Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren

Mara and I arrived in Providence for the Thanksgiving college pickup early this afternoon - a new ritual for us - just in time to hear Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren speak at Brown. As you can see from the Providence Journal's coverage of the event, perhaps the most newsworthy aspect of it was how uneventful it was. Given the charged climate of anything involving Israel on college campuses, plus the charged and uncivil climate of just about any discussion these days, I was expecting significant protests and hecklers. There were none, neither inside the packed hall nor on the street outside the building.

Perhaps that was due to the timing, which the Ambassador described as "Erev Yontiff." But, while students were beginning to scurry over the river and through the woods, I don't think so. It was heartening to see that he could be received so warmly on a campus that, despite its large and active Jewish population, is also perceived as being very liberal on foreign policy matters, which at times has led to anti-Israel activity.

Or maybe the protesters have met their match in Oren. Maybe the word has gone out not to challenge this guy. He is the simply the best advocate Israel has had on this side of the Atlantic since Abba Eban - and unlike Eban, he speaks English (and Hebrew, he confesses) with a distinctly American twang. And his English is not a techno-smooth monotone like Prime Minister Netanyahu's, but more like the calming cadence of your doctor, or at least the guy who plays a doctor on TV. As we discovered when he was the Hoffman lecturer at Beth El two years ago (see highlights of that appearance here), he speaks our language in more ways than one. He understands the core reasons for the unique relationship between America and Israel, a bond that transcends administrations and political parties. He made a strong case that the relationship with the current administration is every bit as solid as it was with the prior one, that Sec. Rice was over there complaining about settlements every bit as much as George Mitchell might be now.

He made the case for "natural growth" of settlements (upward not outward), accompanied by the partial freeze negotiated between the Israeli and American governments, and he spoke of the eventual need to redraw borders and for each side to give up part of its dream. As a noted historian of the region, he claimed to have a deep understanding of the Palestinian "narrative" as well as the Israeli. But his main focus was Iran. He stated that Israel and America are absolutely on the same page right now, and that we are, over the next few weeks, likely to see a transitioning from the engagement-in-dialogue stage toward a consensus for crippling sanctions. Israel was consulted in the formation of the sanctions protocol. These next few weeks are therefore crucial.

Oren was asked about the Gilad Shalit deal, and he said that he had just spoken to the Israeli leadership only 90 minutes before this appearance, and was told that no deal is in place.

His most moving response was to a question about his having to renounce his American citizenship, a requirement of the American government (not Israel's) when one takes a position like this in a foreign government. He described a tearful ceremony of renunciation that took place in the American Embassy in Tel Aviv. He admitted, however, that in ceasing to be an American, he did not have to renounce his love of football and turkey, and he added that he was looking forward to Thanksgiving. Plus, he was told that if he remains married to an American, when he leaves the government, he could apply for a Green Card.

He said that he is in a good position to interpret Israel's ways to American audiences, but that he also could help explain America to Israelis, adding that Israelis have no idea what all the fuss is here over health care. In speaking of that fuss, he also expressed a grave concern that a lack of civility in political discourse can have dire consequences - he said that as one who worked closely with Prime Minister Rabin at the time of his assassination.

He spoke eloquently and was received warmly. Israel's most important foreign diplomatic position is being filled by just the right man at just the right time.

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