Michael Oren, Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S, is the Jewish stateâ€™s highest ranking envoy to the American government and, by extension, to the American people. One of his principal responsibilities is to ensure that, when push comes to shove, Americans –including American Jews– will support U.S. efforts to protect Israelâ€™s core security interests.
That is why his recent attacks on J Street are undiplomatic and unwise. Oren said he has a problem with J Street because “it not only opposes one policy of one Israeli government, it opposes all policies of all Israeli governments,” it is “outside the mainstream” and it is “fooling around with the lives of seven million.”
In fact, much to the chagrin of the anti-Israel far left, J Street is in complete agreement with the Israeli government and the American Jewish mainstream on the most important issues. It is left-of-center when compared to the rest of the organized Jewish community, but on the broad, global ideological spectrum, it is a decidedly moderate group.
Look at J Streetâ€™s official positions. It has affirmed that Israel needs to maintain its qualitative military edge and supports continued American aid to Israel. After supporting Obama’s approach to cautious engagement with Iran, it recently endorsed a Senate bill for tougher sanctions against Iran. It has not called for Israel to negotiate with Hamas, contrary to what Oren and others have implied. It has said that no progress can take place without a unity government that includes Hamas, and that if Israel wants to negotiate with Hamas, the U.S. should not stop it. That is an admittedly subtle distinction but an important one. J Street is actually more conservative than the Israel public on that question, since, as the Forward points out, 57% of Israelis favor talks with Hamas under certain conditions.
Most importantly, it is absolutely unthinkable that J Street would support an American government if it tried to impose conditions â€“e.g., borders, security arrangements– that the Israeli government believed would compromise Israelâ€™s core security requirements.
Those are the big issues, the key existential questions of concern to â€œseven million people.â€ Israel would have a hard time if most American Jews and most of the American people did not agree with J Street on these matters. Yes, there have been some serious disagreements between J Street and the Israeli government over the Goldstone report and the war in Gaza. But the way to deal with them is to engage with J Street and explain why the Israeli government thinks they are wrong, not make them a cause celebre with public denunciations or try to completely marginalize them. In doing the latter, Oren is writing off a large swath of American Jews â€“and other Americans– who associate themselves with the positions of J Street and whose continued, active support will be needed in the dangerous days ahead.
An ambassador needs to cultivate potential allies, not insult them.
Oren has written a history of the U.S. and Israel and no doubt remembers the early years of the Rabin administration and the Oslo process. He probably recalls that one of his predecessors, Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich, was pelted with eggs in one synagogue and hooted and harassed in others. He probably remembers when Likud supporters in the U.S. lobbied against the declared positions of the Israeli government, with the open encouragement of Benjamin Netanyahu.
I was a consultant to the Israeli Consulate in New York for a brief time during this period, and what I remember was that Israeli officials tried to engage with their detractors. They met with them, talked to them, tried to convince them of the errors of their ways. The Israelis knew that despite the terrible squabbling, despite incidents like the one in which Education Minister Shulamit Aloni was punched in the stomach by a right-wing Jew, these anti-Oslo forces could not be written off and treated as lepers and exiles. Down the road, Israel was going to need them on the most important issues.
No one is pelting Michael Oren with eggs. Why he wonâ€˜t meet with the J Streeters and speak to them in public is not just wrongheaded: it is mystifying.