The accusations and insults began flying even before the anticipated publication of Ally, the highly controversial memoir of Michael Oren, the American-born historian and current Knesset member who served as Israel's ambassador in Washington from 2009 to 2013. Before Oren started his book tour, The Wall Street Journal published his op-ed under the provocative title "How Obama Abandoned Israel." The essay attributed the ongoing crisis in American-Israeli relations to mistakes made by both President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, but asserted that Obama's mistakes were deliberate.
These charges led Dan Shapiro, the current American ambassador to Israel, to describe Oren's writings as "an imaginary account of what happened," adding that "he is now a politician and an author who wants to sell books" (Jodi Rudoren, "Ex-Envoy from Israel Blames Obama for Chill," The New York Times, June 19, 2015, A11). A scathing review of the book published in The Jewish Press by the pseudonymous Elder of Ziyon summarized the criticisms leveled against it:
Ally is not so much a description of how Obama betrayed the U.S.-Israel relationship as much as how Michael Oren has transformed from an esteemed historian who is scrupulous in his dedication to truth… to a diplomat who reluctantly understands that he sometimes has to bend the truth… to a politician who disregards the truth to reach his goals… to a salesman trying to pump up his book to a potential audience by deceiving the public as to what the book is about ("Book Review: Michael Oren's Ally; The Jewish Press, June 22, 2015).
Oren, however, has defenders as well. Journalist Bret Stephens has described Ally as "the smartest and juiciest memoir that I've read in years" and congratulated him "for providing such comprehensive evidence of the facts as he lived them" ("The President Against the Historian," The Wall Street Journal, June 29, 2015). Likewise, Yossi Klein Halevi, senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and a close friend of the author, lamented that Oren "has been distorted beyond recognition by an assault on his integrity, his credibility, even his honesty" ("It's Time to Stop Demonizing Michael Oren," The Times of Israel, July 4, 2015).
Ally has generated such intense controversy for several reasons, first and foremost because its central thesis rests on the claim that President Obama is guilty of numerous sins of commission and omission endangering Israel's very existence. Oren's indictment includes the claim that the Obama White House violated two longstanding, fundamental principles upon which the American-Israeli alliance has been based: "no daylight" and "no surprises."
"No daylight," according to Oren, means there would be no open or public airing of disagreements between Washington and Jerusalem regarding an entire gamut of issues, from defense and security to diplomacy and the peace process. According to Oren, in Obama's first meeting with American Jewish leaders in July 2009, the president exclaimed, "When there is no daylight," Israel "just sits on the sidelines, and that erodes our credibility with the Arabs." In essence, Obama was determined to avoid open policy disputes with Israel on security issues only, and to use America's vast commitments and contributions to Israel's military defense as justifications for openly pressuring Israeli leaders to reach peace with the Palestinians.
Abandonment of "no daylight" first became evident in his much-heralded speech to students in Cairo, when Obama insisted that Israel put a stop to the construction of "illegitimate" Israeli settlements. According to Oren, the freeze demanded by Obama was total: no exceptions for building schools or clinics for the growing population among settlers; all unauthorized hilltop "outposts" to be dismantled; and it was to be applied not only to the entire West Bank, but also to the whole city of Jerusalem, including areas Israelis regard as part of their sovereign state.
Oren contends that the open airing of the dispute over settlements and the public pressure on Netanyahu to offer compromises were counterproductive; they misled Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to believe he could extract additional concessions by avoiding negotiations with Israel. At his White House meeting with Obama in October 2009, Netanyahu at last agreed to an unprecedented 10-month settlement freeze that excluded East Jerusalem.
Yet, in September 2010, as the moratorium was coming to an end, Obama called for extending it without informing Israel in advance or providing justifications, as was customary. That, according to Oren, constituted a clear violation of "no surprises" — the expectation that Israeli leaders would receive advance notice and have opportunity to submit responses to any American policy announcement affecting Israeli interests.
Ally is filled with examples of what Oren regards as breaches of "no surprises." The most dangerous surprise was sprung by Obama in early January 2011, when he announced a plan calling for the "recognition of the 1967 lines as the basis for an Israeli-Palestinian peace." Oren claims that "the White House had overnight altered more than 40 years of American policy." Obama's statement, according to Oren, breached the April 2004 understanding between President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Israel would not be expected to return to the pre-1967 armistice lines, enabling it instead to hold on to major settlement blocs. Furthermore, with the publication of Obama's plan, Netanyahu's conservative coalition lost "a safety valve for palliating its settler constituency," and Mahmoud Abbas was emboldened to be more intransigent and much less likely to resume the moribund negotiations with Israel.
Israel was further surprised in February 2010 by Obama's decision to restore diplomatic relations with Syria and by his refusal to confirm reports that Syria was sending arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Likewise, Netanyahu's cabinet was left in the dark when Obama decided in early September 2013 to seek approval from Congress before deploying force against Assad for his use of poison gas against civilians. Oren argues that this decision left Israel exposed: "The entire Middle East … now knew that America would dither before enforcing an ultimatum." Last and most important, Israel knew nothing about the secret bilateral negotiations between the United States and Iran that culminated in November 2013 with the signing of the interim nuclear agreement between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany.
In the few instances in which Oren heaps praise on Obama's support of Israel, the accolades are immediately qualified by criticism. After admitting that Obama "would stand by Israel if ever we were attacked," Oren claims that the president "admired an idealized Israel — not the Israel of the settlers and their right-wing backers, a state that was part of the solution, not the problem." In the same vein, when Obama ordered the shipment of planes and flame retardants to help combat the deadliest fire in Israel's history, "Israel could not have had a better ally — truly a ben brit, son of a covenant — than Barack Obama." But, laments Oren,
The Carmel disaster further confirmed my initial assessment that the president, …was not anti-Israel. On the contrary, he was intensely supportive of a specific version of Israel — the Israel of refuge and innovation. But the Israel he cared about was also the Israel whose interests he believed he understood better than its own citizens and better than the leaders they chose at the ballot box.
Likewise, when Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defense against Hamas in Gaza in November 2012, "the United States acted as Israel's ally par excellence." Unfortunately, "America and Israel remained divided over the peace process and the Iranian nuclear program."
One remains puzzled by Oren's amateurish foray into the workings of Obama's mind. Having read the president's autobiographical works, Oren concludes that he developed very early in his youth a "remarkable degree of emotional detachment" and a "cold-blooded need for control." These, he claims, explain why Obama's White House is "the most centralized since World War II" and account for his difficulty in forging close personal ties with foreign leaders. In what is tantamount to psychobabble, Oren attributes Obama's reconciliation with the Islamic world to his having been rejected by two Muslim father figures, and his sympathy for the stateless Palestinians to his being repulsed "by the colonialist legacy he encountered in Kenya."
Oren's inexplicable and obsessive need to discover human motives is also evident when he wonders why an increasing number of American Jews have become openly critical of Israel and supportive of Obama: "Perhaps persistent fears of anti-Semitism impelled them to distance themselves from Israel and its often controversial policies. Maybe that was why so many of them supported Obama, with his preference for soft power, his universalist White House seders, and aversion to tribes."
There is no need to rely on anti-Semitism to explain why Jewish Americans, who have voted in overwhelming numbers in favor of Democratic candidates in each presidential election since 1932, also supported Obama in 2008 and 2012. One could also surmise that, if anti-Semitism is an important factor that determines the attitudes of American Jews toward Israel, then most American Jews would be less inclined to voice any criticism of Israel in public.
Unfortunately, what is sorely missing in Ally is the meticulous scholarship that was so evident in Oren's two previous bestsellers (Six Days of War and Power, Faith, and Fantasy). In one notable instance, Oren blames Obama for accepting and implementing a policy that originated in Israel and that was communicated to the president by Israel. According to the most startling revelation in Ally, the idea of peacefully removing Syria's chemical weapons originated with Yuval Steinitz, Israel's minister of strategic affairs at that time. It was then proposed to Obama by no other than Bibi Netanyahu and, after it was accepted by Russia, resulted in the peaceful destruction of Syria's chemical-weapons arsenal. Oren inexplicably complains that, instead of launching a "one-time lightning strike against vital Syrian facilities," Obama banished the phrase "Assad must go" from his vocabulary.
Too often throughout Ally, Oren displays anger and employs unkind words against those American Jewish organizations and prominent Jews who have openly criticized Israel's continued occupation and harsh treatment of the Palestinians in the West Bank. Americans for Peace Now and J Street are characterized as "parvenus" who are "stridently critical of Israel." The late Jewish historian Tony Judt is unfairly accused of being "opposed to Israel's existence," and Thomas Friedman, diplomatic correspondent for The New York Times and author of the bestseller From Beirut to Jerusalem, is cavalierly dismissed as someone who is "so rarely right on Middle East issues."
The most original and insightful observations in Ally are those that illuminate the numerous challenges that confront any Israeli ambassador to the United States. These include serving as liaison between the Israeli government and Congress, making frequent appearances before an inquisitive and allegedly unfair media, defending controversial policies before increasingly hostile university audiences, and mediating between contending and contentious Jewish organizations.
Following his retirement as ambassador in September 2013, Oren joined the Kulanu (All of Us) Party and won a Knesset seat in 2015. In a recent essay in The Wall Street Journal, he outlined a peace plan that restricts new construction to those settlement blocs close to the 1967 lines that are most likely to be annexed by Israel in any deal with the Palestinians and to the Jewish sections of Jerusalem. He also opposed Netanyahu's decision to speak before Congress against the Iranian nuclear deal in March 2015.
Oren concludes that Israel and the United States need each other now more than ever and expresses hope for the restoration of the three "Nos": "No daylight," "No surprises," "No public altercations." However, in late July 2015, Oren undermined the fulfillment of his own dream of detente between Jerusalem and Washington when he engaged in a public war of words with Secretary of State John Kerry. When Kerry warned that Israel would be more isolated and blamed if Congress were to reject the nuclear agreement with Iran, Oren retorted angrily that "the threat of the secretary of state, who in the past warned that Israel was in danger of becoming an apartheid state, cannot deter us from fulfilling our national duty to oppose this dangerous deal" (Michael Gordon, "Kerry Says Israel May Deepen Its Isolation by Opposing Iran Nuclear Accord," The New York Times, July 25, 2015, p. A9).
It is very difficult to believe that the publication of Ally and the inflammatory rhetoric surrounding the nuclear deal with Iran would help in any way to heal the currently frayed American-Israeli alliance.