Michael Oren’s Problem With American Jews
Ally, Michael Oren’s political autobiography, is an indictment of the Obama administration’s Middle East policy, or more precisely, its stance toward an Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu. It is also a lament that American Jews have morphed into an iteration of modern-day Quakers, educated and mercantile but not hyper-ethnocentric.
Oren is spot-on when he contends that Barack Obama and his inner-circle do not feel Israel in their kishkes. On the other hand, nowhere does the Constitution refer to gastric attachment, let alone demand it.
Oren sidesteps the diplomatic costs that Israel poses for the U.S. in a post-Cold War world, instead proclaiming that “no two countries had more in common spiritually, ideologically, and strategically.” All this is to be expected from Oren, who served as Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. and made aliyah, immigrating to Israel, after growing up in New Jersey and graduating from Columbia University.
The book expresses Oren’s “disappointments and frustrations” with segments of the American Jewish community over their criticism of Israel and a perceptible drift between the two. His feelings are understandable—to a point.
The fact is that Jews have carved a niche in America’s mainstream, just as other hyphenated Americans before them did. And if New England’s Puritans ultimately succumbed to the temptations of the figuratively forbidding forest, Oren offers no answer as to why Jews would be different. Indeed, Jewish immigration to America was simply about escaping the Old World and living the American Dream, as opposed to founding a City on a Hill.
Ally’s central premises are that no “daylight” should be visible between the U.S. and Israel and that the U.S. should not distinguish between Israel’s diplomatic concerns and security needs. Oren essentially characterizes President Obama as naïve or worse for expecting that democracy would flourish in the Muslim world in the wake of the downfall of Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak and for appearing more eager than Tehran’s own mullahs for a deal with Iran.
To be sure, Oren’s illustrations of naiveté are under-inclusive. Oren says little about Bush 43’s mistaken belief that the Iraq War would positively transform Arab society and nothing at all about Netanyahu’s 2002 congressional testimony in support of the war. Still, to Oren’s credit, he recognized that the American invasion would strategically benefit Iran and opposed the war from its outset.
Oren, who is now a member of Israel’s Knesset and part of Netanyahu’s governing coalition, appears selective in defining “daylight.” Splits and spats between Israel and the U.S. are nothing new. For one thing, the relationship between the Republican Party and Israel was not always a bromance.
Ronald Reagan temporarily embargoed weapons to Israel as punishment for its bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear facility in 1981. A year later, Reagan confronted Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin over Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and even supported a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel for its incursion. On Reagan’s way out, the U.S. began directly negotiating with Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), after having concluded that the PLO recognized Israel’s right to exist.
It didn’t end there. George H.W. Bush openly clashed with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir over Israeli settlements and forced Israel to the negotiating table with the Palestinians after the Gulf War. For his part, James A. Baker III, Bush’s secretary of state, treated then-Deputy Foreign Minister Netanyahu as persona non grata at Foggy Bottom.
The rifts have run both ways. Israel stayed away from a recent UN General Assembly vote in support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity to the “surprise” of the U.S. Whether this was the result of a strike within Israel’s Foreign Ministry or an attempt to keep its bilateral relationship with Russia on even keel, Israel’s absence was noticed by our government.
Oren, however, remains silent about all of this, other than to mention that Robert Gates, who served as deputy national security advisor to Bush 41 and as a defense secretary to Bush 43 and Obama, never had much regard for Netanyahu. Oren acknowledges that Gates is not a club of one. As Bill Clinton once said of Netanyahu, “Who the [expletive] does he think he is? Who’s the [expletive] superpower here?”
Yet Oren gets it right when he claims that America under Obama is pivoting away from Israel, especially from Israeli settlement policy. Obama has not ruled out America sitting on the sidelines as a French-backed Security Council resolution, which would impose a two-state solution, is set to move forward later this year.
Implicitly, Ally is a critique of Obama’s foreign-policy competence, and the fact is that Obama has repeatedly lost his footing in the sands of the Middle East. The Arab Spring has morphed into Islamist Winter. ISIS is on the march from North Africa to Iraq. Chaos defines the region. Seven years into his presidency, Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize remains undeserved and unearned.
As a political analyst, Oren early on recognized the rise of the Obama coalition, but he writes of how the Israeli government was dismissive of his concerns. In fact, it would appear that the Netanyahu government and its friends have gone out of their way to offend. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Ron Dermer, Netanyahu’s right-hand man and Oren’s successor as ambassador, quarterbacked Mitt Romney’s campaign stop in Jerusalem. Then to top it off, Netanyahu hosted an intimate “private dinner” for Romney and his family that surprised even Oren in its warmth.
But it didn’t end there. As Oren admits, while Israelis went to the polls last March, Netanyahu was busy warning Jewish voters that Israel’s Arabs—who are Israeli citizens—were voting “in droves.” To many, including Obama, Netanyahu’s 11th-hour campaign pitch sounded like, “OMG, blacks are voting! How dare they?”
For Netanyahu to out-Willie Horton the GOP against the backdrop of the 50th anniversary of Selma, as he did, highlights a problem that has not gone away. Just weeks ago, Judy Shalom Nir-Mozes, the wife of Israel’s vice prime minister and interior minister, Silvan Shalom, and a well-known media personality in her own right, tweeted out: “Do u know what Obama coffee is? Black and weak.” Nir-Mozes’s tweet was quickly removed, but the damage was done.
Even as a minority-and-youth-driven upstairs-downstairs coalition is occupying a larger space within the Democratic Party in the United States, Israel’s blood-and-soil roots are becoming more visible. That’s a problem for Israel. Blue America doesn’t seem to cotton all too well to an increasingly ethnically and religiously driven Jewish State, an observation recently reinforced by Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster and mentor to Dermer. According to Luntz, “Israel has won the hearts and minds of Republicans in America, while at the same time it is losing the Democrats.”
In Ally’s concluding pages, Oren calls for releasing convicted spy Jonathan Pollard from prison because that’s what “allies” should do. Rather than irking America’s intelligence community and defense establishment, Oren would have been better served by making the case for Israeli and American strategic overlap and laying out a roadmap of what might be done. Bromides about shared values and “no daylight” may be satisfying, but they are not as persuasive as they once were. Rather, getting the job done and providing security are what the ends of diplomacy and statecraft are about.
Lloyd Green was staff secretary to the George H.W. Bush campaign’s Middle East Policy Group in 1988 and served in the Department of Justice between 1990 and 1992.