The rogue Iranian nuclear program represents not just an existential threat to Israel, but a “multiple existential threat to Israel,” the former Israeli ambassador to the United States said in an interview. Were Iran to attain a “military nuclear capability,” Michael Oren elaborated, it would not need to perfect a missile delivery system in order to target Israel with nuclear weaponry, but could do so via other delivery systems, such as a simple container aboard a ship. Its attainment of that capability could also prompt the nuclearization of the entire Middle East.

Moreover, Oren warned, there was “nothing that would indicate” the Iranians believe US President Barack Obama would ever resort to force to prevent them from attaining the bomb.

He stressed that if Iran is not stopped at the enrichment stage, thwarting it once it had moved the key components of its bomb-making program underground would require thoroughly unlikely “massive, massive bombing campaigns” that would “flatten all of Iran.”

And any last-resort Israeli military intervention, Oren acknowledged, has become “much harder” since the charming, mild-mannered Hassan Rouhani succeeded the confrontational Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran’s president and the US-led international community became deeply engaged in diplomacy with Iran.

Oren, who stepped down as ambassador in October, set out his profoundly worrying overview of the state of the battle to thwart the Iranian bomb in a lengthy interview, conducted at his new office at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, where he is lecturing in the Lauder School of Government and Diplomacy.

The New York-born historian and diplomat — who moved to Israel in 1979 and fought as a paratrooper in the 1982 Lebanon War, while also advancing an academic career that culminated in a PhD from Princeton — specified a long series of differences between the United States and Israel on grappling with the Iranian nuclear threat. He said personal relations between Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were “perfectly fine,” but that there are structural differences, public opinion differences, and differences over “fundamental interpretations of the facts” on Iran between the two leaderships.

Oren also detailed a series of historical instances where the two countries had differed dramatically on critical issues — in 1948, 1956, and 1967 — and where, ultimately, Israel’s prime ministers took dramatic actions in defiance of the United States. He stressed that this did not necessarily mean Netanyahu was about to strike Iran. Israel “has the most to gain from a diplomatic solution,” he emphasized. “But the meaning of Jewish sovereignty is that you don’t outsource your fundamental security.”

Articulate and precise, Oren answered questions on his dealings with Arab ambassadors during his four-year term in Washington, on where the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is headed, and on Israeli-Diaspora relations. But the conversation began with, and largely focused on Iran:

‘We have zero margin for error. Can you say that about the US?’

The Times of Israel: It seems that this interim deal reached with Iran in November last month — and I understand that the prime minister does not disagree — is terrible from several perspectives. The moment to require the Iranians to acknowledge that they have been moving toward a weapons capability was lost. And there may never be permanent deal. And this interim deal doesn’t cover any of the weaponization work they’re doing…

Michael Oren (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Michael Oren (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Michael Oren: And will there be an interim deal?

Yes, despite all the handshakes and the hugging, there is no finalized interim deal yet. But Secretary Kerry says “I’m not naive and I’m not stupid”…

You got a big bump on the rial. You got a jump in the stock market in Tehran. The message has gone out that the sanctions will not be tightened, which translates as you’re loosening them. It is gain for the Iranians.

But, again, Kerry says “I’m not naive and I’m not stupid.” And President Obama says “I’m going in clear-eyed.” And yet this looks like amateur hour, with devastating consequences. How do you explain this?

You explain it by structural differences between the United States and Israel, and also public opinion differences between the United States and Israel. Structural differences: The United States is a big country. It’s far away from the Middle East. It’s not threatened with national annihilation. It has much bigger capabilities. We are a small country. We are in Iran’s backyard. We are threatened with national annihilation. And we have less capabilities.

That difference is played out in what the Americans are willing to live with, what risks they are willing to take. We have zero margin for error with Iran. Can you say that about the United States?

But that does not explain why you would be what appears to be incompetent in negotiating…

It’s not just Mr. Kerry [negotiating]. The other four members of the Security Council plus Germany have also signed on to this thing.

The P5+1 could not have got a better deal? Even though China and Russia were not pressing in the same way.

They did not think they could have gotten a better deal.

‘American policymakers are saying that, no, sanctions have basically reached their maximum capacity, that if you over-torque it they’ll begin to unravel’

So one of the differences [between the US and Israel] is of structure. There are differences of public opinion, where in the United States you have a lot of war-weariness, and actually support for the interim agreement. You have to acknowledge that there is an American public out there, whose opinion is not always heard here because all you see are American leaders. You don’t often see the American public. We learned from the Syrian episode last summer (when Obama pulled back from a threatened punitive strike after the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons) that that public can be pivotal in decision-making.

And then finally you have some different fundamental interpretations of the facts. We strongly believe that ratcheting up the sanctions, combined with a credible military threat, represent the best chance of bringing the Iranians round to actually dismantling the program. The American policymakers are saying that, no, sanctions have basically reached their maximum capacity, that if you over-torque it they’ll begin to unravel, and that a year from now we’ll be in a less good negotiating position than we are today. So there’s a fundamental difference on the facts.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, left, speaks during a meeting with Hasan Rouhani in Tehran, Iran, on Sunday, June 16, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Office of the Supreme Leader)

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, left, speaks during a meeting with Hasan Rouhani in Tehran, Iran, on Sunday, June 16, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Office of the Supreme Leader)

There’s a fundamental difference about the Iranian leadership — whether there are genuine moderates or not. We’re highly, highly skeptical. [We consider that Iran’s President] Rouhani is part of the leadership of the revolution. He was selected by [Supreme Leader] Khamenei. And there are even doubts about whether he was selected to be the moderate candidate, whether he really was so moderate. Maybe that’s part of the whole scheme. But there are people in the United States who believe there is a distinction between moderates and radicals in Iran, and that you have to strengthen the former so that you don’t strengthen the latter.

Let me be sure I understand you: We in Israel have doubts that there is any genuine moderation here, while some in America think that possibly Rouhani is a moderate force. [Senior Likud MK] Tzachi Hanegbi, when I interviewed him, was pretty adamant that Rouhani’s election was not a planned masterstroke by Khamenei, but that he used it to his advantage.

I’m not an expert on Iran. I’ve heard people who are who think that this was possibly planned from the get-go.

Where do things stand and how will they play out?

To the degree that they can, Israeli leaders and representatives are going to be engaged in this intensive dialogue with their American counterparts, and with all the representatives of the P5+1, in order to clarify our position and our expectations regarding any type of final arrangement with the Iranians — the necessary components — all the while keeping our options on the table.

What constitutes a threshold state?

There was supposed to be a six-month period after the Geneva deal was done, in which they were aiming to reach a permanent deal.

Right.

Has that six month period begun?

No, I don’t think it has begun.

So we have this deal which has been done but not finalized. A month has passed. They’ve broken up for Christmas, meanwhile…

Meanwhile, they’re continuing to work on [the heavy water] Arak [facility]. Meanwhile, they continue to build and do research for the centrifuges. Meanwhile, they have their stockpiles [of enriched uranium].

And meanwhile, they’re doing who knows what on weaponization, which is not covered by the deal.

Weapnization is off the table. So the program in fact is progressing. Maybe they’re not breaking the 20% [enrichment] red line, but they’re expanding out horizontally, and in depth in terms of the weaponization. The Iranians are gaining.

Is it fair to define them now as a nuclear threshold state?

Our experts say no.

What would bring them to that point?

[First,] if they had all the centrifuges running. They have 10,000 out of 19,000 running. If they had installed the IR2s, which increase the accumulation rate four-fold.

More sophisticated centrifuges?

Right, the next generation.

Which they haven’t installed?

They have not installed… [Second,] we don’t know what’s going on with weaponization now. The weaponization would have to proceed to a certain point as well, [for Iran] to be truly threshold.

But we don’t think they’re at that yet?

No we don’t. But Netanyahu made a very important point a year and a half ago to the UN. He said it’s not important when Iran gets the bomb. The only important question is when will we no longer be able to prevent Iran from getting the bomb.

Understand this: The only part of the Iranian nuclear program we can observe is the enrichment part. We know where they are on enrichment. They have enough in their 3.5% stockpile for more than four bombs. But [things change] once they get to a certain point where they can break out and reach SQ — which is sensitive quantity; which you need for one bomb. If they’re within four weeks of SQ, then the enriched uranium disappears. It goes into a room not much bigger than this [very small] room, where you have your components: You have your fuses. You have your timers. You have your spherical device.

You won’t know where that [room] is. This is a country that’s half the size of Europe. And you won’t know.

Now the United States says, We’ll know when they move the uranium. And during the vice presidential debates, Biden was very adamant: We’re gonna know. We’re gonna know. Okay. You know. But what if you only have a couple of weeks to know. Will you move that fast?

Centrifuges enriching uranium (Photo credit: US Department of Energy/ Wikimedia Commons)

Illustrative photo of centrifuges enriching uranium (photo credit: US Department of Energy/Wikimedia Commons)

They have the 19,000 centrifuges. They haven’t been dismantled. They have the facilities. They haven’t been dismantled. They have the stockpile, which hasn’t been shipped abroad; they’re just getting rid in some way of the 180 kilograms of 20%. But if you have 6,000 or 7,000 kilograms of 3.5%, you’ve got enough for at least four bombs. So that’s all there.

Now think about it. I don’t know how long it takes to install those centrifuges. If the talks break down, or if there’s this fuzzy period at the end — very similar to what’s going on right now — and you quickly install your additional 9,000 centrifuges, among them the IR2s, which really give you [the equivalent of] about 24,000 centrifuges. And you have a stockpile. And maybe you’ve done some research and development, that actually gives you some closer to an IR3, which has an even higher rate of accumulation than the IR2s, how long is it going to take you [to break out]?

And the answer is?

Weeks. Now the international community moves slowly. It’s the old speedboat versus the aircraft carrier. You’ve got to move the world’s biggest aircraft carrier: the entire international community. And get them on board with what? Military action? Play the scenario out. Would the Chinese and Russians agree on military action?

The constant paradox of the military threat, as we always said, was: the more credible, the less the chance you have to use it.

But it’s also: If you do have to use it, the earlier you use it, the less damage there will be than later. Why? Because if you can still stop [the Iranian program] at the enrichment cycle, then you are neutralizing certain facilities before they can move out [the enriched material]. But once they move it out, and it goes underground, you’re going to flatten all of Iran. Then you’re talking about massive, massive bombing campaigns. So the military option is only a real option if it’s used, you know, incredibly early on.

It’s only credible if it’s pinpoint, if it’s surgical. Because if you miss that moment, then you’ve got to bomb all of Iran. You don’t know where this room is.

And nobody would contemplate doing that?

Much more difficult.

Unthinkable because of the civilian casualties…

Everything. You’re talking a much bigger operation.

How credible is [the talk of a resort to force] at any point? The Russians and the Chinese would not go along under any circumstances, surely, would not be part of or sanction military intervention even if it’s clear that Iran is becoming a nuclear weapons state.

I know the American part. President Obama says that he’s serious, that all options are on the table — he just said this again in Washington — and that he’s not bluffing. They certainly have the capabilities.

The question is not whether the president says, All options are on the table. The question is whether the Iranians believe it. And there is nothing that would indicate — at least to us, to Israeli observers — so far that the Iranians believe it.

‘The Iranians planned to blow up a restaurant in Washington. They planned to blow up Israel’s embassy, in downtown Washington. Now a country that’s planning that type of terrorist attack in the capital of the United States is not particularly afraid of military retribution. Agree?’

On the contrary, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that the Iranians don’t believe it.

Such as?

They planned to blow up a restaurant in downtown Washington. They planned to blow up my embassy, Israel’s embassy, in downtown Washington. Same plot.

The Saudi plot?

Yes. I wrote about it in an op-ed.

Now a country that’s planning that type of terrorist attack in the capital of the United States is not particularly afraid of military retribution. Agree? That would be one indication.

Obama told AIPAC that containment…

… is not an option.

Do you see that reflected in US policy? Is he showing that he’s prepared to live with an Iran with a nuclear weapons capability?

He claims that he is not.

Well, he says that he won’t allow Iran to attain nuclear weapons. (At the Saban Forum last month, Obama said his “goal is to make sure that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon.”) Aren’t we seeing Obama pursuing containment?

The question is whether we have different definitions of containment. For us, what is very important is that Iran does not have the breakout capability. And we don’t want to see them contained, with what is sometimes referred to as Japan-like [capabilities]. Because [an Iran] even with breakout capabilities has an immense impact on our security. It will adversely impact our ability to deal with terrorism, especially Iranian-backed terrorist groups. And even the attainment of “mere” breakout capability could trigger the nuclear arms race in the entire Middle East. At that point the Saudis, the Egyptians and others will start going…

The United States can live with an Iran that has breakout capabilities? That’s what you’re seeing?

No, but the United States has made clear that it can live with a certain amount of Iranian nuclear capabilities. I’m not saying military capabilities, but nuclear capabilities. The administration said two things: It said it had not recognized Iran’s right to enrich. And yet you look at the [interim] agreement and it says that the question of enrichment will be addressed in a mutually agreed way.

US President Barack Obama speaks during the Brookings Institution's Saban Forum in Washington, Saturday, December 7, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

US President Barack Obama speaks during the Brookings Institution’s Saban Forum in Washington, Saturday, December 7, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

And Obama at Saban said, I can envisage a deal in which they do have a limited enrichment program, much inspected…

If they have no right to enrich, why do they need centrifuges? So why weren’t they dismantled?

Then why isn’t the United States insisting on this?

The question is how we would look at an Iran that has that type of even highly inspected, limited, nuclear production capabilities: Would we view that as an Iran that is capable of breaking out?

Whereas Obama plainly under certain circumstances could live with something like that.

He said it. He said it.

A ‘multiple existential threat’

There are these structural differences between Israel and the United States. And you were the man charged with maintaining a smooth relationship somehow on a critical issue — I don’t know if you consider it an existential threat to Israel?

Yes. I think it’s a multiple existential threat. I don’t think it’s just one. It’s several.

What does that mean?

Iran with a nuclear weapon — the obvious one — is that they stick one of these bombs on top of one of the many missiles they have that are capable of carrying them and hitting any Israeli city. The “one bomb country” scenario. Two, the nuclearization of the entire Middle East. And three, Iran is the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism. So once Iran gets a military nuclear capability, you don’t have to worry [only] about a rocket, you’ll have to be worried about a ship container. There are various ways in which they can deliver it. So it’s not one existential threat. It’s a multiple one.

So here you are trying to serve the interests of our country in its relationship with its best ally, in a situation of different contexts, and different threats. How are we doing in terms of that relationship. Is it okay? Are the personal withering assessments by the leaders of each other impacting on that relationship?

They had 11 meetings. Personal meetings. I was in all of them. They’re perfectly fine. They were open and candid and friendly. There were some laughs. There were some real laughs in those meetings. Obama claims to have spent more time on the telephone, and in his personal relations [with Netanyahu] than with any other foreign leader, and I think he’s probably right. A lot of hours. At the end of the day, we’re dealing with two countries whose interests on this issue cannot be entirely confluent — because of the structural differences and because of the circumstances in which they find themselves.

But who are intertwined.

They are intertwined.

So here’s Netanyahu, who thinks that the world is always going to try to wipe out the Jews, and that we have to be strong, and that we have to snuff out our enemies before they come for us. And Israel’s key ally, which is a little more distanced from this threat, but is going to be drawn into anything that we choose to do?

You think there’s anything new with this? Why do you think it’s about Netanyahu and Obama. I come with one great advantage: I come with the historical perspective. [Israel’s first prime minister] Ben-Gurion in May 1948 is under immense pressure from the Truman administration not to declare a Jewish state. George Marshall is telling [president Truman] that the Jews are going to be wiped off the face of the earth if they do this. They’ll be defeated in three weeks. [Moshe] Sharett [the first Israeli foreign minister] goes crazy. Sharett comes back to Ben-Gurion and says, You can’t do this. George Marshall, the architect of the World War II settlement, says we’re going to be destroyed.

David Ben-Gurion, flanked by the members of his provisional government, reads the Declaration of Independence in the Tel Aviv Museum Hall on May 14, 1948 (photo credit: Israel Government Press Office)

David Ben-Gurion, flanked by the members of his provisional government, reads the Declaration of Independence in the Tel Aviv Museum Hall on May 14, 1948 (photo credit: Israel Government Press Office)

They want more time for diplomacy. Ben-Gurion has to make this terrible decision: Do I declare statehood? Existential issue for us. The risks are great. We may not have the Americans on our side.

But he did. And Truman overrode Marshall.

In 1956 — this is widely forgotten — what was the Suez Sinai campaign about? Suez Sinai was the product of an estimation made by Moshe Dayan, the chief of staff, and Ben-Gurion, that the Egypt army would within six months absorb the massive amount of Soviet weaponry given them under the so-called Czech arms deal, and that at the end of those six months, Israel would be faced with an existential threat. At the height of the Suez crisis, there’s international diplomacy going on all over the place; you’ve got John Foster Dulles, who’s no great Zionist, to say the least. Huge pressures, and Ben-Gurion has to make a decision.

1967, [prime minister] Levi Eshkol, same deal. [President] Johnson says do not do anything. Don’t go alone. We need time for diplomacy. Got to work with the international community.

Meanwhile, the Arab armies are gathering on our border. Eshkol gave time to exhaust diplomatic options. In the end, he had to do what he had to do.

That doesn’t mean that Netanyahu is going to do the same thing right now. The stakes are very, very high. Israel has the most to gain from a diplomatic solution. The most to lose from the failure of a diplomatic solution. So it’s not an easy call. But the meaning of Jewish sovereignty is that you don’t outsource your fundamental security. There’s no shirking the responsibility. This is our responsibility. It’s an onerous responsibility.

‘Our purpose here is not to draw America into anything. But we do have to ensure our survival’

But, again, we’re intertwined. That if Israel does what it feels it has to do, the United States is going to be caught up in this. And therefore you might think that the Americans would not suffice themselves with saying, ‘Our red lines are a little bit different. But we recognize your right to defend yourselves.’ They’re going to get drawn in, aren’t they, if we feel that they did a lousy deal, and Iran’s now breaking out to the bomb?

I think you’d have to ask the American ambassador, you’d have to ask Dan Shapiro, that question. I agree with you. Our purpose here is not to draw America into anything. But we do have to ensure our survival. And no Israeli leader, left, right, up, down, would make a different call. Because they’re all looking at the same information, looking at the same intelligence. Netanyahu doesn’t get up in the morning and decide on a whim to take these polices. He is conferring with a very sizable community of intelligence experts — among the world’s best, if they aren’t the world’s best — from Mossad, from military intelligence, who are basically adducing the same evidence to support a case. That’s his responsibility as prime minister.

No other conceivable prime minister, then, would have resorted to the use of force yet?

You’re turning it around. The use of force yet? That’s a different way of coming at it. What I’m saying is that every prime minister would have exhausted the diplomatic options, all the while preserving our right to possibly act if we have to, if there’s no other choice. That, I think any prime minister would do.

Germany's Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, US Secretary of State John Kerry, and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius at the UN Palais on November 24, 2013, in Geneva, after announcing an interim deal at the Iran nuclear talks. (photo credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster, Pool)

Germany’s Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, US Secretary of State John Kerry, and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius at the UN Palais on November 24, 2013, in Geneva, after announcing an interim deal at the Iran nuclear talks. (photo credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster, Pool)

I wonder, now, with this avuncular, likable foreign minister that they have, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and their serene president Rouhani, and an international community engaged in a diplomatic process, whether it’s much harder now for Israel to act, as opposed to six months ago, when it was Ahmadinejad and no comparable international engagement…?

Much harder.

That doesn’t mean we missed the moment and should have acted already?

I cannot respond to that.

I understand. And in terms of what we can do: You spoke of the stages of a military option — at one point it’s pinpoint, and then later on it’s much more dramatic when things have disappeared [underground]. Do we have a military option beyond the pinpoint? What kind of options do we have that you can discuss?

I can’t. All I can say is that we have the capability and the ability to defend ourselves.

Our moment of potential action has not passed?

I’ve been out of the office for three months. But as of October 1, we have the ability.

Making sense of Kerry’s bridging proposals

On the Palestinian front, we have rumors of an impending framework agreement to be presented by the Americans.

Bridging agreements, framework programs. I don’t know. The sides are basically according with Kerry’s ground rules. I can only, again, fall back on history: Bridging proposals are only effective when the parties are relatively close, not when they’re relatively far. That’s why they’re called bridging proposals. That’s going back to Camp David in 1979, when America came up with bridging proposals. If you try to make that bridge with a bigger span, it will fold in the middle. So it could be one indication that the sides are not that far apart, if it’s coming to bridging proposals.

‘Peacekeeping forces are very effective as long as there’s no peace to keep’

Or, someone is looking for an exit strategy: ‘I did my best. I put a lot of prestige into this. Here’s what I think should happen. If you guys get around to talking about this, I’ll be happy. You’ve got my phone number.’ [If that’s the case], it’s Baker-esque (a reference to former US secretary of state James Baker’s comments to the sides to call him when they were truly interested in a peace accord).

I don’t know, honestly.

Again, no prime minister would enable our eastern border, the eastern border of a Palestinian state, to be guarded by an international force. With our experience going back to 1967 — to UNEF, and then UNIFIL, and now UNDOF — peacekeeping forces are very effective as long as there’s no peace to keep.

And there’s been talk of an American force.

I find it interesting because I don’t see the American people sending another major military force to the Middle East.

And it would be disastrous for Israel, because the last people we would want to tangle with there are American forces?

Yeah, perhaps that’s one of the reasons why the Palestinians would want it: We’d end up tangling with [the Americans].

It would not be popular with the American public today, to send a sizable force of American troops here. I’m not even sure the funds would be available for it, because they are going through a process of sequestration, cutting back.

We’re certainly not asking for it.

In view of the Lebanese experience, in view of the Gaza experience, you cannot be responsible and let anybody else peruse those borders. You can mix and shuffle it, but at the end of the day, the people who have to be responsible for that are Israelis.

US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives to a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the Palestinian Presidential compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah on December 05, 2013 (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives to a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the Palestinian Presidential compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah on December 05, 2013 (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

And if Abbas really wanted an agreement, he would recognize that?

It’s a point of keen sensibilities for them. They want to be able to say that they’re completely sovereign. We’re going to come back and say that the presence of foreign troops does not derogate from sovereignty. Look at the example of Americans in Korea, Americans in Germany — those are sovereign nations. And we’ll review this over a certain period of time and see whether, to quote Obama, the Palestinian state can fill its sovereign responsibilities. That’s got to be a long-term process.

We cannot afford to see the West Bank fill up with hundreds of thousands of rockets, which is what will happen if that border is left open — we’re talking about the Philadelphia Route [between Gaza and Egypt] ten times over. It’s opposite our major population and industrial centers. I don’t think any prime minister would concede that.

Don’t we undermine our case, and our vital needs, with new settlement announcements and plans, especially in areas that Israel doesn’t envisage retaining under a permanent accord?

I’m sure they’re not helpful for the United States, they’re not helpful for the international community, they’re not helpful for the Palestinians… A certain part of the Israeli public might be comforted, after painful measures such as the release of prisoners who have blood on their hands, by construction.

Well, much of the Israeli public would say don’t release the prisoners, and stop building beyond the security barriers and the blocs, wouldn’t it?

Most of the building is within the security barrier and the blocs. There’s very little actual building going on that’s not within the blocs.

Take the entire settlement enterprise: Does it enhance our relationship with the United States and the international community? The answer obviously is no. Is it controversial within Israel? It is controversial within Israel.

Don’t alienate non-Orthodox Jews in America

What impact does it have on Israel’s relationship with the Jews in America.

Settlements? It has an impact on certain Jews. But some Jews in America are also dissatisfied we’re not building more and faster. The American Jewish left gets a lot of press time. But the American Jewish right does not. And in many ways, the American Jewish right is every bit as well-organized and perhaps better funded than the American Jewish left. And they also come out with criticism.

I had as much opposition from the American Jewish right as I did from the American Jewish left. At least as much.

For what?

For being in favor of the two-state solution. For effecting the moratorium [on settlement building] in 2010. For prisoner releases.

What’s your take, after this term, on American Jews and Israel — how close are we, what we should be doing better, the non-Orthodox controversies…?

It’s not black and white. Parts of the answer can appear contradictory. The American Jewish community is similar to what many physicists say is occurring in the universe — that it’s expanding and contracting at the same time. So the American community — read the Pew Report — they’re contracting through intermarriage and assimilation. However, at the same time, there’s a strong kernel of the American Jewish community, not just Orthodox, but also Jews who’ve gone on Birthright, who are more connected Jewishly and more connected to Israel, and that’s expanding. New York alone for the last three years has had a positive Jewish growth rate, for the first time in decades. So there are parts of the community that are actually growing.

So if you look down the road, 20 or 30 years from now, the American Jewish community may be smaller, but it could also be more Jewishly identified and more connected to Israel.

At the same time, on the constriction side, you have not only Jews who are disaffected because of Israeli policies, but also because the state of Israel doesn’t recognize Reform and Conservative Judaism.

Ambassador Michael Oren welcomes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington, in August 2010 (Photo credit: Moshe Milner GPO FLASH90)

Ambassador Michael Oren welcomes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington, in August 2010 (Photo credit: Moshe Milner GPO FLASH90)

I met with rabbis — the only place here they can all convene safely is under the aegis of the Israeli Embassy and the consul general; we’re like neutral turf — and the only thing that all the rabbis, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, agreed on, was their opposition to the [Israeli] Chief Rabbinate. It’s amazing.

What have the US Orthodox rabbis got against the Israeli Chief Rabbinate?

They don’t recognize most of their conversions today.

The Israeli Chief Rabbinate…?

… does not recognize a large number of the [US] Orthodox rabbis’ conversions. You can’t make this stuff up.

‘We need to recognize all forms of Judaism’

And if Israel does not work to make itself the nation state of all the Jewish people, and be truly pluralistic and open about this, then we risk losing these people.

What do we need to do?

We need to recognize all forms of Judaism. We have to recognize the roles of those movements in Judaism within different life-cycle events in Israeli life. We risk alienating them. The amazing thing about the Reform movement is that, after so many years of not being recognized by the state of Israel, they remain so pro-Israeli. That to me is extraordinary.

And it won’t last forever?

I don’t know how long it’s going to last. I would not be fully confident about it.

I’ll sit with American Jewish Reform and Conservative leaders who care passionately about Israel. But they’ll say to you: I can’t tell you how hurtful it is that the state of Israel doesn’t recognize my form of Judaism. It is the worst pain when you say something like that. It’s something we have to address as a society if we are to remain the nation state of the Jewish people.

[When I returned as ambassador in 2009,] I had not lived in the United States for a quarter of a century. I had this Rip Van Winkle experience of this guy who wakes up after a long… I consulted with a lot of guides in the American Jewish community about what had happened in those 25 years. I had some wonderful people helping me. I got very sage advice. There was a big question about this notion of “the nation state of the Jewish people.” At the time, I think the prime minister was referring to Israel as the Jewish state. They came back to me and said the locution, the formula, that would be most acceptable to a majority of American Jews would be Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. And I conveyed this to the Prime Minister’s Office, and we adopted it. We got this from these American Jewish leaders.

I take it very seriously: the nation state of the Jewish people. But we’ve got to stand behind it. Now we’ve accepted the formula, let’s live up to it.

The Saudis looked through me

Finally, were you surprised, coming to Washington as the ambassador, at relationships with other Arab countries where you’d never have dreamed of interaction, or is there nothing?

There were three types of Arab ambassadors in Washington: Those who’ll have lunch with me publicly, those who’ll have lunch with me privately, and those who won’t have lunch with me — they won’t even look at me. The latter category is the smallest, and it’s gotten smaller because the Syrians are not there any more. The Syrians don’t have an embassy in Washington.

Michael Oren and Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report, March 5, 2013 (photo credit: screen capture/Comedy Central)

Michael Oren and Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report, March 5, 2013 (photo credit: screen capture/Comedy Central)

I was surprised that some of the countries that fall into that latter category weren’t more inviting, for the simple reason that our interests are more confluent now than at any time in the last 65 years: We agree on Egypt, we agree on Syria, we agree on the Palestinians basically, and we agree on Iran. And that should make for a closer relationship, even privately.

So the Saudis, for instance, wouldn’t even look at you?

The Saudis had a wonderful ability to look through me. Perfectly nice people, but they were not willing to go there. They walk fine lines. I never took it personally. It’s their loss.