Completing his 4 years in office Michael Oren, Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S. talks of his close relations with U.S. officials, getting Obama’s help during Carmel fire disaster & ‘yelling’ at Washington Post editor over doctored photo.
By Yitzhak Benhorin
WASHINGTON – Michael Oren finds it tremendously painful when people doubt his “Israeliness”. He spent long periods of time in Israel in the 1970s, made official aliyah in 1979, joined the IDF‘s Paratroopers Brigade and fought in the 1982 Lebanon War.
This week, after it was decided to appoint Ron Dermer as the next Israeli ambassador to the United States, Oren told Ynet: “I’m still surprised that some people, even advisers in the Prime Minister’s Office, ask me if I’m Israeli.”
Oren, who will end his term of four years in office in October, further said about doubts regarding his Israeliness that “I did the entire classic Israeli lifestyle my entire adult life, from Kibbutz Gan Shmuel and (Jerusalem’s) Gonen. My three children served in elite units. One of them was injured, my sister-in-law was killed in a Jerusalem bombing; it’s the Israeli way. People don’t know that I live in Jerusalem, and now, with the end of my term as the Israeli ambassador to Washington, even people at the PMO are surprised to hear that I’m coming back home.”
After Oren presented his credentials as the Israeli ambassador to Washington in May 2009, there were some who congratulated him for brilliantly representing the US as an ambassador to Israel. “I also heard some US Congress legislators presenting me as the US ambassador to Israel, and I had to politely correct them.”
In order to be given the coveted post, Oren was required to waive his US citizenship. “It was tough, it’s a painful ceremony,” the ambassador said. “My father served as a military officer, and so did my uncle, they both fought in World War II and then in the Korean War. In the ceremony, you stand before the American consul and the American flag with witnesses. The consul reads to you the rights you are giving up and then you sign all kinds of papers and finally they take away your passport and punch a hole in it.”
Oren cynically remarked that “the renunciation of US citizenship does not make me ignorant on matters of football and baseball or literature, and does not erase my American accent.” He needed no introduction to Washington, the White House, the Congress or even the local television studios. Before his appointment, he met with George W. Bush, was called for briefings on Iran with former Vice President Dick Cheney and was even called to testify at Congress hearings.
Even Rahm Emauel, mayor of Chicago and US President Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, asked him to give a briefing regarding the Middle East. This was prior to Emanuel’s appointment as the White House chief of staff and Oren’s appointment as ambassador. “Rahm warmly received me when I entered office, and throughout the entire time he felt free to pick up the phone and talk to me. I really like him and I was willing to hear the curses as well. He said things out of love for Israel.”
During his term, Oren formed bonds with important powerful agents within the White House. For example, Susan Sher, Michelle Obama’s chief of staff, is a personal friend of the outgoing ambassador. “Our parents were friends and played tennis for 40 years, we’re both from the same village,” Oren revealed.
Samantha Power, Obama’s senior adviser and designated US ambassador to the United Nations, is also an acquaintance of Oren’s. They are both Harvard University professors and were among the first to write about the Armenian genocide, at a time when criticizing Turkey was not popular. The ambassador suddenly had an direct line to a senior official at the US National Security Council. “I could pick up the phone and meet for lunch, we would sit and talk a lot,” Oren told.
When Obama ‘cut through’
Oren is first a historian and lecturer, and a book he published in 2006 about US involvement in the Middle East since the 18th century quickly became a New York Times bestseller, opening many doors for him in Washington. Newsweek then reported that former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is using the book as proof that US governments’ problems in the Middle East began in the days of the third president, Thomas Jefferson.
In the three years prior to his tenure as ambassador, Oren served as a visiting professor in three major universities: Harvard, Yale and Georgetown. He gave classes on Middle East History and was a sought-after interviewee on American networks. It was a natural extension of his role as a reserve officer in the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, who made countless TV interviews during the Second Lebanon War and Cast Lead Operation.
Oren came fully equipped with all that is necessary for an ambassador in Washington: Access to the government, Jewish community and media. The Jewish community admired him as one of their own, writing and media appearances were in his DNA and he was well-known within the administration, from the president himself to the very lowest ranks.
Oren was brought by Benjamin Netanyahu to do hasbara, not make policy. He did it very well, as a realistic right-winger who knows how to talk to a liberal administration and the media. Communication between the White House and Israel on the peace process was channeled through US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, who was involved in the process even before stepping into office.
“At no stage did I have a problem communicating with the administration,” Oren claimed. “The reality is that the White House calls me even at 2 am and I can call them whenever it is urgent for us. We had no problem reaching state officials, even when I needed to reach National Security Adviser Tom Donilon in the middle of the night. Special connections were made with Vice President Joe Biden, I had a lot of Biden-time, he has a warm spot in his heart for Israel.”
President Obama is also quite familiar with Oren. In his latest State of the Union speech, Obama was passing through the line of congressmen who pushed their way to shake his hand, when he spotted the Israeli ambassador. The American president was seen “cutting through” in order to shake Oren’s his hand. Oren on his part managed to say “we’re waiting for you in Israel” and Obama responded: “I want to do it.”
Oren was considered the “human buffer” in what was one of the most difficult periods of the Obama-Netanyahu relationship. However, his proudest achievement is one he dubbed “Operation Keren”: “My young sister Keren lives in New Jersey and is in love with Obama, but don’t tell her husband… I decided I would have them meet and the opportunity came about in a Hanukkah reception. I seated her in the front row and when the president approached she shouted ‘Oh My God’.”
The ambassador further told about the personal operation that “Obama shook Keren’s hand, and she responded ‘I’m Michael Oren’s sister’. He hugged her and turned to me and said, ‘she’s better looking than you’. I responded that my mother thinks the same. No doubt, Keren was the happiest person alive.”
In regards to Obama himself, Oren said that whoever knows the president informally and without a teleprompter, knows he is a man of more than words. “He is a peaceful man, who knows how to listen and quickly respond, he is a funny man with a sharp sense of humor, who can also make fun of himself.”
Oren’s access to the president proved to be crucial during several dramatic national crises, such as the siege on the Israeli embassy in Cairo and the fire in the Carmel. “When the fire broke out,” Oren remembered, “I was on my way to a White House event. The prime minister called and asked me to ask the president for help. I walked in the White House, came across Susan Sher and she immediately took me straight to the president.”
Oren added that, “I told Obama that the prime minister spoke with me five minutes earlier and that the situation in the Carmel is severe and we need fire-extinguishing aircraft and materials. The president turned to his aides and instructed them to help with whatever Israel needs. Shortly after he was on a flight to Afghanistan, and when he landed in Kabul, his first question was about the firefighting planes to Israel.”
“When he (Obama) asks (for something), none of the state officials go to sleep. During that night we sat with Donilon and other state officials until 4 am. Do you understand? The national security adviser is busy all night with the Carmel fire and beside him are Pentagon and other state officials, scanning all every warehouse in Europe in search of firefighting materials.”
International, gay pride
Oren said that after the work day ends at 6 pm, he starts a whole new day of work in the evenings in social events. “A social secretary is a strategic role, to map out which events to go to, and which to skip. I am here to promote Israeli interests, not for leisure.”
The Israeli ambassador’s residence has become a hot-spot during his term. It has hosted an Israeli-Irish event with a band that featured Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley as the guitarist and Oren himself as the drummer. There was also an Israeli-Latino event with Latin legislators and a performance by David Broza; an Israeli-Greek event; Israeli-Chinese evening; Israeli-Iranian evening featuring Rita, and an event for the gay community. The last event had Oren receiving an official invitation to the opening of the annual gay community convention in Philadelphia. “It was a great honor for me,” he stressed.
Oren is also particularly proud of an Iftar (end of Ramadan) event at his residence. “When I brought it up for the first time there was silence. I told everyone that we represent the entire Israeli people, including Muslims, and that there is non-radical Islam in the US that we should reach out to.” The repertoire of residence events also included a Palestinian event featuring a band consisting of four members of the Israel Philharmonic and four Arab-Israeli musicians.
Oren also felt at ease in the different TV studios. He was always well-dressed and ready with a list of messages. “There’s one type of interviews that you cannot prepare for: Steven Colbert, Bill Maher, John Stewart, The View. There you just have to go with the flow. They have a teleprompter and you’re exposed on stage, but that’s the way to reach the under-25 audience, who use entertainment programs as their primary news source.”
‘Yelled at editor’
Israeli diplomats know how difficult it is to get op-eds in acclaimed US newspapers. During his four-year term, Oren published some 45 such articles. He is particularly proud of two of them. One was published during Pillar of Defense in The Washington Post. It happened after the paper’s front page featured the photo of a Palestinian father mourning the death of his son who was allegedly killed by IDF fire.
“I picked up the phone and yelled at the editor,” Oren said. “I told him that the photo is too symmetrical and it appears to be fabricated. I told him that publishing such photo serves Hamas ‘ propaganda. He suggested I would write an op-ed about it, I wrote about how the media unknowingly serves Hamas’ propaganda, and later it turned out that the boy was actually killed by a Hamas rocket.”
His most important writing piece, in his view, is one he wrote for the website Politico. After the IDF operation in Gaza, the ambassador wrote that the Iron Dome batteries did not only save Israeli lives, but also gave the government time and space to resolve the crisis without immediately entering war. “The message was instantaneously received, legislators phoned me and asked how much an additional battery would cost, and this column helped us bring more Iron Domes.
View original Ynet publication at: http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4410324,00.html