Having quit Kulanu, Michael Oren seeks new party ‘to best serve country’
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Interview'If called to the flag again, I will go'

Having quit Kulanu, Michael Oren seeks new party ‘to best serve country’

Former ambassador to US says his time in the Knesset was marred by ‘disappointment with the coalition,’ but he’s not ready to leave parliament just yet

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Kulanu Knesset member Michael Oren speaks to press in the Israeli parliament, July 29, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Kulanu Knesset member Michael Oren speaks to press in the Israeli parliament, July 29, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In his 2007 bestseller, “Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East,” Michael Oren tells the history of US engagement with the Middle East via the journeys of individual Americans driven by a myriad of impulses — missionary zeal, commercial or political ambitions, patriotic fervor — to make their own impact on Israel and beyond.

For the New York-born Oren, his aliyah, or immigration to Israel, at the age of just 19 was another chapter in that same story of idealistic Americans hoping to shape a small part of this region.

Thirty-five years later, having already made a name for himself as a historian and writer before serving as Israel’s ambassador to the US, Oren was given an opportunity to not just tell the story of the Jewish State or to represent it abroad, but to directly influence the country’s body politic as a Knesset member.

But four years after taking the step from Israel’s diplomatic stage onto its at-times unforgiving political one, Oren’s parliamentary career now looks set to come to a swift end after April’s general elections. Days after the national poll was called last week, the Kulanu MK announced that he would not be running with the party in the national ballot, having reportedly been told by party leader Moshe Kahlon that he would not be given a realistic spot on its electoral slate. (Kulanu’s roster is entirely determined by Kahlon.)

While the 11-seat faction that named him as its fourth-place candidate in the 2015 elections may not be interested in giving him a second run, Oren has other plans. Speaking with The Times of Israel this week, he said his service to Israel, and maybe even the Knesset, was not over yet.

“My whole life is about service to this country in one way or another,” Oren said in an interview shortly after announcing his imminent departure from Kulanu. “However I can best serve the country, I will.”

Former ambassador to the US Michael Oren (R) announces his run for the Knesset with Kulanu party leader Moshe Kahlon, December 24, 2014. (Ben Kelmer/Flash90)

With his Knesset tenure adding a line to his impressive resume, Oren says he could easily go on to head one of Israel’s many quasi-governmental bodies dealing with foreign or diaspora relations. For now, however, he is not content with the title “former Knesset member,” and while remaining cagey about the specific direction he may take, confirmed that he is seeking another party with which he can run for reelection.

Just a week before, Oren had been seeking to step up the government ladder, publicly calling to be appointed immigration minister and claiming he was “the most qualified for the position.” Now, he’s looking for a new political home for himself.

As parties begin to start filling out their slates, recruiting big-hitters in an attempt to lure voters new and old, Oren hopes that both his experience and dedication to the cause will make him an attractive pick for this round of the draft.

“In 2015, I was called upon to serve the State of Israel in the Knesset. For four full years, as a Knesset member and later as deputy minister, I worked tirelessly to strengthen Israel’s relations in the world,” he said in his Monday announcement, promising that he would “not abandon” that mission.

Kulanu MK Michael Oren shows a ‘Made in Europe’ label he prepared a few weeks earlier, in response to the European decision to label products made in territories Israel captured in the Six Day War in 1967. (Courtesy Michael Oren)

Having taken a key role in shaping Kulanu’s centrist diplomatic agenda while also publicly pushing hard-line positions on a range of different issues and occasionally launching bellicose online defenses of the Jewish state, Oren could potentially fit into a number of parties seeking to present themselves as occupying the center of Israel’s political map, or rightwards of it.

“Yes, I’m talking with various people,” he said excitedly, saying he would not rule out joining a new party or one of the current coalition partners other than Kulanu, but adding that he could not say any more at this stage.

Whether he is tapped for another Knesset slate or not, Oren vowed to “continue the fight against boycott organizations and anti-Israel groups and to represent Israel around the world.”

As one of the few American natives to have served in the Israeli parliament, Oren said he had felt most fulfilled working on behalf of other immigrants. “I felt they were my constituents,” he said wistfully, adding that both as an MK and also after being appointed deputy minister in charge of public diplomacy in 2016, he was determined to make aliyah a top focus and priority.

“No one else has done as much work as I have on these issues,” he said, noting his establishment of the Knesset lone-soldier lobby, work with French aliyah groups, and preparations for what he predicts will be a “large-scale aliyah” from the UK should Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn be elected prime minister. He also noted he was among the sponsors of a 2016 bill codifying the grassroots Aliyah Day, an annual celebration of Jewish immigration to Israel.

Deputy Minister Michael Oren speaks at a Thanksgiving dinner for lone soldiers in Tel Aviv on November 23, 2017. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Beyond his own agenda, however, Oren said that as a member of the coalition, where individual MKs are rarely free to vote their conscience, he often had to give his hand to policies he opposed. “I felt disappointment with the coalition, and my own party, ” he said before launching into a list of contentious issues he said he felt loath to have been connected to.

Chief among those misgivings was the government’s decision to shelve a hard-won deal for a pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall. Oren at the time branded the move an “abandonment of Zionism.”

“Our relationships with large segments of Diaspora Jewry have become disaffected. I don’t know how we can be the nation state of the Jewish people and not recognize Reform Jewry,” he said this week.

“I think,” he added ruefully, “I was a lone voice within the coalition.”

But despite the pitfalls of Israeli realpolitik, Oren says he is not yet ready to give up on his desire to influence the future of Israel.

“If,” he said emphatically, “I am called to the flag again, I will go.”

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