Interview with Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren (Part 2)
On Friday, I shared the first half of my interview with Israeli ambassador Michael Oren.
In the remainder of the interview, Oren discussed the onslaught Israel now faces -- not on the battlefield, but in the court of public opinion and in international bodies. In recent years, efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state, that is, to challenge its legitimacy as a state and ability to act in its own interests, as does every other country, have increased dramatically.
The most visible platform on the international stage for defamation of Israel is the UN Human Rights Council. Oren observed: "Israel has been more frequently condemned by the Human Rights Council than all of the other countries combined. The council is the only UN entity which in its charter -- article 7 -- is specifically committed to condemning and investigating Israel." He cited some of the recent anti-Israel actions of the UNHRC, including the Goldstone Report and the flotilla investigation, as evidence of the body's distorted mission. Should the U.S. leave? Oren declined to offer the U.S. advice, saying only, that "while the [Obama] administration has made robust effort to defend Israel, there has been no change in the Human Rights Council itself."
We then to turned to the subject of non-governmental organizations with shadowy funding that challenge the legitimacy of Israel. A bill in the Israeli Knesset to require that groups operating in the country disclose their funding set off a firestorm of protest from Israel-bashing groups and some European governments, which have been shown to provide funding (directly or indirectly) to groups seeking to undermine Israel's legitimacy. Oren said, "The question is whether they are operating as foreign agents. We have freedom of expression. Members of the Knesset can be anti-Zionist. Professors can say these things. Public employees can say these things." He contended, however, that it is legitimate for Israel to determine if groups that are acting in ways "inimical not to the politics but to the polity of Israel are being funded by foreign governments."
I asked him if he was frustrated with media coverage of Israel. He responded: "I have been dealing with the press in the Middle East for 30 years." In some ways, there has been improvement, he asserted: "There is a greater level of expertise now. There is also a greater attention to details. That's also because American has been so deeply involved in the Middle East." He observed, "Words that were alien then -- 'jihad,' 'Wahhabi,' 'Sunni,' 'Shi'ite' - are now part of every reporter's vocabulary."
Clearly, however, not all trends are positive. There is, he said, "deepening polarization" in the American media, as in the political environment as a whole, so that "the same incident is reported in two completely different ways." But even that is not the root of his concern.
The real worry, he said, is "the insinuation into journalistic discourse of themes that would have been deemed unacceptable or racist only a few years ago." He said that he used to be asked if the "Israel Lobby" existed. Now, "I'm asked what the Israel lobby thinks. And they're not talking about AIPAC. They are talking about some shadowy group of bankers and people who control the media." He continued, "I'm not a Middle East media watch person," but there were "one or two cases where reputable journals crossed that line" and he felt compelled to pick up the phone to call the outlets. Can Israel put the genie back in the bottle? He sighed and paused. "I don't know," he said quietly.
His aides pressed him to move to his next appointment, but he waved them off. "I'm on my last answer!" he shouted. I ended by asking him about his transition from private citizen to ambassador. Many friendly observers in Israel and the U.S. wonder whether the role has turned out to be more taxing than he could have imagined. He asked playfully, "So you mean not having opinions but positions?" He said he learned in the military that "every time you put on the uniform," you leave your views aside. He did acknowledge, though, that there are "few jobs as complex and multifaceted" as the Israeli ambassador to the U.S.
He pointed across the room, "You see that desk? That's the interface for 535 members of Congress, the State Department, the White House, the intelligence community, commerce and trade -- there is lots of that, the Pentagon, the American Jewish community in all of its diversity, all of the American press, other diplomats and churches. That's just in America. In Israel, there are 120 members of the Knesset, 30 ministries, the IDF, the Israeli press, Arab governments. All of this is happening on this desk. It is infinitely fascinating and monumentally challenging." He added, "And all of that is on an ordinary day. Then there is a forest fire and everything drops. We spend 72 hours getting firefighting equipment there. That's all it was about."
Knowing what he knows now, would he have prepared differently or done things differently? He smiled and paused. "Everyone makes mistakes." But he said that from his scholarship of diplomatic history, "I had a pretty good understanding of the job." He said he made an effort to speak with every former ambassador, but "there was zero prep time. Then you are just thrown in there. There is no time for a learning curve." He conceded that "2010 was a very challenging year."
Oren's aides finally prevailed upon him to move to his next appointment. He nevertheless lingered at the office door, chatting. He is in that respect very much the expansive intellectual and historian whom many Israelis and Americans admired long before he took the ambassadorship. But he has also -- one suspects, painfully -- learned the skills of a diplomat. He has mastered the pose of restraint and caution. He avoids saying anything directly critical of the U.S. administration. He is, after all, charged with keeping relations between the countries on track. And during the Obama administration, that can be very challenging.
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