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Netanyahu's American opponent

For four years, Oren’s job was to defend the policies of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Today, he's an outspoken critic of his former boss.
Michael Oren, Israeli Ambassador to the United States, speaks during the National Day of Remembrance Ceremony honoring the victims of the Holocaust in the US Capitol Rotunda in Washington, DC, on April 11, 2013. (Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty)
Michael Oren, Israeli Ambassador to the United States, speaks during the National Day of Remembrance Ceremony honoring the victims of the Holocaust in the US Capitol Rotunda in Washington, DC, on April 11, 2013.

For four years, Michael Oren’s job in Washington was to defend the policies of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Today, Oren is an outspoken critic of his former boss, particularly of Netanyahu’s recent address to U.S. Congress, and he’s doing what no Israeli ambassador to the U.S. has ever done: Run against the man who appointed him to the country’s most crucial and coveted diplomatic post.

Oren, the former Israeli Ambassador to the Unites States, is a New Jersey-born historian who has lived in Israel for four decades. He is running for a seat in Israel’s parliament as part of the centrist Kulanu party, led by Moshe Kahlon, a former member of Netanyahu’s Likud party. 

If Oren, who lives in Tel Aviv, secures the role of foreign minister, he would become the first American-born Israeli to hold the job. His first priority? Repair the damages wrought by Netanyahu between Israel and the United States.

While there is substantial work to be done in mending Israel’s relationship with its greatest ally, Oren said, the task is not impossible.

"Support for Israel in the U.S. and in Congress is at an all-time high ... there has been damage done"'

“Support for Israel in the U.S. and in Congress is at an all-time high,” he said, rejecting the notion held by many in Israel and the U.S. that Netanyahu has left the strategic relationship in tatters. “Tatters is an overstatement, but there has been damage done. Israel has a paramount strategic interest in maintaining bipartisan support,” Oren said. “We should be reaching out to the Democratic party very robustly.”

The Kulanu party appeals to Israeli voters who don’t like Netanyahu personally; if they choose this party it will take seats away from Netanyahu, ultimately making it more difficult for him to secure a historic fourth term.

“Kulanu represents a unique party and a unique phenomenon simply because it speaks to voters who are not satisfied with Netanyahu personally,” said Eytan Gilboa, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University and a polling expert. Many voters who align themselves with the values of the Likud party but dislike Netanyahu aren’t willing to swing left and vote for Netanyahu’s main rival, the center-left Zionist Union, Gilboa added.  

The defection from Netanyahu boils down to the economy. It’s not over national security or negotiations with Arab neighbors – even Iran --  it’s about economic prosperity for Israelis. 

“Two thirds of Israelis say that economic and social issues are the most important issue that will determine their decision, and Kahlon represents almost all economic and social issues,” Gilboa said. 

The cost of living in Israel is very high and has become unaffordable for many. Shampoo and toothpaste are double that of American prices. Kahlon, the head of Oren’s new party, became a hero in Israel when he served as Communications Minister and reduced the cost of mobile services by breaking up a monopoly of cell phone companies. Israelis calls it the Cellphone Revolution. Kahlon is also the only party leader who has not stated who he would support as prime minister once the votes are tallied. With his allegiance possibly going to a Netanyahu coalition or a Herzog coalition, Kahlon could be a power broker even if his party wins fewer votes than others.

Still, despite Kahlon’s appeal to Israeli voters frustrated by the economy, the latest polls haven’t been too kind to Kulanu. According to a poll released on Friday by Israel’s Channel 2, the center-left Zionist Union held a four point lead over Netanyahu’s Likud, with 26 to 22 out of a total of 120 parliamentary seats.

The centrist Kulanu is expected to win just eight seats, but according to pollsters, much can change over the next 48 hours. After all, this election is essentially a referendum vote on the unpopular three-term prime minister, and nearly 20% of Israelis remain undecided.

Related: Netanyahu's political future in peril

According to a poll published in the Maariv newspaper on Friday, 48% of Israelis do not want to see Netanyahu reelected. If he manages to emerge victorious on Tuesday, and is capable of forming a coalition government with him at the helm, he would become the longest serving prime minister in Israeli history.

With Kahlon being the socioeconomic man at the head of a socioeconomic-driven party, promising to revolutionize other aspects of society like the cost of housing and food, Oren, who is fourth on the party list, is the architect of Kulanu’s diplomacy and foreign policy portfolio. If Kulanu joins the next government, Oren could become Israel’s next Foreign Minister, replacing the hawkish, settlement-residing Avigdor Lieberman. 

Oren admits that transitioning from Washington to Israel and pursuing his first foray into internal Israeli politics has been challenging. “It’s much more rough and tumble here,” he says. “American politics has a lot of civility built in. The press is less constrained here (in Israel), and the debate is less constrained here.”

Yet despite his New Jersey roots, Oren says he feels more Israeli than American, and is well placed to nurture U.S.-Israel relations.

“I think it’s a great advantage that I can bring an international perspective to bear. Not many people understand America here,” says Oren, adding that his American manners don’t prevent him from arguing in true, rambunctious Israeli form.

Netanyahu has strong ties to the United States as well. Although he was born in Tel Aviv, he went to high school in Philadelphia, studied at MIT and Harvard, and served as Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations.

Oren believes that better messaging around Israeli settlement construction could have spared Jerusalem and Washington some of the tension that has hurt relations in the last few years.

Oren says that Israel should stop building in areas that would be part of a Palestinian state in a future peace deal. Yet he also believes that Israel should have the right to continue building in areas that will be part of a Jewish State in any future deal -- for example, in the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem and the major surrounding settlement blocks. He also proposes granting Palestinians in the West Bank more freedom of movement. 

"Even in absence of a viable Palestinian peace partner, we need to take proactive solutions that will lay the groundwork for peace," Oren said.

Two hundred thousand American citizens live in Israel, according to U.S. State Department figures, making Israel the third largest home to Americans living abroad, behind the Philippines and Mexico, which has the largest population of American expats.

For Americans voting in this election, the differences between their election experience in America and Israel are vast. The average voter turnout in Israeli elections is around 70% , compared to about 60% in the U.S. 

“The weight of the issues here feels much more significant. We’re talking about life and death of the country kind of stuff,” said Brent Altman, who moved from San Francisco in 2011 to a suburban town between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. He considers himself left of center, and voted for President Obama twice. Yet like 20% of the Israeli population, Altman, 42, is still undecided.

It’s much harder to decide here, he says, because in the U.S. there are essentially two choices, while in Israel there are many options and the dividing lines are less clear.

“There are certain social issues that in the U.S. define right and left, like the death penalty, national healthcare, and national abortion rights, whereas here, those issues are settled.”

Related: Oren: 'No humanitarian crisis in Gaza'

Indeed, the only execution in Israel was of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in 1962. National health care and government-funded abortions are facts of life in the Jewish State. 

The most pressing issue for Altman and many Americans living in Israel is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For that reason, said Altman, Kulanu isn’t a surefire bet for him because it seems as if the economy is the party’s sole focus, and foreign policy is just an afterthought. While he admires Michael Oren’s work, and agrees with his policy proposals, he prefers to vote for a party for which peace negotiations are the major concern. Still, he said, he is torn between Yesh Atid, Kulanu and the Zionist Union.

Jillian Altit, a 26-year-old New Yorker who moved to Tel Aviv in 2013, has a more right wing approach to Israeli politics, and voted Republican in both of the last American elections. She too is unhappy with Netanyahu, but is also undecided. Like Altman, her vote will be based on security rather than economic concerns.

“The most important thing for me is the security of Israel and making sure we still have a country, because if we don’t have a country, then the economy and socioeconomic issues don’t matter.”