Former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren
Former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren

Michael Oren in Bay Area: Israeli neutrality on Ukraine ‘not tenable’

As Israel’s ambassador to the United States from 2009 to 2013, Michael Oren ardently defended his government’s policies. Last month, in an op-ed, he strongly criticized Israel for remaining neutral as Russia launched its unprovoked war against Ukraine.

“Israel,” he wrote in the Forward, “must act not only out of strategic and political interests, but out of Jewish values.”

Two months into that war, the U.S.-born historian and diplomat feels those Jewish values have won out. He says Israeli policy has shifted in the right direction.

“I predicted that as civilian casualties mounted, Israeli neutrality would not be tenable, and that’s what happened,” Oren said in an interview with J. during a visit to the Bay Area this week. “We’re a lot less neutral. We’re not importing Russian energy. We’re sending [Ukraine] flak jackets and helmets. We are giving shelter proportionally to far more Ukrainian refugees, and we voted in the U.N. against Russia twice, including evicting Russia from the Human Rights Council.”

Oren, 66, was in San Francisco to promote the work of United Hatzalah, an Israeli all-volunteer first responder and ambulance service that is now on the ground helping the more than 400,000 Ukrainians who fled across the Ukraine-Moldova border.

United Hatzalah set up triage medical centers and supply storage units in Moldova to assist refugees, most of whom were women and children. It also launched Operation Orange Wings, which sent planes filled with humanitarian aid, medical equipment and volunteers to the conflict zone. After the planes were unloaded, scores of refugees were then flown to safety in Israel.

“It’s an extraordinary organization,” Oren said of United Hatzalah, “crossing cultural and ideological lines to help one another as human beings. There’s nothing like it. More than 7,500 volunteers, in 1,500 vehicles, available 24/7 [in Israel]. Now we’re exporting it.”

Oren said Israel’s reluctance to side against Russia was wrong but understandable, given strong preexisting Israeli-Russian ties, as well as the huge number of Russian-speaking Israelis. But he also said that having Naftali Bennett, the prime minister of the only democratic state in the Middle East, “shaking hands with a war criminal [Vladimir Putin] and being criticized by friends in the United States” was a bad look and “not tenable for a Jewish state.”

The war in Ukraine has so dominated headlines, it overrode a recent spate of deadly terror attacks inside Israel, as well as rockets launched from Lebanon. Oren described this outbreak as “part of a steady escalation of radicalization of certain groups,” specifically “the rise of Islamic radicalism led by Hamas,” he said. “Violence on the part of a very small group of Israel settlers further fans the tensions. We’re increasingly coming to loggerheads with this.”

When Oren served as ambassador, he, too, often found himself at loggerheads — in his case, with the Obama administration, which he criticized in his 2015 political memoir, “Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide.”

I predicted that as civilian casualties mounted, Israeli neutrality would not be tenable, and that’s what happened.

A champion of the traditionally strong U.S.-Israeli relationship, he blasted the Iran nuclear deal negotiated during the Obama years, and offered praise when Donald Trump quashed it several years later. He also approved of Trump moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and acknowledging Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

Barack Obama may have displeased Israeli government officials, but how about Joe Biden? Though he acknowledges that Biden and Bennett have publicly affirmed their excellent rapport, Oren isn’t so sure the current president’s Israel policies are much different from Obama’s  — especially regarding the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which Biden seeks to reinstate, and to which Israel remains steadfastly opposed.

“The crown prince of Saudi Arabia won’t take his calls,” Oren said, referring to the diplomatic kerfuffle last month when Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman refused to talk to Biden regarding his request to increase oil production to offset boycotts of Russian energy. Oren called the snub “unprecedented.”

Oren’s service as a diplomat and a Knesset member constitutes only one aspect of his career. As a historian, he wrote the bestselling book “Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Mak­ing of the Mod­ern Mid­dle East,” which the Jewish Book Council named book of the year in the 2002-03 National Jewish Book Awards.

As a Knesset member (2015-19) Oren spearheaded the creation of a new holiday in Israel, Yom HaAliyah, which commemorates the contributions Jewish immigrants from around the world have made in building modern Israeli society. Oren counts himself among them. In a recent Tablet essay, he remembered how native-born Israelis would look at the young transplant who exchanged the cushy comforts of America for the challenging life in Israel at the time, and ask him, “Ma, histagata?” Translation: What, have you lost your mind?

Born in New York, Oren made aliyah in 1979. He served as an Israel Defense Forces paratrooper during the 1982 Lebanon War, and later volunteered to work with the Zionist underground in the USSR.

He has taught at the Hebrew University, Georgetown, Harvard and Yale. In and out of government, he has been a frequent contributor to leading Israeli and English-language newspapers, as well as a familiar face as a TV news commentator.

Though an established nonfiction writer, Oren has been on a different tear lately, publishing a collection of short stories in 2020 and a novel, “To All Who Call in Truth,” last year. His first murder mystery, “Swann’s War,” will be published this fall.

When Israel appointed him as ambassador in 2009, Oren was required to give up his U.S. citizenship. But that didn’t change one of his deepest holdover passions about being an American: his love of football.

“They took away my passport and citizenship,” he said, “but they can’t take away my being an NFL fan.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.