No way to treat an ally
In January 2011, with the U.S. trying hard to convince the Palestinians to withdraw or moderate a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements, President Obama called Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to make a deal.
The White House did not want to find itself in a position of having to veto its own settlement policy.
In the course of a 50-minute conversation, Obama offered to support a U.N. investigation regarding settlements, renew a U.S. demand for a full-scale freeze on Israeli construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and was prepared to declare a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, with mutually agreed swaps.
All without prior consultation with Israel, according to former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, as described in his revealing new memoir. Covering his more than four-year posting in Washington, the book and its revelations are sure to raise a stir there as well as in Jerusalem, and far beyond, deepening the debate over the U.S.-Israel relationship.
“By endorsing the Palestinian position on the 1967 lines,” writes Oren, “the White House had overnight altered more than 40 years of American policy.”
An “outraged” Israeli prime minister’s office, on hearing of the Obama offer from U.N. sources, instructed Oren to place calls immediately to Congressional leaders.
“Israel felt abandoned, I was to say. And that is no way to treat an ally,” he writes.
Surely it was with a twinge of irony that Oren titled his much-anticipated book, “Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide” (Random House).
There is the ring of authenticity in ominous warnings about the consequences of bucking the administration from Obama’s foul-mouthed chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, whom Oren liked, and in his dealing with National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones, who “often seemed ill-disposed toward Israel.”
The cumulative effect is profound—a steady drumbeat of behind-the-scenes examples of diplomatic dissonance. Oren, charged with maintaining a positive public façade regarding the “unbreakable and unshakeable” U.S.-Israel alliance, is privately seething over the administration’s treatment of his country—politically and diplomatically—as less ally than obstacle.
Repeatedly, he describes how Israel is blamed for the lack of progress on the peace front while the Palestinians are given a pass.
Oren, as a former diplomat, seems to be struggling to keep his deepest feelings of hurt and anger below the surface in his writing.
At first “begrudgingly,” and later whole-heartedly, he kept a personal journal during his Washington tenure in addition to his diplomatic record of events. “I began recording my personal feelings, observations and tensions from one crisis to another,” he said during a 50-minute phone interview from Jerusalem, where he is now a member of the Knesset.
As someone with “a career in striving to write the truth about history,” he describes with candor the dilemma of a job that required him to lie “for two countries.”
“This, more than any other aspect of my new role, took a toll on me emotionally and even physically,” he writes.
The accounts accumulate on issues from Obama administration criticism of Prime Minister Netanyahu—“an America that slanders the democratically elected leader of its ally is one that is respected neither by its friends nor its enemies”—to the open rift over the Iran nuclear talks, with Israel kept out of the loop and fearful for its survival.
Adding to the impact is that Oren is neither polemicist nor political partisan. A highly respected historian and award-winning author of books about America and Israel, he is widely viewed as a voice of reason in both countries.
He found much of Obama’s message in his first campaign for the presidency inspiring. Listening to the first inaugural address, Oren was filled with hope and moved to tears. Over time, though, optimism gave way to uneasiness, then dread.
“This book came from a deep place of love for Israel and for America,” he told me. “I hope it will be read as a cri de couer [cry from the heart] and a wake-up call.”
He has a clear message for American Jews, particularly in light of the proposed nuclear agreement with Iran: “Remember that American Jewry once had a chance to save six million Jews,” Oren said somberly. “And there are six million today [in Israel]. So think very hard” and understand that “this is about our survival as a people. It’s about our children and grandchildren.”
He cited Obama’s “credibility problem” in the Mideast, noting America’s lack of success throughout the region, including Iraq, Syria and Yemen. “But on this one vital issue,” the nuclear agreement with Iran, “they’re saying ‘trust us,’” he said.
“First they [the administration] told us all options are on the table,” he continued, “and now they’re saying there never was a military option. This deal is not just a bad one, it is singularly dangerous, and it is our duty and right to speak out. And as an IDF war veteran whose son [in the IDF] was wounded, I am deeply offended when we are cast as warmongers.”
Oren sounded as though he felt liberated by finally speaking out on concerns he largely kept private in his role as ambassador. Now that he sits in the Knesset—not in Netanyahu’s Likud party but as a member of Moshe Kahlon’s center-right Kulanu—he is free to engage in the fractious debates that go on there.
He notes that much of his book is about transitions in his life, from his childhood in New Jersey dealing with weight, learning disabilities and anti-Semitic bullying at school, to his becoming an Israeli, to leaving his academic career for the ambassadorial role (which required him to give up his American citizenship), then back to being a private citizen briefly, and now a Knesset member.
“It’s been very complex for me, very challenging,” this going back and forth between “public and private lives,” he said. “And being an Israeli politician is the most complex yet,” he laughed.
One of his Knesset goals, given his unique background, is to close the gap between the U.S. and Israel and between American and Israeli Jews when it comes to understanding each other. “We are one people living in different universes,” he said.
In his seat on the Knesset constitutional committee, he intends to “speak forcefully” to convince Israeli leaders that American Jewry should be seen as a strategic ally for Israeli security, and that Israel should see itself as “the nation state of the Jewish people.”
Oren hopes young people will read his book and think of Israel as a land of opportunity, a place he calls “a miraculous mess—but it’s our mess.”
Explaining his affection for both the land of his birth and the land he now calls home, and the important message he hopes the memoir conveys, he reminded me: “This book was written with love—and fear.”
Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher of the New York Jewish Week, http://www.jewishweek.com, from which this column is reprinted with permission.