Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Ambassador Oren: Obama often doesn’t get the credit he deserves in Israel; The U.S.-Israel relationship is vast

(JTA) -- Michael Oren outlines what may be his toughest assignment: Making the case to a skeptical public for a leader who's hard to pin down.

The real problem for the Israeli ambassador to Washington is how to make Israelis understand President Obama, in a pre-Rosh Hashanah interview with the U.S. Jewish media Oren said:
"Obama often doesn’t get the credit he deserves in Israel, I think it’s important at some point that he visits us."
The interview appeared to represent Oren’s most intensive effort yet to counteract speculation in some Jewish and Israeli corners that the Obama administration has been chilly, if not outright hostile, toward the Netanyahu government. It comes at the start of renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks and a new anti-Iran sanctions regime, two developments seen as bolstering Israel’s need to be seen as enjoying strong relations with the White House.

In the interview, Oren reviewed the strides of the past year and the challenges facing Israel and the Jewish world looking ahead.

Among the accomplishments, he counted the renewed peace talks with the Palestinians and overcoming the public disagreements between the United States and Israel over those talks. Along the same lines, he also listed his ability to settle public disagreements with J Street, a left-wing pro-Israel group that has faced heavy criticism from centrist and right-wing critics.

As for future challenges, Oren said the prospect of a nuclear Iran loomed large. Less threatening, but nonetheless clearly a concern for him, was handling criticism from pro-Israel hawks now that the Jewish state was plunging into peace talks that would involve compromise.

Oren, who was born and raised in New Jersey, brings to his understanding of the Obama administration the nuance of a historian versed in the trajectories of both nations. He said that a major part of his job is explaining the Obama administration to Israelis, through interviews with Israeli media.
"I try to put it in perspective, Israelis are tough, You can't put one over on them."

"I don’t try to polish things up. We’ve had disagreements over settlements, we’ve had disagreements over Jerusalem -- but you've got to see a big picture. The U.S.-Israel relationship is vast."
Oren went on to outline areas of cooperation -- defense, commerce, intelligence sharing -- that would characterize any American administration, Republican or Democrat, until a reporter asked the ambassador to get specific about Obama.

"I have a different take on the Cairo speech," Oren said, referring to Obama's June 2009 speech to the Muslim world.

The speech was lambasted in Israel and some U.S. Jewish circles for emphasizing Holocaust denial as an Arab failing but not making a broader case for ancient Jewish claims to Israel.
"A lot of people in Israel said the Cairo speech, they weren't thrilled with the Cairo speech. I said, wait a second, this is the first time a president of the United States has gone to the heart of the Arab world and introduced Israel’s legitimacy, and said to the Arab world you’ve got to recognize the legitimate Jewish state, It was an amazing thing; he didn’t get credit for it."
Oren also praised Obama for making good on his pledge to ramp up pressure on Iran through sanctions to make transparent its suspected nuclear program. The ambassador asserted that the multilateral sanctions are "biting" the Iranian regime.
"He’s had a very robust position on Iran, Again, I don’t think people understand fully just how determined he is to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons."
Tellingly, the success surprises Oren.
"We had the Iranian issue, which could have been the source of the greatest divisions between the Israeli and American governments, and over the course of this year you saw no daylight between our governments".
Still, Oren implied that the harmony on this front might not last.
"They have not yet in any way stopped enriching uranium or pressing on with their nuclear program, So that’s going to be the true test, six or nine months down the road we’re going to have to reassess and see where the sanctions are going."
The Obama administration has said it wants a full year to test the Iranians. The Israeli and U.S. governments could conceivably fall out over whether a military strike is necessary to stop the nuclear program.

Oren played a role in speculation about U.S.-Israel differences when his conversations in conference calls with fellow diplomats were leaked to the media. His follow-up explanation at the time was the object of some derision: Oren insisted that he never said there was a "rift" in the relationship but a "shift."
"The administration promised change, and it’s an administration of change, Obama is not a status quo president; he promised change domestically, he promised a change in foreign policy. One of my jobs was to figure out what this change was and report it back."
Change is scary, Oren suggested, and Obama needed to make his case directly to the Israeli public.
"The timing has to be right,I think that when he does come, when he reaches out, I think there will be a greater sense of support for him. It will be very important for the peace process -- we’re going to be asked to take some big risks."
Restarting direct talks helped put behind Israel and the Palestinians the issues that had vexed them -- settlements in the West Bank and building in eastern Jerusalem -- for the moment. Oren noted that the end of a 10-month Israeli partial moratorium on settlement building looms Sept. 26, and that while Israel understands the pressures leading Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, to demand its extension, Netanyahu is under pressure, too.
Netanyahu’s “credibility is an asset for the peace process", anticipating a time -- within a year, according to Israel's timetable -- that Netanyahu will have to make the case to the Israeli public for territorial concessions. "You don’t want in any way to impair his credibility".
Notably, Oren described the negotiations as among three entities -- Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the United States. And he described the moratorium in terms of negotiations with the United States.
"We’re discussing this with the administration very intensely, we’re looking for ways to get around the hurdle".

"The moratorium was very unpopular with the American Jewish right, I anticipate further, if we move down this road toward an agreement with the Palestinians, that’s just going to begin."
Oren finished the interview on a hopeful note.
"It’s going to be a year of challenges on many levels, but it’s a year of great opportunities and hope, of peace, security of Israelis and our Palestnian neighbors, And a year of continued support, understanding and love between Israel and Jewish communities.”