In This Review
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.
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 then reelected in 2009 for another three terms, has used his lawyer, Yitzak Molho, for this purpose. Occasionally, when the prime minister trusted his ambassador, that person would be kept in the loop. Ehud Olmert’s ambassador, Sallai Meridor, for example, would accompany the prime minister’s chief of staff, Yoram Turbowitz, to White House meetings.
As Oren explains in this often startlingly frank memoir, he barely knew Netanyahu and did not agree with the prime minister’s approach to the Palestinian issue or his settlement policy. But more often than not, the ambassador would be excluded from meetings and might not even be informed that they were taking place. And as soon as senior U.S. officials realized this, they knew they could stop wasting their time on official channels. Such was the particular predicament of Michael Oren, whom Netanyahu appointed as Israeli ambassador to the United States in May 2009.
At the time, Oren was neither a diplomat nor a politician. Although he was a historian by training—he wrote an excellent book on the 1967 Six-Day-War—and a visiting professor at Georgetown, he wasn’t an academic either. In fact, his principal qualifications were that, as an American who immigrated to Israel in 1979, he spoke perfect English and that, as a reserve officer in the Israel Defense Forces, he had honed his skills as an accomplished and witty spokesman.
And so he became the media-obsessed Netanyahu’s chief spokesman to the U.S. public and Congress. As Oren explains in this often startlingly frank memoir, he barely knew Netanyahu and did not agree with the prime minister’s approach to the Palestinian issue or his settlement policy. But he knew how to talk to Americans, and that was his assignment. “I have three words of advice for you,” Netanyahu told Oren in one of their first meetings after his appointment. “Media. Media. Media.”
It didn’t take long for Washington to understand Oren’s directive. Despite increasingly desperate attempts to secure a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, she had no time to meet with him. “The Secretary, I was told, did not receive ambassadors.” Historically, that rule has applied to ambassadors from most countries, no matter who sat in the secretary’s seventh-floor suite. But the Israeli ambassador was usually the exception because of the special nature of the relationship between the United States and Israel. Not so, apparently, in Oren’s case.
Further, as Oren tells it, when the Israeli prime minister or defense minister came to town, he would more often than not be left standing outside the offices of the principals, later piecing together snippets of what occurred inside. Denied a role in managing the relationship at the top, he pursued his assigned task of spokesman with determination and, in my view, considerable skill. But as he readily admits, it was a quixotic mission. (Indeed, Oren likens himself to Don Quixote seven times in the course of his account.)
By the time Oren took up his post, Israel had occupied the West Bank for 42 years, and most in the U.S. media had grown tired of it. As Oren keenly understood, an Israeli ambassador could ameliorate the animosity when his prime minister was engaged in efforts to make peace with the Palestinians. But there was little a spokesman in Washington could do to turn the tide when a right-wing prime minister such as Netanyahu combined deep skepticism about peace with the Palestinians with an expansive settlement policy in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Making things all the more difficult was the fact that a progressive Democratic president now inhabited the White House. In his first meeting with Netanyahu, Barack Obama demanded a complete settlement freeze in Jerusalem as well as in the West Bank. Relations between the Netanyahu and Obama administrations went downhill from there. By the time Oren departed Washington four years later, they had become toxic.
During his tenure, Oren was at a loss. He tried in vain to convince the prime minister to launch a new initiative with the Palestinians or at least confine settlement building to the Jewish suburbs of east Jerusalem and the large settlement blocs. In his frequent media appearances, Oren was usually reduced to repeating that the U.S.-Israeli relationship was “unbreakable and unshakeable,” notwithstanding the latest crisis. But he knew the truth. As he admits, he had been consigned to that most unpleasant of diplomatic roles—to be, as the seventeenth-century British diplomat Sir Henry Wotton once described, “a man of virtue sent abroad to lie for his country.”
Little wonder, in these circumstances, that Oren became embittered, especially with American Jewish journalists and pundits such as Tom Friedman and Leon Wieseltier, members of his tribe who had turned critical of his boss. He had come to Washington to be the custodian of the special relationship and had ended up tilting at windmills. He could travel across the American-Israeli divide but he could not bridge it.
The problem is more fundamental: Obama and Netanyahu disagree on matters of war and peace in the Middle East. Unlike Oren’s earlier books, Ally is not a work of history. It is a memoir, complete with anecdotes about the sorry state of his residence in Washington, the parties he hosted, and memorable encounters with hostile audiences. Oren writes well, and readers interested in what it’s like to be an Israeli ambassador in Washington won’t be disappointed. But nobody should mistake the book for an insider’s account of what went so disastrously wrong in the U.S.-Israeli relationship during Oren’s tenure. Oren was not really a witness to this particular chapter of history; he was peeping through the keyhole.
For that reason, one should be particularly skeptical of his analysis of it. He claims that Obama bears primary responsibility because the president supposedly violated two hallowed principles of the special relationship: no daylight and no surprises. Any historian of the relationship, as Oren previously was, would know that there are many examples of daylight between U.S. and Israeli positions, especially when right-wing Israeli prime ministers insist on acting against the policies or interests of the United States. There was indeed no daylight between Bill Clinton and Rabin, or George W. Bush and Olmert, because they were partners in the pursuit of peace (although the Council on Foreign Relations’ Elliott Abrams, who was Bush’s Middle East adviser at the NSC, chronicles some daylight that emerged even there). Conversely, Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon became unwelcome in George H.W. Bush’s Washington, and Clinton and Netanyahu had a fraught relationship (as Oren attests) precisely because Netanyahu was acting in ways that conflicted with the Clinton administration’s policies.
Oren is correct in noting that Obama believed in putting some distance between the United States and Israel. But this was not an abandonment, as Oren claimed in a Wall Street Journal op-ed promoting his book. Far from it. Obama was testing a theory that he brought with him to the Oval Office: that he could help Israel by rebuilding U.S. influence in the Arab world. It was wrong-headed, as Obama would soon discover, because by distancing himself from Israel he lost the Israelis’ trust and therefore proved unable to deliver on the one thing that would curry favor with the Arabs—a resolution of the Palestinian problem. Far from abandoning Israel, however, during his time as president, Obama would take the U.S. strategic relationship with the country to new heights. And in spite of the severe deterioration in personal and political ties, Obama was adamant that the security relationship would never be touched. In Ally, Oren recognizes this duality and repeatedly praises Obama for it. Unfortunately, none of that appears in the op-eds he penned to promote the book.
Oren’s claim that Obama violated the “no surprises” dictum is also puzzling, especially when the biggest surprise of all was Netanyahu’s March 2015 speech to a Joint Session of Congress, cooked up by Ron Dermer, Oren’s successor as ambassador, and House Speaker John Boehner behind Obama’s back. Israeli prime ministers have regularly surprised U.S. presidents on matters of vital interest when confidentiality required it. Rabin negotiated the Oslo Accords with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat behind Clinton’s back. Similarly, in 1998, Netanyahu tried to negotiate a far-reaching agreement with Syria’s Hafez al-Assad without Clinton knowing.
Obama decided not to inform Israel, or any other U.S. ally, about the opening of secret negotiations with Iran in 2013 for a simple reason. Relations between the United States and Iran had become so fraught and politically contentious that if exploratory talks were not kept secret they were bound to go nowhere. The talks were not a betrayal of Israel; they were, among other things, an attempt to help deal with a potential existential threat to Israel by negotiating meaningful curbs on Iran’s nuclear program.
At any rate, the deterioration in the special relationship has little to do with these supposed violations of principles that have been regularly breached by both sides. Nor is it about bad chemistry, even though Netanyahu’s mercurial personality—Oren describes Bibi’s rage as “monumental”—did not mix well with Obama’s legendary detachment. The problem is more fundamental: Obama and Netanyahu disagree on matters of war and peace in the Middle East. And that problem is not just between leaders; it increasingly divides the people they represent as well. Sadly, Oren’s book and his efforts to promote it have only widened the chasm.