Jonathan Ernst / Reuters Former Israeli President Shimon Peres and former Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren (R) take their seats in the audience at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington, March 4, 2012.

Israel's Questionable Quixote

What Michael Oren Gets Wrong in "Ally"

In This Review

Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide
by Michael B. Oren
Random House, 2015
432 pp. $16.66
Purchase

It’s not easy to be the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Israel’s most important ally. Anwar Sadat, the president of Egypt in the 1970s, once pointed out that “the United States gives Israel everything from a loaf of bread to a Phantom jet.” At the time, he was exaggerating about the loaf of bread. He could never have imagined that, 50 years later, Israel would be the largest recipient of U.S. military assistance (to the tune of over $3 billion a year), that its prime minister would be invited to address joint sessions of Congress more often than any other foreign leader, and that its defense and intelligence relations with the United States would become even closer than those between the United States and the United Kingdom.

The U.S. relationship with Israel is so deep and broad that an ambassador’s job is difficult, complicated, relentless, and at times overwhelming. The person in the role faces a friendly Congress, a hostile media, a large and diverse Jewish community, and a broad and attentive public. On top of that, the ambassador has to attend to the job’s principal responsibility: representing the Israeli government to the administration in Washington and its vast bureaucracy. 

U.S. President Barack Obama listens as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the media from the Colonnade outside the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, September 1, 2010.

U.S. President Barack Obama listens as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the media from the Colonnade outside the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, September 1, 2010.

The ambassador can face an even tougher crowd at home. Candidates are jointly appointed by Israel’s foreign minister and its prime minister. Given the nature of Israel’s fractured politics, the ambassador’s bosses are rarely from the same party; if they are, they are even more likely to be bitter rivals. The prime minister usually insists that sensitive reports not be shared with the foreign minister, which constantly puts the ambassador in an invidious position. 

The predicament has been exacerbated in recent decades by Israeli prime ministers’ penchant for seeking a confidential backchannel to the U.S. president. The practice started with Yitzhak Rabin in the 1990s and has continued ever since. Benjamin Netanyahu, who was first elected prime minister in 1996, defeated in 1998, and