THERE is a cacophony of noise and a buzz in the air at the Knesset when Michael Oren sits down to talk.
Nothing unusual in that, given that Israel’s government seat is not exactly a place of tranquillity.
But things are different when I speak to Michael — who is quitting the centrist Kulanu party, but not the Knesset, nor his deputy minister position.
Hours earlier, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was dispersing the government and initiating an early general election on April 9.
“I would have preferred not to go to earlier elections than next November, when it was originally scheduled,” said Michael, a former Israeli ambassador to America.
“Israel is facing a tremendous amount of challenges in the diplomatic and security fields and we are going to have four months without an actual government.”
The 63-year-old, with a 40-year career as a historian, author, professor and diplomat, has also tried to persuade Israelis of the importance of foreign relations to the average citizen.
It is clear that the Jewish state means the world to this New Jersey-raised politician.
Born Michael Bornstein in New York and raised in the heavily Sicilian-American populated West Orange, he knew from his early teenage years that his destiny was tied to that of Israel’s.
And it stemmed from a meeting with then-Israeli ambassador to America, Yitzhak Rabin, whom he encountered on a Habonim Dror-sponsored trip to Washington.
Michael recalled: “I shook Rabin’s hand and knew then that I would become Israel’s American ambassador, too.”
That confidence and premonition came to fruition in 2009 when he took on that role, which he held for just over four years.
Incidentally, before then, he also served in Rabin’s administration in the mid-1990s.
The only Jewish kid in his neighbourhood, he said he learned to use his fists on a daily basis, battling the antisemitic bullies.
Michael first visited Israel at the age of 15, again facilitated by Habonim.
“The first time I went it was love at first landing,” he said. “I loved everything about it and felt more at home than I had ever felt before.”
He came from a moderately Zionist home, yet his parents, Marilyn and Lester, were not happy with his decision to emigrate to Israel.
Michael explained: “They opposed it all the way. My father, who fought in the Second World War, wanted me to stay at home and not be in danger.
“They wanted me to raise a family in America so they could see their grandchildren.
“It has only been a little more than a decade that they have both accepted the decision I made 40 years ago.”
He initially volunteered on Kibbutz Gan Shmuel, in northern Israel. From then, he would visit Israel most summers, after spending winter in America shovelling snow and raking leaves to be able to afford to go to Israel.
Michael completed his undergraduate degree from Columbia College and then received a Master’s in international affairs from the School of International and Public Affairs.
In 1979, he emigrated to Israel and, like many foreign-born Israelis, Hebracised his surname.
Michael, who is of Polish, Ukrainian and Lithuanian descent, recalled: “When I worked on the kibbutz, there was a communal laundry, where your clothes were returned to you based on the age group you were with.
“They were named for birds or flowers and on mine was ‘Michael’, which means ‘pine tree’. I liked the sound of it.”
Becoming an Israeli citizen meant the mandatory army service for the divorced father-of-three and grandfather-of-four.
And it coincided with the 1982 Lebanon War, where he served as a paratrooper.
But his unit was caught in a Syrian ambush on the second day of the conflict and his commander was killed, as well as numerous colleagues wounded.
“It had a psychological effect. I know what it is to have post traumatic stress disorder,” he said.
“That stress and trauma resides in you and you never really get over it, and it can be triggered by other stress and trauma.”
He later served as the Israeli liaison officer to America during the first Gulf War, called up for reserve duty during the 2005 Gaza disengagement — where he participated in the evacuation of settlements — and served as an officer in the Israel Defence Forces’ Spokesman’s Office during the 2006 Lebanon War and the 2009 Gaza War.
He was also sent by the Israeli government organisation Nativ to work with the Zionist underground in the Soviet Union, where he helped the refusniks.
“The Jews there were going under their worst period of oppression under (Leonid) Brezhnev,” Michael said.
“Anybody who studied Hebrew or who expressed a desire to move to Israel was sent to the gulag. I had to memorise all the names and addresses of our contacts.”
Michael was also arrested frequently by the KGB. One of the those he contacted was Yuli Edelstein — who became Speaker of the Knesset in 2013.
“Yuli and the refusniks are the most extraordinary human beings I have ever met,” he added.
“I came to bolster their strength, but they bolstered mine.
“I can’t take any credit for heroism because they were heroes and have been a source of inspiration for me ever since.”
He concentrated on an academic career throughout the 1980s and early 90s, teaching at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at Tel Aviv University, as well as returning to America for a time in 1986, where he earned an MA and a PhD in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University.
He also taught at Harvard and Yale as a visiting professor.
He was appointed as an adviser in inter-religious affairs at the Ministry of Religious Affairs, months before Rabin was assassinated in 1995.
Michael said: “The job was fascinating. I knew every church in the country, and all the different branches and sects.
“Rabin’s assassination was deeply traumatic for me. I had come home from work and was taking a nap when I woke up to people screaming. I don’t think the country has ever got over what happened.
“Rabin was very shy, but I would accompany him to meet other diplomats and, in those meetings, he was highly knowledgeable and sure of himself.”
He has also enjoyed a successful writing career, penning Six Days of War; Power, Faith and Fantasy: The United States in the Middle East and Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide.
Six Days of War, about the 1967 conflict, won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for History, the National Jewish Book Award and spent seven weeks on the New York Times’ bestseller list.
He was appointed Israel’s ambassador to America in 2009, shortly after Barack Obama had been elected the country’s president.
“My books had done well in America and Power, Faith and Fantasy was published shortly after America’s involvement in Iraq, so there was a great thirst to understand America’s involvement in the region,” Michael recalled. “President (George) Bush, Condoleeza Rice and Netanyahu read it.”
He was also a visiting professor at Washington’s Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service for the 2008/9 academic year.
And all those experiences put him as a leading contender to be named ambassador.
Michael added: “After Obama’s election, what was needed was someone who understood liberal America, which I did.
“There were people who were critical of Obama’s views on Israel, but he had a world view, which he was entitled to, which was that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the core conflict of the Middle East and the core of that were the settlement issues.
“He was in support of those ‘authentic’ Muslim leaders who were, more or less, democratically elected, as well as having a deep aversion to the use of military force.
“You can see why those views would clash with Israel’s world view, so the stage was set, especially with Netanyahu, who was a very different person.”
And Michael, who served for four years as ambassador, believes that the current Trump administration is the friendliest to Israel since 1948.
“Bush was, too, but he had Rice, who was highly critical of Israel,” he continued. “Moving its embassy to Jerusalem, withdrawing the Iran deal and defending us every day in the UN — we have a lot to be thankful to this current administration for.
“On the other hand, we have to be sensitive to what American Jews feel, and many of them feel differently about the administration.
“Bipartisan support for Israel is paramount, indeed strategic for this county.
But the polarisation is deep, so it is difficult and a challenge.”
Sworn in on the Kulanu party ticket in 2015, where he served on the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, Michael was also its deputy minister in charge of public diplomacy.
He remains concerned about Israel’s economic climate, too.
“One million children live below the poverty line in Israel and here we have one of the largest income gaps in the world,” Michael said.
“It is something which is inexcusable for a Jewish state.
“A Jewish state has to ensure that its citizens have the greatest opportunities they can have.”
And what about hopes for any kind of peace with the Palestinians and what to do about Hamas?
He is optimistic, but not in the conventional sense.
Michael added: “An arrangement and a better status quo is possible. Remember that peace is not a widespread phenomenon throughout the Middle East.
“With Hamas, one of the positions we have advocated with Trump is an arrangement with the Sunni Arab nations to try to rebuild Gaza.”
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