Israel's man in Washington gets a lesson in diplomacy

By Nathan Guttman, July 1, 2010
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Michael Oren

Michael Oren

Israel's ambassador to the US stepped into a verbal minefield this week after newspapers in Israel quoted him warning that relations between Jerusalem and Washington are on the rocks.

According to the reports, Michael Oren told a group of Israeli diplomats that a "tectonic rift" has emerged between Israel and the US under the presidency of Barack Obama. The quote caused a stir in Israel, where columnists and political analysts are closely following the ups and downs in Netanyahu–Obama relations. Some view the cooling of relations as a sign of the Israeli leader's failed policy, others as proof that the American president holds views that are hostile to Israel.

Mr Oren sought to correct the impression by telling the Washington Post he was misquoted.

"I said shift, not rift," the ambassador clarified, adding that the Israeli diplomats listening might not have been aware of the nuance.

Mr Oren, it seems, has been on a steep learning curve. Since assuming office last July, he has had to contend with disgruntled foreign ministry career diplomats purposely leaking his closed-door remarks; American Jewish groups directing their anger at him over Israeli policies; and, of course, the difficulty in making Israel's case in an increasingly complicated environment.

Mr Oren, a well-known historian who was born in the US and moved to Israel in his 20s, seemed to be a good man for the job. Although he is not a trained diplomat, his political views are close to those of Mr Netanyahu, and his American background and perfect English should have helped him become a successful representative in American halls of power and in the TV studios.

But timing was not on Mr Oren's side. Instead of cocktail parties, he found himself being summoned to the State Department to hear complaints about Israel's building policy in Jerusalem. He was forced to deliver the administration's displeasure back to Mr Netanyahu - and Jerusalem's insistence back to the White House.

In his first months in office, Mr Oren also ran into unexpected difficulties with the American Jewish community. First, Mr Oren refused to meet the newly created doveish lobby
J Street or attend their inaugural event. Later he came under fire from the Reform and Conservative movements, which felt that Israel's senior representative in the US was not sensitive to their concerns regarding conversion and the rights of women to pray at the Western Wall.

Still, as Mr Oren readies to mark his first year in office, controversies are dying out and the ambassador has been playing to his strength - representing Israel in the news media. The flotilla incident ensured Mr Oren was a sought-after interviewee and even his critics at home congratulated the well-spoken ambassador for successfully defending Israel under difficult circumstances. Mr Oren even ventured on to the late night show of comedian Stephen Colbert and survived the host's sarcasm.

Tension with Jewish groups also subsided. Mr Oren has since met with J Street leaders and has improved his dialogue with the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations.

And above all, the Obama administration's decision to change its tone towards Israel and replace criticism with a charm offensive has made Mr Oren's job much easier. Whether it was a rift or a shift, the Israeli ambassador will next week accompany an Israeli Prime Minister into a warm and welcoming White House, for a meeting that is all about mending fences.

    Last updated: 1:59pm, July 1 2010