By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 28, 2010; A07
Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren denied Sunday that he had told Israeli diplomats a "tectonic rift" was emerging between the United States and Israel -- incendiary words first reported in the Israeli press and then repeated in media outlets around the globe.
In an interview, Oren said that he had spoken of a "tectonic shift in American foreign and domestic policies" under President Obama and that "Israel has to adjust to that." But he suggested that his description was much more benign than that reported by anonymous sources who heard his briefing, explaining that he was merely emphasizing that Obama is an ambitious change agent not satisfied with the status quo.
Oren said the briefing, given in Hebrew at the Israeli Foreign Ministry, was no different from what he often says to various groups. "I said shift, not rift, but that may be a subtlety that escaped the Israeli ear," he said.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz, citing five Israeli diplomats who either heard Oren speak or were informed of his remarks, said he painted "a dark picture" of U.S.-Israel relations as Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu prepares to meet with Obama in Washington on July 6. "Relations are in the state of a tectonic rift in which continents are drifting apart," Oren was quoted as saying.
Oren noted on Sunday that he gave the Jerusalem Post a lengthy interview last week that he said reflected the actual tenor of his talk at the Foreign Ministry. In that interview, published on Friday, Oren said that the Obama administration was "as good if not better" on Israel than "many previous administrations," and that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, often portrayed in the Israeli media as the "bad guy" on Israel issues, was actually "a great asset."
"There are disagreements, I'm not going to be Pollyannaish," Oren told the Jerusalem Post. "But there are two qualifiers you have to attach. One, we have had disagreements with other administrations in the past, and the litmus test with the relationship is not whether there are disagreements, but how you approach the disagreements."
Oren on Sunday emphatically denied as "a lie" a report that he had suggested in the briefing that Obama operated out of cold calculation, not emotional attachment to Israel. But he confirmed that he did say Obama runs a very tight ship, with key decision-making done at the White House, not the State Department or other agencies.
"This is one of the most centralized administrations in post-World War II history," said Oren, a historian who wrote a best-selling book on U.S. relations in the Middle East.
The Obama administration has challenged Netanyahu's government on issues such as West Bank settlement construction. This month, Washington pressured Israel to change its policy toward the Gaza Strip, which has been kept in recent years under a strict blockade. Israel recently announced that it would begin allowing more goods to enter the territory, which is controlled by the Islamist group Hamas.