Former ambassador to the US Michael Oren, the target of a cascade of attacks over the past few weeks for writing a book and articles criticizing US President Barack Obama’s Mideast policies, said on Thursday the motivation behind much of the onslaught is to discredit the book by discrediting its author.
Oren, now a Kulanu MK, set off a storm with the publication this week of Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide, a memoir of his tenure as Israel’s envoy in Washington, in which he paints a nuanced but often troubling picture of the Obama administration’s approach to Israel.
He also wrote three controversial op-ed pieces over the past two weeks – also critical of Obama – which attracted even more fire. In The Wall Street Journal, Oren wrote that Obama intentionally abandoned two key principles of the American-Israeli alliance: that there be no public daylight between the two states, and that there be no surprises.
Oren, in a phone interview with The Jerusalem Post
from Philadelphia where he is in the midst of a book promotion tour, answered the question about “What has come over Oren?,” by saying that “the job of ambassador was to smooth things over, but I am not an ambassador anymore. What I am is a deeply, deeply concerned Israeli.”
And what he is concerned about most is Iran, and that the US might sign a bad agreement with Tehran.
“I felt it was imperative to get this book out now, before any deal is signed with Iran,” he said.
Asked, therefore, if the book – which includes a description of events that could lead to question whether Jerusalem can trust Obama – was intended to “scuttle” the Iran deal, Oren said he didn’t like the word “scuttle,” but was rather trying to “get a conversation going about what our vital interests are, and how to preserve them.”
Oren said he did believe that the book was starting that conversation, a conversation some – including in the administration and their supporters in the Jewish community – are not comfortable having.
Most of the attacks, he said, have been ad hominem, focusing on him and not the substance of what he wrote in the book.
“I’ve been called, including by American officials, a politician looking to sell books, basically a money grubbing politician, a liar and delusional,” he said, in an obvious reference to criticism US Ambassador Dan Shapiro leveled against him in an Army Radio interview two weeks ago. Oren did not, however, mention Shapiro by name.
“What is in common with all the comments is that there is nothing about the substance of the book,” he said. “There are 400 pages of the book, and an extremely significant story about our relationship with Israel’s most vital ally at a crucial juncture in Israel’s history, but nobody is talking about the substance of that text.
“I wish I were delusional,” he added. “I wish they [the administration] had not negotiated behind our back with our worst enemy [Iran]” and made a deal almost universally seen in Israel as a bad one.
Oren said that the message “we have been getting since 2009” from Obama is “You can trust me [on Iran], I’ve got your back, I’m not bluffing.”
That message, he said, was important three summers ago when there was “a lot of discussion about an early preemptive strike against Iran, and those remarks were marshaled as part of the argument against any strike.”
The broader issue of trust is important, Oren said.
“We always heard, ‘I’m not bluffing [about a military option on Iran].’” But then, he added, the US president gave an interview on Channel 2 earlier this month in which he said there really was no military option against Iran.
“So what conclusion can we draw from that?” Asked whether his conclusion is that Obama can’t be trusted on Israel, he said, “I’m saying the issue of credibility is central, and I felt it absolutely imperative to clarify that.”
Oren said that it was to be expected that when a book comes out “and tells difficult truths, it sparks controversy. But does anyone expect us to sit quietly while an agreement that is exceedingly perilous for our future is signed? I couldn’t do that.”
One former colleague of Oren speculated recently that the former ambassador, who has written two acclaimed history books, wanted to get this memoir out quickly so that it would be used as source material – cited in footnotes – by other historians who will write about this troubled period in ties between Jerusalem and Washington.
Oren said that it was not easy for him to write some of what is in the book.
“I participated in a very difficult, complex chapter in our relationship,” he said, adding this account “is a very important piece of information to have right now as we enter this critical juncture.”
Asked if his criticism of Obama will not make the fraught relationship between the president and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even more difficult, he replied: “You have to weigh that consideration against the possibility that this [Iran] agreement is going to be signed.”
Netanyahu refused a request made by Shapiro to come out against what Oren wrote. Asked about this, Oren said the question was not relevant for Netanyahu, “because I am not in his party and do not work for him.”
He is, however, in Moshe Kahlon’s party, and Kulanu chairman and Finance Minister Kahlon did accede to Shapiro’s request and write a two-page letter distancing himself from Oren’s book and articles. Oren pointed out, however, that nowhere in the letter does Kahlon apologize, but rather states the obvious – that the book was written before he entered politics and represents his position as former ambassador.
Oren said Kahlon’s response was coordinated with him, that he was “there” when the finance minister wrote it up, and that he was “perfectly fine with it.”
One of the major sources of the criticisms of Oren has to do with a passage in a piece he wrote in Foreign Policy last week, which also appears in a slightly different form in the book, in which he attributed Obama’s high-profile outreach to the Muslim world to his background, and his abandonment by his Muslim father and stepfather.
Everyone from the Anti-Defamation League’s national director Abe Foxman to Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid slammed Oren for this observation, dismissing it as “psychobabble.”
What’s interesting, Oren said, is that he also wrote a four-page section in his book about Netanyahu’s character, and the influence of his wife, father and brother on him, but no one found that objectionable.
“There is a double standard here,” he said.
In light of the criticism of these comments, Oren said he probably would have said it in a different way if he had to do it over again, because he didn’t want to detract from the major thrust of the argument, which was to analyze what motivated Obama to take a completely revolutionary approach to Islam by a US president.
“I’m trying to understand why the 44th president feels it so incumbent upon himself to do this outreach,” he said. “I don’t want to detract from that, because that is a very serious topic.”
Oren expressed frustration with having to answer questions about select passages in his book, or speeches he made recently, which he said were misrepresented or taken out of context.
For example, at a recent speech in New York he took heat for supposedly offending Jews working in the administration by saying that some segments of American Jewry have a hard time understanding “the Israeli character.”
Oren said this was not intended as an insult to anyone, and that what he said was that “Israeli and American Jews often have difficulty understanding each other’s historical experiences.
“Just as Israelis have difficulty understanding the American Jewish role in the Civil Rights movement, don’t know what Selma [Alabama] is, and don’t understand it, so too many American Jews don’t understand what it means to withdraw from Lebanon in 2000, and Gaza in 2005, and sign an agreement with the PLO only to then have thousands of rockets fired at us and our buses blown up,” he said.