Try to personally connect with the Israeli people and reassure them that the United States has Israel’s back — these are the main recommendations Deputy Minister Michael Oren has for US President Donald Trump, who is scheduled to arrive Monday for his first-ever visit to the Jewish state, where he is widely expected to push for a renewal of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
“It’s an opportunity to connect with Israel’s people, not just with Israel’s leaders. Israeli people loved to be embraced,” the US-born diplomat-cum-politician told The Times of Israel in an interview Thursday. “The warmer we’re embraced, the more confident we feel, and the more flexible we can be in peace talks.”
Oren, who as Israel’s ambassador to the US played a significant role in planning the 2013 visit of then-president Barack Obama, told The Times of Israel that he does not know whether Trump will announce the relocation the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem or formally recognize the city as Israel’s united capital. Regardless of the deeper political and diplomatic fallout from the visit, the mere images of the US president praying at the Western Wall will raise his popularity among Israelis, Oren predicted.
Furthermore, seeing Israel and its geographical dimensions for the first time with his own eyes will likely increase the president’s appreciation of the country’s security concerns, the deputy minister posited.
“A presidential visit is an opportunity. It’s not just a pleasantry, it’s not just a show. In international diplomacy is a very powerful tool,” said Oren, a former historian who in 2008 was the only Israeli member of then-president George W. Bush’s delegation to Israel. “This is the way that the president bolsters his confidence level among the Israeli people, and because of the nature of our neighborhood and the nature of our history, we very much appreciate being reassured.”
Jerusalem will be more willing to make compromises in negotiations if it feels it is in a position of strength, added Oren. “Israelis make peace because they are reassured, not because they are threatened. This visit is an opportunity to reassure the Israeli people.”
Apart from seeking to establish a personal connection with the Israeli people — by, for instance, interacting with Israeli children or students — the US president should also focus on delivering a clear-cut message, Oren said.
Trump should say that Israel and the United States have a historical alliance based on shared strategic interests and a deep commonality of values, and that he’s here reaffirm the White House’s vow to seek a peace deal that will provide the Jewish state with security, stability, and recognition, the deputy minister suggested.
Oren said he spent many hours with Obama and his team discussing the US president’s three-day visit in March 2013. “I had many ideas for the Obama visit. One of them was that he should play basketball at a high school on the periphery,” he recalled. But this proposal was ultimately dismissed due to time constraints and security concerns. “It’s very difficult for the president to get out of the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv corridor,” Oren said.
Obama did, however, heed Jerusalem’s recommendation to use his visit to make plain that Israel is a Jewish state, Oren said.
“That seems obvious, but in 2009 at the Cairo speech Obama said that Israel exists because of the Holocaust,” he said, referring to an address in which the president said the “aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.”
The juxtaposition of the Holocaust and Israel’s creation “proved yet another obstacle to peace, because why should the Arabs make peace with an artificial entity that the Europeans created on Palestinian soil to house European-Jewish refugees from the Holocaust that the Europeans perpetrated,” Oren said. “That’s the Arab narrative. Obama, in subsequent years, went to significant length to rectify that mistake. He used the opportunity of being here in Israel to demonstrate physically that Israel is a Jewish state.”
Obama’s itinerary included the laying of a wreath at Theodor Herzl’s grave, thus acknowledging the founder of political Zionism who died before the Holocaust, and a viewing of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which show a Jewish connection to the Land of Israel dating back thousands of years.
Obama also met a children’s choir at the President’s Residence, which Oren described as a “very moving moment” that greatly contributed to the visit’s success in raising the president’s approval rating among Israelis.
Trump’s working visit is much shorter and may not allow for many such interactions. Oren, however, is convinced that the president will boost his popularity in Israel, despite current developments that appear to cast a shadow over the visit, such as Trump’s reportedly compromising Israeli assets by leaking sensitive intelligence to Russia, or his ostensible refusal to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem.
The deputy minister also dismissed concerns over Trump’s insistence on visiting the Western Wall without any Israeli official by his side and the refusal of senior US administration officials to state whether the holy site is part of Israel. Recent speculation and spats over the White House’s position on sovereignty in East Jerusalem — mostly a matter for “foreign policy geeks” — will be marginalized by the sheer power of the images the US president’s visit there will elicit, he maintained.
“The sight of the president of the United States with a kippah on his head at the kotel is a powerful message to Israelis,” Oren said. “We cannot underestimate the depths of Israelis’ sense of threatened security in our region. In some cases it’s subliminal; we might not feel it walking down the streets of Tel Aviv or on Independence Day as our jets fly over. But it’s there, and when the president of the United States comes here and makes a show of love and support for Israel, you’re going to see a bump up, not a bump down, in his popularity.”
Even if Trump stops short of announcing the embassy’s relocation, his visit next week will have a tangible positive impact on Israel’s security when he sees the country’s sheer smallness, Oren argued. As opposed to most senior American politicians, the 70-year-old president has never been to Israel. After landing Monday at Ben Gurion Airport, he is scheduled to fly via helicopter to Jerusalem.
“Seeing the actual dimension of Israel is shocking to people,” the former ambassador said, recalling taking senior US officials on helicopter rides over Israel. “They understand our security concerns much more. ‘Wow, this place is tiny. Wait, a minute, that’s the West Bank, and that’s the sea? Let’s me get this straight: that’s all there is of Israel?’ It’s literally that moment, that holy cow moment. I’ve see it again and again.”
Michael Oren is the next guest in our Times of Israel Presents series. He will be interviewed in Jerusalem by David Horovitz on May 28. Tickets available HERE.