Michael Oren, Israel’s departing ambassador to the United States, said that President Barack Obama is “a true friend” of Israel and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is “committed to peace.”
In a wide-ranging interview Thursday with Haaretz, Oren sounded an optimistic note about the US-Israel relationship and warned of the dangers of a nuclear Iran.
Oren said the alliance between the US and Israel ”did not experience any genuine crises in the past 4 1/2 years” and that “during the Obama-Netanyahu era there was a whole series of supposed crises, none of which was a genuine crisis. The public atmosphere was one of tension, but behind the scenes we worked together as allies” on a range of issues.
Oren also disagreed with the notion that Obama is unfriendly to Israel, noting that while Obama’s 2009 trip to Egypt made some Israelis uncomfortable, “Obama is a true friend and he is a most serious person and one shouldn’t underestimate him and his determination.”
Obama “tried to make peace with the Arab world,” said Oren. “This was misunderstood in Israel because in Israel everything is measured on the basis of the sense of security and insecurity. And when an American president goes to Egypt and goes to Turkey and doesn’t come to visit us, it causes a sense of insecurity.”
Oren added, though, that Israel cannot rely on the US to prevent a nuclear Iran. “The question isn’t whether or not we believe Obama,” he said. “The question is what our responsibility is as a sovereign nation. We cannot outsource our national security… All diplomatic options must be exhausted – but we cannot flee from this responsibility.”
Asked whether Netanyahu is capable of handling such a mission, Oren replied: “Certainly… He was the one who succeeded in drawing the world’s attention to the threat… Netanyahu truly managed to budge the world. But this success is not enough. Therefore Netanyahu now faces a Ben-Gurion-type dilemma. The question he faces is similar to the question that faced Ben-Gurion in May 1948 and the question that Levi Eshkol faced in May 1967.”
Pushed as to whether Netanyahu may have to go to war against Iran despite international and domestic pressure not to do so, Oren replied: “As prime minister of a sovereign state, Netanyahu has the responsibility to defend the country. When the country is a Jewish state with a painful and tragic history – the responsibility is even greater and heavier… Defending Israel is not an option – it’s a duty.”
Was Netanyahu emotionally capable of going to war? “I think so,” said Oren. “He doesn’t sleep at night. He bears a tremendous responsibility on his shoulders. And he has restraint; he isn’t dragged into unnecessary wars. But this restraint is actually a sign of strength – as it was with Eshkol.”
Oren also said the Israeli leader was serious about reaching peace with the Palestinians.
“Netanyahu is aware of the danger posed by an absence of peace, both in terms of Israel’s perceived legitimacy and in terms of the risk to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” he said. “I’ve gotten to know him very well in the past four years, and I’m telling you that he is not just paying lip service. He is truly committed to peace.”
Oren was speaking days after it was confirmed that he would be succeeded in the post by Ron Dermer, 42, a key adviser to Netanyahu.
Oren praised the appointment on Tuesday via Twitter. “As Ron’s close friend and long-time colleague, I know that he’s uniquely qualified and is deeply committed to the historic US-Israel alliance,” he wrote.
Dermer, who immigrated to Israel from Florida in 1998, has served under Netanyahu since 2009 as senior adviser in the Prime Minister’s Bureau, where he acted as liaison to the White House.
Oren, 58, an American-born academic who taught at several universities, moved to Israel in 1979 and enlisted in the paratroop brigade. Before being tapped in 2009 to be Israel’s envoy to the US, Oren had volunteered as a military liaison officer, briefing reporters during Israel’s offensive that year against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, who has spent much of his first months in office attempting to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, called Oren “unfailingly candid” and a passionate advocate for Israel. “He’s certainly been a terrific partner in our efforts to help the parties find a way back to the table,” Kerry said last Friday in a statement.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.