A historian, writing in first person

The attacks on Michael Oren have been vicious and personal, but "almost nobody is taking down the book," he tells ‘The Jerusalem Post.’

Michael Oren
In Ally: My Journey Across the American- Israeli Divide, Michael Oren has written a personal memoir that first chronicles his tenure from July 2009 to September 2013 as Israel’s ambassador in Washington.
If being lambasted by political allies and opponents alike is good book publicity, then Oren has gotten more than his fair share. Besides supposedly being pilloried by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, leader of his own Kulanu Party, Oren has been denounced by outgoing ADL chief Abe Foxman and Yediot Aharonot’s columnist Nahum Barnea.
It all began with a Wall Street Journal oped in which Oren – a newly elected MK – argued that US President Barack Obama “deliberately” torpedoed US-Israel relations.
“From the moment he entered office, Mr. Obama promoted an agenda of championing the Palestinian cause and achieving a nuclear accord with Iran.”
As soon as Obama arrived in the White House, writes Oren in Ally, he reversed “a masterpiece of diplomacy” – the April 2004 memorandum from president George W. Bush to premier Ariel Sharon encapsulating the 1967-plus formula: In any peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, strategic settlement blocs and Jewish Jerusalem neighborhoods would remain part of Israel.
In Ally and in his follow-up op-eds, Oren offers a bill of particulars against Obama – from his “revolutionary” Cairo speech channeling the Arab narrative to holding nuclear talks with Iran behind Israel’s back. In a Foreign Policy piece labeling Obama’s policies toward Islam naïve, Oren wrote that Obama had been unduly influenced by the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said. And in a Los Angeles Times op-ed, he averred that Obama was mistaken in calculating that Tehran could be a “rational” nuclear power.
Beyond its headline-making aspects, I found Oren’s efforts to psychoanalyze Obama insightful. They are reminiscent of political scientist James David Barber’s classic, The Presidential Character.
Likewise, his reminiscences of occasional run-ins with anti-Semitic bullies while growing up in West Orange, New Jersey: “And after each incident, my father took me down to our basement.
There, in a cubbyhole behind the stairwell, he secreted a musty album that his brother, another veteran, had brought home from World War II. Inside were yellowing photographs of concentration camps, piles of incinerated corpses and snickering Nazis. ‘This is why we must be strong,’ my father reminded me. ‘This is why we need Israel.’” Nonetheless, when it came time to give up his US citizenship in order to serve as Israeli ambassador, Oren devotes practically an entire chapter to expressing his mixed feelings.
He first came to Israel at age 15 in 1970, shortly after meeting Israel’s then-ambassador to the US Yitzhak Rabin. Like other American Jews who made aliya, Oren describes having led a bifurcated life – loving the US while being smitten by Israel.
He moved to the Jewish state in 1979 and married Sally Edelstein in 1981. Oren saw combat during the early stages of the 1982 Lebanon War. Later, he went back to the US to pursue a PhD at Princeton.
It was his 2008 book Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present, tracing the spiritual-like Washington-Jerusalem relationship that led an impressed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to offer Oren the ambassador’s spot. Within the Foreign Ministry, Oren tells us, he had no real relationship with minister Avigdor Liberman.
Oren had to douse diplomatic fires from the get-go – for instance, when Haaretz claimed that Israeli policymakers were referring to Obama’s coterie of dovish advisers as “self-hating Jews.”
He describes his fateful first meeting with Daniel Shapiro in 2008. “Dan, who, the bookishness of his clipped Vandyke beard and pea-shaped glasses notwithstanding, could react temperamentally” was “an early Obama acolyte” who “fervidly embraced Oslo [Accords].” No surprise then that Shapiro, who in 2011 became US ambassador in Tel Aviv, has been leading a full-court press against Oren’s book.
Oren writes about the shockingly hostile reception he met on February 8, 2010, when he lectured at the University of California, Irvine. “One of the protesters, strategically placed mid-row to prevent his rapid removal, stood and shouted, ‘Michael Oren, murderer of children!’”
Ally also describes the prosaic challenges Oren faced. While he was in Washington, his mother- in-law was dying of cancer back in Israel, his youngest boy was in the army, and two other children were at college. He found the embassy building run-down, and the ambassador’s residence dilapidated.
He did get to have a little fun, though, whenever president Shimon Peres came to the US and Oren would accompany him around the country.
I caught up with Oren by phone in New York, where he is on a book tour. Here is an edited version of our conversation.
You wrote that the job of an Israeli ambassador to the US is misunderstood. Set us straight.
In the Middle Ages, an ambassador’s one job was to keep his ears open around court; to try to get close to the king and then send dispatches back home. In the 21st century, kings, presidents and prime ministers can simply pick up the phone and call one another. Some think the ambassador’s role has been rendered obsolete. In fact, exactly the opposite is the case.
Technology allows the ambassador to reach out beyond the court. He can not only interact with the king and his entourage, he can interact with the people.
And that also becomes the ambassador’s duty: to be a communicator.
That was the way Abba Eban used to see the role.
He was a great influence on me. I worked for him. He did not live in the age of the 24-hour news cycle.
The challenge for me was that I could communicate through innovative channels, but Israel could also be criticized through them. It rendered the ambassadorial role all the more complex and difficult.
Writing as a historian, you garnered bipartisan praise. How does it feel to now draw across-the-board opprobrium?
It’s the first time in my life I’ve written in the first person.
This is the first time I’ve written not about other people’s role in history, but about my own role in what I believe to be a very crucial time for Israel and the Jewish people. I knew it would be controversial. It was not an easy decision.
The criticism has been overwhelmingly ad hominem. I’ve been called a liar, a money-grubbing politician – some very serious charges have been made about me personally. What you notice is that almost nobody is taking down the book.
Whose message is…
That this alliance between the US and Israel is vital not just for the two countries’ security, but also for maintaining what remains of Middle East stability. This alliance has suffered blows the past five years and is in dire need of restoration.
Part of the book talks about how we can get this alliance back on its feet.
Were you surprised by the way Moshe Kahlon reacted to the book?
The book was written before I went into politics.
I added a few lines at the last minute about becoming a politician; my whole political career merits about a paragraph.
His reaction to the book was that it was written before I went into politics. Which was fine. It was spun into something different. He never apologized.
He said the obvious – that the book, written before I went into politics, doesn’t pretend to represent the party’s position.
Still, his letter to Ambassador Shapiro distancing himself from your criticism of Obama was not helpful. Do you know why he did it?
You’re going to have to ask him.
You write that Obama pointedly ignored Israeli aid to earthquake-devastated Haiti. Would you say that this was symptomatic of the administration’s psychological warfare against Netanyahu?
I don’t think it was about Netanyahu, it had to do with a worldview. It’s a worldview of outreach to Iran, unprecedented support for the Palestinians.
The Cairo Speech was the foundational document, a key tool in understanding how Obama was going to react to the Middle East.
I also talk about the abandonment of the “principle of daylight” or diplomatic distance between Israel and the United States.
Was this effort to create distance intended to weaken support in the American Jewish community and make it easier to lean on Israel? The message being: You can be pro-Israel, but that doesn’t mean you have to support the Netanyahu government.
You are quoting the president; he said that.
The president was candid about his position.
The approach of the administration that I discuss in the book is to distinguish between two types of daylight – diplomatic daylight and security daylight. The US wanted to publicly show that it was pressuring Israel on settlements and Jerusalem; by showing less daylight on security, it could show more daylight on diplomacy.
That was the formula. My strong feeling is that it didn’t work.
When there is more daylight on diplomatic issues, Israelis feel less secure – irrespective of how much money you give to Iron Dome. Israelis make concessions when they feel secure, not when they feel insecure. Secondly, there is no distinction between types of daylight in the Mideast – locals don’t know if it’s security daylight or diplomatic daylight. The policy was too cerebral.
Based on her performance as secretary of state while you were ambassador, is there daylight between Hillary Clinton’s positions and Obama’s?
Well, she says there is. She’s written in her memoirs that she thought open pressure on Israel over settlements was not a good idea. What she did, she did on instructions from the president – reluctantly. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Obama pushed him up the tree, not Clinton.
You write extensively about Israeli agent Jonathan Pollard and offer some ideas about his continued incarceration.
For the American intelligence community, he remains a traitor; he has to pay a very high price.
The more prosaic and tragic reason is that he’s become a card in the diplomatic process, to be traded off for a certain prize.
I brought a letter from the prime minister to the president beseeching him to show clemency on humanitarian grounds. As far as I know, I was the last Israeli official to visit him.
You quoted former Democratic representative Gary Ackerman (New York) as describing J Street’s leadership as being so open-minded that their brains fell out. How invested is the White House in leveraging J Street?
My working assumption was that J Street saw itself – and to a certain degree, was seen by the administration – as the administration’s arm in the American-Jewish community. For that reason I sought to engage J Street on several levels.
J Street attracts a lot of young people and this was an opportunity to engage them – it was their last stop – before they left the pro-Israel camp. J Street says it is pro-Israel.
You write about media hostility toward the Zionist narrative. Isn’t part of the problem that Israel doesn’t have a harmonious message?
In the book I talk about how impressed I was by the Obama administration’s messaging. You can go to 20 different offices and get the same message – uncannily, the same wording. In Israel, you go to 20 different offices, you get 20 different messages. Our democratic system just doesn’t lend itself to disciplined messaging.
To what extent has Israel’s Chief Rabbinate contributed to the diminishing sense of connection between Israel and US Jewry?
It doesn’t help. American Jewry is a strategic asset. We claim to be the nation-state of the Jewish people. One of my initiatives was to create tisches – tables – around which Jews from different movements could meet.
Israeli embassies and consulates were considered neutral turf where Orthodox rabbis could sit with Reform and Conservative rabbis.
They agreed on just about nothing; one of the few things they agreed on was their opposition to the rabbinate. For the Orthodox rabbis, it was a case of their conversions not being recognized.
You have a chapter that asks whether “we are one.”
There is no one community – there are many communities, but the Jewish people is a rambunctious tribe.
Your publisher wanted this book to come out in the fall.
I wanted it to come out now before the monumental decision on Iran; there may be very significant developments in the Palestinian arena as well.
The timing of the book was very intentional. I wanted to shout “Stop!” and have a moment of introspection and reflection, and not jeopardize this alliance – which is vital not just for the US and Israel but for the world.
I want the book to get people to think about where we’ve been, and where we have to go. If I achieved the job of starting that conversation, the personal attacks will all have been worth it. ■
The writer is a former Jerusalem Post editorial page editor. His book The Pater: My Father, My Judaism, My Childlessness will be published in November by Toby Press. Follow him on Twitter.com/ JAGERFILE