Last week alone, he published three major op-eds in the Wall Street Journal (to which the Journal appended the title “How Obama Abandoned Israel”); the Los Angeles Times (“Why Obama is Wrong About Iran Being ‘Rational’ on Nukes”); and Foreign Policy (“How Obama Opened His Heart to the ‘Muslim World’ and Got it Stomped On”). In addition, he gave a long (and frankly frightening) interview to Times of Israel editor David Horowitz.
Most important, his detailed account of tenure as ambassador, Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide, many details of which leaked pre-publication, is now in bookstores. Oren insisted that his publisher, Random House, which wanted a fall issue date, published them prior to the June 30 deadline for the completion of a nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5 +1.
Oren’s account of his term as his country’s leading diplomat so soon after leaving the job and with most of the key players still in office is likely unprecedented in the annals of diplomacy. The decision to go public by Oren, who is a play-by-the-rules kind of guy and as far from a rabble-rouser as one could imagine, is a measure of how desperate he believes Israel’s situation to be.
Ally obviously struck a raw nerve with the Obama administration, in large part because Oren carries so much credibility. He is American-born, a frequent visiting professor at Harvard, Yale, and Georgetown universities, a prize-winning historian for his books Six Days of War and Power, Faith and Fantasy, and a gifted writer and speaker. Nor is he personally close to Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu or remotely identified with the Likud Party. He was formerly a contributing editor for the liberal New Republic and presently serves in the Knesset as a member of the Kulanu Party.
Both State Department and White House spokespeople were quick to challenge Ally’s veracity, as was U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro. The latter went so far as to seek a denial from Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu. Netanyahu replied that since Oren is no longer serving as an ambassador and is not a member of Netanyahu’s party, the matter is out of his jurisdiction. None of Oren’s administration critics, however, pointed to inaccuracies in Oren’s account.
IN ALLY, Oren describes how he embarked upon his own personal course, Obama 101, before taking up his position in Washington, D.C. He read everything he could find about the new president, in particular his memoir, Dreams of My Father. The new president’s failure to write one positive word about the country of which he was now president left Oren aghast. He has no doubt recognized the pattern that those who do not much care for America tend not to care for Israel much either. “Death to America! Death to Israel” invariably go together in the demonstrations of the Iran’s Islamic Revolution.
As far as the Middle East goes, Obama came into office determined to “put daylight” between the United States and Israel, as he told a group of American Jewish leaders early in 2009, and to push for Palestinian state. Without that daylight, he told the Jewish leaders, Israel just sits on the sidelines. Left unmentioned was Israel’s 2005 Gaza withdrawal, and three separate Israeli offers of statehood to the Palestinians, under presidents Clinton and Bush, to which Arafat and then his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, did not even make a counteroffer.
President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton treated President George W. Bush’s April 2004 letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in which Bush acknowledged that any peace settlement with the Palestinians would have to take into account new realties on the ground since the 1967 War, as null and void. From the start, they pushed Israel for a total settlement freeze, without distinguishing, in Oren’s words, between the extension of a balcony in the Yerushalayim suburb of Gilo and new building in Itamar. Even the Palestinians had never made such a demand as a condition for negotiations.
To Oren’s great dismay, in a meeting with Democratic Jewish congressmen, they almost unanimously backed Obama’s position on building in Yerushalayim and the major settlement blocs mentioned in the Bush letter. (Concerns about the future of bilateral support from the Democratic Party and the American Jewish community loom large as subjects in Oren’s book.)
The administration’s demand for a total “settlement” freeze, Oren argues, made fruitful negotiations with the Palestinians impossible. First, it increased Israelis’ feelings of insecurity by making clear that they could no longer rely on presidential promises. Second, it hardened Palestinian positions. In 2009, Mahmoud Abbas told an astounded Washington Post editorial board that he had no intention of pursuing negotiations and would instead rely on the U.S. to squeeze concessions from Israel.
Even when Netanyahu agreed to a nine-month settlement freeze, he received precious little credit from the administration. Throughout Oren’s period in office, Israel was portrayed by the administration as the recalcitrant party, even after making significant concessions to jump-start negotiations, while Abbas escaped with barely a discouraging word when he defied the U.S. by refusing to negotiate, entering a unity government with Hamas, and proceeding with a statehood bid via the U.N.
Not only did the Obama administration’s approach harden Palestinian positions, Oren says, it also hurt American credibility with the Palestinians and various Arab states. By reneging on previous presidential commitments, “it made [the Palestinians] think, ‘If this guy does this to his friends, we can’t trust him.’”
THE SECOND PRONG of the new president’s approach to the Middle East was outreach to the Muslim world and, in particular, to Iran. The general outreach began with the 2009 Cairo speech of which Israel was given no advance notice. In that speech, the president based Israel’s right to exist solely on the Holocaust and juxtaposed the suffering of Jews during the Holocaust with that of the Palestinians. On his first trip to the region, the president pointedly visited Egypt and Turkey, whose rabidly anti-Semitic leader, Erdogan, he would later call one of his best friends in the world, but not Israel.
As a visiting professor at Georgetown University, just prior to assuming his position as ambassador, Oren told the editorial board of Powerline blog, he already began to hear in foreign policy circles the idea that the U.S. had supported the wrong parties in the Middle East. According to the argument, the Sunni states were fracturing and Israel was tainted by the settlements. But if Iran could be coaxed into a nuclear deal, it could become the “strong horse” in the region, serving as a responsible international actor and a bridge between Sunnis and Shiites.
At the time, Oren thought that view to be mad, but as soon as he took up residence in the ambassador’s residence, he began to hear the same arguments from administration officials. (Oren thus adds credence to the argument recently advanced at length by Michael Doran that rapprochement with Iran has been the lodestar of Obama’s foreign policy from the outset.)
One might have expected those illusions to have ended with the 2011 discovery of an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States by planting a bomb in a crowded D.C. restaurant and a simultaneous plot to blow up the Israel embassy (which was not reported at the time), notes Oren. But they did not. Nor has the issuance this week of the 2014 State Department report that Iran has increased its overseas terrorist operations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, even as nuclear negotiations press to their conclusion, put a damper on the administration’s eagerness for an agreement that does not address Iran’s international behavior in any fashion.
In the Los Angeles Times piece cited above, Oren takes issue with Obama’s assurances to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that Iran’s virulent anti-Semitism does not make them irrational in Western terms. He notes (as we did two weeks ago) that the Nazis diverted badly-needed war materials to speed the extermination of Hungarian Jewry. He quotes preeminent Middle East expert Bernard Lewis that for the Iranians, “mutual assured destruction may not be a deterrent, but rather an incentive” to initiate a nuclear exchange with Israel.
The problem is that Obama refuses to take the theology of radical Muslims seriously. That is true with respect to the Iranians, but it is true of radical Islam in general. In his Foreign Policy piece, Oren argues that the Obama administration’s boycotting of the mass rally after the Charlie Hebdo assassinations, like his refusal to acknowledge the Jewish identity of the victims of the subsequent terrorist attack on a kosher deli – “a bunch of folks in a deli . . . randomly [shot],” according to the president” – derives from his refusal to acknowledge that there are terrorists spurred by Islam. Oren concludes by urging the president “to recognize that those who kill in Islam’s name are not mere violent extremists, but fanatics driven by a specific religion’s zeal. And their victims are anything but random.”
Obama continues to maintain that Iran is not another North Korea, writes Oren, while Nentanyahu views Iran as more dangerous than fifty North Koreas. Logic would seem to favor Netanyahu. North Korea is not an expansionist power, seeking regional hegemony and possessing worldwide ambitions. Iran is.
Oren writes at length of President Obama’s intense efforts to prevent Israel from striking Iran’s nuclear program in 2012, including the leaking of numerous Israeli military secrets. He cannot hide his sense that Obama betrayed Israel. All through 2012 – probably the last time when an Israeli attack was viable – major figures in Israel, including former Mossad director Meir Dagan, Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, and President Shimon Peres, kept saying, “If the president says he is not bluffing [about a military option], he’s not bluffing.” But after Obama failed to act in 2013, when the Assad regime in Syria crossed the president’s “red line” and used chemical weapons on its own citizens, “everyone went quiet. An eerie quiet. Everyone understood at that point . . . that we’re on our own.”
Just last month, President Obama mentioned to Goldberg the military option, which he insisted had never been taken off the table, as one of the factors that the Iranians would have to include in their rational calculations. But a week later, on Israel TV, he told interviewer Ilana Dayan that there is no military option.
Oren’s greatest sense of betrayal came when Israel discovered that the United States had been secretly negotiating with Iran for months without informing Israel: “Most disturbing for me personally was the realization that our closest ally had entreated with our deadliest enemy on an existential issue without so much as informing us.”
THE MOST OMINOUS ASPECT OF ALLY is the sense Oren conveys that the damage done to Israel over the last six and half years by its closest ally is irreparable and that merely waiting out the next year and a half is not enough. David Horowitz brought that out clearly:
Horowitz: [W]e are now exposed to a potential nuclear threat by a regime that wants us to be annihilated.
Oren: Yes. I can’t put a finer point on it.
Horowitz: And that didn’t have to be. With a different president, that would not have been [the case].
Oren: Yes. This is ideological for him. Clearly ideological for him. It is hard-wired.
At the book launch for Ally, Oren was asked whether the United States would veto a French Security Council resolution basically creating a Palestinian state, without the Palestinians have made a single concession or have demonstrated in any way the capability of creating a functional state that would not immediately become a terror haven. He replied that he did not think that America would exercise its veto, thus paving the way for Israel to become a pariah state along the lines of South Africa under apartheid.
And yet, he pointed out to Horowitz, never has Israel been so in need of a diplomatic Iron Dome as at the present. Hezbollah possesses more than a 100,000 rockets and missiles, many of them hidden in 25,000 homes in southern Lebanon. All this despite U.N. Security Council undertakings at the end of the Second Lebanon War that Hezbollah would be prevented from rebuilding its missile armories.
Israel learned in 2006 that Hezbollah missiles cannot be stopped by Israeli air power alone. It will take months for Israeli troops to take over southern Lebanon and rid those 25,000 homes of their missiles, during which time hundreds to thousands of missiles and rockets will be fired at Israel daily. The fighting will be bloody and civilian casualties on both sides high. And the diplomatic assault against Israel defending itself will be intense. Unfortunately, the United States can no longer be counted on to provide the needed diplomatic cover.
Near the end of his interview, following Oren’s description of a typical rowdy day in the Knesset, Horowitz asked, “Are people going to look back in a few years’ time and say, “This is what they were talking about in Israel as Iran closed in on the bomb and they were wiped out?”
To which Michael Oren could only laugh grimly and reply, “It’s happened before in history, hasn’t it?”