As a noted historian, former Israeli ambassador to the United States and current Knesset member, Michael Oren has been grappling with the question of how Israel should be presented to the world for years.
Last year, shortly before being appointed deputy minister for public diplomacy, Oren was invited for a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss just that.
“Delegitimization, the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement… What are we doing wrong? What could we be doing to present Israel better?” Oren, speaking to a crowded auditorium of English-speaking Israelis at a Times of Israel event Sunday night, recalled Netanyahu asking him.
Oren said he told the prime minister that he believed Israel was fighting the war of words with the wrong weapons. While “the other side” has a simple narrative peppered with buzzwords like “occupation,” “colonialism,” “oppression,” and “apartheid,” Israel, according to Oren, had yet to work out how to present a succinct and salient argument to counter its critics. Israel was falling behind in the battle for hearts and minds because it has not succeeded in creating a positive counter-narrative, Oren argued.
Tasked by Netanyahu with forming that narrative, Oren at first approached public relations experts, he recounted, but soon realized that traditional PR methods were the wrong approach to hasbara, or pro-Israel advocacy.
“I realized that we have been fighting feelings with facts. And everybody in a marriage knows that when a fact comes against a feeling, the feeling is going to win,” Oren said. “We can talk all we want about the facts of Israel’s history, but for an 18-year-old in the US, the simple message of ‘oppression’ is going to win out.”
Israel — one of the most emotive stories in history — should evoke feelings, Oren concluded. So he decided to turn to a group of poets. Together they created the following text to sum up the “feeling not facts” of Israel.
Israel is home.
It is open and inviting, creative and compassionate.
It defends freedom and promises its citizens equal rights.
It bridges east and west, ancient traditions and technologies that shape the future.
It has a free press, a globally respected justice system, and state-of-the-art health care for all.
It is a pioneer in women’s and LGBT rights, in conservation and water reclamation, and sustainable sources of energy and food for developing nations.
Israel has given shelter to refugees from seventy countries and humanitarian aid to disaster victims abroad.
It is the improbable story of vision and perseverance in the face of unspeakable hardship.
And it is the native land of the Jewish people for 4,000 years, the fulfillment of their yearning and dreams. Israel is community. It is family. Israel is home.
‘Love, love, love’
In conversation with Times of Israel editor David Horovitz, that same sense of “feeling” seemed to permeate Oren’s worldview on some of Israel’s most pressing current issues.
On US President Donald Trump’s visit to Israel last week, Oren said that above all, the emotion expressed by the billionaire businessman during the trip is what most touched Israelis and has the most potential to influence Israeli policy.
“If there’s one thing during the visit that he hammered down the whole time, it’s love, love, love. And I think that will be very helpful in terms of beginning a process,” Oren said of Trump’s efforts to restart negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. “If you want us to be flexible, show us love. If you pressure us, we will hunker down.”
At Trump’s main speech in Israel, delivered at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on May 23, those “feelings” of love for Israel were clear and were reciprocated by the crowd. “Iran’s leaders routinely call for Israel’s destruction,” the US president said, before declaring emphatically, “Not with Donald J. Trump, believe me.” The remark was met with cheers and a standing ovation. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” said Trump as he waited for the clapping to stop, then added, “I like you too.”
Oren said this love, and the new approach of the US administration, allowed Israel maneuverability.
“Diplomacy is about space, and we have had our space restricted for almost 15 years,” Oren said. “Trump is giving us space, and that’s why I’m hopeful.”
Oren, who as Israel’s ambassador to the US played a significant role in the 2013 visit of then-president Barack Obama, said Trump’s predecessor takes a different approach. “They supported us, but there is genuine love in this administration,” he said.
Obama treated Israel “as being part of the problem, not part of the solution,” according to Oren, who noted the intended cynicism in the title of his book, “Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide,” which analyzes the Israel-US relationship under Obama. That approach, he said, pushed Israel into a corner and prevented real negotiations.
But while Oren, a member of the centrist Kulanu party, hopes and believes that Trump’s efforts could succeed in bringing Israel and the Palestinians to the negotiating table, he warned against expectations for an immediate positive outcome.
Israel’s success in building a state nearly 70 years ago came from its investment in public institutions. But the Palestinians, Oren said, with the brief exception of efforts by ousted prime minister Salam Fayyad, have failed to lay the foundations for a state to be built upon.
“If we give them a state tomorrow, it will fail in days or even hours,” he said.
In fact, while espousing negotiations, Oren questioned whether the Palestinians could ever be ready for a state. “I know this may be controversial,” he said, “but not every society organizes itself according to nation-states. We are seeing today the failure of European efforts to impose a nation-state on people who don’t organize themselves like that.”
Oren does, however, think the Palestinians should be given a chance. For now, instead of a two-state solution, Oren presented what he calls a “two-state situation” by which Israel and the Palestinians strengthen the already existing cooperation between the two sides to create the basic tenets of a state, even without full independence.
“We should create a diplomatic horizon so that some day the Palestinians may be ready for statehood,” Oren said, adding that he was hopeful Washington now understood this way of thinking.
Another policy change that Oren hopes Trump will implement is his campaign promise to move the US embassy to Jerusalem.
While the Israeli government was hopeful the move would take place early on in Trump’s presidency, US officials have signaled that he now plans to wait until a later date. If he does intend to wait, Trump will have to sign a waiver on Thursday to prevent the embassy relocation.
According to Oren, moving the embassy would indicate a clear break from his predecessors and show other countries in the region that Trump is serious about fulfilling his commitments. It would even strengthen the US president’s hand in pushing peace talks, he argued.
Oren recommended that if Trump doesn’t immediately move the embassy, he should at least start with some signs to formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. One such move, he said, could be allowing “Jerusalem, Israel” to appear on passports of US citizens born in the city, as opposed to the current White House directive ordering they say simply “Jerusalem.”
But what of Netanyahu?
Even with the space given to Israel by the new US administration and potential sweeteners in the form of Jerusalem recognition, did Oren really think that the prime minister was willing to take a step toward Trump’s “ultimate deal”?
Most Israelis do not feel that Netanyahu is pushing for a deal, Horovitz pressed. Does his deputy minister?
To answer, Oren relied less on feelings and more on his experience with the prime minister during “many, many hours spent dealing with this, with John Kerry, Obama and others.” According to Oren, not only is Netanyahu interested, but he is deeply involved in the detailed minutiae of every proposal.
“I will tell you unequivocally,” Oren said, “he’s serious. He’s very serious.”
Despite that seriousness, or perhaps because of it, however, Netanyahu has profound reservations about where the process may end, he said.
“I will also tell you equally unequivocally,” Oren added, “that he would not agree to a Palestinian state that will fall apart, that will threaten us militarily, that will be militarized, that is capable of signing treaties with foreign powers, that’s going to involve the withdrawal of Israeli forces or that’s going to involve the uprooting of Israeli citizens.”
Those conditions echo, but go even further than, the limits Netanyahu put forward on Palestinian statehood when he first expressed support for the idea in his seminal 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech.
Oren, however, still feels Netanyahu’s position offers possibility for progress. “For me, the conditions don’t close off a lot of options. There is still a lot of maneuverability,” he insisted.
On a personal level, Oren said that, like the prime minister, he has a deep connection to the entire land of Israel, but still thinks a deal with the Palestinians is necessary. He admitted that when push comes to shove, he may have to choose “painful concessions” over deep-seated feelings.
“I believe that the Jewish people have a right to every millimeter of Judea and Samaria,” Oren said using the biblical phrase for the West Bank. “But to make peace, we may have to make hard and painful concessions. That’s not a denial of our right, it’s a recognition that other people have rights there too. I’m moved by being in our homeland, but ultimately, I want a better future for our children and our grandkids.”