Michael Oren, a 55-year-old U.S.-born historian of the modern Middle East and the author of two best-selling books, one on the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and another on the United States’ 200-year-old experience in the Middle East, renounced his U.S. citizenship at an emotional ceremony in Tel Aviv last May to become Israel’s ambassador to Washington. In addition to a military record as one of Israel’s elite warriors, Oren has both the common touch and the ability to speak extemporaneously, and for long stretches, on minute details of contemporary Middle East history and politics—all qualities that suited him for the job.
If Oren came to the post fully aware of some of the challenges and threats Israel was to face during his tenure, most notably the Iranian nuclear program, there was little to indicate that he would also watch up close the historic changes in the special relationship between his two countries. Last week, as the full effect of the Gaza flotilla story started to take hold, I sat with him in his Washington office and asked him how long Israel can keep up its naval blockade, especially now that the Obama Administration says it is unsustainable. “We, too, believe that the status quo needs to be changed,” said the ambassador. “And we are open to suggestions.”
It’s worth recalling that Israel’s blockade of Gaza is the result of U.S. policy, specifically the George W. Bush Administration’s freedom agenda. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice badgered the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas to make sure that P.A. elections were held on schedule in January 2006, after which the United States couldn’t contest the poll results that brought Hamas to power. After that, Israel and the United States, along with the rest of the members of the Middle East Quartet (comprised of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia) leveled economic sanctions in order to weaken Hamas. In turn, Hamas showed just how strong it was by crushing Fatah in the 2007 Palestinian civil war that left the former in charge of Gaza. With U.S. diplomacy incapable of unseating the Islamist outfit that had come to power through both the democratic elections that Washington championed and the violence it condemned, Israel imposed a blockade to limit the amount of rockets and missiles smuggled into Gaza and then fired at Israeli homes. To end the blockade without accounting for Israeli security, says Oren, would put an end to the peace process. “Hamas will create a situation with a vast missile arsenal and it will gain further popularity,” he said to me. “Who needs peace with Israel if you can make war?”
The attention given the flotilla incident left Oren almost relieved to answer questions about the Iranian nuclear program. How long, I asked him, can Israel afford to abide by a process managed by the United States before it gets off the bus and decides it has to act alone against Iran?
“It definitely is a managed process,” said Oren. “And we signed on to it. President Obama’s tactics follow a linear trajectory—first there was outreach, then compromise, and now we’re at the threshold of what we hope will be effective sanctions. We’ll see what the Russians and Chinese do.”
I noted that there are many people, not only in U.S. and Israeli policymaking circles but also among our Arab allies, who believe it is too late for sanctions. Oren has doubts: “Even a whiff of sanctions spurred the Iranians to sign on with the deal the Turks and Brazilians offered,” he said. Nonetheless, the ambassador admits that right now it’s hard to know the exact signs that will tell Israel sanctions aren’t sufficient and that Jerusalem will have to go it alone. “I believe that President Obama’s position on Iran is far more muscular than is widely perceived,” he said. “He has said he is determined to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon and I do believe he is.”
“A strong American disposition is an Israeli strategic interest,” said Oren. I asked him if Washington’s role in the region is changing, whether the United States has the same leverage that it did a decade ago. “It’s in the middle of a withdrawal from one conflict [Iraq], and a pledge to withdraw from another [Afghanistan],” Oren said, “and this is perceived in the Middle East with antennae well attuned to shifts in power.”
Even Washington’s customary habit in the Middle East of offering financial incentives is limited. “The U.S. is reeling from a severe economic recession as well as ecological challenges and a reorganization of domestic priorities,” said Oren. “This doesn’t mean that the U.S. is not still a major player. In terms of mediation, it’s the only show in town.”
Nonetheless, among Israeli officials like Mossad chief Meir Dagan there’s a growing belief that the White House is disburdening the United States of its involvement in conflicts, and I asked the ambassador if he believes that the process of unburdening includes Washington distancing itself from its conflict-prone Israeli ally. Even before the flotilla incident, Israel’s stock had seemed to be dropping inside the Beltway. Israel’s wars with Hezbollah in summer 2006 and Gaza in the winter of 2008 to 2009 alienated segments of the U.S. intelligentsia, including American Jews, who were flummoxed, they said, that the Jewish state did not abide by higher moral standards than other countries, including the United States. However, those same two wars left Washington worried that Israel can no longer get the job done. Once a strategic asset whose unrivaled power (coupled with unconditional U.S. support) kept peace in the eastern Mediterranean, Israel has become, according to Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and one of the pillars of the Beltway’s think-tank community, a strategic liability.
Oren disagrees. “We are aware that this is a certain body of thought in the Washington bureaucracies and the think-tank world, but it is not so with the American people or policymakers,” he said. “Israel is the only democratic American ally in the Middle East that can field a highly trained combat-proven army in 12 hours.”
Indeed, among other things, the Mavi Marmara incident revealed that the Turks are not the friends of Washington that they once were, leaving only Israel as capable, and willing, to stand by the United States as a reliable ally in the Middle East. “The U.S. can leave Vietnam confident that North Vietnamese tanks are not going to roll through U.S. cities,” said Oren. “But with the Middle East you’re not going anywhere because it will follow you—to Times Square, to the airspace over Detroit. Israel is described as the U.S.’s aircraft carrier in the Middle East. If the U.S. had an Israel in the Persian Gulf it might not have had to land troops in Iraq twice over the last two decades. Israel is the indispensable nation.”
Jerusalem may have a chance to remind Washington of the fact in the coming months. When I remarked that many Israelis are expecting war this summer, Oren made no efforts to dispel it as a rumor. “We are concerned about this,” he said, explaining that with sanctions coming up at the United Nations, the Iranians may once again try to spark a war in Lebanon, as they did when their nuclear program was referred to the U.N. Security Council in 2006. “We face a different situation than we did in 2006, and it is much worse,” Oren said. “Hezbollah has rearmed so that it now has 42,000 missiles that can hit Eilat,” Israel’s southernmost city. In 2006, the Israelis destroyed all of Hezbollah’s long- and medium-range missiles during the war’s opening salvo, but now, said Oren, “Hezbollah has hidden all of its medium- and long-range missiles under schools and hospitals. They internalized Goldstone.”
In other words, while it was widely reported during the course of the Gaza war that the Hamas leadership was hiding out in Gaza’s Al-Shifa hospital, Israel knew that an attack on a hospital would earn it the opprobrium of the international community. Even then Israel still wound up facing the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, commonly known as the Goldstone Report. For Israel, a third Hezbollah war is about cleaning up its backyard regardless of whether or not the Party of God’s sponsors in Tehran enrich enough uranium to build a bomb. The United States also has a vital interest in its ally disabling the asset of an Iranian adversary that challenges Washington’s half-century hegemony in the Persian Gulf—an interest that may or may not be more important to the Obama Administration than its efforts to seek rapprochement with the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims.
However, if Israel’s adversaries believe that they can put Israel on the defensive by shaming it in the court of public opinion through the use of human shields, Oren says, they may have miscalculated. For if the Jewish state is condemned when it plays by the normal rules of warfare that apply to the United States and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan, then maybe Israel will stop trying to figure out how to satisfy the capricious dictates of the international community and act to defend itself and defeat its enemies.
“Our critics don’t get it,” Oren said. “In Jenin, we went house-to-house and sent 23 soldiers to their death. But if we’re going to be called war criminals no matter what we do, then maybe that changes our thinking.”