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Soldier Statesman

Gershon Burstyn

Mortar shells on Ben-Gurion Airport. American Jewry’s dwindling support for Israel. Kerry’s time-pressured peace initiative. Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Michael Oren, who has just returned from a four-year stretch as Israel’s ambassador to the United States, reveals how — as an American-Israeli scholar, author, and combat paratrooper — he navigated relations with Israel’s greatest ally in the shadow of the country’s greatest threats.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

On March 9, 2012, Zohair al-Qaisi, a Palestinian terrorist linked to the abduction of Gilad Shalit, the bombing of a school bus nearGazathat took the lives of two children, and a 2011 ambush that left eight Israelis dead near Eilat, was killed in an Israeli Air Force missile strike as he drove along aGazaroad.

Over the next two weeks, Palestinian terrorists operating in the Gaza Strip launched 300 rockets at Israeli population centers, forcing residents of the south to seek shelter from only the latestGazabarrage.

Six thousand miles away inWashington,D.C., Israeli ambassador Michael Oren looked on in alarm. An American by birth and an Israeli by choice, Oren had presented his credentials inWashingtonthree years earlier. A historian of the Middle East and Israel’s wars, Oren had been appointed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to provide the Obama administration with a broad historic vision, one that would impress upon the president and his aides Israel’s modern perils, none more so than the threat emanating from Iran.

But on this day in mid-March 2012, Oren did not reach for his military expertise to describe the missile threat (though he had that, too) but his pen. Like any good historian, Oren chose to make his case with words.

In an op-ed for Politico, Oren made a public appeal for increased funding of Iron Dome, the antimissile system that today stands deployed through the breadth ofIsrael but at that time covered only portions of the south with three batteries. True, the initial results were promising: Iron Dome compiled an astonishing success rate, shooting down almost 90 percent of the rockets fired fromGaza in August 2011. ButIsrael needed more. The Jewish state would feel secure, he wrote, with ten batteries.

The next morning, says Oren, relating the incident in his modest office on the campus of theInterdisciplinaryCenterin Herzliya, the phone began ringing off the hook. Lawmakers of every stripe calledOren,Israel’s 17th ambassador to theUnited States, to pledge support for Iron Dome. Two months later, the US House of Representatives included $680 million in funding for the antimissile system, an accomplishment that Oren views as his most impressive while inWashington.

“As a result of that we now have six batteries of Iron Dome and we’ll probably ultimately have about ten,” says the avuncular Oren, dressed casually in a bright blue shirt. “We hope we never have to use them again, but in November [2011] during Operation Pillar of Defense, Israelis looked up in the sky and saw the evidence of what we had done inWashington.”

Scholar, diplomat, soldier, and author, Oren’s path to the ambassador’s office was never a given. A historian who had labored diligently at Jerusalem’s Shalem Center for 11 years, a paratrooper in Israel’s first Lebanon War in 1982, the author of four books, Oren was the deep pool to Netanyahu’s pillar of fire, the quiet actor and good soldier who told one interviewer that his four-year stint in Washington was like one long, extended miluim service.

 

 

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