TEL AVIV — Michael Oren, born in New York and raised in West Orange, begins an interview in Hebrew.
Though he quickly switches to English, Oren interrupts himself every so often to translate a word into Hebrew for his assistant. It’s a bilingual bridge he has spanned in one capacity or another for decades, first as a historian of Israel, then as an Israel Defense Forces spokesman, and most recently as Israel’s ambassador to the United States.
Now Oren is aiming to strengthen American-Israeli relations in another forum. Ranked fourth on the slate of the new centrist political party Kulanu, Oren may be the Knesset’s lone American-born lawmaker after the March 17 election.
“I’ve been honored to do many types of service for the Jewish people,” Oren told JTA. “I think that becoming a decision-maker on issues that will determine the future of Israel would be my most substantial.”
Kulanu (Hebrew for “all of us”), a party founded last year on a pledge to reform Israel’s economy, would seem a strange choice for Oren, whose expertise is in diplomacy and foreign relations. Running on the Kulanu slate saved Oren the competitive primary battle he would have faced by joining a larger party, like Labor or Likud. As Kulanu’s sole foreign policy expert, Oren believes he will have far greater influence on the peace process should Kulanu join the governing coalition.
“Would it be better running as the exclusive authority over diplomatic positions in a party like Kulanu that will be part of any coalition, or being number 20-something in one of the two large parties?” he asked. “The party itself gives its imprimatur to my position.”
That position changed since Oren joined the party. Last year, writing for CNN, Oren advocated “unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian population centers in the West Bank” if ongoing peace talks failed, which they did.
Now Oren says Israel should not withdraw. Instead he advocates freezing settlement growth outside the major settlement blocs to keep a two-state solution viable while focusing on improving conditions in the West Bank.
“To the degree that we will build in Judea and Samaria, we will build in a way that accords with a final-status solution,” he said, using the biblical name for the West Bank. “Even though there’s no Palestinian partner right now, we will always be at the table.”
Kulanu’s messaging so far has made the peace process a low priority, focusing instead on lowering Israel’s cost of living. Mitchell Barak, an Israeli public opinion expert, said Kulanu recruited Oren so the party would look well-rounded, but that the party’s economic focus may leave him a “backbencher” once elected.
“I think he may find some difficulty in adjusting to the Knesset,” Barak said. “What legislation is Michael Oren going to initiate in Knesset? There’s a lot of people focused on that issue. What’s he going to do there?”
A ‘low point’
Oren comes to Israeli politics after a career split between defending Israel and writing its history. Born Michael Bornstein in 1955, he became bar mitzva at B’nai Shalom in West Orange, where his parents, Marilyn and Lester Bornstein both had deep ties to the local Jewish community. He graduated from West Orange Mountain High School and earned an undergraduate degree from Columbia University before making aliya in 1979. Oren was raised in New Jersey and moved to Israel in 1979, where he served as a paratrooper in the IDF. He returned to the United States to study at Princeton, where he earned a doctorate in Near Eastern Studies. He later served as an IDF spokesman.
Along the way he became a prominent historian of the Middle East, writing two best-selling books on the 1967 Six-Day War and the history of American policy in the region.
In 2009, Oren was appointed ambassador to Washington and quickly found himself at the nexus of tensions between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama.
Speaking to JTA, Oren declined to go into detail about the period, but he acknowledged that he and Netanyahu would occasionally clash. Netanyahu, Oren said, would take principled stances on issues that Oren felt could endanger bipartisan support for Israel.
That tendency is again on display in the current flap over Netanyahu’s planned speech to Congress next month, which has angered Democrats who see it as a Republican effort to use Netanyahu to undermine Obama’s negotiations with Iran. (See related story.) Oren said that the speech has heralded a “low point” in the U.S.-Israel relationship and has hurt what Oren called Israel’s “diplomatic Iron Dome,” a reference to Israel’s American-funded missile defense system.
The prime minister “has a supreme duty to protect this country against existential threats like the Iranian threat,” Oren said. “But the pursuit of that goal has to be counterbalanced with the other supreme interest of maintaining our supreme alliance in the world.”
Oren has been campaigning in English-speaking circles and holding parlor meetings at the homes of activists. Although immigrant absorption isn’t his primary issue, he says the country’s 300,000 Anglos are a constituency that deserves more attention.
That role had been filled by Dov Lipman, an American-born, fervently Orthodox legislator who has pushed for reforms to ease the integration of immigrants and who polls predict will not win a second term. The election’s other American-born hopeful is Baruch Marzel, who was born in the United States and moved to Israel as a young child. Marzel is running on the far-right Yachad list, but the party may not receive enough votes to win him a seat.
If Lipman loses, the mantle of immigrant champion may fall to Oren. As a military veteran, Oren says improving conditions for Americans who move to Israel and join the IDF is especially important to him. He also hopes becoming an effective legislator will help roll back the stigma that attends thick-accented Americans who come to Israel.
“We used to be a multi-accented country,” Oren said. “Nobody notices that [former Israeli President] Shimon Peres has a Polish accent. We need to make the American accent an Israeli accent. We aren’t there yet.”