Home > Diplomacy, Israeli Neoconservatism, Religious Freedom > Amb. Michael Oren’s credibility problem

Amb. Michael Oren’s credibility problem

Michael Oren

UPDATE: January 5 2010 — Haaretz’s Akiva Eldar posits similar arguments.

In the run-up to his appointment as ambassador, Michael Oren, with the help of the mainstream US media, pulled off an amazing image makeover — the movement neoconservative became a pragmatic centrist. The Israeli media, however, is not playing ball.

On December 22 Haaretz revealed that he  had gone off the reservation as the American Jewish Committee’s representative in Jerusalem in the nineties — suggesting that the IDF Chief of Staff replace Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Last Tuesday (December 29 2009,) Oren gave an interview to Razi Barkai at IDF Radio (listen to it here in Hebrew.) Barkai was surprisingly well informed and pressed Oren on his treatment of J Street (translated transcript of relevant excerpt after the cut.)

Oren, under pressure, tried to use the Goldstone Report to differentiate J Street from Americans for Peace Now (APN), with whom he has deigned to meet. His implication is that J Street is beyond the pale because it did not denounce the report.

The facts do not back Oren’s argument. Both organizations have not denounced Goldstone. However, between the two, APN has clearly taken a markedly softer tone regarding the report. In fact, when the House of Representatives tabled resolution 867, condemning the Goldstone report, APN called on Congressmen to oppose it, while J Street only asked for its amendment. J Street is also closer to Oren’s and Israel’s position on the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act of 2009 (IRPSA), which it supports. APN, on the other hand, urged Congress members to oppose it. Indeed, last Friday (January 1 2009,) APN’s Lara Friedman published an blog post criticizing Oren for trying to force Obama’s hand on the issue.

Razi Barkai

Clearly, J Street is closer to the Israeli position on two issues that Oren deems crucial. Why then, as reported in the Forward, did he attack the organization for “fooling around with lives of seven million [Israeli] people,” while stating in this interview that outreach to APN is “very important”?

One option is that Oren is grievously misinformed. This was also the excuse for another recent incident casting doubt on his credibility.

Last November, a woman, Nofrat Frenkel, was detained by Israeli police and interrogated for 2.5 hours after she wore a tallit and carried a Torah in the women’s section of the main plaza of the Wailing Wall. When questioned, Oren categorically denied the report.

When asked about the incident at the annual meeting of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in December, Oren dismissed these accounts as “widely misreported,” saying she was simply “led away” from the area.

Such a blatant misrepresentation of facts could not be sustained for long, however. On December 22 2009, the Israeli Embassy issued a statement backtracking on the denial and shifting blame to the Foreign Ministry.

Oren responded to a question based upon information he had requested and received from Israel, which was later proven to be incomplete. The ambassador has since demanded a full and complete report on the incident.

Is it also the Foreign Ministry’s fault that the ambassador is misinformed on the respective positions of J Street and APN on Goldstone and IRPSA? That would be a stretch. It is Oren‘s responsibility to report on these to Jerusalem. He could shift blame to a staffer, but that would reflect badly on his performance regarding an issue at the core of his job description. More likely, as Barkai posits in the IDF Radio interview, Oren has “decided to go with AIPAC against J Street.” This is, as Leonard Fein points out, a breach of his post-appointment promise to “reach out to different groups, Jewish and non-Jewish, that have not felt a close attachment to the embassy in the past.”

Bill Kristol

That brings us to the second option: Faced with such a glaring gap, Oren makes up the facts as required. However, as with NGO Monitor’s Gerald Steinberg, one is struck by Oren’s hubris. It’s hard to believe that Oren does not realize that this type of behavior will be quickly exposed, given today’s reality of instant internet-based fact-checking.

This carelessness could be the result of a situation where Oren’s fundamental political training tends to overpower his common sense. Michael Oren is a product of the Shalem Center, Sheldon Adelson‘s neoconservative institute in Jerusalem, which he joined in 1998 as part of its initial group of senior fellows.

Salon’s Glenn Greenwald points out that the [Leo] Straussian “noble lie” is a tenet of neoconservative thought. He quotes Prof. Shadia Drury:

[Strauss] therefore taught that those in power must invent noble lies and pious frauds to keep the people in the stupor for which they are supremely fit. . . . Like the Grand Inquisitor, he thought that it was better for human beings to be victims of this noble delusion than to “wallow” in the “sordid” truth. And like the Grand Inquisitor, Strauss thought that the superior few should shoulder the burden of truth and in so doing, protect humanity from the “terror and hopelessness of life.

In this context, Greenwald specifically describes William (Bill) Kristol as a “Straussian clone.” It is probably no coincidence that Kristol is a member of the Shalem Foundation’s board.

Both options are worrying. The Israeli ambassador has a credibility problem, either the result of incompetence or, more likely, his ideological bent.

The confrontational Oren that has emerged in the little amount of time since his appointment may have bigger problems than his credibility, however. Oren’s dishonesty seems to be the result of a need to defend positions that do not resonate well in the beltway, among most American Jews and in Israel. It is hard to believe that these positions originate in Jerusalem. Increasingly, they appear to be closely coordinated with two groups disenfranchised under the Obama administration — the old Jewish-American establishment and the pundits at the Weekly Standard and the National Review. If this is case, Michael Oren, who disingenuously called J Street a “unique” problem, is becoming one himself, for both Israel and the US.

Interview with Michael Oren

IDF Radio, December 29 2009 10:07


Razi Barkai: because you are everyone’s ambassador in the US, not only the Israeli right’s.

Michael Oren: yes, that is how I see it.

Razi Barkai: so why did you avoid the very important J Street conference?

Michael Oren: because I am everybody’s ambassador, exactly for that reason. Look, I consider it very important to reach out to any organization that calls itself pro-Israeli, and when I took office within a month I met the representatives of the American Peace Now and the New Israel Fund. But even among the pro-Israeli organizations there is a consensus surrounding certain issues, not necessarily the peace process, there are differences of opinion about the settlements, about Jerusalem, there are differences but there are no differences of opinion for example over supporting the IDF during Operation Cast Lead.

Razi Barkai: just a minute, do you define J Street as an anti-Zionist organization?

Michael Oren: no, that is not what I said. I said, supporting IDF soldiers during the fighting in Gaza, denouncing the Goldstone Report, which not only the government that even the opposition and the president, everyone sees as a real danger to Israel’s security, that is within the consensus, so I was very happy that J Street recently supported legislation in Congress to enforce sanctions against Iran. Previously it had not done so, actually it is the only organization. I hope that in the future J Street will be more inside the consensus in denouncing the Goldstone Report. That is very important.

Razi Barkai: one of the charges against you is that you became a mouthpiece for AIPAC, and that is internal American Jewish politics, and has nothing to do with supporting or not supporting Israel. After all, J Street is not an organization that is against the existence of Israel, it just differs over some of its policies. But because AIPAC despises them for historical reasons, you decided to go with AIPAC on this against J Street.

Michael Oren: that is not true. By the way, I did not go against J Street, I opened a channel of dialogue. We have full communication and I sent a high-level observer to the J Street conference. We are not talking about a boycott, there is communication here. Not as a representative of AIPAC, but as a representative of the government of Israel, of a very broad coalition that honors the consensus surrounding the Goldstone Report, for example, I would like to express the government’s concern over an organization that does not denounce a report that is very, very problematic for us.


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