Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide
Michael B. Oren
2015, pp. 432, $30
by Glenn Frankel
“An ambassador is a man of virtue sent abroad to lie for his country,” the English author and diplomat Henry Wotton once wrote. Michael B. Oren, the American-born academic and historian who served as Israel’s chief envoy to the United States from 2009 to 2013, makes clear in his new memoir that he never quite warmed to this task. Now freed from the constraints of diplomatic service, he writes like a released political prisoner with scores to settle. The biggest ones, surprisingly, are not with the Palestinians or the Iranians or Islamic extremists—they’re with President Obama and American Jewish critics of the Israeli government.
A tall, charming, charismatic and articulate Israeli patriot, Oren says he suspended his career as a bestselling writer of Middle East history books to try to strengthen the alliance between Israel and its only reliable ally. If so, by his own definition he failed. After a tumultuous period in American-Israeli relations, he left Washington with the two countries further apart than ever on how to deal with the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank and the strategic threat of a nuclearizing Iran, and with the two leaders—President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Oren’s boss—seething publicly with anger and resentment over each other’s alleged blunders and betrayals.
Oren’s book, with its psychoanalytic speculation about Obama’s motives and its naming and shaming of some of the country’s most distinguished American Jewish journalists, throws more gasoline on the bonfire. Still, it is a valuable record of a troubled time, both for what it says and what it leaves out. And it is a testament to an abiding truth: that Israel’s worst misunderstandings are often not with its enemies but with its friends, including its fellow Jews.
I first met Michael Oren more than 20 years ago when I was a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post and he had a brief stint as Jerusalem representative for the American Jewish Committee. He was smart, funny and quotable, and with his paratrooper training and grounding in Israel’s defense establishment, an excellent barometer of the hawkish political middle that was justifiably obsessed with bitahon—the Hebrew word for security—yet longed for a peace deal, as he puts it, “in which the maximum number of Jews would live within Israel and the Palestinians would not be under our rule.”
I liked him a lot. But it was always important to remember that Oren was a Zionist true believer who had changed his address from West Orange, New Jersey to Jerusalem and his name from Bornstein to Oren (it means “pine tree” in Hebrew), and harbored a certain cynicism, bordering at times on contempt, for American Jews who refused to settle in the Promised Land but exercised the right to have opinions about how Israel should solve its problems.
Oren arrived as ambassador at a pivotal moment in American-Israeli relations. The new Obama administration was determined to revive the moribund Middle East peace process, negotiate with Iran and rebuild some of the bridges to the Muslim world that George W. Bush had spectacularly torched. Obama, a leader of messianic self-confidence, managed to cajole Netanyahu into declaring a 10-month moratorium on new Jewish settlements in the West Bank, although the freeze did not apply to East Jerusalem. But after that small victory things rapidly went downhill.
There were jarring affronts, like Israel’s announcement of plans to build 1,600 new apartments in a disputed part of Jerusalem in the midst of a visit by Vice President Joe Biden, and Netanyahu’s public lecturing of Obama on the “basic realities” of Middle East peace in front of the White House press corps. “If you don’t appreciate the fact that we defend you night and day, tell us,” an exasperated Susan Rice, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said to Oren. “We have other important things to do.”
But there were big conflicts as well: over how to deal with the Arab Spring, for example — the explosion of civil unrest that toppled corrupt, autocratic regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and set off a brutal civil war in Syria. Israel feared that the progressive revolutions in these states would inevitably lead to radical Islamic rule, and it cringed when Washington helped shove Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Qaddafi from power. But it was equally shaken when Obama equivocated over using military power against a weakened but lethal Assad regime in Syria.
The biggest conflict emerged over how best to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The Israelis, faced with what they saw as an existential threat, wanted to ratchet up sanctions against Iran and bomb its nuclear development sites if those didn’t work. But Obama made clear early on that he was not interested in launching another Middle Eastern conflict with an unpredictable outcome, nor would he allow Israel to do so.
Oren contends the Obama administration undermined two important pillars of the American-Israeli partnership: no surprises and no daylight between American and Israeli positions in public. He claims that the administration broke both these rules when it endorsed a two-state solution based on the ceasefire lines of the 1967 Six-Day War in the West Bank and Gaza with limited territorial swaps and characterized Jewish settlements as an obstacle to peace. But successive administrations have stuck to these territorial principles ever since the adoption of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 in 1967, and every president has seen Jewish settlements as problematic. Oren the historian knows this. Oren the ambassador seems to have forgotten.
He ignores a third pillar: that the Israeli government strives to maintain good relations with the United States no matter which party is in the White House. Netanyahu, with his not-so-subtle cheerleading for the GOP presidential ticket in 2012 and his recent acceptance of a Republican invitation to address both houses of Congress despite White House disapproval, has demolished this pillar. So far he has paid no price: his defiance of the Obama administration helped rally Israel’s far right to his side in the recent election and return him to power. But in the long run, his approach could cost Israel dearly.
Oren is an excellent writer, and his skills are apparent as he explores the characters of Netanyahu and Obama, the men at the core of his narrative. They are, he writes, in many ways cut from the same cloth—“the smartest men in the room” who “both saw themselves in transformative historical roles.”
After nearly 30 years navigating the treacherous byways of Israeli politics, Netanyahu is a political street fighter with Churchillian aspirations of grandeur. “Less than a modern Jew,” writes Oren, “he reminded me of an ancient Hebrew, a biblical figure with biblical strengths, flaws, appetites, valor, and wrath, scything his foes with rhetorical and political jawbones.” His personality was “part commando, part politico, and thoroughly predatory.”
Obama is Netanyahu’s match. Smart, idealistic, perhaps naïve, he believed he could repair America’s tattered relations with the Muslim world and re-start the Middle East peace process by dint of his own clear thinking. Like a Rhodes scholar stumbling into a back-alley knife fight, he underestimated the skepticism of his interlocutors and their immunity to his charms.
Oren ventures onto shaky ground when he theorizes that Obama’s daddy issues—“his rejection by not one but two Muslim father figures”—might have “informed his outreach to Islam.” He’s more on target when he comes to understand that Obama believed his commitment to Israel’s security was so strong it enabled him—indeed, required him—to pressure Israel.
Obama was not anti-Israel, Oren writes. “On the contrary, he was intensely supportive of a special version of Israel—the Israel of refuge and innovation…the Israel whose interests he believed he understood better than its own citizens and better than the leaders they chose at the ballot box.”
But Oren reserves his most bitter opprobrium for American Jewish journalists—including Thomas L. Friedman and Andrew Rosenthal of The New York Times, Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post, the late Bob Simon of CBS News, David Remnick of The New Yorker and Leon Wieseltier, formerly of The New Republic—suggesting they have ulterior motives when they criticize the current Israeli government and its settlement policies.
“Some, I knew, saw assailing Israel as a career enhancer—the equivalent of Jewish man bites Jewish dog…” Oren writes. “Others still, largely assimilated, resented Israel for further complicating their already-conflicted identity.”
There’s something vaguely anti-Semitic in accusing Jewish journalists of selfish hidden agendas when they criticize Netanyahu and his government. And there’s something disingenuous in attacking responsible and well-informed Jewish critics of Israel while ignoring the toxic impact of bullies like Jewish billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who has spent millions to help keep Netanyahu in power and to support right-wing elements of the Republican Party.
Michael Oren wants American Jews to lay off criticizing their homeland and support Israel’s right to defend itself and to exist as a Jewish state. It is, he writes, “time that American Jews see Israel not as a Hollywood or Hebrew school fantasy but…as a real country made…of humans caught in inhuman circumstances.”
It’s an angry and heartfelt plea. But in the end, his is a cold, ungenerous and occasionally venomous book. Oren says he rushed it to print in part to raise an alarm about the impending nuclear deal with Iran before it’s too late. That’s his privilege, and I don’t question his sincerity. But Ally would have been a more effective book if Oren had taken the time to consider the impact of his take-no-prisoners approach.
“From one another,” he concludes majestically, “we must expect open minds and compassionate hearts, patience and a willingness to listen.” Exactly so.
Glenn Frankel was The Washington Post’s bureau chief in Jerusalem, where he won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.