June 22, 2015 - Oren, Netanyahu, and widening the gaps between strategic partners


This week, Alpher discusses whether former Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren is just trying to sell his new book, or are his attacks on President Obama part of some sort of larger plan to widen the gap between the two countries; if Obama knowingly and deliberately violated previously sacred bilateral principles of “no daylight” and “no surprises;” what the American Jewish angle is; what the likely ramifications of Oren’s attacks for US-Israel relations are at the current juncture.

Q. Is former Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren just trying to sell his new book, or are his attacks on President Obama part of some sort of larger plan to widen the gap between the two countries?

A. To begin with, two items of full disclosure. First, I have read Oren’s recent book-boosting articles in the Wall Street Journal and Foreign Policy. I have not read his new book, Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide, which reportedly will only be published this Tuesday. Of his previous books, I have read one, about America’s Middle East experiences since 1776, and found it fascinating and informative.

Second, I succeeded Michael Oren in 1995 as the representative of the American Jewish Committee in Israel and the Middle East (his title was merely “in Israel”; mine constituted an upgrade of the position). He was judged by AJC to have failed in the job and was fired after a year; his AJC position is not mentioned in any online CVs of his that I could find. I left after five years, apparently for different reasons than his, since his politics, unlike mine, seemed to square with those of AJC. This shared experience might be relevant to remarks I shall make below.

Oren, who is a charismatic writer and speaker, has every right to sum up his five years (2009-2013) as Israeli ambassador to Washington in a book. I’m sure the book, like the two aforementioned articles timed to promote the book, is full of useful insights. But he is leveraging the book’s publication to make unbalanced and unwarranted attacks on the president of the United States at a critical time in Israeli-American relations, and that is inexcusable.

It is important to bear in mind that Oren, like so many Israeli ambassadors who preceded him in Washington, was usually not privy to the most high-level strategic contacts between the two countries. In Israel, these are primarily the domain of the prime minister and his personal envoys and not the ambassador, who finds himself engaged instead in a lot of high-profile public rather than quiet private diplomacy. This adds an additional dimension of doubt to Oren’s allegations.

Let’s start with the most egregious slander, in Foreign Policy: “I could imagine how a child raised by a Christian mother might see himself as a natural bridge between her two Muslim husbands. I could also speculate how that child’s abandonment by those men could lead him, many years later, to seek acceptance by their co-religionists.” This is bullshit psycho-mumbo-jumbo totally unbecoming of a serious historian. By the same token, one could argue--but should not--that Obama’s abandonment by two Muslim father-figures would make him hate Muslims.

Then we come to the allegations in the WSJ. We are told that PM Netanyahu made only one “premeditated” misstep in his relations with Obama, one that Oren conveniently “recommended against”. In contrast, Obama made numerous “calculated mistakes”. Indeed, “while neither leader monopolized mistakes, only one leader [Obama] made them deliberately.”

Do people in general, let alone leaders, really make deliberate and premeditated mistakes? Nobody really wants to make a mistake. Here again, Oren leads us down a path of pseudo-psycho-history that he is simply not qualified to handle. He goes on to exonerate Netanyahu of the grievous damage he has done to US-Israel relations while placing nearly the entire burden for the damage on Obama. He argues that Obama knowingly and deliberately violated previously sacred bilateral principles of “no daylight”--never disagreeing openly--and “no surprises”, meaning always advising Israel in advance of problematic US policy departures.


Q. Well, didn’t he?

A. Our first problem here is context, which should be a key tool of analysis for a historian. Obama both surprised Israel and adopted divergent policies. But so did virtually every president before him. Look how--a very partial list--the Nixon administration literally bled Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur war by withholding vital armaments and pressuring Israel’s allies not to help it during the war’s early stages. Recall the Reagan plan and PM Begin’s angry “banana republic” response, George Bush the father banging on the podium and withholding loan guarantees from Yitzhak Shamir, Jimmy Carter’s bewildering attempt to bring the USSR into a Middle East solution that was sabotaged by both Sadat and Dayan, George Bush the younger launching the roadmap that Ariel Sharon sought to derail with “14 points”. Did the American presidents take these actions any more “knowingly and deliberately” than Obama? And didn’t Kissinger go on to lay the foundations for Israeli-Egyptian peace, thereby demonstrating that a master statesman’s treatment of Israel can be a very mixed bag?

And yes, some of Obama’s initiatives, or lack thereof, proved ill-considered, e.g., the withdrawal from Iraq, hastening the fall from office of Egypt’s Mubarak, backing off from attacking Syria after it so openly violated prohibitions on using chemical weapons, and allowing Kerry’s ill-advised peace process gambit. But so did Reagan’s landing of marines in Beirut and Bush the younger’s toppling of Saddam Hussein and disastrous occupation of Iraq. Obama is hardly alone in making mistakes in the Middle East and certainly does not deserve to be singled out for criticism by a historian when he is still in office and the jury is still out on initiatives like the Iran nuclear deal and the campaign against the Islamic State.

A second problem is parity or the lack thereof. Oren seems to treat US-Israel relations as if they pair two equal countries that owe one another equal treatment. Yet any student of the relationship knows that nothing is farther from the truth. Here Oren appears very much to be influenced by his former boss Netanyahu, who is fond of lecturing American presidents, sometimes in public, as if--to borrow from a famous remark by Bill Clinton--he believes Israel is the superpower and America the dependent client.


Q. And the American Jewish angle?

A. I’m admittedly on shakier ground here, because I haven’t read Oren’s book. But I’m told it opens on an autobiographical note wherein Oren, as an American-born Israeli, argues that dual loyalty to both Israel and the United States is both possible and good. This may explain why Oren, as ambassador, seems to have been so distressed by US presidential acts and rhetoric that he considered injurious to Israel’s interests. After all, if dual loyalty can in theory always be maintained, and if Oren wholly identifies with the anti-two-state and pro-settlement policies of his boss Netanyahu, then, ipso facto, Obama’s behavior must be wrong and, with the single exception of Netanyahu’s March speech to Congress, Netanyahu’s actions and rhetoric are right and are by definition misunderstood, reflect the unsolicited deeds of underlings, etc.

When I worked for the American Jewish Committee, I developed a concept I dubbed the Strategic Triangle, wherein Israel, the American Jewish community and the US administration constitute three entities that interact at the strategic level. Usually at least two work in tandem, occasionally all three, but sometimes one can be badly out of step. In recent years, the Netanyahu government and the administration have been at odds over a number of issues (by no means all), with Netanyahu striving to split off enough American Jewish and congressional support to weaken the other two sides of the triangle. Even without Netanyahu’s efforts, it seems undeniable that Middle East realities render it increasingly difficult for the liberal American Jewish mainstream to come to terms with some aspects of Israel’s behavior that are widely approved by most Israelis.

I believe that as an analytical tool, the strategic triangle is much more useful than Oren’s alleged application of dual loyalty to the relationship. But I’ll leave any attempt to understand Oren at the psychological level to others who are as adventuresome at the analytical level as Oren himself. Certainly, it bears mentioning that trumpeting dual loyalty in the Israel-US context—if indeed this is what Oren is doing—can prove problematic for many Israeli-American dual citizens who serve in the IDF and vote in Israel’s elections. In this day and age, dual citizenship is a very widespread phenomenon; it need not and should not dictate dicey considerations of dual loyalty.


Q. What are the likely ramifications of Oren’s attacks for US-Israel relations at the current juncture?

A. American Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro (who as a senior administration official was involved in the early years of the administration’s Middle East policy planning) angrily rejected Oren’s allegations. Shapiro demanded apologies and denunciations from PM Netanyahu and from Moshe Kachlon, Kulanu party leader. Note that Kulanu is in Netanyahu’s coalition, that Oren was recently elected to the Knesset on the Kulanu ticket, and that, obviously, Oren’s book preceded the elections, but his latest articles do not.

Netanyahu rejected Shapiro’s request; Kachlon complied, thereby once again showing that he is blessed with rare integrity among Israel’s politicians. Let’s assume for a moment that we acknowledge that Oren is correct in pointing out mistaken policies on Obama’s part. Let’s assume also that we forgive Oren for whitewashing Netanyahu’s performance over recent years and for ignoring or downplaying the damage it has inflicted on Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and on US-Israeli relations. Surely it is clear that Oren’s book and his attempts to boost its readership work directly against the two countries’ vital need right now to repair their relationship at the highest level in order to enable strategic coordination as a nuclear deal with Iran emerges. Instead--and here Netanyahu’s current silence about Oren appears to place them in the same camp--the government of Israel appears determined to widen the gap in anticipation of a major public diplomacy offensive against the agreement and the president standing behind it.

This would appear to indicate that the Oren allegations will not soon go away. Relations are likely to worsen in the months ahead. Of course, Netanyahu is perfectly capable of worsening them on his own. But he appears not to object to getting a hand from a disturbingly immature historian turned diplomat turned politician.