Michael Oren: Historian, teacher, ambassador

Michael Oren is the distinguished Israeli historian, American-born and -educated. He is the author of works including Six Days of War and, most recently, Power, Faith and Fantasy. The latter book explores America’s long history of involvement in the Middle East. Oren talks brilliantly about the book in a video embedded at the link.

Oren moved from the United States to Israel in the 1970’s. The Jerusalem Post reports that the Netanyahu government has now appointed him Israel’s ambassador to the United States. Oren is an impressive representative of Israel.

I met Oren when he spoke at the Jewish Community Center in St. Paul in November 2002 in support of Six Days of War. I met up with him again in Jerusalem at the Shalem Center in the summer of 2007. My impresson of him is that he is something of a natural teacher — he is a professor at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University — who does not gladly suffer the usual platitudes spouted about Israel and the Middle East. What a great appointment.

Perhaps apposite to the moment, when Oren spoke in St. Paul in November 2002, I recall that a member of the audience asked asked Oren about Abba Eban. Eban was the famous former Israeli foreign minister during the period including the Six Day War. Eban had just died. In his book on the Six Day War, Oren reports that Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol referred to Eban in Yiddish as “the learned fool.” Somewhat to my surprise, Oren spoke with great warmth and admiration about Eban.

In a stroke of good timing, the new issue of Commentary features Oren’s piece on the seven existential threats facing Israel. Here is how Oren describes the threat presented by a nuclear Iran:

The principal sponsor of Hamas and Hezbollah, Iran is inextricably linked to the terrorist threat. But when the Islamic Republic achieves nuclear weapons-capability–as early as this year, according to Israeli intelligence estimates–the threat will amplify manifold.

A nuclear-armed Iran creates not one but several existential threats. The most manifest emanates from Iran’s routinely declared desire to “wipe Israel off the map,” and from the fact that cold war calculi of nuclear deterrence through mutually assured destruction may not apply to Islamist radicals eager for martyrdom. Some Israeli experts predict that the Iranian leadership would be willing to sacrifice 50 percent of their countrymen in order to eradicate Israel.

Beyond the perils of an Iranian first-strike attack against Israel, the possibility exists that Iran will transfer its nuclear capabilities to terrorist groups, which will then unleash them on Israel via the country’s porous ports and border crossings.

A nuclear Iran will also deny Israel the ability to respond to terrorist attacks: in response to an Israeli retaliation against Hezbollah, for example, Iran would go on nuclear alert, causing widespread panic in Israel and the collapse of its economy. Finally, and most menacing, many Middle Eastern states have declared their intention to develop nuclear capabilities of their own once Iran acquires the bomb.

Israel will swiftly find itself in a profoundly unstable nuclear neighborhood prone to violent revolutions and miscalculations leading to war. As former Labor Party minister Efraim Sneh says, under such circumstances, all Israelis who can leave the country will.

Oren has his work cut out for him as Israel’s ambassador to the United States but, as I say, he is a great appointment.

Via Contentions.

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