Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, has just announced that he will be stepping down from his position in the fall. Oren made the statement on his Facebook page, concluding “I look forward to continue serving the people of Israel in the future and further strengthening the historic U.S.-Israel alliance.”
The question is: what will the Columbia and Princeton-educated academic-turned-ambassador do next? Prior to being appointed to his post in 2009, Oren was a distinguished public intellectual who taught at Harvard, Yale and Georgetown, and had published several acclaimed books on the history of the Middle East (and several somewhat less acclaimed works of fiction). He was a regular contributor to elite journals of opinion, particularly The New Republic, where he was a contributing editor.
Notably, he staked out ground to the left of Israel’s current government, dubbing himself “the last of the standing unilateralists” in 2009 at Georgetown. “I believe that the only alternative Israel has to save itself as a Jewish state–and let’s be frank about that, the Jewish state is predicated on having a Jewish majority–the only way we can do that is by unilaterally withdrawing our border and withdrawing our settlements in the West Bank,” he said.
But when he became ambassador for Israel’s Likud-led government, Oren’s opinions were no longer his own. Public service trumped personal perspective. As he wrote in January 2009, when he served in the IDF media unit during Operation Cast Lead, “In a few minutes, after I put on my uniform and sign on various lines, I will no longer have a personal opinion–not publicly, anyway–but only an army position. So we defend democracy by forgoing it.”
Finally freed from the constraints of public office, will Oren return to the more centrist line he took during his prior academic career? Might he run for Knesset? (In the past, he has advised several Israeli governments and expressed political aspirations.) Or will he embark on his next literary project, and pen another entry in the history of Israel and the Middle East? Before he was nominated as Israel’s ambassador, Oren had been working on a history of Israel’s founding in 1948, based on interviews with every living Jewish and Arab witness to the event, though whether he collected enough material to complete it is not known.
One thing is certain: while the end of Oren’s tenure in Washington is a loss for Israel, it is a gain for Middle East academia, history junkies, and publishers.