing Israel of war crimes in Gaza, tensions between Jerusalem and Washington over West Bank settlements and policy on Iran, and even divisions among American Jews about what it really means to be "pro-Israel."

One issue that he did not anticipate on his "To Do" list when he took on the job in May was helping procure doses of swine-flu vaccine for pregnant women and nursery-school teachers in his country.

But that is just what he found himself doing recently as Israel, with at least 35 confirmed deaths from the H1N1, was looking to the United States for medical assistance.

For Oren, the quest for doses of the vaccine was far less complicated than navigating the often tumultuous terrain of U.S.-Israeli relations or American Jewish politics.

Oren -- who grew up in New Jersey, moved to Israel at the age of 15, and had to renounce his U.S. citizenship in order to become Israel's ambassador -- recently found himself at the center of a storm over an invitation to attend this week's national conference of J Street, the controversial upstart lobby in Washington that promotes itself "pro-Israel, pro-peace."

After a very public appeal by the group's executive director, Oren ultimately rejected the invitation -- a decision that was his alone, he said during an interview here on Monday.

J Street's director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, criticized the move, and was reported saying that he was "extremely disappointed that this is the reaction of the government of Israel to an organization that is looking to expand the base of support in this country, and is deeply concerned about its future."

Defending His Decision

Oren staunchly defended his decision, suggesting that J Street was beyond the pale of Jewish groups that had Israel's interests at heart.

Although he said that he believes that dialogue and debate within the Jewish community is vital, "it is important that the dialogue take place within the mainstream, which is very broad," including those on the left, the right and the center.

He noted that he had met with other progressive organizations, such as Americans for Peace Now and the New Israel Fund, and that he would be speaking at the Reform movement's biennial in Toronto next week, where he assumes some attendees might disagree with some of Israeli policies.

But he suggested that J Street, which condemned Israel's war in Gaza and has publicly attacked other pro-Israel groups, had crossed a "red line."

That line, he said, is a commitment to "Israel's right to exist as a sovereign Jewish state with the right to defend itself."

Israel's right to defend itself has been a constant theme sounded by Oren since he arrived at the embassy in Washington for a job that he describes as "the realization of a lifelong dream."

And it was a theme that he returned to when he addressed the closing plenary of the national conference of the Jewish National Fund, which took place this week in Philadelphia.

The Goldstone report, commissioned by the United Nations to look into the actions of Israel and Hamas during the war in Gaza, "posed a momentous threat to the peace process," he told the hundreds of people gathered at the conference, because it meant that Israel's military actions against terrorists could be challenged in the international arena.

Israelis are willing to take great risks for peace, he said, "but we have to know that if the peace breaks down, we will have the right to defend ourselves."

Oren said that the United States has come out strongly against the Goldstone report, and has not pressured Israel to undertake its own investigation. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week that he was appointing a task force to respond to the report and its repercussions.

Oren, who has spent most of his career as an academic and wrote several books, including the widely acclaimed Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present, downplayed tensions between Israel and the United States over the peace process.

Widespread reports indicate the administration's frustration that more progress hasn't been made in recent months, despite President Barack Obama's urging at a meeting with the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority in September that "it is past time to talk about starting negotiations; it is time to move forward."

Oren asserted that the issues that had threatened strains between the Obama administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- namely, an Israeli commitment to a Palestinian state, West Bank settlements and Iran -- have been resolved for now.

Now, he said, "we're dealing with the concrete challenge of getting the Palestinians to the negotiating table."

The Palestinians, he continued, "have amassed a long list of preconditions" that they never had insisted upon before, including a total freeze on settlements in the West Bank.

The challenge is likely to become even greater amid reports that Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, will not run for re-election when Palestinians are slated to go to the polls in January.

Asked whether the Obama administration's early public focus on a freeze in settlements had contributed to the current stalemate, Oren said: "I'm not going to pass judgment on the Obama administration."

The ambassador added that "there is a deep commitment" by Obama "to achieving peace. We deeply appreciate that commitment."

He said that Obama "warmly accepted" Netanyahu's position that a Palestinian state must be demilitarized and must recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

He also said that after a series of meetings with special envoy George Mitchell, Israel and the United States have agreed to a "series of understandings," including about settlements.

Obama had publicly demanded a total freeze on them, but has since backed away from that call. The understanding, according to Oren, is that Israel would limit West Bank settlement-building to those projects that are necessary to accommodate natural growth among the population.

'Rapid and Profound Shift'

On Iran, the ambassador said that Israel now fully supports the Obama administration's approach, given what he called a "rapid and profound shift" in U.S. policy toward Tehran.

He cited Obama's vow to pursue crippling sanctions if Iran doesn't suspend the push for uranium enrichment on its soil, as well as the president's pledge to keep all options on the table, including a military one.

The Iran issue, added Oren, could have created tension between the United States and Israel, but it hasn't.

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