In January 2011, with the U.S. trying hard to convince the Palestinians to withdraw or moderate a United Nations 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 where it would have to veto its own settlement policy in the UN.
In the course of a 50-minute conversation, Obama offered to support a UN 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 upon 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. It covers his more than four-year posting in Washington, 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 UN 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.”
Surely it was with a twinge of irony that Oren titled his much-anticipated book, due out next week, “Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide” (Random House).
As he notes in his foreword, “‘ally’ is a simple, beautiful word” that evokes “warmth,” fitting for the “special relationship,” said to exist between Israel and the U.S. But that relationship also includes “bitter differences,” he reminds us at the outset. And much of the next 375 pages is a carefully recalled, detailed and riveting first-hand account of how the Washington-Jerusalem ties have unraveled — undone by mistrust, mistakes and missed opportunities — with Obama in the role of bully-in-chief.
There are major confrontations, like over settlements and peace talks, and seemingly minor slights, like the president’s omission of Israel in noting countries that came to Haiti’s aid after a devastating earthquake. (The Israeli emergency delegation was one of the largest and the first to arrive on the scene fully prepared.) 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, who Oren liked, and in his dealing with National Security Adviser 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.
‘A Deep Wound’
Author Yossi Klein Halevi, who Oren calls his closest friend, said in a phone call the other day, “Michael lays out the record of humiliation in an understated way. The reader follows a series… not of stabs in the back, but of pinpricks that add up to a deep wound.”
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 his first interview about the book, a 50-minute phone conversation 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 in “Ally” the dilemma of a job that required him to lie “for two countries,” the U.S. and Israel.
“This, more than any other aspect of my new role, took a toll on me emotionally and even physically.”
The accounts accumulate on issues from 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 the fact 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 Inauguration Address, Oren was filled with hope and moved to tears. Over time, though, the 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 coeur [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.”
Oren doesn’t come out and say in this book that the president is anti-Israel. Rather, “Obama is pro-Israel — but his is a certain mythical, pre-1967 Israel that never really existed,” he said, a time when the state was “less democratic, less open, less respectful of minorities.”
As for the real Israel of today, in the eyes of the administration it is a country out of step with American interests. Oren writes that the president’s foreign policy priorities included “creating a Palestinian state, reconciling with Islam, and preventing nuclear proliferation.
“All three,” he noted, “intersected with Israel’s interests, and in potentially abrasive ways.”
He cited Obama’s “credibility problem” in the Mideast, noting America’s lack of success throughout the Mideast, including Iraq, Syria and Yemen. “But on this one vital issue,” the nuclear agreement with Iran, “they’re saying ‘trust us.’
“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.”
On the much-discussed, much-troubled relationship between Obama and Netanyahu, Oren observes how much the two men have in common: “Both men were left-handed, both believed in the power of oratory and that they were the smartest men in the room,” he writes. “Both were loners, averse to decision making and susceptible to a strong woman’s advice. And both saw themselves in transformative historical roles.”
Oren writes that “their similarities, perhaps as much as their differences, heightened the chance for friction” between them. But he adds that he decided not to share those insights with Netanyahu, who comes across in the book as somewhat distant from his ambassador. But Oren defends Netanyahu’s positions, particularly on Iran, and is generally sympathetic. (He agreed with the content of the prime minister’s controversial address to Congress in March, but felt it should have been delivered at the AIPAC policy conference instead.)
He writes that the prime minister got little or no credit from the administration for concessions he made or was prepared to give. And he notes that Obama’s team had it in for the Israeli leader from the outset and did not heed advice that treating him with respect, if not warmth, would be more productive than pressuring him at every turn.
A major Oren criticism of Obama is that while his “commitment to Israel’s security was genuine,” the president “clearly drew a distinction between “no daylight on security” and “no daylight on diplomacy.” Thus, “open disagreement on policy” was seen as a means of enhancing the peace process.
“It’s a false assumption and can be dangerous,” Oren told me. “It doesn’t work in the Middle East, where appearances are very important and any daylight can be searing.”
Oren sounded liberated in 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 and 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.”
Editor’s Note: Knesset member and former Ambassador Oren will be speaking about his book on Friday, June 19, at The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach at 7 p.m.; on Sunday, June 21, at the 92nd Street Y at 7:30 p.m.; and on Tuesday, June 23, at Congregation Rodeph Sholom at 7:15 p.m.