Ex-envoy to US Michael Oren joins new Kulanu party

American-born former ambassador, once considered a Netanyahu ally, officially teams up with Kahlon for March elections

Former ambassador to the US Michael Oren announces he's running for the Knesset with Kulanu party leader Moshe Kahlon, December 24, 2014. (Photo credit: Ben Kelmer/Flash90)
Former ambassador to the US Michael Oren announces he's running for the Knesset with Kulanu party leader Moshe Kahlon, December 24, 2014. (Photo credit: Ben Kelmer/Flash90)

Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, is to run for the Knesset with Moshe Kahlon’s new Kulanu party, the two announced Wednesday. The US-born Oren is the former Likud minister’s first high-profile recruit.

Oren, 55, announced his decision to join the center-right party at a joint press conference with Kahlon.

A historian and author, Oren was appointed to the Washington post by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and served as ambassador from 2009 to 2013.

“The State of Israel lies at a critical junction,” Oren said Wednesday at a press conference in Tel Aviv. “I cannot watch from the sidelines and do nothing while we can find ourselves under a diplomatic offensive. We must take our fate in our hands.”

Kahlon, a popular former communications minister, has yet to announce his full party’s list. The addition of Oren will add diplomatic clout to the Kulanu list, with other members to be announced Thursday, according to Ynet. One of the other anticipated recruits is Eli Alaluf, who heads a committee dedicated to fighting poverty.

The Kulanu leader touted Oren’s diplomatic skills at the press conference and insisted his know-how would be pivotal for protecting the Jewish state: “Israel’s cooperation with friends and allies around the world is an important and meaningful element to its existence,” Kahlon said.

Oren’s announcement followed a slew of reports published earlier this month speculating that he would be tapped by Kahlon to run for the Knesset.

The New York-born Oren immigrated to Israel in 1979. He served as a paratrooper in the Lebanon War, is a best-selling author and historian with a doctorate in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton, and has taught and lectured widely, including as a visiting professor at Harvard, Yale and Georgetown.

Since ending his term as ambassador, Oren has sometimes spoken of ideological differences between Israel and the current US administration. Earlier this month, at a Washington Institute event in New York, Oren said the Obama administration “has a worldview that does not always accord with the worldview of any Israeli government, not just this Israeli government. I don’t think you’re going to find any Israeli government that’s going to define Gilo and French Hill as settlements, for example. Or an Israeli government that would be capable, even under Israeli law, of freezing building in those large Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem. It just couldn’t happen, so you have an ideological difference.”

At the same event, Oren predicted that Israel “seems likely to have a more right-wing, more right-of-center coalition as a result of the next coalition.”

Kahlon’s party is expected to attract large numbers of traditional Likud voters, which may pose a major threat to Netanyahu retaining his premiership after the March 17 elections.

A poll published by the Knesset Channel on Monday afternoon suggests that Netanyahu’s Likud party would win 21 seats in the upcoming elections, two seats fewer than the new Labor-Hatnua alliance of Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni.

Kulanu could win 10-13 seats, several recent polls suggest.

Kahlon has previously stated that his new party will not be composed of politicians, but of “doers” — an apparent reference to Israeli professionals and technocrats with extensive experience outside the Knesset.

Kahlon spoke on Wednesday at a forum held by Calcalist, an Israeli economics publication, and stated his party’s desire to improve the financial situation of Israeli citizens.

“Today, many Israelis cannot look their children in the eye and promise them a better future,” Kahlon said. “The tragedy is that we are a very wealthy country. The country grows rich and the citizens do not feel it. Something in our economic structure is not working, if the citizens aren’t feeling it. This must be changed.”

A survey published Monday by the Latet aid group suggests that as many as a third of Israelis live under the poverty line, the highest proportion of any OECD country.

Speaking to young Israelis in a Q&A at a Tel Aviv pub three weeks ago, Kahlon described himself as “center, a little right” in his political views, and said the current government was exhibiting “helplessness” on the diplomatic front.

“I come from Likud. The real Likud knows how to make peace, to give up territory, and on the other hand is conservative and responsible,” Kahlon told pub goers. “My world view is that of the real Likud that truly came and safeguarded the Land of Israel. When it needed to make peace with the greatest Arab nation (Egypt) it did so, and when it needed to compromise, it compromised.”

Kahlon’s statements appeared to signify a change in his position. In the past, he was on record as an opponent of Palestinian statehood and the dismantling of settlements.

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