“More than [about] policy…, Barack Obama was about ideology and a worldview often at variance with Israel’s.” These words constitute the thesis statement of Ally: My Journey across the American-Israeli Divide, the new memoir by the historian Michael Oren, who served as Israel’s ambassador in Washington from 2009 to 2013. Given the grave urgency of the regional and international challenges facing the Jewish state, and given what is widely perceived today as a severe crisis in America-Israel relations, the book couldn’t be timelier—as the instantaneous media ruckus attending its publication amply testifies.
Not that Oren is breaking new ground in his claim that the American president is less concerned with pragmatic results than with fidelity to a preconceived ideology. Nevertheless, as a well-placed, first-hand observer, his validation of the claim is in itself a highly welcome and noteworthy event. Oren tempers the statement by assuring his readers that Obama doesn’t roll out of bed every morning to ask, “How can I undermine the Jewish state today?” But from the moment the ambassador took up his post in 2009, it was obvious that Obama had (in Oren’s term) his “kishke“ obsessions—and these gut obsessions included, among other things, creating a Palestinian state and reconciling with Islam.
And that wasn’t all. In general, Oren writes, Obama also sought to downplay the military dimension of American foreign policy, to distance the United States from traditional allies, and to work through international organizations. Taken together, all of these inclinations, the ambassador understood, spelled trouble for Israel: “a traditional ally, heavily dependent on American might, and at odds with . . . international organizations.”
Where Israel was concerned, Obama’s approach led shortly after taking office to a rejection of “the ‘no daylight’ principle”—the idea, popular in conservative circles, that the United States should huddle closely with Israel on all issues affecting its security. As Oren reports, Obama scoffed at the very notion. “When there is no daylight, Israel just sits on the sidelines and that erodes our credibility with the Arabs,” he told a group of Jewish leaders in 2009. (Although critics of Oren have accused him of inventing this supposedly longstanding axiom of American policy, the fact remains that Obama very consciously formulated a converse principle.)
Early in his first term, the president also made a point of picking a loud and public fight with Israel. In order to show that the United States was changing direction, to enhance America’s credibility in the Muslim world, and to put Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on notice that a new sheriff was in town, Obama insisted on a total freeze on Jewish settlements. And his definition of the concept was extreme. As Oren writes, the president defined “settlement” as any Jewish community on the West Bank built east of the 1949 ceasefire line, and “freeze” as meaning no construction of any kind. This policy, too, deviated sharply from previous practice; the Bush administration had raised no protest over building in areas that, under the terms of any conceivable peace plan, would remain part of Israel.
No Israeli prime minister of any stripe could have acceded to Obama’s demands; for Netanyahu in particular, compliance would have spelled political suicide. According to Oren, however, Netanyahu did make extraordinary efforts to conciliate the American president. Most notably, he became the first Israeli prime minister to agree to a ten-month moratorium on building starts—to no avail. Moreover, in a major public speech Netanyahu became the first Likud leader to accept the two-state solution: a controversial and statesmanlike act that deeply angered his right-wing base. Yet this, too, won him no plaudits. The reaction from Washington, Oren comments, “was tepid, at best, suggesting that the prime minister had merely performed a long-overdue duty.”
In addition to consciously violating the “no daylight” principle, Obama, in Oren’s telling, also violated the “no surprises” rule—the notion that the two governments should work closely together even to the point of sharing drafts of major speeches before delivery. Here again Oren’s critics have accused him of conjuring up a nonexistent utopian age of Israeli-American cooperation. Yet even if the “no surprises” rule is an exaggeration, he is obviously on to something real. Soon enough, the most egregious violation of the rule would turn out to be Obama’s decision to negotiate secretly with Iran, Israel’s declared mortal enemy. How many presidents, prior to Obama, had treated Israel in so cavalier a fashion? Hiding from the Israelis the existence of talks with their most powerful foe was hardly a recipe, to put it mildly, for building trust.
Oren, however, left Washington in the fall of 2013, before news broke of the clandestine talks with Tehran. By the time the Israelis and Americans were grappling with the issue intensively, he was out of the picture. From this point forward in the book, he writes as a historian, not as an eyewitness, and when it comes to Iran, his historian’s judgment on the Obama presidency is very harsh.
Ally has enraged the White House. The American ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, has taken to Israeli radio to denounce its claims as “imaginary” and phoned Prime Minister Netanyahu in protest, demanding that he disavow Oren. (Netanyahu declined.) Also furious with the former ambassador, whom they see as an opportunist and an apostate, are Obama’s liberal American Jewish supporters and the Israeli left. After all, these critics point out, in Israel’s March elections Oren ran on the list of the Kulanu party, a rival of Netanyahu’s Likud, and during the campaign he laid the responsibility for the deterioration in U.S.-Israel relations not on Obama’s doorstep but on Netanyahu’s. In panning his book, Oren’s left-wing critics have therefore depicted it variously as a crass effort to turn a profit or as a blatantly political maneuver.
In response, Oren has characterized these criticisms as ad-hominem and as themselves politically motivated. He is correct—but only partially so. His critics have tweezed out very specific inaccuracies in the book and used them as a basis for dismissing the entire argument. Oren’s central thesis, however, hardly depends on his personal testimony. The notion that the White House has an ideological approach to Israel is by now so well substantiated that the only people who reject it are, to borrow one of Senator John McCain’s favorite lines, the president’s “blood relatives and paid staffers.”
Still, the critics are right about one thing: when all is said and done, Ally is indeed a politician’s memoir, and it exhibits the strengths and weaknesses of the genre. As a description of Obama’s foreign policy, it is ironclad. As a compelling account of Israeli efforts to grapple with the ideologue in the White House, it can disappoint.
Two distinctly different authorial personas inhabit this book. Michael Oren 2.0 claims to have had the president’s number from the start. But this keen-eyed observer, on whom nothing is lost, coexists uncomfortably with Michael Oren 1.0, who came to America not to criticize the Democratic president but to win his trust and to serve as a bridge between him and Israel’s prime minister. In that effort, Oren 1.0 cultivated the liberal Democratic elite and worked in close coordination with the weathervanes of American liberal opinion: preeminently, the columnist Jeffrey Goldberg, who receives well over twenty favorable mentions in Ally. As an American, an Ivy League graduate, and a bestselling author, Oren 1.0 presented himself to Obama’s supporters, and especially to Obama’s Jewish supporters, not as an envoy of the Likud, to which he held no allegiances, but as a native son and trustworthy friend.
During Obama’s first term, White House advisers assured the Israelis and the American Jewish elite that nuclear nonproliferation was one of the two or three issues dearest to the president’s heart. A trace of this assurance appears in Ally when Oren lists nonproliferation as one of Obama’s “kishke“ issues. The president’s supposed dedication to staring down Tehran led many Israelis to conclude that he would always be their most stalwart ally on Iran. This was certainly the thinking of Oren’s good friend Jeffrey Goldberg who, during the 2012 election campaign in the U.S., channeled the common wisdom of Obama’s Jewish supporters. “Netanyahu would be wrong to root for Romney,” Goldberg wrote, in words so quaint they sound almost as if they came from a different century. “Barack Obama is the one who’s more likely to confront Iran militarily, should sanctions and negotiations fail.”
Given Obama’s trustworthiness—so the reasoning went at the time—Israel should bend over backward to accommodate his political needs. Netanyahu’s famous “time bomb” speech before the United Nations in September 2012 was one such effort at accommodation. It signaled to Obama that, in the prime minister’s mind, zero hour had not yet approached and that Israel would launch no attack against Iran before the presidential election in November. The speech was a great relief to the president, who, Oren reports, called to thank Netanyahu immediately afterward.
Oren 1.0 does not say precisely how he advised Netanyahu before the UN speech, but throughout the book he is seen repeatedly urging the prime minister to adopt a conciliatory stance toward Obama. So it stands to reason that he supported the speech, complete with its climb-down from the threat of an imminent Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Yet eventually it would become clear that the president’s true emotion was not gratitude to Netanyahu but disdain. In an interview with Goldberg about two years after the climb-down, an anonymous senior administration official, reliving the episode, bragged about how the president had forced Netanyahu, the “chickenshit,” to go sit in the corner.
That Oren is now persuaded that the ideologue in the White House is not to be trusted or appeased is indeed significant—and altogether honorable. Unfortunately, the ghost of Oren 1.0 is not so easily laid. Consider, for example, that in January of this year, Oren, out of office since 2013, publicly criticized Netanyahu for accepting the invitation from Speaker of the House John Boehner to address a joint session of of the U.S. Congress. “It’s advisable to cancel the speech . . . so as not to cause a rift with the American government,” Oren said. “Much responsibility and reasoned political behavior are needed to guard interests in the White House.”
In an interview with Goldberg shortly after the speech, Oren not only lamented the damage he felt Netanyahu had done to U.S.-Israeli relations, but also identified the American conservatives as a grave threat to those relations. In Ally, he reinforces this assessment by noting the distress of his wife, Sally, over the decision of many members of the Congressional Black Caucus to boycott Netanyahu’s address. “Everything we worked for, all we built,” Sally lamented. “It’s gone.” As for Jeffrey Goldberg, he still today professes to believe that Netanyahu is primarily to blame for the deterioration in U.S.-Israeli relations; that Obama sincerely frets over Israel’s security like a Jewish grandmother worrying over her grandchild; and that the administration’s nuclear deal with Iran is the least bad option for Israel.
These propositions are part and parcel of a political myth—one that enables liberal Jews and others to retain their traditional political identity even as their party and their president, an icon of liberalism, abandon Israel and repay its concessions with contempt. That these same propositions also contradict the core thesis of Ally as presented by Oren 2.0 raises a question: why is Oren 2.0 so reluctant to admit just how much and for how long Oren 1.0 bought into the mythical beliefs of his favored interlocutors in Washington?
In interviews, Oren has explained that he rushed his book to press in order to raise an urgent alarm about the Iran deal—a very bad deal that poses an existential threat to the state of Israel. In the face of such radical danger, Oren implies, diplomatic protocol is a nicety that Israel simply can’t afford. In other words, he is now basing his decision to publish a book excoriating Obama on an appeal to the same considerations that impelled the prime minister to reject his, Oren’s, January criticisms and go through with the speech to the U.S. Congress. Oren 2.0 fails even to acknowledge the contradiction.
At one point in Ally, Oren notes that “the worst word one could call an Israeli [is] a freier- Hebrew slang for a sucker.” Though Oren 2.0 refrains from admitting as much, he now appears to have concluded that, especially with respect to Iran, Obama played Israel and its liberal American supporters for suckers. Ally, a book with a resoundingly strong message, would have been that much stronger had it dispensed with the historian’s voice and told a simple story that everyone can understand: I got taken.