Michael Oren, J Street, and Ron Dermer

Israel always feels the need for its ambassadors to go above and beyond the call of duty. Photo: Official White House Photo

JERUSALEM, July 13, 2013 — Two related pieces that appeared in Haaretz on Thursday illustrate the pitfalls of diplomacy. One is an interview with outgoing Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, by Ari Shavit. The other is an op-ed by J Street Vice President for Communications Alan Elsner on Ron Dermer, slated to replace Oren in the fall.

In the interview, Oren is characteristically eloquent. Summing up his stint in Washington, he remains ambassadorial. This would not be a problem if it were clear from the article which country he has been representing for the past four and a half years.

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The confusion does not stem from the fact that he was born and raised in the U.S.A. Oren is a Zionist who immigrated to Israel decades ago.

To be sure, his impeccable English, knowledge of Beltway politics and familiarity with American culture undoubtedly figured into the calculation that led to his appointment by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That Oren looks and sounds good on television must also have been considered an asset.

But these traits were not the only reason that Oren was selected over other candidates for the coveted position. Just as important to Netanyahu – who appropriated key Foreign Ministry functions from its minister, Avigdor Lieberman – was Oren’s lack of public affiliation with the Israeli Right.

At first glance, this might have seemed odd. After all, Netanyahu himself is the head of Likud. So it would have made sense for him to want one of his “own” to negotiate the halls of Capitol Hill.

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But with the election of President Barack Obama, who had received a hefty chunk of the Jewish vote, Netanyahu must have figured that it would be better for Israel-U.S. relations to send a somewhat liberal envoy to smooth out any wrinkles that were likely to ensue.

The ploy proved successful, to the extent that Oren indeed carried out his mission with grace and charm. And members of the Obama administration have been pleased with his performance.

This is not surprising. What Oren has been doing so effectively is assuring Jews in Israel and abroad that Obama is their friend.

“There were disagreements [between Obama and Netanyahu] and there were some difficult moments,” he acknowledges in the interview. “But we did not experience any genuine crises in the past four and a half years.”

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To explain why many Israelis initially were skeptical, Oren says: “The Bush administration left behind the legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan and the alienation between the United States and the Arab and Muslim world. Obama wanted to act differently and to try a different approach. He reached out to the Arab-Muslim world, he reached out to the Iranians and the Syrians and he gave the Cairo speech. His message was very refreshing. He tried to make peace with the Arab world. This was misunderstood in Israel because in Israel everything is measured on the basis of the sense of security and insecurity.”

It is thus not hard to understand why JStreet’s Elsner is so worried about Oren’s successor, a close confidante and political ally of Netanyahu’s.

Dermer, he writes, “must overcome his reputation as a conservative ideologue if he wants to forge good working relations with a Democratic administration.”

He then goes on to warn against an Israeli ambassador who “does not fully embrace” the tradition of cultivating both sides of the American political aisle – a tradition, he claims, that has been “endangered since the 2012 presidential election, when Republicans tried unsuccessfully to peel away Jewish votes from Obama by claiming he was an unreliable friend to Israel.”

Not only that, says Elsner, “Israel needs all the supporters it can get from both parties — so leaning one way or the other, or even appearing to lean, is not only inappropriate but a recipe for disaster.”

What he really means is that the Israeli Ambassador should lead leftward. “Any Israeli ambassador must accept the American Jewish community as it is,” he instructs. “Predominantly progressive on economic and social issues and dovish on foreign policy – in short, stalwart Democratic voters.”

Oren, in his view, has followed this recipe. During his ambassadorship, “JStreet enjoyed a spirited and intellectually-engaging dialogue,” he stresses. “We certainly did not always agree, but we valued the exchanges which took place in a spirit of friendship and honesty.”

Yes, well, Oren is a Zionist, so J Street necessarily would have disagreements with him. But he’s been passable, which leftists on both side of the ocean fear Dermer will not be. One can only hope that their trepidation is justified.

Though Oren says that his “job as ambassador was to explain America in Israel and to explain Israel in America,” it need not have included the former. America has its own ambassador in Israel for that purpose.

But Israel always feels the need to go above and beyond the call of diplomatic duty, even when doing so jeopardizes its interests. Obama’s reelection is a classic case in point. If there’s one thing the Israeli ambassador should not have done it was to assuage concern among a growing number of American Jews about Obama’s attitude towards Israel. Remaining silent on this score would have sufficed.

Let us pray that Netanyahu does not impose upon Dermer the same policy of appeasement that he encouraged in Oren.


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Ruthie Blum

 Ruthie Blum is a pull-no-punches, conservative, Israeli-American columnist for Israel Hayom,  and the author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’”

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