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Departing as Ambassador, Michael Oren Is Still Working To Bridge Obama-Bibi Gap

As Washington looks for a diplomatic solution with Iran, Israel’s American-born interlocutor translates for Jerusalem

Lee Smith
September 25, 2013
Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren and Director General of the Israeli Ministry of Defense Udi Shani greet U.S. Sec. of Defense Chuck Hagel in Tel Aviv, Israel, on April 21, 2013.(Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren and Director General of the Israeli Ministry of Defense Udi Shani greet U.S. Sec. of Defense Chuck Hagel in Tel Aviv, Israel, on April 21, 2013.(Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

Perhaps the most important job that the Israeli ambassador to the United States performs is to provide the American context that will allow Israeli policymakers to understand the concerns, goals, and fears of its superpower ally. Yesterday, in the middle of his last week holding the job he’s dreamed of since childhood, Michael Oren was still busy explaining Barack Obama to Jerusalem.

Obama was in New York, addressing the opening session of the United Nations’ annual General Assembly. The speech was familiar, invoking the same Middle East themes that Obama has pushed ever since he took office in 2009: “Resolving the Iranian nuclear issue, settling the Israeli-Palestinian problem, and crafting a multilateral diplomacy for a U.S. that is withdrawing from ‘a perpetual war footing.’ ” The speech amounted to little more than a reprise. “America’s diplomatic efforts will focus on two particular issues: Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. While these issues are not the cause of all the region’s problems, they have been a major source of instability for far too long, and resolving them can help serve as a foundation for a broader peace.”

The problem is that it’s now 2013, and the Arabs have seen plenty of other sources of instability much more dangerous than the peace process. There’s Egypt, for instance, where Washington’s main Arab partners, like Saudi Arabia, were keen to get rid of the Muslim Brotherhood and back military strongman Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Even more important, there’s the Syrian civil war, which has already seen more than 100,000 killed while virtually all of America’s allies who have an abiding interest in the outcome—the Gulf Arab states, Jordan, Turkey, and France—have clamored for Obama to take a more active role in bringing down Bashar al-Assad.

So, who was Obama’s intended audience for the message that the Iranian nuclear program is no more important than the Arab-Israeli peace process? Jerusalem. Obama was telling the prime minister of Israel that the game is over and that there will be no more threats to use military force against Iran, whose nuclear program, in his view, has been downgraded to an annoying regional problem, like Israel’s continuing inability to give the Palestinians what they want.

In effect, Obama was also speaking to Oren, who after four years in his post may have come up against the realization that there are some American contexts that are difficult even for an American-born diplomat to understand, never mind explain. Shortly after Obama finished his speech at the meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, Oren was on the phone with his boss, Benjamin Netanyahu, who goes to New York next week to deliver his own address in front of the General Assembly on Oct. 1.

I sat down with Oren at the Israeli Embassy in Washington just after Obama’s speech, and during the course of our hourlong interview, he left the office several times to speak with Netanyahu. What, I asked, was he telling him? “Everyone over there sees it in a different way, and I can contextualize it,” Oren replied. “I convey the fact that there’s a lot of public excitement in the U.S. about Rouhani,” he went on, referring to the reception the Iranian president’s recent charm offensive has gotten from American journalists and Iran experts. The hope, Oren explained, is that the ostensibly moderate Rouhani’s rhetoric and demeanor presage an agreement with the administration that may help to preclude a regional conflagration that might suck in the United States. At the same time, there are other circles in Washington less sanguine about a deal, or Rouhani’s intentions. “Within Congress,” Oren said, “there’s a very sober and somber assessment regarding Rouhani, and I convey that, too.”

So, what is the Israeli assessment of Rouhani? “Israelis,” said Oren, “see Rouhani as another Middle Easterner smiling and playing the world while he’s spinning enriched uranium.” In other words, not even the New Jersey-born Oren is capable of bridging the huge gap between what the government of Israel perceives as a strategic, perhaps existential, threat, and what the White House sees as an opportunity for a new beginning with its decades-long foe.

As a document leaked to the Washington Post yesterday explains, Israel remains highly skeptical of Rouhani’s “charm offensive.” “Iran’s negotiation strategy,” reads the document, “is entirely consistent with Rouhani’s policy of ‘smile and enrich.’ Rouhani has boasted that when he was Iran’s nuclear negotiator, he engaged the West in futile negotiations to buy the time needed to complete the uranium conversion facility at Isfahan, an indispensable part of Iran’s military nuclear program.”

When Oren returned to his second-floor office to resume the interview, he shrank his large frame into an armchair across from me. (During his time in Washington, the 57-year-old former rowing champion has stayed in shape either at the gym or on the Potomac, and speculates that he may have even lost some weight.) “Americans and Israelis have to draw different conclusions about the Middle East,” Oren told me. If America’s iconic image of failure in war is leaving Vietnam with helicopters pushed from the roof of the U.S. Embassy, said Oren, “for Israel, there’s no going home from the Middle East, we can’t even indulge in the illusion. It’s our backyard.”

Oren said he understands why Americans are tired and frustrated with the Middle East. As a historian, he is not surprised by the resurgence of America’s tendency toward isolationism—an inclination that also seems to be at work among both Democrats and Republicans in Washington these days. “This strain of isolationism is the exception, not the rule,” Oren explained. “It occurs during times of economic stress.”

In Oren’s view, another difference between the two countries is that Americans are demoralized right now, as a result of difficult and inconclusive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “I opposed the Iraq war,” said Oren, who in 2003 was a fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. “I said Americans should not get involved in state-building in a region where states are only held together by savage central power. America would become that power, and Americans are not savage.” While the Bush-era notion of transforming Arab states into functional democracies was a beautiful theory, said Oren, the reality of the region has proved to be much more complex. “With WWII, two totalitarian regimes become strong democracies. If Iraq and Afghanistan were shining democracies it might be different, but because the United States fell short, it was very demoralizing. It was a blow to U.S. morale.”

In his view, then, the United States has come up against its own limits—limits that challenged the country’s founding ideals concerning life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The reality is that some men, as Hassan Nasrallah likes to say, prefer death to life, slavery—others’ or even their own—to freedom, and darkness to light. And there’s nothing Americans can do to change it. Nor can Israelis, which is why they doubt that Rouhani will bring peace to the region. Nonetheless, if a deal bringing Iran’s nuclear problem to a halt is possible, said Oren, that would suit Israel’s interests just fine. “There is no country in the world more in favor of a diplomatic solution—a real solution,” he insisted.

But, according to Oren, what’s not clear is precisely whether the Iranians genuinely want a deal. After a week of rumors about a possible chance encounter on the sidelines of the General Assembly meeting, the Iranians decided to snub Obama. Tuesday afternoon, senior administration officials explained that the White House had suggested “an encounter” between the two world leaders, but the Iranians told Obama aides that it is “too complicated for Iranians to do at this point.”

All of which had to come as something of a shock to Obama—but perhaps not to Oren, stuck explaining a Washington that is just as confused about Iran as it was when he first walked into his office at the embassy.


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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.

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