Washington Watch: Michael Oren, widening the American-Israeli divide

Regardless of whether you’re a Netanyahu loyalist or an Obama loyalist, Oren’s trampling of facts and history does a disservice to both nations.

Kulanu MK and former ambassador to the US Michael Oren (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Kulanu MK and former ambassador to the US Michael Oren
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
As one who read and enjoyed Michael Oren’s fine book on the Six Day War, I was shocked and disappointed to see the slipshod job he’s done telling about his experience as Israeli ambassador to Washington during Barack Obama’s first term.
Where a scholarly analysis is called for, he provides readers with the literary equivalent of a drive-by shooting.
Oren has been writing articles and doing interviews to promote his new book, Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide, about the US-Israel relationship. What’s been seen so far appears to be more hatchet job than history, rife with glaring inaccuracies and psychobabble.
ADL’s Abe Foxman had it pegged. He said some of Oren’s claims are simply “conspiracy theories with an element of amateur psychoanalysis,” complete with “unjustified and insensitive” charges.
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Oren’s focus on Obama’s “Muslim heritage” and suggestions that his foreign policy was dictated by an “upbringing in the Muslim faith” make him sound like a borderline birther. Especially when he suggests Obama’s desire to improve US relations with the Arab world was motivated by his feelings of “abandonment” by “two Muslim fathers” and a need “to seek acceptance by their coreligionists.”
Obama’s writings, according to Oren, show he harbors anti-American attitudes and a lack of “reverence” for American exceptionalism.
From Day One Obama’s agenda was “championing the Palestinian cause and achieving a nuclear accord with Iran,” Oren said.
Foxman urged Oren to “walk back these unjustified attacks,” but the former ambassador seems to be charging ahead full tilt. Especially after his book got a virtual endorsement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Regardless of whether you’re a Netanyahu loyalist or an Obama loyalist, Oren’s trampling of facts and history does a disservice to both nations.
Oren is a freshman member of Knesset representing the center- right Kulanu party, which is part of Netanyahu’s coalition. Kulanu leader and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon repudiated Oren’s attack on Obama and said he does not speak for the party.
US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro called the book “an imaginary account” by a politician “who wants to sell books.” Netanyahu rejected Shapiro’s plea for an official apology for the attacks on Obama.
Oren said he wrote the book to “motivate, animate and inspire” people, particularly Jews, to oppose any nuclear deal Obama makes with Iran.
A major theme is his charge that Obama has abandoned two “sacrosanct” principles of the US-Israel relationship – no surprises and no daylight (public disagreements) – and thus is no longer a reliable ally.
Obama, in his view, “altered 40 years of US policy” by endorsing a peace agreement based on the 1967 lines with land swaps. Wrong.
That has been American policy since 1967 and Security Council Resolution 242. Contrary to other Oren charges, every administration has considered settlements illegal, and Obama was not the first but the third president to endorse Palestinian statehood.
Both leaders made “mistakes,” in Oren’s view, but Obama’s were “deliberate” and Netanyahu’s were unintentional, with one exception, which was really Obama’s fault. That was a “premeditated misstep,” namely secretly arranging with House Republicans for Netanyahu to address Congress to lobby against a possible Obama deal with Iran. The prime minister’s purpose was to humiliate Obama and essentially accuse him of selling out Israel to the Islamic extremists in Tehran.
Oren’s accusations simply do not stand up to scrutiny. The past six decades of US-Israel relations are replete with surprises and daylight coming from both sides. Some examples:
• In the Fifties Eisenhower threatened to isolate Israel during the Suez War;
• In the Sixties there was Nixon’s surprise Rogers peace plan;
• In the Seventies was Jerry Ford’s “reassessment” of the relationship and Carter’s secret deal with the Soviets to call a peace conference;
• In the Eighties Ronald Reagan started out with the Saudi AWACS sale, joined with Saddam Hussein on a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s Osirak raid, embargoed delivery of F-16s as punishment for that attack and later sprung a peace plan that prime minister Menachem Begin loudly denounced. Capping it off was Reagan’s surprise recognition of the PLO that left prime minister Yitzhak Shamir livid;
• In the Nineties it was George H. W. Bush who blocked loan guarantees in an effort to force a settlement freeze;
• In 2000 Bill Clinton proposed a peace plan after negotiations stalled, and in the first decade of the new century George W. Bush publicly endorsed Palestinian statehood.
All those surprises predate Obama, who’s had a few of his own.
What most irks Oren seems to be a call for a settlement freeze and Washington secretly negotiating with Iran without informing Israel in advance.
Oren, who has forgotten the cliché about glass houses and throwing stones, overlooked Israel’s surprises as well. Washington was kept in the dark about negotiations on the 1993 Oslo Accords; the 1981 Osirak attack; the IDF entry to Beirut in the 1982 Lebanon war, an endless string of settlement announcements often timed to poke a finger in the American eye; Netanyahu’s collusion with the Republican opposition in Congress – with Newt Gingrich during the Clinton years and more recently with John Boehner – to undermine the policies of a sitting president.
And who can forget Netanyahu’s persistent meddling in partisan domestic US politics, his endorsement of Mitt Romney, his congressional speech attacking Obama’s Iran policy and his rude Oval Office lecture on live television for a lesson on Mideast history? Oren concedes Obama “significantly strengthened security cooperation with the Jewish state” and unlike his predecessor, has faithfully vetoed every anti-Israel UN Security Council resolution – something he predicts is “likely” to change this year when France offers a measure calling for creation of a Palestinian state.
He seems to view the “no daylight, no surprises” rule as a one-way street. He blames America, particularly Obama, for violations of that rule and absolves Netanyahu of any responsibility. Netanyahu’s attitude seems to be: do as you’re told while I do as I please.
It’s not just Obama’s Muslim heritage that troubles Oren, it’s also the Jews around him. Non-Orthodox, intermarried and liberal Jews in the administration and outside it “have a hard time understanding the Israeli character,” he wrote, and for that reason, he suggests, Israel can no longer count on American Jews. Jews, in his view, also are “disproportionately represented in the US media” and “are largely responsible for American media’s anti-Israel coverage.”
That attitude, no doubt shared by Netanyahu and others on the Right, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and accelerate the growing polarization of American politics toward Israel.
Look for Republicans to quote Oren extensively in the 2016 campaign as part of their ongoing effort to turn Israel into a partisan wedge issue. Netanyahu and Oren fail to understand how that weakens the US-Israel alliance and alienates Democrats, especially progressives, a faction that still claims the support of 70 percent of the Jewish community. Progressive Democrats know, even if Israeli politicians don’t, that Israel is not a top priority for most American Jews and as much as they profess love for Israel Republicans are simply on the wrong side of nearly every other issue important to Jewish voters.