WASHINGTON – Michael Oren was deep inside the State Department, relaxed and taking on all comers: He had the facts on his side.
It was 2004 and the department was reviewing newly declassified National Security Agency evidence reinforcing Israel’s longstanding claim that its 1967 air attack on the USS Liberty spy ship was a mistake. The attack killed 34 American personnel.
Oren, a preeminent historian of the Six-Day War, was not suffering gladly those at the State Department conference who continued to insist, despite all evidence to the contrary, that Israel intended to murder the Americans. Both sides, Oren said, were guilty of negligence.
Israel’s accusers sputtered and then erupted into shouts. Oren sat back in his chair, surveyed the room and smiled.
It may have been the last time Oren was completely at ease in the halls of the State Department.
Oren became Israel’s ambassador to Washington in 2009 and has since been in the hot seat at the State Department multiple times, summoned to provide “clarifications” following some controversial Israeli action. It’s a function he has been called upon regularly to perform during his tenure, which he announced last week would wrap up by the fall.
His successor, Ron Dermer, is – like Oren – U.S.-born.
Oren’s Washington stint has come during a period fraught with tension between two men he says he admires – Obama and Netanyahu – as well as between the Israeli government and the American Jewish community.
The envoy was at the forefront of efforts to push back against rumors – some of them reportedly planted by Netanyahu’s Jerusalem office – that Obama had snubbed Netanyahu on a number of occasions.
Notably, in March 2010 rumors swirled that Obama had snubbed Netanyahu during a visit to the White House. That was just weeks after a near-disastrous trip to Israel by Vice President Joe Biden, on the eve of which Israel infuriated the administration by announcing new building in eastern Jerusalem.
In refuting the snubbing charge, Oren got into the gritty detail of whether Netanyahu had entered through the front or the back (it was the front) and whether Obama’s wife and daughters had snubbed Netanyahu during dinner (they were in New York at a show.)
If one had to single out Oren’s three preferred topics during his term in Washington they would be: the proto-Zionism threaded throughout American history, manifest in the writings and sayings of figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson; the deep intensification of security cooperation between Israel and the United States during the Obama-Netanyahu era, a fact often lost in the verbal volleying on the peace process and Iran; and the touting of Israel’s cultural and scientific achievements.
The New Jersey-born Oren, 58, told JTA in a 2009 interview at the outset of his ambassadorship that transitioning from the truth-telling of scholarship to the spin of diplomacy was like going from “free verse to writing rhymed haiku.”
In March, however, Oren was able to synthesize the two when he joined his U.S. counterpart in Tel Aviv, Dan Shapiro, in designing Obama’s first visit to Israel as president.
The standard stops – Yad Vashem, the Prime Minister’s Office – would not suffice, Oren and Shapiro decided. This is where Oren the historian fused with Oren the diplomat. The Israeli ambassador proposed a visit to the Dead Sea Scrolls that would emphasize what many had felt was lacking from Obama’s 2009 speech to the Arab world: recognition of Israel’s ancient ties to the land.
The trip was a success. Obama’s culminating address to a Jerusalem hall packed with university students, laced with references to the land’s Jewish heritage as well as appeals for a more accelerated peace process, earned long and thunderous applause.
Off in a corner, Oren and Shapiro fell into a long hug.