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With ‘Ally,’ Michael Oren lifts the veil on U.S.-Israel relations

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with Michael Oren, then the Israeli ambassador to the United States, at Ben-Gurion International Airport on April 9, 2013. Credit: U.S. State Department.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with Michael Oren, then the Israeli ambassador to the United States, at Ben-Gurion International Airport on April 9, 2013. Credit: U.S. State Department.

It’s safe to say that in the coming weeks you’ll be reading a great deal about the forthcoming memoir, “Ally,” authored by Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren.

Oren spent the years 2009-13 as Israel’s envoy in Washington. Once a dual national of both the U.S. and Israel, the New Jersey-raised Oren had to surrender his U.S. passport at the American Embassy in Tel Aviv before taking up his ambassadorial post—an emotionally wrenching episode that he describes in detail. Oren’s complicated identity as an American and an Israeli is a theme that runs throughout the book, and his treatment of this subject is a welcome tonic to the dreary and rather smelly charges of “dual loyalty” that too often accompany examinations of the relationship that Jews in the diaspora have with the Jewish state.

The main attraction of the book, of course, is its account of the Obama administration’s Middle East policies, and Oren’s candor has already gotten him into trouble. Dan Shapiro, the current U.S. ambassador to Israel, who makes several appearances in Oren’s memoir, this week told Israel’s Army Radio that “Ally” is “an imaginary account of what happened,” belittling Oren for having, as a mere ambassador, a “limited point of view into ongoing efforts. What he wrote does not reflect the truth.”

This is a serious charge, and it remains to be seen if Shapiro will attempt to substantiate it. In the meantime, it should be pointed out that what makes “Ally” such a fascinating read is that it provides, from Oren’s perspective, a detailed sense of the bitter atmosphere in both Washington and Jerusalem that underlay diplomatic efforts on the issues we are all intimately familiar with, from the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program to the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Unlike other diplomats, Oren didn’t wait 20 years to publish his story—most of the key individuals in his book, most obviously President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are still in power, and the bilateral tensions which Oren agonizingly explains haven’t been lessened since his departure from Israel’s Washington embassy. Diplomats aren’t supposed to be this transparent, which is why Oren will be regarded in many circles as a man who broke “omerta,” the code of silence which ensures that us ordinary mortals are kept in the dark about what our leaders are saying in private.

While it’s true that Obama comes in for heavy criticism, Oren rubbishes the claim that the president is “anti-Israel.” The reality is more complex; as Oren writes, “the Israel [Obama] cared about was also the Israel whose interests he believed he understood better than its own citizens.” One might add that this paternalistic approach has informed Obama’s stance on the entire region, resulting in a sly policy that presents itself to Americans as a much-desired withdrawal from the Middle East’s endless bloodshed while, at the same time, fundamentally redistributing the region’s balance of power in favor of Iran, whose rulers have spent almost 40 years chanting, “Death to America.”

The reader is struck, reading Oren’s analysis of Obama’s policy speeches, by how often the president has used the phrase “I’m not naive”—surely a case, as Shakespeare might have put it, of “our elected leader doth protest too much.” On a visit to Turkey in April 2009—his first visit abroad—Obama emphasized his personal regard for that country’s irascible leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, pointedly adding, “I’m not naive.” He reached for this formulation again in an address to the U.N. General Assembly the following September, in which he articulated the demand for a “contiguous” Palestinian state. “I’m not naive,” Oren quotes the president saying, “but all of us must decide whether we are serious about peace or whether we will lend it lip service.”

“All of us,” as Oren’s book makes clear, was really code for “Israel,” and, specifically, Netanyahu. The fork-tongued Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, has never experienced the same degree of diplomatic pressure from the Americans, and nor has  he been subjected to the kind of ugly whispering campaigns that have targeted Netanyahu.

Ironically, though, Obama’s zeal to resolve the Palestinian question by insisting on the 1967 lines as the border between two sovereign states actually boxed in the Palestinian leader. Despite Abbas’s apparent willingness “to concede parts of the West Bank and East Jerusalem to Israel,” Oren says, “the White House continued to condemn Israeli construction in some of the very areas that Abbas offered to forgo.” Obama’s visceral opposition to settlements also placed Abbas in an awkward position when it came to other potential concessions from the Palestinian side. “Mahmoud Abbas,” Oren memorably writes, “could not be less Palestinian than Obama.”

On Iran—the source of a truly existential threat to Israel—Oren’s book offers little in the way of comfort. Oren recalls hearing Israel’s late prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, warning in the early 1990s that Iran “was covertly working to produce nuclear bombs”—a deadly prospect that has been kept alive in the ongoing negotiations with Tehran. In Obama’s eyes, though, this reality has been inverted. “When I came into office, Iran was united and the world was divided,” Oren quotes the president asserting. “And now what we have is a united international community that is saying to Iran, you’ve got to change your ways.” Somehow, somewhere along the line, the successive U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding an end to Iran’s enrichment activities must have disappeared.

Since none of the problems described in “Ally” have been resolved—if anything, they have been exacerbated—the book can be regarded as an important reality check for those readers who still believe that the current administration has Israel’s back. Oren recalls a “fuming” Susan Rice, who now serves as Obama’s national security adviser, telling him, “If you don’t appreciate the fact that we defend you night and day, tell us. We have other important things to do.” The contemptuous tone isn’t the most worrying aspect of this remark; rather, it’s the absurd implication that the security relationship between the U.S. and Israel flows in one direction only. The vital fact that Israel fights its own wars and doesn’t require American troops to risk their lives for its security again appears to have been overlooked.

As we head towards the ostensible climax of the Iran negotiations on June 30—which will likely be accompanied by a renewed assault on Israel’s legitimacy stemming from the publication of the U.N.’s biased report on the Gaza conflict of July and August 2014—the timing of Oren’s book couldn’t be better. My modest advice, then, is to ignore the background noise, read the book, and decide for yourself whether or not the smothering “chibbuk” (Hebrew for hug) in which the U.S., under Obama, has placed Israel is in the best interests of the world’s only Jewish state.

Ben Cohen, senior editor of & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014). 

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