A Couple of Observations About Michael Oren

As I've said, Michael and I are friends, so take this under advisement. But I think it's an uncharacteristically clever move by the Israelis to make Michael their ambassador in Washington, not only because he will be able to explain Israel on American television without all the "ehhhs" and the "Look, rubber bullets aren't fatal except if they hit you in the brain" kinds of explication that we've grown used to from certain Israeli "diplomats." It's a clever move because there is no one who understands the American-Israeli relationship better than Michael -- why, he's written part of a whole book on the subject! -- and we're heading into a difficult moment in the bilateral relationship.

It's also a clever move because Michael is not Likud. Maybe technically he is, I don't know, but his roots are in Labor Zionism. It is the idea of Israel that is most important to him, rather than every last square inch of land Moses may or may not have eyeballed. He believes in Israel because it marks the Jewish return to history. Even when Israel makes mistakes -- and he believes Israel has made many mistakes, of the rubber-bullet variety, and others -- he finds joy in the fact that the Jews, after 2,000 years, have been given the chance to make their own mistakes, that their destiny is not in the hands of others.

He is not-so-much enamored of the settlers. He was, years back, I think, but that was before he took part in the evacuation of the Gaza settlements. He was shocked by the behavior of some of the settlers -- I remember him calling to tell me that some of the more fanatical settlers were calling the soldiers "Nazis." The settlers lost much of Michael's sympathy right then. So, for this, among other reasons, he is clear-eyed on issues related to the West Bank. And no, he is not for another unilateral disengagement from the West Bank. He knows Israel must separate from the Palestinians of the West Bank, but it is a mistake to think, as some have alleged, that he wants to repeat the experience in Gaza.

You can read why here, in an excerpt from an article I wrote a couple of years ago, after the 2006 Lebanon War, for The New Yorker. You'll also see in this piece strong hints of Michael's cleverness:

In July, I visited an artillery battery on a dusty field in Israel's far north. The ceasefire was three weeks away, and the soldiers, reservists, were firing 155-mm. howitzer shells into south Lebanon. I had driven up with the historian Michael Oren, who is a fellow at the center-right Shalem Center but has also been a critic of the settlers. Oren had been drafted into active service--he is a reserve major in the Army spokesman's office--and his task that morning was to guide the "Today" show news anchor Ann Curry to a front-line position so that she could interview soldiers. At a checkpoint, Oren explained Curry's mission to the commander of the artillery battalion.

"Hem antishemim?" the commander asked, half jokingly. "Are they antiSemites?"

"No," Oren answered. "They're from NBC."

Oren was accompanied on his rounds by the screenwriter Dan Gordon, who wrote "The Hurricane," and who served in the Israeli Army as a young man. He had come to Israel this summer to help the Army explain itself to the foreign press, but he was having a hard time understanding Israel's strategy--an air campaign that was simultaneously aggressive and ineffectual, and a stop-and-start ground campaign conducted by ill-equipped and poorly led troops. "If you can figure out even the tactical goals here, let me know," Gordon said, as we drove down Katyusha Alley.

Oren, like Gordon, was depressed by the events of the summer. "I don't lament leaving Gaza, not for a second," he told me. "I'm mourning the fact that we didn't respond the first time they fired Qassam rockets at us. That's when we began to hemorrhage the benefits of the unilateral disengagement. It's a very simple calculus--you can shoot the Jews out of Lebanon, you can shoot them out of Gaza, why not shoot them out of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem? It's a logical syllogism. I don't fault them for making that syllogism at all."

Oren said that among the victims of Israel's unimpressive response to Hezbollah would be the Palestinian moderates. "The way this war is being understood will kill whatever minuscule chance remains for talks with moderate Palestinians," he said. "Hezbollah is a hero. The thinking among the Palestinians would be: 'Hezbollah beat you guys and you ran away, and now I'm supposed to sit down at the table and make concessions to you?' We hurt the Palestinian moderates when Barak unilaterally withdrew from Lebanon in 2000. The proof of the failure of the policy is in the rockets Hezbollah is firing at us. We did more damage to the Palestinian moderates from our lack of strength than from our lack of magnanimity."