By Anna Gawel
The Washington Diplomat
Beyond the debate over culpability in the botched Israeli raid of a Gaza aid flotilla that left nine dead, there’s been another dimension to the criticism leveled at Israel: ineptitude of the government’s handling of both the operation (failing to use less lethal alternatives to avoid being goaded into a confrontation with the protesters) and the aftermath, a public diplomacy disaster that has deepened Israel’s international isolation and highlighted the plight of Gazans under the Israeli blockade.
In fact, critics of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu say his entire government has been a PR nightmare for the Jewish state — and this latest fiasco adds to a long list of diplomatic debacles, from the ill-timed settlement announcement during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to the fracas created by Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon when he insulted the Turkish ambassador by seating him on a low sofa during a public meeting, needlessly alienating a key ally.
Now, relations with Turkey are at an all-time low, and Netanyahu’s government has done little to blunt the perception that Israel is above the law and no longer cares about world opinion — so far rejecting calls for a substantial easing of the blockade or an independent investigation (though it looks like Israel will agree to add an international component to its investigation).
Instead, Netanyahu has been arguing that an “international offensive of hypocrisy” holds Israel to higher standards. Yet even some of the prime minister’s supporters say his government could have done a better job explaining its case shortly after the international uproar began.
To that end, Netanyahu’s man in Washington has mounted a vigorous PR campaign in the wake of the flotilla melee, and regardless if you agree with him or not, no one can accuse Michael Oren of sitting idly by in the fight for public opinion.
From an op-ed in the New York Times to regular appearances on CNN, to braving the Comedy Central’s satiric “Colbert Report,” the charismatic ambassador has been on the national stage adamantly defending Israel’s response to what he described in the Times as “an assault, cloaked in peace.”
He has been just as active on the local front, most recently addressing an intimate breakfast roundtable hosted by the Institute for Education on June 11 at the Washington Club. In front of about 50 guests, including reporters from CNN, the Washington Post, Financial Times, Associated Press, Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal (and the Diplomatic Pouch), Oren laid out a powerful case for his embattled government while insisting that Israel remains as engaged with the world as ever — a message in keeping with the institute’s mission to promote civility, leadership and intercultural understanding.
On a separate note, coach Kathy Kemper, founder of the Institute for Education, also took some time out to honor the Rev. Cecilie Strommen, wife of the Norwegian ambassador, for her improvements on the tennis court after she received a clean bill of health from breast cancer three months ago and decided to take up the sport three times a week to improve her health.
It was also game, set and match for Oren, a forceful orator who struck an upbeat, positive tone despite the barrage of bad press that has put Oren on the defensive almost since becoming ambassador.
In fact, Oren noted that it’s been exactly one year since he took up his posting in Washington, after the prime minister called him with the good news and to express his “congratulations and condolences,” Oren quipped.
But it has been one serious lesson in crisis control after another for Oren as relations between the United States and Israel tumbled over the past year. His latest test of course came over Memorial Day weekend when he got the call about the high seas drama — which also drew the world’s attention to the everyday drama in Gaza, where Israel has allowed an increasing amount of food and medical supplies into the impoverished enclave, but refuses to permit cement and other building supplies in an attempt to deny Hamas weaponry, leaving the tiny strip in disrepair and some 40 percent of its people jobless.
Oren admitted that the civilian needs in Gaza must be better addressed, but he was firm that his government would not let up on its siege against Hamas, which has vowed to destroy Israel. “Were Hamas to gain unbridled, unfettered access to weapons, it would very much threaten the 7.5 million people in Israel, but also the entire peace process,” he warned.
But many governments — including the United States — say that current approach is untenable and that Gaza can no longer remain sealed off from the world. Recent reports have surfaced of a European plan for an internationally monitored transit system to replace the three-year Israeli blockade of Gaza. When asked what he thought of such a proposal, Oren said, “We are open to any arrangement that will continue to deny weaponry to Hamas.”
Giving Hamas — which refuses to recognize the Israeli state — the ability to rearm itself is a red line that Israel simply will not cross, Oren repeatedly stressed, reminding the audience that when Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2006 and agreed to a U.N. monitoring mission there, Hezbollah was able to amass medium- and long-range rockets capable of targeting Tel Aviv. He also pointed out that when Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, “we didn’t get peace — we got thousands and thousands of rockets raining down on us.”
But a recent Israeli government document obtained by McClatchy Newspapers revealed that the blockade is as much a form of “economic warfare” intended to politically pressure Hamas as it is a military strategy to stem the flow of arms to the Islamist group, which won elections and took control of the coastal enclave in 2007.
That report didn’t come up during Oren’s discussion, although the ambassador made no secret of his wish that the people of Gaza would kick out their leadership. He explained that Israel is conducting the peace process with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank “with the hope that Gaza will join at some point and see [the economic progress] happening in the West Bank and say, ‘Why don’t we have that?’ And there’s one answer: Hamas.”
To that end, Oren said Israel is working closely with the PA to boost their security forces and develop the Palestinian economy, citing recent growth in the West Bank of more than 8 percent despite the global economic slowdown.
He added that — despite the snail’s pace of indirect talks led by U.S. envoy George Mitchell — direct negotiations between the two sides may be possible by the end of the summer.
Oren also insisted that Israel is ready to tackle the hard issues such as settlement expansion. “We understand that in creating a Palestinian state there will be territorial withdrawal and that will be painful,” he said, although he stressed that Israel remains committed to a two-state solution.
However, he cited two key conditions for Israelis to agree to that solution, the most basic of which is ensuring their security. Bringing into sharp relief how the Israeli public worries that territorial withdrawal only leads to more attacks, the ambassador pointed out that he and his wife Sally live in southern Jerusalem, “where we are not in rocket range, but in pistol range.”
Oren added that a “permanent and legitimate” two-state solution would have to end all further territorial claims, thereby negating the so-called “right of return” for hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, and would have to recognize Israel exclusively as a Jewish state, a contentious point, especially for the Arab citizens who comprise up to a quarter of Israel’s population.
The ambassador though ruled out compromise on Israel’s identity — and its fundamental right to exist and be recognized as a legitimate state. “The challenge to Israel’s legitimacy is one of the greatest historical challenges we face,” said Oren, a war veteran with a historian’s perspective who has served as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces and whose two most recent books — “Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern East” and “Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present” — were New York Times bestsellers.
Today of course, no challenge grips the Israeli consciousness like the threat posed by Iran, which Oren argued is not only a danger to Israel, but to the entire world. He warned that if Tehran were to acquire nuclear weapons capability, it could spread that technology to terrorists and incite an arms race in the region. “We would be living in a profoundly more dangerous neighborhood,” he said, adding that, “Israel is not pacifist against these challenges.”
At the same time though, Oren praised President Obama’s efforts in getting a fourth round of sanctions against Iran passed by the United Nations, saying that “we are going to give this a very serious chance to work.”
Likewise, the ambassador said the Obama administration’s response to the flotilla incident has been supportive and cooperative, “and I think we’ve come a long way in the last week and a half,” alluding to the tensions that have strained U.S.-Israeli relations over the past year.
And despite the international heat Israel has experienced lately, Oren said his countrymen need to remember the larger picture. “Israel in 2010 is in an incalculably better geopolitical strategic position than it’s ever been in its history,” he said, citing Israel’s burgeoning relationships with former Soviet bloc states, emerging powers China and India, as well as the United States, which has a “deeper and more multifaceted” relationship with Israel than any other country in the post-World War II era.
Oren also pointed out that Israel has more patents and more Nobel Laureates per-capita than any other country in the world, along with a GDP growth rate of about 3.5 percent. A good-humored diplomat, he injected that sense of optimism to throw off a reporter who’d once asked him sarcastically if Israelis “were just stupid” in the wake of the latest skirmish.
“Israel is a normal country … and has its fair share of smart people and dunces,” Oren recalled saying. “But in Israel, you’re more likely per-capita to be a doctor, start-up entrepreneur or Nobel Laureate than in any other country.”
Oren needed all of his diplomatic finesse to head off a clever onslaught by comedian Stephen Colbert when he appeared on the “Colbert Report,” where the political satirist drilled the ambassador on everything from attacking civilians to seemingly arbitrary restrictions on food going into Gaza.
After having witnessed four wars, Oren told the Institute for Education audience that nothing was more terrifying than the “Colbert Report,” and that like life, it was impossible to prep for.
That was clearly the case when Colbert brought up White House correspondent Helen Thomas’s recent gaffe about Israelis getting out of Israel and going home to Poland and Germany. “That’s ridiculous. Israel is for Israelis. If anything, the Palestinians should go back to where they came from,” quipped Colbert, prodding Oren point blank. “Don’t you agree?”
A bit shell-shocked, Oren quickly gathered his diplomatic composure and replied, “I think there’s room for both of us to share this homeland — Palestinians living in their homeland, and Israelis living in their homeland in a position of permanent and legitimate peace.”
“I dodged a bullet,” he joked at the breakfast roundtable, “but fortunately I really do believe that’s the truth.”
Dr. Rev. Cecilie Strommen, wife of the Norwegian ambassador, second from left, holds an award for the “2010 most improved tennis player” given to her by coach Kathy Kemper of the Institute for Education (IFE), second from right, at a policy roundtable for the IFE/INFO Global Connections Series. Cecilie went through months of radiation therapy for breast cancer and, upon receiving a clean bill of health, made a commitment to her health and exercise by playing tennis three times a week with coach Kemper.
The ladies are flanked by fellow tennis enthusiasts Ed Henry, senior White House correspondent for CNN, left, and Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, right, who spoke at the policy roundtable about the recent Gaza flotilla crisis and Israeli relations with the United States, among other issues.