Making the case
President Barack Obama in the Oval Office with Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
ichael Oren outlines what may
be his toughest assignment:
Making the case to a skeptical
public for a leader who's hard to pin down.
Pitching Bibi to the Americans? No,
that's an easy one.
The real problem for the Israeli ambas-
sador to Washington is how to make
Israelis understand U.S. President Barack
"Obama often doesn't get the credit he
deserves in Israel;' Oren said recently. "I
think it's important at some point that he
The interview appeared to represent
Oren's most intensive effort yet to counter-
act speculation in some Jewish and Israeli
corners that the Obama administration
has been chilly, if not outright hostile,
toward the Netanyahu government. It
came at the start of renewed Israeli-
Palestinian talks and a new anti-Iran
sanctions regime, two developments seen
as bolstering Israel's need to be seen as
enjoying strong relations with the White
In the interview, Oren reviewed the
strides of the past year and the challenges
facing Israel and the Jewish world looking
Among the accomplishments, he
counted the renewed peace talks with the
Palestinians and overcoming the public
disagreements between the United States
and Israel over those talks. Along the same
lines, he also listed his ability to settle
public disagreements with J Street, a left-
wing pro-Israel group that has faced heavy
criticism from centrist and right-wing
As for future challenges, Oren said the
prospect of a nuclear Iran loomed large.
Less threatening, but nonetheless clearly
a concern for him, was handling criticism
from pro-Israel hawks now that the Jewish
state was plunging into peace talks that
would involve compromise.
Oren, who was born and raised in New
Jersey, brings to his understanding of the
Obama administration the nuance of a
historian versed in the trajectories of both
nations. He said that a major part of his
job is explaining the Obama administra-
tion to Israelis through interviews with
"I have a different take on the Cairo
speech': Oren said, referring to Obama's
June 2009 speech to the Muslim world.
The speech was lambasted in Israel and
some U.S. Jewish circles for emphasizing
Holocaust denial as an Arab failing, but
not making a broader case for ancient
Jewish claims to Israel.
"A lot of people in Israel said they weren't
thrilled with the Cairo speech. I said, `Wait
a second. This is the first time a president
of the United States has gone to the heart
of the Arab world and introduced Israel's
legitimacy, and said to the Arab world
you've got to recognize the legitimate
Jewish state:" Oren said. "It was an amazing
thing; he didn't get credit for it"
Oren also praised Obama for making
good on his pledge to ramp up pressure
on Iran through sanctions to make trans-
parent its suspected nuclear program. The
ambassador asserted that the multilateral
sanctions are "biting" the Iranian regime.
"He's had a very robust position on
Iran': the ambassador said. "Again, I don't
think people understand fully just how
determined he is to prevent Iran from
acquiring nuclear weapons."
Tellingly, the success surprises Oren.
"We had the Iranian issue, which could
have been the source of the greatest divi-
sions between the Israeli and American
governments, and over the course of this
year you saw no daylight between our gov-
ernments," he said.
Still, Oren implied that the harmony on
this front might not last. "They have not
yet in any way stopped enriching uranium
or pressing on with their nuclear pro-
gram': he said of Iran. "So that's going to
be the true test. Six or nine months down
the road, we're going to have to reassess
and see where the sanctions are going."
The Obama administration has said it
wants a full year to test the Iranians. The
Israeli and U.S. governments could con-
ceivably fall out over whether a military
strike is necessary to stop the nuclear
"Obama is not a status-quo president;
he promised change domestically, he
promised a change in foreign policy ..."
Change is scary, Oren suggested, and
Obama needs to make his case directly to
the Israeli public.
"The timing has to be right:' Oren said.
"I think that when he does come, when he
reaches out, I think there will be a greater
sense of support for him. It will be very
important for the peace process — we're
going to be asked to take some big risks."
Restarting direct talks helped put behind
Israel and the Palestinians the issues that
had vexed them — settlements in the West
Bank and building in eastern Jerusalem —
for the moment. Oren noted that the end
of a 10-month Israeli partial moratorium
on settlement building looms Sept. 26, and
that while Israel understands the pressures
leading Palestinian Authority President
Mahmoud Abbas to demand its extension,
Netanyahu is under pressure, too.
Netanyahu's "credibility is an asset for
the peace process': Oren said, anticipat-
ing a time — within a year, according to
Israel's timetable — that Netanyahu will
have to make the case to the Israeli public
for territorial concessions. "You don't want
in any way to impair his credibility."
Oren also anticipated resistance in the
U.S. "The moratorium was very unpopular
with the American Jewish right': he said.
"I anticipate further, if we move down
this road toward an agreement with the
Palestinians, that's just going to begin." EA
September 16 • 2010