Washington political memoirs typically give former officials the opportunity to offer insights into personalities and policymaking, take credit for successes, blame others for failures and settle scores with those who crossed them. Former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s Ally has many of these elements; however, it is still a disappointing book because Oren has little inside information to share, his regurgitation of Obama’s failed Middle East policy is unoriginal, and the central theses on which he bases his indictment of Obama’s policy toward Israel are inaccurate.
Oren does an excellent job of cataloguing Obama’s disastrous policies, from his Cairo speech to the concessions he has made to Iran, but there is nothing new here. Many people have written extensively about Obama’s misguided policy, which some believe is naïve and others insist is malevolent. I was hoping to find new insights gleaned from his position as an insider; however, Oren confirms one of the administration’s critiques, namely, that he was not privy to all the critical discussions between the two governments. It was shocking to read, for example, that Secretary of State Hilary Clinton rejected his request for a meeting. Exacerbating Oren’s isolation was his admission that he did not have a close relationship with Netanyahu, which suggests he was also out of the loop on decisions made in Jerusalem.
This might be damning criticism of most government officials, but it is not fair in Oren’s case. True, he does not write with authority about Obama’s decision making, but his role, and that of most Israeli ambassadors, is not to be involved in policy, or even much diplomacy. Unique among all of Israel’s diplomatic missions, the embassy in Washington is a bit player because prime ministers consider themselves the ambassador to the United States, and the most important discussions are between the prime minister and the president.
Though Oren aspired to being the Israeli ambassador from an early age, he did not join the Foreign Service or train as a diplomat. This was not a hindrance, however, because he was chosen to essentially be Israel’s ambassador for public relations. In this role Oren excelled. Unlike some of his less articulate predecessors, Oren is a fabulous speaker, brilliant debater and engaging interviewee. During his tenure, Oren hardly missed a venue to explain Israel’s policies, moving easily from churches to campuses to CNN to the Daily Show. He was unflappable, quick on his feet and facile at putting difficult issues, such as the settlements, the Gaza flotilla, and the civilian casualties in Gaza in a context that made the best case for Israel. He was the right person in the right place when Israel was being pilloried in the media for a myriad of real and imagined sins. In this regard, he deserves praise as perhaps the best ambassador since the Churchillian Abba Eban.
The most surprising aspect of the book is the historical inaccuracies. It’s not a matter of getting a name or date wrong; his central thesis, that Obama is the first president to put daylight in the relationship and to publicly criticize Israel, is incorrect. In his op-eds prior to the book’s publication he went even further, arguing that Obama has abandoned Israel, a view many critics of the president believe, but, paradoxically, is undermined by the book, which heaps praise on Obama’s commitment to Israel from providing critical military hardware to sending emergency equipment to help put out a devastating fire in the Mount Carmel forest.
Do these positive steps outweigh the litany of negative policies Obama has adopted toward the Middle East and Israel in particular? Only his most partisan defenders would answer in the affirmative.
A serious historian would not consider the last six years a long enough timeframe to make sweeping judgments; nevertheless, Oren makes a number of them. The one that has attracted the most ridicule is his amateur psychoanalysis of the president and suggestion that his tilt toward the Muslim world is a reaction to the rejection he felt from his two Muslim fathers.
But why isn’t the opposite true? Shouldn’t he resent Muslims as a result of his abandonment?
Oren is entitled to speculate about Obama’s motives, but he does so in an offhand manner that lacks depth and is unconvincing.
The conventional wisdom is that Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world, and criticism of Israel at the outset of his administration, was calculated to demonstrate that he was the “anti-Bush”. He wanted to counter the widespread view that Bush was anti-Muslim, and to reassure Muslims that America is their friend. In the case of Israel, Bush was viewed as Israel’s lawyer and Obama wanted those same Muslims to understand that he was not.
A more interesting analysis of Obama’s psyche would have examined his religious beliefs, which are often the single most important influence on a president’s world view as it relates to Middle East policy, as I documented in The Water’s Edge and Beyond. A careful examination of his Baptist views and his longtime exposure to his anti-Semitic Pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, might have yielded more meaningful insights.
Oren also argues that because Obama attended Columbia he was infected by the ludicrous views on orientalism of Edward Said, which permeate Middle East Studies. But Obama studied political science and not Middle East affairs and his exposure to Said was in his class on modern fiction. According to Obama’s roommate, Phil Boerner, quoted in David Remnick’s biography of Obama, the future president was underwhelmed by Said. Obama considered Said a “flake” and Boerner said neither he nor Obama were interested in his literary theory.
A more likely influence on Obama may have been his exposure to anti-Israel students. A 2006 Columbia College Today article says that Obama was involved with the Black Students Organization and participated in anti-apartheid activities. At that time, the BSO on some campuses was virulently anti-Israel, and anti-Apartheid advocates often singled out Israeli relations with South Africa for opprobrium.
The roots of Obama’s policies can be debated, but what is stunning about Ally are the factual errors. It would be one thing if he got some names or dates wrong, that happens, but the two central theses of his entire critique, that Obama is the first president to publicly criticize Israel and to put “daylight” between the two countries’ relationship, are historically inaccurate. As a historian Oren knows that almost every president has done both, starting with Eisenhower’s critique of Israel’s 1956 attack on Egypt and threats that coerced Ben-Gurion to withdraw from the Sinai (which Oren mentions in the book without noting the contradiction).
Anger over settlements has been consistent for decades and is not unique to Obama. For example, George H.W. Bush lacerated Israel over settlements, linking loan guarantees to their construction. Yitzhak Rabin was elected prime minister in large part because of the daylight between Israel under Shamir and the U.S. under Bush.
Even the very pro-Israel Ronald Reagan publicly criticized Israel’s actions in Lebanon and annexation of the Golan Heights. Furthermore, he punished Israel by temporarily holding up arms deliveries and suspending strategic cooperation. Reagan also was at odds with Menachem Begin over the sale of AWACS to the Saudis.
The president Obama most resembles is Jimmy Carter, who openly loathed Begin, and whose public criticism and “daylight” he created with Israel led to his rejection by a majority of Jewish voters, which he blamed for his reelection defeat. Like Carter, Obama sees Israel as persecutor rather than victim, and believes that he can solve the region’s problems by the force of his intellect and personality, rather than using the prestige and power of the United States to push the parties together. And, like Carter, he blames his failures on Israel and does not understand that Israelis will only take risks for peace if they are confident the U.S. has their back. Obama says that he does, but few Israelis believe him.
Obama reputedly only listens to a close circle of advisors whose views hew closely to the Arabist belief that Israel is the root of all problems in the region and that solving the Palestinian issue will make them go away. For example, when General David Petraeus testified before Congress, he brought with him an incendiary report that said Israeli policies endangered American lives in the Middle East. On another occasion, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta argued that Israeli military action against Iran would cause a world catastrophe.
On Iran, Obama’s response to Netanyahu’s criticism of the negotiations is a classic Arabist formulation; that is, he knows what’s best for Israel and he will save Israel from itself.
One area where Oren hit a nerve, and correctly diagnosed a problem, albeit one already well-known, is his criticism of Jews who use their identity to claim authority for condemning Israel. Jews such as Michael Lerner, Peter Beinart and Jeremy Ben-Ami have demonstrated that the quickest route to fame is to be the Jew who vilifies Israel. They, too, believe that Israelis are incapable of deciding what is in their best interests, and that as more enlightened Americans sitting comfortably 6,000 miles away from their embattled homeland, they should impose their prescriptions on the people of Israel.
The one section where Oren reveals some inside information, and consequently has more interesting insights, are his identification of administration officials who were sympathetic to Israel (e.g., Dennis Ross, Thomas Donilon, Stuart Levy, Jack Lew) and those who were not (e.g., Denis McDonough, Jim Jones, Steve Simon). Though he has positive to things to say about both, the two Jews closest to Obama, David Axelrod and Rahm Emmanuel, do not come across as allies, reinforcing the view of many Obama critics that they were, at best, unhelpful in their behind the scenes roles.
Maybe the most jaw-dropping aspect of Ally is the timing of its publication. Oren’s lack of diplomacy in releasing the book now, combined with its inflammatory content, caused the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, to throw a conniption fit, and aggravated ties between the two countries just when both were trying to lower the temperature. Netanyahu exacerbated the situation by refusing a U.S. request to disavow the book. The person most embarrassed, however, was Moshe Kahlon, the man who opened the door for Oren to enter politics, putting him on his ticket presumably to add diplomatic experience to his nascent party. Kahlon’s first interaction as party leader with the United States had to be an act of contrition, distancing himself and his party from Oren’s remarks.
I can understand Oren wanting to sell books, that’s our goal as authors, but why push a narrative that embarrasses your prime minister and the party leader who just launched your political career? Why lament the state of U.S.-Israel relations under Obama and then pour kerosene on the fire?
Oren’s explanation for the timing of the book is that he wants to influence the debate on Iran and prevent Obama from reaching a disastrous decision about Iran. Really? His book is going to do what years of sanctions and negotiations, millions of words written by others, and apocalyptic warnings from his prime minister has failed to do?
Oren is a personable, erudite, and committed Zionist who will undoubtedly contribute to the welfare of Israel for years to come. After the passage of time, Oren may write a good history of this era, but Ally is not it.
Source: This review originally appeared in the Times of Israel on July 7, 2015.
Mitchell Bard is the AICE Executive Director