Friday, July 17, 2015

Friday BookReview: Ambassador Oren on US/Israel relations

President Obama with Mr. Oren (L) and Prime Minister Netanyahu --
2013 at Ben Gurion Airport

The historian Michael Oren was Israel's ambassador to America from 2009-13, and now is a member of their legislature, the Knesset. 

[He reminds me in assorted ways of Jim Webb, who recently announced he will challenge Hillary Clinton for the presidential nomination.]

Here are excerpts from a review of his new book, "ALLY: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide." This appeared in the 'Jewish Journal':

A plate of cheese and crackers served to hungry Israeli officials at the White House is one of the many images that lingered after I read Michael Oren’s riveting new book... [I]t would be a mistake to overlook the first part of the book, a condensed autobiography that plants the seeds for a crucial theme that hovers above the entire book.

That theme is dual loyalty.

In modern parlance, “dual loyalty” is usually used as a pejorative, an accusation that an American Jew may feel more loyalty to Israel than to the United States.

The astonishing thing about Oren’s book is that he has, to a certain extent, redeemed the term. The “dual loyalty” the reader feels in ALLY is not tinged by the poison of betrayal. Rather, it is imbued with a sense of generosity, a sense that an American with an Israeli passport can genuinely love both countries deeply, even when those countries quarrel.

Loyalty is a charged term, because it implies one must choose, and Oren certainly “chooses” Israel the minute he gives up his U.S. passport, as is required by law to become a foreign envoy. But it is a wrenching moment for him...

His love for America is filled with gratitude. “From the time that all four of my grandparents arrived on Ellis Island, through the Great Depression, in which they raised my parents, and the farm-bound community in which I grew up, America held out the chance to excel..."

Oren’s gratitude is deepened by his own personal struggles: “Overweight and so pigeon-toed that I had to wear an excruciating leg brace at night, I was hopeless at sports. And severe learning disabilities consigned me to the ‘dumb’ classes at school, where I failed to grasp elementary math and learn to write legibly.”

Driven to succeed, Oren fought to overcome these obstacles...

His love for Israel sprouted as his success in America grew. As early as age 12, he had a keen sense of history, “an awareness that I was not just a lone Jew living in late 1960s America, but part of a global Jewish collective stretching back millennia.”

If America made him strong, the thought of Israel made him stronger. When he made aliyah [immigrated to the Holy Land] in 1979, Oren drew upon the inner fortitude he had developed in America to overcome the enormous physical challenge of becoming a paratrooper in the Israeli military.

There was no contradiction between his two loves. In meetings of the Zionist youth movement, he often heard the famous words of Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish U.S. Supreme Court Justice: “Every American Jew who supported Zionism was a better American for doing so”...


This is the real drama of Oren’s book: watching him navigate the innumerable conflicts between the country he loves and represents and the country he loves but cannot represent. At the outset, Oren acknowledges that “the two countries had changed markedly and were in danger of drifting apart,” but he believed he could “help prevent that by representing Jerusalem to Washington as well as Israel to the United States”...

While always respectful when speaking about Mr. Obama, Oren is also too honest and too knowledgeable to let the president off the hook whenever he thinks he is mistaken, which is often. The tension builds when these mistakes are seen as hurting the country Oren is sworn to protect. Oren is relentless and crafty in making Israel’s case, but he’s up against an indomitable force: The most powerful man in the world has decided to put distance, or “daylight,” between America and Israel.
Oren’s problem is not with America, but with Obama — and he proceeds to show us how Obama’s distancing policy has come to hurt Israel.

Oren recounts, for example, the infamous “daylight meeting” with Jewish leaders at the White House, when Obama disagreed with Malcolm Hoenlein’s contention that “Israelis took risks only when they were convinced that the United States stood with them.”

Oren explains how Obama “recalled the eight years when Bush backed Israel unequivocally but never produced peace,” and then he delivers the president’s knockout punch: “When there is no daylight, Israel just sits on the sidelines and that erodes our credibility with the Arabs.”

This view has always appeared reasonable to a large segment of American Jews, especially those who favor Obama and disliked Bush. But Oren punches back.

First, he corrects Obama’s assertion that Israel just sits on the sidelines when there’s no daylight: “Bush’s support for Israel had, in fact, emboldened [Ehud] Olmert to propose establishing a Palestinian state — an offer ignored by Mahmoud Abbas.”

Then, he delivers a knockout punch of his own. He’s grateful for Obama’s commitment to Israel’s security, but in the Middle East, Oren writes, security is largely a product of impressions. Seen in that context, Obama’s approach of “no daylight on security but daylight on diplomacy” leaves Israel vulnerable and reduces its power of deterrence. “A friend who stands by his friends on some issues but not others is, in Middle Eastern eyes, not really a friend. In a region famous for its unforgiving sun, any daylight is searing.”

The daylight was certainly blinding on the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Emboldened by his soaring popularity at the beginning of his first term, Obama laid down the law and set up conditions to peace talks that even the Palestinians had never insisted upon: a complete freeze of all Jewish construction in the West Bank, including even Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and all natural growth, something no Israeli leader could accept...

That draconian demand essentially paralyzed the peace process and set the Obama-Netanyahu relationship on a collision course from which it never recovered. Oh, sure, there were the occasional charm offensives and make-up sessions, but they were mostly a front. As Oren’s narrative makes clear, Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu were fundamentally at odds over how to approach the Palestinian conflict...

Things got so tenuous that when Abbas called Obama’s bluff and sought a Security Council condemnation of Israeli settlements, Obama, desperate not to exercise his veto power, offered to endorse the Palestinian position on the 1967 lines, altering more than 40 years of American policy. The book’s revelation of this sneaky maneuver is getting a lot of media attention, but everyone seems to be missing an essential fact: Abbas still said no.

A vexing low point in the ongoing saga with Obama is the night Israeli officials were left alone and hungry at the White House while Obama and Netanyahu were off in a private meeting. No food was served until someone asked, and then a White House employee brought a plate of cheese and crackers, which Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak proceeded to devour...

In any event, all the battling and squabbling between Obama and Netanyahu were small potatoes compared to their division on the existential issue of Iran's nuclear program. “Rarely in modern history have nations faced genuine existential threats,” Oren writes. “Israel uniquely confronted many potential cataclysms on a daily basis..."

If the Palestinian issue had a farcical and cynical sheen, the Iranian issue had a tragic one that tested Oren unlike any other: “It wedged me between a prime minister who believed it his historic duty to defend Israel against an imminent mortal threat and a president who saw that same danger as less lethal, less pressing, and still addressable through diplomacy.”

Oren diligently chronicles the tortured, interminable dance between Obama and Netanyahu on the Iranian issue, one that still awaits a final act. But there is also a fascinating dance between Oren and his boss, Netanyahu, flowing through the book.

“Ever mindful of the opportunity he gave me to achieve a lifelong dream,” Oren writes, “I liked Netanyahu, but I never became his friend. Rendered suspicious by years of political treacheries, he appeared not to cultivate or even need friendships. … And yet, I still empathized with his loneliness, a leader of a country that had little respect for rank and often less for those who wore it … [who] presided over unremitting crises, domestic and foreign, that would break most normal men.”

Oren says he gave his boss loyalty and honesty, including “advice he did not always relish hearing.” Oren’s approach, which was more conciliatory, especially toward Washington, “ran counter to Netanyahu’s personality — part commando, part politico, and thoroughly predatory.”

In one of the most telling passages of the book, Oren writes about a “most difficult” truth he could never bring himself to tell his boss: “He had much in common with Obama. Both men were left-handed, both believed in the power of oratory and that they were the smartest men in the room. Both were loners... And both saw themselves in transformative historical roles”...

Oren is sharply critical of some Jewish journalists in America, many of whom he feels hold Israel to a double standard and overdose on criticism of the Jewish state...

As a historian... Oren understands that leaders come and go; that no leader, however powerful, is bigger than a country or its ideals.  Leaders may damage relationships and interests, but they don’t damage values. Oren was deeply loyal to his beloved Israel, but he was also deeply loyal to the enduring values of his beloved America.

That is how he gave dual loyalty a good name.


UPDATE: A short clip of Ambassador Oren explaining why he had to give up his U.S. citizenship.

One more take on the book -- from the opening paragraphs of a review by Michael Doran of the Hudson Institute:
"More than [about] policy…, Barack Obama was about ideology and a worldview often at variance with Israel’s.” These words constitute the thesis statement of ALLY... Given the grave urgency of the regional and international challenges facing the Jewish state, and given what is widely perceived today as a severe crisis in America-Israel relations, the book couldn’t be timelier—as the instantaneous media ruckus attending its publication amply testifies... 
In general, Oren writes, President Obama sought to downplay the military dimension of American foreign policy, to distance the United States from traditional allies, and to work through international organizations. Taken together, all of these inclinations, the ambassador understood, spelled trouble for Israel: “a traditional ally, heavily dependent on American might, and at odds with . . . international organizations.”

And this from a recent radio appearance on Hugh Hewitt's show, discussing the Iranian accord:

"[T]here are a lot of parties in Israel. You’re part of a new party. Does anyone say okay, maybe it’s a decent deal? Or what, is Israel united?"

OREN: "No. No, the amazing thing, you know, I’m in Knesset, Hugh, and we agree on absolutely nothing. It’s very different than the Congress. You know, we scream and yell at each other. If the seats weren’t screwed down, we’d probably throw them at each other. Nobody agrees on anything. Everybody, everybody agrees that this is a bad deal. And I’m talking about left wing, right wing, religious, secular, even an Arab and Jew. And we have a lot of Arabs in the Knesset. And they cannot be feeling secure tonight, either, because an Iranian nuclear device or even a missile from Hezbollah is not going to distinguish between an Arab house and a Jewish house in the state of Israel."

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