Monday, June 22, 2015

"Ally," Michael Oren's new book in the headlines, is not the book you expect it to be.

Especially if you have been reading Michael Oren's daily articles to promote his book - most notably his article in the Wall Street Journal last week, that began:

‘Nobody has a monopoly on making mistakes.” When I was Israel’s ambassador to the United States from 2009 to the end of 2013, that was my standard response to reporters asking who bore the greatest responsibility—President Barack Obama or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—for the crisis in U.S.-Israel relations.

I never felt like I was lying when I said it. But, in truth, while neither leader monopolized mistakes, only one leader made them deliberately.
I read his book with this sentence in mind. How did he back up his statement? I'd like to know the inside story of how President Obama purposefully distanced himself from supporting Israel.

Oren mentions plenty of events that showed that President Obama wanted to kowtow to the Muslim world. He mentions that Obama chose to call Mahmoud Abbas before then prime minister Ehud Olmert upon entering office. He talked about how Obama's much heralded speech in Cairo tied Israel to the Holocaust rather than thousands of years of history in the land, and then chose not to visit Israel but went to Buchenwald instead as if to underscore the point. He talks about how Obama ignored the Bush/Sharon letter of understanding that Israel would hold onto major settlement blocs and instead steamrolled his way to declaring that the "1967 lines" were the basis for negotiations - and how that emboldened the Palestinian negotiators to be more intransigent and less likely to seek a negotiated agreement. But none of this is a smoking gun. On the contrary, Oren describes Obama's later speeches to AIPAC and his later visit to Israel in glowing terms, filled with optimism that Obama had finally understood what had eluded him about Israel in his early years in office - and that he had something to do with it.

Then, in the last chapter, with Oren leaving his position, things turn for the worse again. Netanyahu speaks in front of Congress and Iran fools American negotiators. Without Oren, we are led to believe, things are going to pot again.

In fact, and I hate to say this, "Ally" is not so much a description of how Obama betrayed the US-Israel relationship as much as how Michael Oren has transformed from an esteemed historian who is scrupulous in his dedication to a diplomat who reluctantly understands that he sometimes has to bend the a politician who disregards the truth to reach his a salesman trying to pump up his book to a potential audience by deceiving the public as to what the book is about.

I am profoundly disappointed.

A small anecdote towards the end of the book, when Oren has decided to run for Knesset in the Kulanu party, is what disillusioned me most. He talks about Netanyahu's supposedly racist rant on the day of the election - and takes it at face value, so much so that he says he was proud that his party denounced it. Even though, he says, he had never heard Bibi say anything that could be construed as prejudiced in the slightest.

Oren, the former historian, and who only a few months earlier would have checked out the context and defended Bibi, had turned into a politician who didn't even bother to read the other Facebook posts that were written that day on Netanyahu's page that explained what he meant, and that were more consistent with the Bibi that Oren knew so well.

But now he was Michael Oren, politician and rival to the Likud, so his former dedication to the truth became a casualty to politics.

The bulk of the book, of course, describes Oren's experiences as ambassador, and the difficulty of the job (and it is indeed a superhuman position.) Oren is self-deprecating and it is mostly an enjoyable read. While the best anecdotes have already been published in the media, there are still some choice stories. Oren knows he has to mention his family to make it more personal but he generally keeps their stories at arm's length, even though his wife suffered both breast cancer and a burst appendix while he was ambassador.

What about his insights into Obama? He certainly believes that Obama is naive about the Middle East. He even quotes, ironically, three separate Obama speeches where the president said "I'm not naive."

In fact, the best way to describe the impression that Oren has of  President Obama's views of Israel  comes from a more recent statement of Obama himself, speaking to Jeffrey Goldberg:
And I care deeply about preserving that Jewish democracy, because when I think about how I came to know Israel, it was based on images of … kibbutzim, and Moshe Dayan, and Golda Meir, and the sense that not only are we creating a safe Jewish homeland, but also we are remaking the world. We’re repairing it. We are going to do it the right way.
This is like saying that Americans are nostalgic for the version of America shown on Ozzie and Harriet. An idealized world where black people could only hope to get jobs as Pullman porters, where women who went to work were considered a little abnormal, where mental health issues were causes of great shame. Wasn't that great?

Israel in the 1950s and 1960s is no less idealized, and was no less flawed. It was a nation with a second class Sephardic community. It was also a time when Israel's Arab population were indeed discriminated against by law (until 1966, they were under martial law.) Moshe Dayan happily stole priceless archaeological treasures. And, of course, Israel was under constant threat to its very existence.

Nostalgia for the Israel of yesteryear reflects nothing less than sheer naivete - a naivete that much of the liberal Jewish population in America seems to share today.

This is the best description I can give for how Michael Oren thinks of Obama in this book, quite a difference from how he described him last week in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. The book most emphatically says that Obama is not anti-Israel, especially the Obama towards the end of Oren's time as ambassador. Oren describes an Obama who didn't hesitate to help his  idealized Israel in danger - from the raging Carmel forest fire or the crisis in the Egyptian embassy. But Obama would not show interest in the real Israel - the Israel that voted for Netanyahu so many times.

Oren himself notes early on that Obama's positive gestures towards Israel were received as "chibbuk," a hug that was not meant to show affection but was rather meant to immobilize. That explains the money Obama throws at Israel for defense as well as the leaks from the White House on Israel bombing Syria - the administration spent more energy in blocking an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities than it did on stopping Iran from getting a bomb.

In the end, extreme naivete is arguably just as dangerous as malice, especially when coupled with egoism. I don't see Obama having learned anything from his years in office concerning Israel except for optics (he no longer ties Israel to the Holocaust in speeches, for example.)

Oren's book does have value. Although he is more centrist than Netanyahu he offers a pretty good defense for Israel keeping settlement blocs, and he describes countless examples of how he defended Israel from clueless media and other diplomats. He offers a rare glimpse into the world of diplomacy which is certainly valuable. But it is still a disappointment to me.

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