Netanyahu’s Out-of-the-Box Choice for U.S. Ambassador

Monday, May 4th, 2009

Anybody  who thinks the Bibi Netanyahu government will be dull just isn’t paying attention.

One reminder: the all-but-official appointment of historian Michael Oren as Israel’s new ambassador to Washington.  Oren, currently serving as a visiting professor at Georgetown University, is a senior fellow at Jerusalem’s  Shalem Center and a scholar specializing in the military and diplomatic history of the Middle East.  He is the author of several books, including  Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present, a New York Times bestseller.

What makes the Oren appointment interesting is that after a run of relatively nondescript ambassadors, Israel will be getting an envoy with some star quality.

Obviously, the New Jersey native and Princeton graduate is fluent in English – unlike some envoys.  He is media savvy and an excellent speaker, and he knows the twisted landscape of American Jewish communal life.

The first rumors about his appointment generated mild controversy because of  his argument that Israel’s survival depends on getting out of the West Bank, even if the pullout is unilateral, but he is also an ardent defender of Christian Zionists who support Israel – and who generally oppose territorial pullouts.

Oren, an erudite academic, may also be a good diplomatic fit with the new administration that values scholarly talk.

The one knock on him: his lack of direct government and diplomatic experience; the other leading candidates for the job, including former Ambassador Zalman Shoval, former Consul General in New York Alon Pinkas and former Israeli UN envoy Dore Gold – are all seasoned diplomats who have served in this country.

But a prominent Jewish activist who knows him called Oren a “fast learner” — and said his media skills and ability to explain Israel’s positions will outweigh his lack of direct experience.  This activist also said Oren is not ideological – “he’s left on some things, right on others” — which could allay some concerns in the liberal Obama administration about the new government in Jerusalem.

The ambassadors post could take on growing importance if Washington and Jerusalem find themselves at odds over a two-state solution with the Palestinians and over Iran policy.

Typically, prime ministers micromanage the U.S. diplomatic portfolio, relegating their Washington envoys to PR and congressional duties and the somewhat thankless job of keeping Jewish leaders happy.

Although Netanyahu did that during his last stint as prime minister, it could be harder this time around; he has given strong indications he does not want to move quickly on the Palestinian peace front, and he is almost certain to clash with the new administration over Iran policy.  Also, the new government’s foreign minister – Avigdor Lieberman – is unlikely to play well in Washington.

That could make the Oren appointment particularly important.  What is far from  clear: will the new ambassador’s communication skills and scholarly manner be enough to avert a clash between allies that seem to be moving in opposite directions on some of the day’s most critical issues?

If Oren thought the students at Georgetown were a tough audience, wait until his first meetings at the State Department with folks who actually talk back.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.