Undoing Netanyahu's Damage to U.S.-Israel Relations

Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and current candidate for Knesset, argues that it will crucial for his country's next government to get right with America.

Former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren (Reuters)

The kingmaker in Tuesday's election in Israel may turn out to be Moshe Kahlon, the Libyan Jewish center-rightist whose new party, Kulanu ("All of Us") stands to win at least eight seats in the next Knesset. Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main challenger, the centrist Isaac Herzog, will need Kahlon's party with them in order to create a viable governing coalition.

Kahlon's emphasis is on economic issues; his foreign policy guru is Michael Oren, who is ranked fourth on the Kulanu list. Oren served as Israel's ambassador to the United States from 2009 until 2013, when he was replaced by Netanyahu's closest aide, Ron Dermer. It was Netanyahu and Dermer who helped force the most recent (and most serious) crisis in U.S.-Israel relations, and I called Oren last week in Jerusalem to discuss how the next government should go about repairing Israel's relationships in Washington. Here is our conversation:

(Update: Since posting this, a number of people have asked me, not unreasonably, what Oren's immediate future holds, beyond a seat in the Knesset. The short answer is, I don't know. If Israel's government were organized in a semi-sane way, then Oren would obviously be the country's next foreign minister, or at least deputy foreign minister—or, at the very least, Adviser to the Prime Minister on Managing Relations With Other People. But coalition politics are very complicated, so it's not clear exactly what role he would play, assuming his party enters the coalition. On to the interview.)

Jeffrey Goldberg: How much damage has been done to Israel's relations with the United States?

Michael Oren: I think we’re going to have to be proactive in order to get ourselves to a better place. I’m not starry-eyed. I understand that there are structural differences between the U.S. and Israel. The United States is a big country, far from the Middle East, that isn’t threatened the way Israel is. And there are ideological differences as well. But we must work to get this to a better place.

Goldberg: How did you keep the relationship from falling apart when you were ambassador?

Oren: I understood that preserving bipartisan support for Israel was a paramount strategic interest for us. And there was no place I wouldn’t go in order to preserve that.

Goldberg: But what were the mechanics of doing it?

Oren: America is going through a period of deep polarization, and both parties were trying to use us as a wedge issue. Not just the Republicans. So I was always trying to balance this. But the much more serious challenge came from the right, not the left. That’s something I found out when I got to Washington.

Goldberg: A few years ago, we thought that J Street, the Jewish left, was going to drive the agenda. But now people to the right of AIPAC (the mainstream pro-Israel lobby)  are doing much of the driving. How did that happen?

Oren: There’s a very simple answer to that. J Street’s power derived from the fact that it is an extension of the Obama administration. The Obama administration invited J Street into the room with other Jewish organizations and sent high-level officials to speak at their conventions. But the reservoir of support for J Street is not particularly large. The American Jewish community is 5 million people. What percentage of that number is actually involved in Jewish affairs? What percentage of those are involved with Israel, and what percentage of people involved with Israel wake up in the morning saying, ‘I care about Israel but I’m pained by Israel’s policies.’ That’s a very low percentage.

The right is growing much more rapidly, even as a percentage within the Jewish community. There’s a greater percentage that is more religious, more conservative. That disparity is going to grow in favor of the right in coming years.

Goldberg: If you had still been ambassador these past two months, do you think what happened would have happened, or would have happened in a way that didn’t infuriate the White House and the Democratic Party?

Oren: I’m not going to criticize Ron Dermer. I worked very closely with him. Every ambassador brings his own skill set, his own worldview, and his own relationship with the prime minister. Ron has been a close adviser to the prime minister for more than a decade. It’s a different relationship. I don’t want to criticize Ron for certain assumptions that didn’t pan out.

My different approach stemmed from very fundamental conclusions I had made. Because I had taught in the United States in previous years, at Harvard, Yale, and Georgetown, I saw close up the transformations that had taken place in American society. This was not the America I had left in the 1970s. Many Israelis, particularly Israelis of my generation, remember a different America. And I knew that with all respect to President Obama, he was a symptom, rather than a cause, of these changes. Which is why I thought from early on that he would be a two-term president, and that his victory in 2012 would be more significant than his 2008 victory, because 2012 meant that some of these changes were quite permanent.

And so I brought to the job of ambassador an understanding that the United States is moving in a new direction, and as the crucial ally of Israel’s, we have to find out what direction the United States is moving in and then adapt ourselves to the greatest degree possible to this new direction in way consistent with our security interests.

Goldberg: You mean multicultural sort of changes?

Oren: Yes, among other things. As ambassador you have to build personal relationships, you have to invest a tremendous amount of time in the social life of Washington, you have to build a rapport with people with whom you might not agree all the time.  But you have to be able to pick up the phone at any time, even in the middle of the night, and reach the people you need to talk to. You have to establish a level of personal trust.

One example is that we would actively reach out to different parts of the Democratic party, among them the black caucus. I spent a lot of time engaged in a dialogue with the Congressional Black Caucus.

So in 2011, when the prime minister gave a speech to a joint meeting of Congress, I don’t know that the White House was enthusiastic about it, but they were certainly kept in the picture. One of the principles of the U.S.-Israel relationship over the years has been ‘No surprises.’ And I did my best to pursue that principle.

Goldberg: Do you think the White House is oversensitive to what it perceives to be personal slights?

Oren: A primary difference in the political cultures of America and Israel is that Americans salute the rank, not the person. Israelis barely salute anyone. There is a tremendous amount of umbrage on the American side if you are seen to insult the presidency. A former president in America is addressed as Mr. President. A former prime minister in Israel is Ehud. It’s very different.

Goldberg: This is one of the reasons that (Georgia Democratic Representative) John Lewis stayed away from the Netanyahu speech.

Oren: When I heard that John Lewis was staying away from the speech, I felt like I got punched in the gut. I am a great admirer of his, and his support for Israel is precious to me.

Goldberg: Is it more the responsibility of Israel to fix this relationship than the U.S.'s?

Oren: It’s always on Israel, as the junior partner in the strategic relationship, to make the maximum effort.

Goldberg: What does the next government have to do to fix this?

Oren: It has to establish this as one of its top priorities, rectifying whatever damage was done and then strengthening the relationship, doing this with the knowledge that there will be ideological and structural differences.

Goldberg: This is what I don’t understand. How do you paper over real differences? This isn’t just about being polite and not surprising each other.

Oren: No question about it. It would be naïve to think that any two sovereign countries, certainly ones as disparate as the United States and Israel, always have interests that dovetail. The key to maintaining the alliance is to keep relationships close. Israel has no substitute for the United States as a paramount ally, and frankly, the United States doesn’t have a substitute for Israel, an economically and scientifically robust, unreservedly pro-American country in the Middle East. We have to work through our differences constructively.

Goldberg: But on policy, what do you do?

Oren: We have to understand that people who aren’t anti-Israel have criticisms of specific Israeli policies. We have to show greater flexibility on the peace issue. Israel is willing to go a serious distance on peace. We always have to show that we’re ready to sit at the table if the Palestinians are willing to act accordingly. That’s something we can do, we can make that case. Our problem has been building outside the settlement blocs and the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Those areas were recognized by the Bush-Sharon letter of 2004 as remaining within Israel’s boundaries in the event of a final-status negotiation. We should keep to that in a final-status-compatible way. If the Palestinians don’t want to do this, then here’s what we’re going to do on our own, to make the situation better and lay the groundwork for a future peace. That’s what we have to do, and I think that this logic would be compelling to most American decision-makers.

Goldberg: Is the damage in any way permanent here?

Oren: I think the damage could be diplomatic damage. I don’t think Americans are going to stop their work for Iron Dome (an American-funded anti-missile system). The rumors are that the U.S. is cutting back on intelligence-sharing, but that would a self-inflicted wound. But we could feel the damage at the UN, or some other international body. We don’t only rely on the U.S. for a military Iron Dome, but for a diplomatic Iron Dome as well.

Goldberg: How are you going to shape different approaches to foreign policy as a member of Knesset?

Oren: Foreign affairs is viewed as the poorer, younger brother of security affairs in Israel. We don’t have long-term strategic thinking about foreign affairs. We should take it more seriously here. Israel has to undergo a fundamental change—we have to realize we are not alone in the world. Our relationships, not just with the United States, but with the Far East, with Europe, with Africa, are vital for us. We haven’t looked in strategic ways about how to defend ourselves against BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions.) I understand why this happens—there is the old Zionist notion that it is not important what the non-Jews think, that it's only important what the Jews do. But we can’t function in the world with this attitude.