A Dose of Nuance: Goodbye – but to which ally?

The coming weeks will reveal whether the American Jewish community still has a sense of historic responsibility.

By
July 16, 2015 13:07
Kerry and Zarif in Vienna

Secretary Kerry Poses for a Group Photo With Fellow EU, P5+1 Foreign Ministers and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif After Reaching Iran Nuclear Deal. (photo credit: STATE DEPARTMENT PHOTO)

Some dramatic historic events have the capacity to remain stunning even if they are not surprising. This week’s accord between Iran and the P5+1 is a case in point. It is a stunning error, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has correctly noted, but it is not a surprising one.

The agreement was unsurprising not only because the parties were so close to a deal for so long, but because the United States was hell-bent on reaching a deal. President Barack Obama wanted a deal no matter what compromises he had to make, no matter how much danger the deal represented for Israel, ostensibly the US’s ally.

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But only ostensibly, it would seem. The fifth chapter of Michael Oren’s much-discussed new book, Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide, is titled “Ally, Goodbye.” Oren uses the phrase to refer to his own waning days as Israel’s ambassador to the United States, but the chapter name is a clear double entendre.

The relationship between Israel and America, Oren argues, has been poisoned. Though Netanyahu and Israeli policy share some of the blame, he says, the real damage was the work of an American president both utterly incompetent and openly hostile to Israel.

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 Oren is far too classy and elegant to state matters that bluntly, of course. Ally makes its case patiently and carefully, often most powerfully by using language intentionally understated. But Oren’s case is clear nonetheless. Obama comes across as a “dupe” (page 334) and more than a bit of a fool.

Most – but certainly not all – of the evidence that Oren adduces is well known to those who have been following the Obama administration since its beginning.

The accumulation of all this evidence in the space of a few hundred pages, however, provides a wallop that the six years over which these events unfolded somehow muted.

A key problem is Obama’s fundamental worldview.

Oren reminds us that upon taking office, the newly elected president removed the statue of Winston Churchill from the White House. Oren does not need to explain the act. Churchill saved the West precisely because he was committed, as he said so famously, to defending “our island, whatever the cost may be.

We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

That commitment to protecting the West and its values at all cost, Obama implied by removing the statue, would be anathema to his administration.

Indeed, it has been. Obama, Oren notes (237), is deeply ambivalent about America’s place among the nations. “Whether we like it or not,” he quotes Obama as saying, “we remain a dominating military superpower.”

Oren notes accurately that it would have been impossible to imagine John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan or even Bill Clinton saying anything remotely so self-disparaging.

Obama’s unwillingness to use force – even when he had said that he would – is the object of Oren’s ridicule on numerous occasions. Oren was shaving as he listened to Obama’s brief speech about what he was going to do in Syria now that Assad had clearly crossed redlines. As he heard Obama say that he would to ask Congress for the authorization to use force, Oren’s “razor froze in mid-shave” (343).

On that occasion, as in many others, Oren cleverly uses the words of others to make a point that he himself could not make as clearly while retaining his characteristic elegance.

Thus, in response to Obama’s backing down on Syria, Oren quotes John McCain. “This is the most f*****- up thing I’ve seen in my entire political career” (344).

Though not particularly subtle, McCain gets an “A” for clarity.

The Obama that emerges from Oren’s deftly written book is a president so deeply ideological that he simply can no longer see the world as it is. As Oren wraps up his remarkable stint as ambassador, he remarks that “Obama was no longer the inexperienced president of 2009, and yet time and events had not altered his outlook. He was still referring to a ‘Muslim world’ – a world that contained the Iranian regime but excluded Sunni jihadists and al-Qaida – and refused to utter the words ‘Islamic terror’” (352).

But Obama’s ideologically driven cluelessness is not Oren’s most devastating accusation. Throughout the book, the Obama administration comes across as incompetent, but worse, hostile to Israel.

Oren’s evidence is too copious to summarize here, but some of it – particularly on a week like this – bears repeating.

On a week in which the West has made a deal with the Iranians, it is worth remembering – is it not? – that when Obama thanked the many countries who had come to Haiti’s aid after the devastating earthquake there, he failed to so much as mention Israel, which did more than any other nation.

It is worth recalling that Obama continued to insist that an agreement with the Palestinians be based on the pre-1967 lines, even though he knew that Abbas had already agreed to accept significantly less than that (208).

It bears recalling that the Chuck Hagel that Obama nominated to be secretary of defense had said of Palestinian suicide bombers that “desperate men do desperate things when you take hope away.” Hagel refused to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization. The list goes on (315).

Even Jeffrey Goldberg, probably the most nuanced and balanced journalist covering the Middle East these days, noted (as Oren points out) that Obama’s dislike of Israel’s prime minister “had deepened in a way that could ultimately be dangerous for Israel” (243).

We have reached that ultimate moment. The Obama administration, Oren notes, has lied to Israel – its ostensible ally – throughout the Iran-negotiations process. On numerous occasions, even when the US was negotiating with Iran, it assured the Israelis that it was not (210).

Why did the US leak word of Israel’s attack on a reactor not far from Damascus, when Israel had hoped the matter would stay under wraps? Oren quotes a nameless diplomat to make a point he himself appears to hold: “The White House wanted to distract Israel’s attention from efforts to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran” (334).

Here is Oren, in his own words: “Most disturbing for me personally was the realization that our closest ally had entreated with our deadliest enemy on an existential issue without so much as informing us” (360).

There are, of course, those who disagree with Oren, arguing that military cooperation between the United States and Israel has never been stronger than it has been under the Obama administration. Oren, a careful and exacting scholar, admits that this is true. (Given Oren’s penchant for scholarship and the encyclopedic scope of this book, I for one would have liked the book to include footnotes.) But that does not undermine his critique, Oren insists. Obama felt that the less “daylight” there was between the US and Israel on military matters, the more he could afford to oppose Israel on both the Palestinian and Iranian diplomatic fronts (88).

Even when Obama tries to mollify Israelis, Oren notes, his antipathy gets in the way. “If war comes, we’re with you, because that’s what the American people want,” Obama said to the Israelis (353). In other words, it would be because of political expediency, not because Obama recognized that it would simply be the right thing to do.

Now that the P5+1 have reached agreement with Iran, the battle moves to Congress and, to a large degree, the American Jewish community. Little discussion of Oren’s book has focused on what he has to say about that community, yet this relatively brief section of the book contributes to Ally being Oren’s most courageous work to date.

Certain dimensions of what Oren encountered in the American Jewish community clearly shocked him.

He has little patience for the American Jewish preoccupation with tikkun olam, or repairing the world, a vacuous universalism that renders American Jews so worried about Honduras that they cannot contribute to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (256).

In the American Jewish community he encountered, subjects such as intermarriage were seen as “racist,” while Israel was “virtually taboo” (257). Rabbis told him that Israel was too “divisive” for them to discuss the dangers of the looming Iran deal with their communities.

Ultimately, Oren says, “I wanted to rail at those Jews who failed to recognize that they belong to the luckiest Jewish generation in centuries…. I wanted to accuse them of that most narcissistic of sins: ingratitude” (269).

When Oren says “Ally, Goodbye,” is it possible he may well have two allies in mind? He could have given more attention to those in the American Jewish community (beyond AIPAC, which he rightly lauds) who have sought to defend Israel.

This week, though, it is worth recalling that the community that so disappointed him will largely determine what happens on Capitol Hill, now that the Iran negotiations have concluded, now that the prospect of Israel facing a nuclear weapon in the hands of an unabashedly genocidal regime has grown closer.

Will the American Jewish community respond, en masse, the way Oren wishes it would? Probably not. Even if the deal goes through, though, Oren obliquely suggests, all may not be lost. He quotes Bret Stephens: “We will not have another war in the Middle East… if President Romney orders Iran’s nuclear sites bombed to smithereens” (283). Romney lost that election, of course, but Obama, thankfully, will not be America’s last president.

The day could come, Oren seems to imagine, when Israel and America will once again share a sense of historic responsibility. He and Yossi Klein Halevi, he recalls, once wrote in The New Republic, “A Jewish state that allows itself to be threatened with nuclear weapons will forfeit its right to speak in the name of Jewish history” (183). One suspects that Oren and Halevi would say the same about Jewish communities outside Israel as well.

The coming weeks will reveal whether the American Jewish community still has that sense of historic responsibility.

The writer is senior vice president, Koret Distinguished Fellow and chairman of the core curriculum at Jerusalem’s Shalem College, Israel’s first liberal arts college. His latest book is Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul. He is now writing a concise history of the State of Israel.


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