Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Michael Oren Pick and Lieberman Shenanigans


Ambassador Michael Oren

Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu picked Michael Oren (b. 1955) as Israel's next ambassador to the United States. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has endorsed the appointment, and it will now have to be approved by the cabinet.

Oren, a professor with a Ph.D. from Princeton's Near Eastern Studies department, is a brilliant pick. An American Jew who immigrated to Israel in 1979 and served in the Paratroopers Brigade during the Lebanon war, and in numerous positions of leadership in the army thereafter, is truly at home in both Israel and the United States. He is the author of the definitive account of the Six-Day War that we have today (it will be definitive until Arab archives are opened up), and of another book on American conceptions of the Middle East. Oren is also a fantastic communicator who knows how to speak to different audiences. Having just finished a term as a visiting professor at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service, he is primed to go. 

There are few Israeli prime ministers who would have been able to pull off such an appointment. So many of Israel's ambassadors these days, even to important posts, are mediocre political appointees. American Jews, in the past two decades, have been shut out of such postings. In choosing Oren, Netanyahu showed his ability to think outside of the box and that he is not afraid to be challenged. Oren, though affiliated with the right-of-center Shalem Center, is a pragmatist who knows that Israel cannot indefinitely occupy the West Bank. He is someone who understands what is going on in the White House these days. 

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman

It is still not clear to me what the Foreign Minister himself is doing these days. Ha'aretz has a somewhat disturbing review of Lieberman's activities so far. 

Here are a few highlights:
Lieberman's schedule has become one of the Foreign Ministry's best-kept secrets. Aside from [...] a select few, no one - including very senior officials in his ministry - is privy to what Lieberman does with his time.

This secrecy has led to several embarrassing faux pas, such as when a meeting with a foreign counterpart had to be rescheduled and none of the participants were notified.
Okay, that happens. But:
Lieberman has made other contentious procedural changes within the realm of his public relations. Although the ministry has an entire publicity department comprising some 20 expert diplomats, Lieberman made the unprecedented decision to appoint newcomer Sivan Raviv - who has no prior experience - as his spokesman.
Is that wise?

And speaking of appointments:
He has named Bedouin diplomat Ishmael Khaldi as his ministerial adviser on the Arab world. The appointment was leaked to the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth under the headline "Lieberman's Arab advisor", hinting that it was an attempt to gloss over Lieberman's alleged racism.

Since then it has emerged that Khaldi has next to no Foreign Ministry experience in dealing with the Middle East, having never served as a representative in an Arab state or in a relevant branch.

Associates of Lieberman have stressed that despite Khaldi's lack experience in the region, the motive behind his appointment was "promotion of minorities in the Foreign Ministry."
I don't know what is worse, the pick or the statement, thereafter, that it was an "affirmative action" appointment. But who knows, maybe Khaldi will perform admirably in this job.

Is this a luke-warm endorsement or what?
Sources present at Lieberman's meetings with foreign officials have testified that his level of English is "good" and that he "succeeds in getting across his message."

There are many more anecdotes in the article itself. The last paragraph, which explains that Lieberman's office refused to answer a list of 12 questions submitted by Ha'aretz, testifies to a worrying break in relations with the media. It sounds as if Lieberman has written off Ha'aretz as irrelevant.

Here's Ha'aretz's take on the Kleine Zeitung interview discussed in my earlier post:
Foreign Ministry officials heard of [Lieberman's interview with the Austrian daily Kleiner Zeitoung [sic] last month, in which he declared his opposition to negotiations with Syria.] only when it was leaked to Israeli media. Only after an in-depth investigation did it become clear that this unknown newspaper was actually a local tabloid
It's pretty funny that it took an "in-depth investigation" to figure out that this "unknown newspaper" was a "local tabloid." I think the latter description is not entirely accurate; "small regional newspaper" would do it more justice. Also, as an Austrian friend of Noah K., L.E., has pointed out and as I also emphasized in my post, Christian Wehrschutz, who conducted the interview, is a respected journalist with extensive experience. L.E. adds, however, that
The question is only why he chose to put the interview [in the Kleine Zeitung] and not in the Presse, Standard or even NZZ (Swiss), with which he also has regular connections.
L.E.'s conclusions:
This interview appears where it does due to personal or newspaper politics. The [other] question would then be why he got that interview in the first place.
The last question is important indeed. If Wehrschutz presented himself as a freelancer, why was this one of the first interviews granted by Lieberman's office, specifically by his personal secretary Sigalit Levi, to a foreign journalist?

I'm really wondering in what language this interview was conducted - whether a translator was used or not.

1 comment:

Noah K said...

The Oren pick is definitely bold. One advantage he had going: he can hit the ground running, and with the US administration so swamped with other problems, that is plus.