(March 5, 2015, the smiles between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama can be deceiving)
The deadline for a nuclear agreement with Iran passed on June 30th and the odds of eventually coming to an accommodation remain up in the air. The American realpolitik to reach a consensus dates back to the election of Barack Obama who has stressed the diplomatic card in dealing with Iran since his inauguration, and at the same time offered that “all options were on the table.” Iran’s nuclear development in addition to the correct approach in dealing with the Palestinians form the major disagreements between the United States and Israel as is related in Michael Oren, who served as former Israeli ambassador to the United States from 2009 to 2013 new memoir ALLY: MY JOURNEY ACROSS THE AMERICAN-ISRAELI DIVIDE. Oren’s main goal is to impart to the reader his struggle to maintain the “special relationship” between the two countries, and the difficulties he encountered in trying to do so. The key was to keep the “day light” between the positions of the two allies to a minimum. As Oren relates this proved to be very difficult with a new President who had his own agenda for the Middle East. For Barack Obama, diplomacy and economic sanctions were effective tools in dealing with the ayatollahs in Teheran. Opposing Israeli settlement expansion and alluding to the pre-1967 borders for a Palestinian state became his mantra. Throughout his memoir, Oren repeatedly argues why these positions were untenable from an Israeli security perspective and how he went about dealing with an administration that seemed to alternate between pressuring Israel, at times ignoring her needs, and then supporting Tel Aviv when the need arose. The book also explores in depth the relationship between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a relationship that was fraught with land mines.
(Prime Minister Netanyau, President Obama, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas-their faces tell the story)
ALLY is more than a justification for Israeli policies and trying to get along with an American administration that was difficult to trust. Oren delves into his own background of being born an American and the dual nature of his outlook. Seeing himself as part American and part Israeli, Oren is conflicted at times as he tries to reconcile the differences between the two countries that form his dual persona. Oren’s description of growing up in New Jersey, attending Columbia, and finally making aliya (emigration) to Israel is often clouded by a vision of becoming his own version of an Israeli sabra (Israeli born national). His idealism as it pertains to Israel and Jewish history strongly reeks of a Leon Uris novel. Every harsh event or training he undergoes, be it as a paratrooper or as private citizen is seen in the context of Jewish history in which he places himself. I realize this is a memoir, but this approach can be tiresome. While studying at Princeton in 1983 Oren realized the community of fate that existed between the United States and Israel and the need for a close alliance between the two. It was at this time that Oren was exposed to the toxicity of leftist’s historians and politicians who saw Israel as a bridgehead of western imperialism in the Middle East. It seemed to have made a deep impression on Oren and would be a major theme in his memoir – the hypocritical nature of excoriating Israel and treating the Arabs paternalistically. Oren’s anger is clear as his distress in dealing with the revisionist writings of Israeli historians who question the mythology associated with the 1948 and 1967 wars.
(Israeali Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, 2009-2013)
While touring the United States for the Israeli government in 2008, Oren wrote an article where he predicted that should Obama be elected president problems would arise between Tel Aviv and Washington. Obama had revealed his opposition to Israeli settlement building and his support for Palestinian rights as Oren writes that “Obama might be expected to show deeper sympathy for the Palestinian demand for a capital in Jerusalem…and greater flexibility in including Hamas in negotiations,” he further stated that Obama would call for “less saber-rattling and more direct diplomacy and pledged to engage with Syria and Iran.” (44) As Oren details in his memoir these fears came to fruition as soon as Obama was inaugurated. Once ensconced in the oval office according to Oren the appointment of George Mitchell, the former Maine Senator as America’s top Middle East negotiator did not bode well for Israel as in the past he had exonerated Yasir Arafat from any involvement in the Second Intifada. Further, Obama appointed Jim Jones as his National Security Advisor who had been very critical of Israel when he was the Department of State enjoy to the region in 2007. In addition, Obama’s first presidential interview was with Al Arabiya, where he emphasized his Moslem family connections and the desire to restore relations in the region to “where they were twenty or thirty years ago.” (49) In dealing with Iran as the IAEA reported they had produced enough low-enriched uranium to produce one nuclear weapon, but instead the United States concentrated on Israel to suspend all settlement construction and endorse a two state solution at the same time Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, turned down Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s offer for Palestinian statehood. It seemed to Oren that Obama’s mind was preset no matter what circumstances might hold. In 2009, Oren was chosen Israeli ambassador to the United States and many labeled him as “Bibi’s mouthpiece” in Washington. As any ambassador, Oren presented the position of his government as best he could. Portraying himself as somewhat of a referee between Obama and Netanyahu the reader is presented with a window into the Israeli Prime Minister’s background and belief system, and how he went about bridging the gap between these two diverse men.
Oren offers numerous examples of disagreements, anger, and outright hostility between Israel and the United States during his ambassadorship. Condemnation of Israeli actions in Gaza, but none against Assad’s murderous policy in Syria or Iran’s crackdown on the Green Revolution was viewed from Tel Aviv as hypocritical. The overriding issue for Obama was to obtain a settlement freeze to bring Abbas to the negotiating table. For Oren, Obama was doing Abbas’s dirty work because the President would pressure Israel, but the Palestinian leader would offer nothing in return. Obama rarely addressed Israeli sensitivities and seemed to always criticize Israeli actions, be it in Gaza or elsewhere, but he never mentioned Hamas rockets that were landing in Israel. Overall, for Oren, Obama, either did not care to learn, or just chose to ignore the nuances needed in dealing with conflict in the Middle East. An excellent example would be the Obama administration’s response to the Arab spring. For the president events in Tunisia and Egypt were a call for democratic government, living in the region, Israel saw events through a different lens as they felt the Arab reaction was due to humiliation and a loss of dignity. The resulting elevation of the Moslem Brotherhood, a ”political cousin” to Hamas, and American comments supporting the new Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi who immediately began supplying weapons to Hamas was unacceptable to Israel. Further, Obama stated on May 18, 2011 that “We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps,” raising the question in Israel as to why the Palestinian Authority was being rewarded when they had stonewalled negotiations for two years.
(Ambassador Oren, a reserve officer in the Israeli Defense Force)
Perhaps Oren’s best chapter is entitled, “the Years of Affliction.” The year 2011 had been rife with crisis. The flotilla incident with Turkey as Islamic jihadists had joined a supply flotilla designed to arm and supply Hamas forces in Gaza resulted in the death of Turkish nationals when Israeli forces tried to board a ship and were met with gunfire. A year later, to assuage Obama, Netanyahu agreed to apologize to Turkish Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan. When all seemed under control and the apology was issued, the Turkish president responded by bragging how he humiliated Israel and would break the blockade of Gaza by force. The Iranian nuclear controversy grew more and more heated throughout the year and Obama pressed for a diplomatic solution employing sanctions and the Israelis worried that there window to stop Iran was fast closing. More and more Israel felt its “Qualitative Military Edge” over its enemies was narrowing, while Washington, who historically was committed to its maintenance disagreed. On the Israeli domestic side, the Carmel forest fire was a threat to Haifa and was finally controlled, this time with American aid. For the United States, its funding of the Iron Dome weapons system to protect Israel from Hamas rockets was enough support, and it refused to condemn Hamas even when it used human shields to protect its launch sites.
Oren’s chapter dealing with Israel’s portrayal in the American media is very interesting. He sees this as a matter of Israeli national security and spends a great deal of time parsing how Israel is presented. He is concerned there is an anti-Israel bias that has become so pervasive that even the New York Times, Washington Post, and 60 Minutes seem to be purveyors of an image of Israel that their enemies have created. He points to a 60 Minutes feature that accuses Israel of persecuting Christians. The details Oren provides are explicit and argues against the myth that Jews control the American media as even reporters like Thomas Friedman have been inadvertently coopted into this cabal. If in fact this is true, Oren might be on to something or perhaps Israel has become a victim of the new digital world, and the recent media sophistication of its enemies.
The question as to whether the Obama administration would defend Israel against an Iranian nuclear attack is a major theme in the book and encompasses Netanyahu’s frustration with the president. This carries over to Obama’s second term when he replaced what Oren viewed as a fairly pro-Israeli group headed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta with Chuck Hagel, who refused to label Hezbollah as a terrorist group, and John Kerry who Oren believes has a soft spot for the Palestinians. Whether Oren’s observations are true or not is beside the point, this is an Israeli perception that affects the relationship with the only democratically elected government in the Middle East. It is obvious that it is very difficult to work with Benjamin Netanyahu at times, as highlighted by his reelection campaign, but the American-Israeli relationship is extremely important in terms of the national security interests of both countries. At times it seems that Oren goes overboard and is a bit polemical, but that can be the nature of a memoir. Perhaps Oren should stick to narrative history as his books; JUNE, 1967 and POWER, FAITH, AND FANTASY: AMERICA IN THE MIDDLE EAST are excellent. Overall, this a provocative “kiss and tell” memoir, and is important in understanding how Israel thinks of their plight living in the midst of a hostile neighborhood.