During his term as Israel's Ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren found himself faced with a rapidly changing America, a Middle East on fire, and an Israel that had to deftly navigate between the seismic changes taking place in both locations. But looking at the polls, which continuously show high support for Israel among Americans, Oren is satisfied, saying they show that support for Israel in American public opinion is "the highest it's ever been."
"At a time when the Middle East is turbulent, Israel is an island of stability," Oren says.
"The greatest challenge during my term was dealing with the new situation in which everything is dynamic, where circumstances change significantly and very quickly, both in the U.S. as well as the Middle East. The U.S. is undergoing several changes: a continuous and deep economic crisis which necessitates painful budgetary cutbacks, weariness from two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, political polarization, and an increasing process of isolationism, which is increasing.
"The situation in the Middle East is well known: civil war in Syria, the revolutions in Egypt, the instability in Syria and Egypt, which affects all the countries in the region. All the while there is still the strategic question of Iran's race to acquire nuclear capabilities, the sanctions on Iran and the international effort to stop Iran from getting nuclear capability."
Are American citizens apathetic toward the Middle East and Israel?
"Israel always interests the American citizen, but there is a weariness over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The economic crisis has led America toward a deepening isolationism. Still, this has not had an effect on our long-standing, deep strategic alliance with the U.S. We're talking about a special relationship in all of its aspects, beyond the strategic ties."
Oren, a celebrated historian, points out that the strategic alliance between Israel and the U.S. is relatively new. Until the end of the Six-Day War in 1967, the ties between the two nations were largely value-based, between America and the only democracy in the Middle East. Furthermore, there was also a spiritual connection between people who adhere to the Old Testament and Christians who believe in the New Testament.
"The past four years have seen a dizzying increase in the economic ties between the countries, with mutual investments, high-tech, with Israeli companies opening up shop in the U.S. and employing many Americans. While the U.S. is outsourcing to Africa, Israel is outsourcing to the U.S."
How are the changes in the U.S. affecting the political scene?
"The results of the 2012 elections are more significant than the results of the 2008 elections. There is a new political reality in the U.S. different than what we knew some 30 years ago. The changes are happening, but the support for Israel within American society remains strong. This attests to our success in reading the changing winds there and acting accordingly. This has huge significance as it has direct influence on the administration's support for protecting Israel, including diplomatic support at the United Nations and other international forums.
"Israel enjoys bipartisan support in Congress and this allows us to achieve many things, for instance, in American influence on the Europeans to include Hezbollah on their list of terror organizations, as well as what I consider one of the most significant achievements of my term as ambassador here: the American decision to assist in funding the Iron Dome system to the tune of about $1.5 billion over the past four years. This decision came after many hours of meetings with senior Congressmen and women as well as opinion pieces in the American media."
One of the criticisms against President Barack Obama is that he acted mistakenly and hesitatingly in the Middle East, directly weakening the West's clout in the region.
"The changes that have rocked the Middle East over the past few years are very fluid, and very flammable. Nobody has a monopoly on an error-free term in office. It's very hard to chart a policy that buffers against all the changing variables in the Middle East. I think that in general, with regard to Egypt and Syria, our positions were very close to those of the U.S. It is clear to the Americans that, in Egypt, it is important to safeguard the peace agreement [with Israel]. On Syria, the Israeli position is crystal clear: Israel is not interfering in the civil war in Syria and we do not interfere with the decisions that the Americans take regarding action there."
Oren says that Israel "for years" wanted Assad's fall from power.
"Until the civil war in Syria broke out, we viewed the Assad regime as a destabilizing actor across the entire region, not only in Syria itself. We saw the regime as the strategic link between Iran and Hezbollah, and we believe that the dismantling of this alliance will only serve to stabilize the region.
"We still prefer a situation in which a regime that supports terror and massacres its own people passes from this world, and we are concerned about its use of weapons of mass destruction. This is a crime against humanity which makes it clear what we cannot allow, and here I'm quoting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: The most dangerous regimes in the world, Iran and Syria, cannot be allowed to possess the most dangerous weapons in the world."
Oren is considered very close to Netanyahu, and this closeness was picked up immediately in Washington, in the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, Congress and Senate, as well as the Jewish communities in the U.S. and pro-Israel groups, where Oren's word is considered Netanyahu's word. At the beginning of Netanyahu's and Obama's terms, Oren was repeatedly dispatched to smooth over and mediate friction between the two leaders. Now at the end of his term, looking back, Oren continues to assert that the media created an ego war, while in his view, the disagreements were "between friends."
"There were friendly and open meetings between Obama and Netanyahu, and sometimes there was even humor in them. There were good discussions between two pragmatic leaders. Both very educated and intelligent, and spent a lot of hours together discussing fateful issues.
"However, there were disagreements and there was criticism of Israel, but this was essentially over tactics. The disagreements are over two central issues: the way to achieve a permanent solution with the Palestinians, and what is to be done to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Looking back, the gaps between the two sides have been significantly reduced. On the negotiations with the Palestinians, the Americans have dropped their demand for a settlement freeze over the Green Line, and today there are negotiations whose beginning was made possible without preconditions."
What other issues of disagreement did you have to deal with during your term?
"Our relationship with J-Street, a left-wing Jewish group that defines itself as pro-Israel. I appeared before the group and the question that came up again and again is why are we demanding that the Palestinians recognize us as a Jewish state, because the Left in the U.S. perceives this to be a tactical demand, an attempt to place obstacles in the path of the peace process. I explained to them that this is actually the foundation of any peace deal. The mutual recognition of both sides of the national identity of the other. There is no peace without the recognition of the other. It was supremely important to lay out our position and explain that we are sincere and serious about wanting to reach a peace deal."
Oren points to a significant change in the Obama administration's approach too.
"In his 2009 Cairo speech, President Obama drew a link between the establishment of the State of Israel and the Holocaust, a link that is closer to the Arab narrative. Over the years he has corrected this narrative. During his recent visit to Israel, he spoke about a 3,000-year-old connection between the Jewish nation and the Land of Israel, about the roots of the Jewish state, and about Israel as a Jewish state. This is the official position of the administration today. The fact that the Americans accept our version is extremely significant."