Israel/Palestine,  Your View

Israel’s Number One Diplomat

This is a guest-post from Alex Stein of

The appointment of Michael Oren as the new Israeli ambassador to the United States marks an interesting development in Israeli diplomatic history. Oren is one of the leading lights at the conservative Shalem Center, from where he has authored numerous best-selling histories, including Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, and Power, Faith, and Fantasy: The United States in the Middle East. A popular historian with real clout, he has suddenly been thrust into life as Israel’s number one diplomat.

His views will now be analysed like never before. The announcement of his candidacy was greeted with a furor surrounding an article he had written during the US election. In this piece, he seemed to suggest that it would be better for Israeli interests if McCain won. Indeed, some suggested that a victorious McCain might even have appointed Oren as an advisor.

When it became clear that Oren was the front-runner for the position, his comments at a recent speech at Georgetown University, where he is currently a visiting professor, became widely reported. “The only alternative for Israel to save itself as a Jewish state is by unilaterally withdrawing from the West Bank and evacuating most of the settlements,” he said, an unfashionable but sensible assertion of Sharonist principle, albeit without the necessary details.

Needless speculation about the significance of these remarks inevitably followed. Some people cited his words as evidence that Netanyahu isn’t actually opposed to Palestinian statehood; others said it proves Israel has a dastardly plan to abandon the Palestinians to their Bantustans. This speculation is unnecessary because Oren’s job is to represent Israeli policy, not to create it. He will have to do this whether he supports it or not. Such is the lot of the diplomat.

Henry Kissinger famously remarked that Israel has no foreign policy, only a domestic one. People often forget this truism when analyzing the Israeli political scene. The Israeli foreign ministry’s primary function is the dissemination of hasbara. Substantive foreign policy is formed in the PMO and the Defence Ministry. The role of the ambassador is to defend Israel’s policies to foreign audiences. This is true of all states, but in Israel the task is magnified by the country’s unfortunate diplomatic reality. Given this, Jeffrey’s Goldberg’s judgement on Oren’s appointment seems entirely apt, “No one is better qualified to explain America to Israelis an to explain Israel to Americans than Michael.”

Despite all this, some have criticized Oren’s appointment on grounds of his lack of practical diplomatic experience. There may be some truth to this, but I suspect he will be a quick learner. Salai Meridor, his predecessor, quit in acrimonious circumstances when it seemed he was being marginalized in his position, and it will be interesting to see the kind of working relationship Oren establishes with Netanyahu and Lieberman.

We won’t have to wait long to find out – Oren is expected to take a prominent part in Netanyahu’s upcoming visit to the US. In the meantime, it’s worth taking some pride in the fact that an Anglo-Israeli has risen to such high office. Oren will now – ironically or not depending on your perspective – have to relinquish his US citizenship, although I’m sure he won’t mind that. He is undoubtedly the best choice to explain Israel’s position to America, although without a change in Israel’s position, the task might be too difficult, even for Dr Oren.