In wake of U.C. Irvine debacle, Israels ambassador brings message to Bay Area

Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States since last May, made headlines last week, and not the kind he prefers.

News outlets around the world reported on the relentless heckling Oren received during a Feb. 8 speech at U.C. Irvine — par for the course for high-profile Israeli officials.

But the American-born, Princeton-educated historian doesn’t mind tough debates. While shoring up U.S.-Israeli relations back in Washington, D.C., he frequently travels the country meeting with friendly, and sometimes not so friendly, groups.

During a swing through the Bay Area last week, Oren, 55, met with business and Jewish community leaders. On the drive from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation to Stanford University, the ambassador invited j. reporter Dan Pine along for the ride. They talked about the state of U.S.-Israel relations, the heckling incident and the skill set Oren brings to a very demanding job.

Michael Oren on his way to Stanford University. photo | dan pine

J.: What are the advantages of making regional visits, like this current tour of the Bay Area?

Oren: There are many advantages. Your job as ambassador is to help interpret America to Israelis, and help interpret Israel to Americans. Your job is to build inroads into communities that are not traditionally associated with Israel or which have grown distant from Israel. Your job is to reach out, especially on campuses where there is a tremendous amount of misinformation about Israel.

It’s important to go to Jewish communities and strengthen them. But it’s really important to go to others. I’ve been to Latino communities, spoken with African American leaders, business leaders and church groups.

You were in the headlines because of what happened at U.C. Irvine. You had to know going in there was a risk of being heckled.

I had a pretty good idea that was going to happen, but I was saddened by it. I had come to the university precisely to interact with that student body, but it wasn’t willing to interact with me. I viewed it as a missed opportunity.

A lot of people clapped when the hecklers left, but I didn’t clap. I didn’t feel any sense of jubilation or victory about it. I felt it was a squandered opportunity. By contrast I had a very good experience at U.C. San Diego. There was another strong group of Middle Eastern and anti-Israel protesters. They came in, let me speak, then asked very hard questions, and I responded with very hard answers.  The whole experience was very uplifting. I don’t know if they enjoyed it as much as I did, but I really enjoyed it.

In a recent interview, you gave an upbeat assessment of bilateral relations between the United States and Israel, coming after a year of tension. What changed?

Nothing really changed. There was never a crisis in our relationship. Ever. Contrary to what was widely reported in the Israeli press [in June 2009], I was never summoned to the State Department, I was never excoriated. I did receive phone calls that expressed displeasure with Israel’s policies in East Jerusalem, about the slowness of Israel’s decision-making process. Because of our coalitionist form of government, decisions are not always made as swiftly as people in the administration would like.

Generally speaking we have a great number of friends in this administration, who understand us and care about us. There’s a tremendous amount of back-and-forth communication, and a very wide consensus on core issues, whether on the need to resume peace talks with the Palestinians immediately with no preconditions, on the ability of Iran to obtain military nuclear capabilities, on the need to uphold Israel’s right to defend itself and defend its legitimacy as a Jewish state.

There is no core issue we don’t feel eye-to-eye on. The only thing we agree to disagree about is East Jerusalem [construction].

It appears the U.S. administration has backed away from its harder line stance on that issue.

We agreed on the parameters of the moratorium. It was a protracted negotiation. [The United States] understood that about 3,000 housing units had already started construction, and it wouldn’t be fair to freeze them. In turn we froze 15,000 building projects that hadn’t been started yet. We created a mechanism for actually knowing what was being built in Jerusalem. It’s like any other big city. It’s not just the central government that’s building; there are lots of other people building. The administration was very appreciative of the moratorium, especially in the absence of anything similar from the Palestinians. There were no Palestinian gestures. There were no Arab gestures.

Don’t polls suggest the Israeli public is unhappy with the Obama administration?

The polls differ. Sometimes as much as 41 percent, or 6 percent [approval of Obama]. Either one is very low. The reason is the president has yet to reach out to the Israeli public the way he reached out to the Muslim world. And that’s very important. You have to put tremendous trust in the president if we are to take the risks necessary for peace. So eventually the president will find the right moment to visit us, he’ll reach out, and his numbers will go up.

Regarding Iran, momentum for sanctions is growing worldwide. What’s your take on the direction toward preventing a more nuclear Iran?

Israel has pledged its support to the Obama administration’s strategy for dealing with Iran, beginning  with the outreach and re-engagement, the reassessment of the re-engagement, the preferring of compromise packages. Once that process has been exhausted — and it essentially has been exhausted already — then backing the administration’s efforts to join with like-minded nations in the world in devising and deploying crippling sanctions. That’s where we are right now.

The Jewish press noted you made some conciliatory remarks about J Street. Why would this organization still be on your radar?

I think the American Jewish community should be focusing more on the really towering issues, such as a nuclear Iran, and strengthening Jewish identity through Birthright, the funding of Jewish education. These are huge issues. We understand there is a multiplicity, a diversity, of ideas in the American Jewish community. We want to be able to engage with as broad a spectrum as we can, keeping in mind there are certain red lines.

As a former professor and historian, you bring an interesting skill set to the job. What does this add to your role as ambassador?

I think I come with a skill set that prepares me in unusual ways. Being a historian that spent most of his professional career studying America in the Middle East, and the America-Israel relationship, I come with a historical perspective. It comes in handy, when you deal with someone in the administration like [White House special adviser on Persian Gulf affairs] Dennis Ross, who’s been in government for 25 years. We can make a reference that only the two of us in the whole room will get.

For example, we were talking about the need to put some pressure on the Palestinians to get back to the table, and I said it’s the “Sign, you dog” approach to American diplomacy. In 1994 the second Cairo agreement, when Arafat wouldn’t sign, and [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak said, “Sign, you dog!” Dennis broke out laughing.

It helps you in the American Jewish community coming out of the Conservative movement, being involved in the American Zionist movement here. Knowing football terms. Knowing references to the Civil War. It helps to know Israel very well. Conversely, it helps to have spent a lot of time on campuses teaching. I’ve been on the speaking circuit for 33 years. I’ve done a lot of TV. I’ve done a lot of op-ed writing. All my degrees are in Middle East and Arab history, so I come with a good knowledge of the Middle East. All of this comes in handy at various times.

After all this time in Israel, do you feel 100 percent Israeli? Or do you feel binational?

Very binational. I had to renounce my American citizenship for this job, which was very painful for me. They can take away my American passport but they can’t take away my Americaness. You can’t take away my addiction to football. But I’m too busy to miss anything. I don’t think I’ve had a day off since I started.


Jewish leaders want U.C. Irvine to react powerfully