Michael Oren And The Debate That Won’t Die
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Michael Oren And The Debate That Won’t Die

The former ambassador brought criticism on himself by writing provocative opinion pieces when his book was published.

Editor & Publisher of The NY Jewish Week.

Michael Oren, the highly respected historian and former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., has become the latest lightning rod in the bitter struggle among those who profess to know what’s best for Israel. And like the Jewish state he served as diplomat, and now as Knesset member, Oren has gone from chief unifier to deep divider for many American Jews.

In his review, Bret Stephens, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Wall Street Journal, called Oren’s new book, “Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide” (Random House), the “smartest and juiciest diplomatic memoir that I’ve read in years, and I’ve read my share.”

He and other right-of-center supporters of Israel have praised Oren for describing a seemingly endless series of Obama administration slights, and more serious differences with Israel, during his four-and-a-half year tenure in Washington. The cumulative effect, on reading “Ally,” is of a president who views Jerusalem as more obstacle than ally, determined to pressure Prime Minister Netanyahu rather than Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas into a peace deal, and willing, if not eager, to publicize U.S. policy differences with Israel.

But Oren has been rhetorically pummeled from critics in the center and on the left, here and in Israel. He is accused of fabricating and exaggerating events, telling secrets out of turn, and playing armchair psychologist in attributing Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world as, at least in part, a response to his being abandoned as a child by his father and stepfather, both of whom are Muslim.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro called the book untruthful; Moshe Kahlon, Oren’s new boss as leader of the Kulanu Party, distanced himself from the fray; and even the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman, weighed in, describing Oren’s portrait of Obama as an “insensitive and unjustified attack on the president” and a case of “amateur psychoanalysis.”

Perhaps most seriously, Oren, a proud American who gave up his citizenship to take on the ambassador post in 2009 and sees himself as a potential healer of the U.S.-Israel rift, is accused of seriously misreading American Jewish discomfort with Israel of late.

Leon Wieseltier, the longtime literary editor of The New Republic now writing from his new perch at The Atlantic, called Oren’s book “slinky and self-aggrandizing.” Further, he asserted that it is Israel’s policies, particularly regarding settlements, that is the greatest cause of a distancing from the Netanyahu government, not fear of anti-Semitism, as Oren suggests.

Sadly, the dispute has grown personal, fueled in part by an article in Haaretz by New York correspondent Chemi Shalev shortly before “Ally” was published. It focused on Oren’s criticism of Jews in mainstream journalism whom he felt were unduly harsh in reporting on Israel. Oren cited the New York Review of Books and journalists like Tom Friedman of The New York Times, New Yorker editor David Remnick, and Wieseltier, who wrote in The Atlantic last week that he was speaking ironically when he told Oren his dislike of Netanyahu was “pathological,” a comment Oren cited in the book.

Some of Oren’s supporters claim that the widespread attacks on him and his book have been orchestrated by an Obama administration seeking to minimize the impact of the charges against the White House and shift the focus to Oren’s alleged bias rather than U.S. policy.

In defending himself against the barrage of criticism, Oren, in the U.S. on a book tour, said most of the harsh comments have been leveled against him personally as “basically a money-grubbing politician, a liar and delusional,” he told The Jerusalem Post, rather than dealing with the substance of the book.

But Oren brought a good deal of criticism on himself by writing a series of provocative opinion pieces around the time of the book’s publication, presumably to call attention to it and boost sales. One was an essay in The Wall Street Journal titled “How Obama Abandoned Israel.” Oren didn’t write the headline, but the piece accuses the president of deliberately causing the rift with Jerusalem. Another controversial column Oren wrote appeared in Foreign Policy and explored what he perceives of as Obama’s psychological issues — a child abandoned by Muslim fathers, now bent on a foolhardy outreach effort to Iran and the Muslim world.

Critics didn’t have to read “Ally,” and probably hadn’t, to conclude that Oren was deeply partisan against Obama. And that’s a pity because the strength of the 400-page book, as I wrote here (“No Way To Treat An Ally,” June 19), is that it is far more nuanced than those essays Oren wrote. It offers numerous examples of the administration not living up to its repeated claims of “having Israel’s back” in regard to political and diplomatic issues.

Most of the critics have focused on a couple of relatively minor, alleged mistakes attributed to Oren, like the timing of the arrival of the Israeli medical team in Haiti after its devastating earthquake. (Oren said Obama did not cite Israel as one of the countries lending emergency aid; detractors noted Obama spoke the day before the Israelis arrived on the scene; Oren supporters respond that the White House knew help was on the way; etc.)

The implication seems to be that if Oren, a noted historian, made an error, his credibility is suspect and his central thesis is undermined.

That thesis is two-fold and compelling; let the critics address it directly. First, that the White House has chosen to pressure Israel on the Palestinian issue, consistently and insistently, while giving the Palestinian Authority a pass. And, even more importantly, that Obama has been so committed to finding a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear threat that he has jeopardized Israel’s security, underscored by conducting secret talks with the Iranians and not informing America’s most vital and vulnerable ally in the region.

It is on those points that a serious debate about the merits of the book should be held.

“Ally” was slated for publication in September, but as a result of the author’s urging that it come out before the final deadline of the critical nuclear talks with Iran, it was published on June 23.

Oren had hoped that his book, with what he calls its “difficult truths” about the administration’s weakness in dealing with Iran, might play a role in preventing the “bad deal” of which Israelis are so fearful. Not unexpectedly, though, it has bolstered critics of the deal and been dismissed by supporters of it — another painful example of Oren’s “journey across the American-Israeli divide.”
 

gary@jewishweek.org

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