A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, May 4, 2009

Michael Oren as Israeli Ambassador: Some Thoughts

As I'd noted previously, rumors have been circulating for some time that historian Michael Oren would be Binyamin Netanyahu's choice for Ambassador to the US, and that has now been confirmed.

Oren has been here in town for a while, teaching at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service (my own alma mater as it happens), and also is a Senior Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. He's probably best known for his book Six Days of War, on the 1967 war, but his more recent book Power, Faith and Fantasy is an overview of the whole American experience of the Middle East from the early days of the republic to the present. (I recommend both books, though I've only read certain chapters of Power, Faith and Fantasy.) This website for the book has his biography and summaries of both books. You'll note that he was raised in New Jersey and moved to Israel in the 1970s. Here's a Jerusalem Post profile.

Oren served as spokesman for the IDF during the 2006 Lebanon War, and he has no diplomatic experience as such, but he clearly knows the US and his second book shows he is thoroughly steeped in the history of the US in the Middle East.

This recent article of his in Commentary on Israel's "Seven Existential Threats" suggests a fairly sophisticated understanding of Israeli society as well, and while some of the threats (Iran, terrorism) are predictable, others (the growth of the haredi population; failure to enforce Israeli law on the settlers) are not conventional Likud positions. And this column in Haaretz portrays him as favoring unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank.

Ambassadors are still important in many ways, especially given the fact that the Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, is not going to be all that popular in foreign capitals. Still, Israeli Prime Ministers have normally conducted their own relations with American Presidents directly rather than depend on their Ambassadors for insight. But Oren could prove to be an interesting one. And if, as the Israeli press keeps saying, he was Netanyahu's first choice rather than Lieberman's, it may suggest more flexibility than most of us give Netanyahu credit for. As I noted last week, Binyamin Bin-Eliezer has said he's changed.

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