Israel’s Ally That Wasn’t (And … Isn’t)

Michael Oren’s memoir blasts Barack Obama but pulls its punches elsewhere.

The book,  ALLY


Redacted from a review by ELLIOTT ABRAMS



It was a political and historical anomaly for Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to dispatch the historian Michael Oren to Washington D.C. to represent him and his country in 2009. Oren was not a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party; he had no political involvement inside Israel; he had no foreign-policy or diplomatic experience; and he was not an intimate of the prime minister’s.

Today Netanyahu’s man in Washington is one of his closest advisers, Ron Dermer, who spent the first Obama term in an office 20 feet from Netanyahu’s. Oren, by contrast, is a mildly right-of-center academic with a Ph.D. from Princeton whose politics, he rightly explains in his new memoir, were “difficult to pigeonhole.” An American from New Jersey who made aliyah when he was 17, Oren was known for his authorship of two excellent and well-received books, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East (2002) and Power, Faith, and Fantasy: The United States in the Middle East, 1776 to 2006, which came out in 2007.

Presumably Netanyahu decided not to send a Likudnik to Washington in 2009 because in the newly elected Congress, both houses had strong Democratic majorities and the new president was a liberal Democrat himself. The choice of Oren was a gesture and a hope: Dispatch an academic, an intellectual, who might develop better relationships with Democratic politicians in Congress, with Obama and his new team, with the liberals (many of them liberal Jews) in the media, and with the overwhelmingly liberal American Jewish community.

Oren has now told the tale of his four years in Washington in Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide.

The first thing to say about the book is that it should not have been published—not before January 2017,  that is. Oren writes about Netanyahu, Obama, and many other people who are still in power, and he writes about issues and problems over which they are still fighting. Revealing such matters while Netanyahu and Obama are still in office complicates their relationship. Doing so might have helped the commercial success of Oren’s book, but it is harmful to the prime minister for whom he worked and the interests of the country he was representing.

To be sure, such conduct is not without precedent: Robert Gates, who (after succeeding Donald Rumsfeld in 2006) stayed on to serve Obama as secretary of defense for two-and-a-half years, until mid-2011, published his memoir, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, in January 2014. Obama then had three years left to serve as president. Presumably Gates did not feel his “duty” included keeping his mouth shut at least until his former boss and colleagues left office. Oren also felt no such obligation, and he is as wrong as Gates was.

But to judge it on its own terms, Ally is very well written, engaging, and enormously interesting. Beginning with his own youth in New Jersey, and going chronologically through his aliyah to Israel, education, military service, and writing career, Oren then takes us almost day by day through his four years as ambassador.

What emerges is an absolutely devastating portrait of Barack Obama and his minions, whose distaste for Israel infects the president’s thinking, his diplomatic activities, and by the end even his willingness to send Israel badly needed military supplies.

Oren began his posting by reading everything by and about Obama he could get his hands on. What he read alarmed him, and that included the portrait of the United States in Obama’s memoir: “Vainly, I scoured Dreams From My Father for some expression of reverence, even respect, for the country its author would someday lead.”

When it came to Israel, Oren found that among Obama’s few gut causes were creating a Palestinian state and reconciling with Islam, which, as Oren says, “intersected with Israel’s interests, and in potentially abrasive ways.” Oren says he concluded that “Barack Obama was about ideology,” and in his book he returns repeatedly to Obama’s June 2009 Cairo speech as the manifestation of a worldview that “identified American interests with the Palestinians.”

This led to  “the Obama administration’s quenchless demand for Israeli concessions,” none of which was ever viewed as adequate and none of which ever evoked real gratitude or reward. Meanwhile, as Oren recounts accurately, no action on the part of the Palestinian Authority aroused much reaction from the administration.

When the Palestinian Authority announced a reconciliation agreement with Hamas just days after Hamas terrorists had shot an anti-tank missile at an Israeli school and killed a student there, Oren reports that “Obama’s reaction was subdued.”

When it came to Iran, Oren watched a recurring pattern “in which the White House pushed back on sanctions bills and then, once they passed, took credit for them.” He argued unsuccessfully against a White House that increasingly saw Iran as a potential partner and concluded early on that while Obama said “all options are on the table” to stop Iran’s nuclear program, in fact “the United States would not use force against Iran.”

What is more, he writes, “Washington quietly quashed any military option for Israel.” And he was “brusquely” told at the Pentagon to “make no mistake about it, the way Israel handles the Iranian issue will determine the future course of your relations with the United States.”

Adding insults to the injury of serious policy disagreements over Iran, Israel was handled shabbily month after month. Oren cites one small incident as revelatory of the Obama treatment: Haiti. When a terrible earthquake struck there in January 2010, Israel was—as usual after natural disasters around the globe—first on the scene with assistance, sending a field hospital. The day after the quake, 220 Israeli doctors, nurses, and rescue workers landed. Three days later, President Obama issued a statement: “Help continues to flow in, not just from the United States but from Brazil, Mexico, Canada, France, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic.” Can anyone believe this omission of Israel, which had already made a far larger contribution, is anything but a deliberate slight?

More seriously, Oren recounts how “administration sources leaked the news” when Israel bombed convoys in Syria delivering weapons to Hezbollah, leaks that occurred repeatedly. There was absolutely no benefit to the United States in these revelations and considerable danger of drawing some Syrian, Iranian, or Hezbollah response against Israel—yet “administration sources . . . continued leaking reports of IDF air strikes in Syria.”

After the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010, when a Turkish ship tried to break through Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza and armed militants attacked Israeli commandos seeking to take control of the ship, Obama pressed over and over again for an Israeli apology. When Netanyahu finally and reluctantly did apologize to Turkey to propitiate the United States, he and Israel got no thanks from the Obama White House whatsoever.

To take an Iran-related example of the Obama treatment, the United States engaged in nuclear talks with Iran that were kept secret from Israel. As Oren rightly says: “Our closest ally had entreated with our deadliest enemy on an existential issue without so much as informing us.”

On the Palestinian front, Oren recounts that when Israel finally reacted to the attacks from Hamas in Gaza with Operation Protective Edge in late 2014 (after Oren’s tenure in Washington had ended), Obama condemned Israel for doing “appalling” damage in Gaza. And far worse, during those weeks of war, Obama “delayed the delivery of munitions needed by the IDF.”

So much for the claim that whatever the nature of the diplomatic disputes between the U.S. and Israel, the military and security relations between the two countries have been perfect.

The Obama administration’s ‘total freeze’ precondition made talks between Israel and the Palestinians impossible, which is why none were held during Obama’s entire first term. Oren also describes the unprecedented personal attacks on Netanyahu, which clearly amazed him. These culminated in Netanyahu’s being called a “chickenshit” by an administration official who was speaking to Atlantic correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg.

Oren covers U.S. policy on Israeli–Palestinian matters in great detail, and here the story reflects just as badly on Obama and his administration. As Oren recounts, the administration was absolutely determined “to pressure Israel into accepting a settlement freeze.”

No new settlements were to be made, and no additional land was to be taken in the West Bank for settlement expansion. The financial inducements to Israelis to move to settlements were to be ended, and new construction within settlements was to occur only in already built-up areas. Settlements would grow in population but not in territory, and the so-called peace map would not change.

This agreement was immediately discarded by the Obama administration in 2009. It demanded instead an absolute freeze on all construction in all settlements—even those Israel was quite obviously going to keep in any eventual peace deal—and in East Jerusalem as a precondition for Israeli–Palestinian peace talks. No Israeli prime minister, not even in a Labor Party government, would have agreed to this, and Netanyahu did not.

As Oren states: “America’s new policies set conditions for talks that Israel could never meet and that Palestinians could not ignore.” In fact, this “total freeze” precondition made talks between Israel and the Palestinians impossible, which is why none were held during Obama’s entire first term. But the administration cast all the blame on Netanyahu.

The Israelis knew from bitter experience, moreover, that a settlement freeze would achieve little, because they knew that a new round of negotiations with the Palestinians would achieve little. In 2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak had made Yasir Arafat a peace offer, and in 2008 Prime Minister Olmert had made an even more generous offer. Both had been rejected by the Palestinian leadership. A new round of talks would end in stalemate, most Israelis believed, both because the Palestinians would not get a deal better than the 2008 Olmert offer and because in the end Abbas was not going to take the risk of doing any deal at all.

On several occasions, Netanyahu rejected Oren’s advice ‘to conciliate rather than confront Obama,’ but on the evidence in this book, Netanyahu had the better of the argument between them. Oren’s portrait of Obama is extremely tough. The president “seemed to prefer contemplation to leadership” and “ideas to hands-on action.”

Even worse was his “coldness” and “insularity,” and Oren says that “a similar chill distanced him from traditional American allies—not only Israel—whose ambassadors complained to me of the administration’s unprecedented aloofness.” In fact, Oren quotes an unnamed European ambassador as saying “Obama’s problem is not a tin ear, it’s a tin heart.”

In truth, it is not all that uncommon for individual leaders to dislike each other. What is striking in Oren’s book is that the Obama team did not view this mutual aversion as a problem to be alleviated but as a license to further the assault on Netanyahu, his government, and his country.

… These matters of language and comportment could be viewed as trivial, but they are not. They suggest an attitude toward Israel’s government that is quite simply contemptuous, disrespectful, and hostile. It is unlikely that such treatment was accorded to the British or French ambassadors, even by people like Emanuel who appear to equate vulgarity with strength or persuasiveness.

Nor, as we have been seeing week after week, was such treatment ever accorded to the vicious Communist dictatorship in Cuba or to the brutal theocracy in Iran. Oren, the ambassador had, for purposes of diplomacy, had to deny all these adverse Obama actions politically and militarily and personally against Netanyahu were not happening.

As he writes, “I had to swear that American and Israeli leaders were on the same page regarding Iran when, in reality, they often worked from different books.” The Obama team thought that “daylight” between the United States and Israel on political issues was a good thing, as long as there was no such gap on security issues.

But Oren explains that even in principle this does not work: In the Middle East, security “is largely a product of impressions. . . . In a region infamous for its unforgiving sun, any daylight is searing. By illuminating the gaps in the political positions, the administration cast shadows over Israel’s deterrence power.”

Nevertheless, his job was to make believe this was not occurring and that all was well between the two governments. Oren quotes the old line that “an ambassador is a man of virtue sent abroad to lie for his country” but ruefully adds that “an ambassador sometimes lies for two countries.” Oren has said that he is ‘deeply concerned about the future of the Democratic Party, with the progressive wing in the background.’ But that ‘deep concern’ is rarely made evident in Ally.

Therefore, one would expect that in his memoir, Oren might settle some scores with the latter group, especially the Jews among them, who must have driven him crazy. One might expect that even though he himself had publicly been saying that relations were peachy, he would now offer searing criticism of them for ignoring the facts, ignoring what they could hear privately in visits to top officials in Jerusalem, ignoring the deep and dangerous differences over Iran, and choosing party loyalty over a balanced assessment of the threats Israel faced. One would be wrong.

Throughout Oren’s four and a half years as ambassador, a variety of voices spoke out repeatedly in defense of Netanyahu and of Israel, supporting Israel’s view of the Iranian threat, and decrying Obama’s treatment of Israel—this magazine, Fox News, and the Wall Street Journal, not to mention a large number of members of Congress and former officials.

But these voices are almost always on the right. Democrats who stood up against the Obama assault on Israel publicly, such as New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, were relatively rare. Several of the major American Jewish organizations and a raft of Jewish leaders began and ended Oren’s years silent or complaining only behind closed doors.

Indeed, in a lengthy interview with the Times of Israel at the time of his book’s release, Oren said that his “biggest fear is not the Obama administration. I am deeply concerned about the future of the Democratic Party, with the progressive wing in the background.” But that “deep concern” is rarely evident in Ally, and in fact Oren appears to go out of his way to avoid criticizing liberal or “progressive” Democrats.

Oren recounts his first meeting with Jewish members of Congress —29 Democrats and Eric Cantor — and likens it to “stumbling into a blizzard.” His own remarks at that meeting “generated little sympathy” and several members “accused Netanyahu of showing ingratitude toward the United States.” But his summary of what he calls “my most troubling experience on the Hill” refers to “Jewish legislators,” and there is no further discussion of the failure of these Democrats to show support for Israel when the Democrat in the White House was sailing in a different direction.

His portrait of Hillary Clinton suffers from the same unwillingness to draw the conclusions to which his own evidence clearly points. Then he came to Washington as ambassador and of course asked for a private, introductory meeting with Secretary of State Clinton. This is normal for a country that is a close and important friend. But she refused to see him and in fact made him wait nearly a full year for a private session. Such treatment of an ally is astonishing, but Oren reports the fact without comment.

He does mention the way she browbeat and pushed Netanyahu to apologize to Turkey over the Mavi Marmara, as well as the time she “excoriated Netanyahu for 45 minutes over the phone” over an announcement of new construction in settlements while Biden visited Israel. But again, he mentions these incidents without comment—and on other occasions Oren seems to go out of his way to protect Clinton.

When Oren speculates about why some American Jews—and especially journalists such as Thomas Friedman, Roger Cohen, Paul Krugman, and Frank Rich, whom he singles out by name—are so critical of Israel, his answer is not politics and ideology but insecurity.

“I could not help questioning whether American Jews really felt as secure as they claimed,” he writes. “Perhaps persistent fears of anti-Semitism impelled them to distance themselves from Israel and its so often controversial policies.”

But nothing in the book substantiates this opinion, while a great deal that Oren writes about Obama and his entourage—from Jeremiah Wright to Rashid Khalidi in the past, to those who have manned his White House staff in the present—points to a very simple answer: Around the world, the Left has turned against Israel. Are American Jews on the Left really afraid of pogroms, or are they afraid instead of disloyalty to the Democratic Party and accusations that they are “moving Right”?

Poll after poll reveals a deepening partisan gap on Israel: Democrats and the Left are far more likely than Republicans and conservatives to view Israel as aggressive, racist, and uninterested in peace. Oren’s portrait of the Obama administration and of the president himself fits easily within these trends, but he is oddly reluctant to place them there.

It was Oren’s job as ambassador to avoid toppling into what he calls “the partisan fissure between American Jews,” but he left that post nearly two years ago. Ally would have been strengthened by a greater degree of candor about where Israel’s allies were to be found, and where they were missing, during his years as Israel’s man in Washington.


The Book Reviewer,  Elliott Abrams:

Is a diplomat, lawyer and political scientist who served in foreign policy positions for U.S. Presidents, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. While serving for Reagan, Abrams and retired U.S. Marine Corps officer Oliver North were integral players in the Iran-Contra affair. 

He is currently a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Additionally, Abrams holds positions on the Committee for Peace and Security in the Gulf (CPSG), Center for Security Policy & National Secretary Advisory Council, Committee for a Free Lebanon, and the Project for the New American Century. He also was the president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington in 1996. Abrams is a current member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council and teaches foreign policy at Georgetown University as well as maintaining a CFR blog called “Pressure Points” about the U.S. foreign policy and human rights.

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