Philip Gordon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. From 2013 until this spring he was the White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Persian Gulf region.
Random House. 412 pp. $30
On Jan. 21, some of my National Security Council colleagues started to ask about reports that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was planning to speak to a joint meeting of Congress about the Iran nuclear deal. This was unlikely to be true, I assured them — rumors about Israeli issues are hardly rare in Washington — and if “Bibi” were coming to town, I would have known about it, as I was the White House’s coordinator for the Middle East and point person for Israel. Our relationship with our Israeli counterparts was so close and transparent that there was no way the prime minister would announce a major speech to Congress without letting the White House know in advance.
Or so I thought. I knew we were entering new territory when I reached out to a senior Israeli official and got only a cryptic response: “It’s complicated.”
Complicated it is. My Israeli colleague was referring to the events that led to Netanyahu’s controversial March 3 address to Congress, but the adjective also nicely summarizes the broader U.S.-Israeli relationship, the subject of former Israeli ambassador Michael B. Oren’s surprisingly and maddeningly partial book “Ally.” This unique partnership, based on shared history, common values, strategic interests and domestic politics, has become even more complicated in recent years as differences between the two countries have escalated.
Netanyahu’s speech to Congress was a frontal assault on a signature foreign policy initiative of the U.S. president (who declined to meet with the prime minister during his trip). It was followed in short order by several developments that raised tensions further: sharp critiques from U.S. officials of Netanyahu’s positions on both Iran and the Palestinians, electoral pledges by Netanyahu to support settlement expansion and oppose the creation of a Palestinian state, the U.S. announcement of a review of the Middle East peace process in light of those comments, and growing speculation about the future of a relationship in crisis. With Netanyahu reelected and now dependent on the support of a narrow, right-wing coalition, and President Obama in office for another year and a half, it is probably safe to assume we have not seen the last of the differences.
This is the context in which Oren’s book hits the shelves, and few are better placed than he to provide a solid accounting of how we got here. U.S.-born and -raised, a respected historian who wrote a bestseller about America’s role in the Middle East, an Israeli citizen since 1979, a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces, and Israel’s ambassador to the United States from 2009 to 2013, Oren had a close-up view of many of the dramatic events that led to the current situation. For the six months in 2013 when my service in the White House overlapped with his in the Israeli Embassy, I found him to be smart, professional, friendly and seemingly committed to U.S.-Israeli relations.
The value of the book is that it reflects a view genuinely held by many Israelis: that the Obama administration, naively seeking to repair U.S. ties to the Muslim world and failing to appreciate Israel’s value to the United States, broke with decades of U.S. policy toward the region by systematically siding with the Palestinians and seeking a reconciliation with Iran. The problem with the book is that Oren’s main argument is a caricature, bolstered by exaggerations and distortions that will probably contribute to the deterioration of the very relationship the author purports to cherish.
Take, for example, Oren’s contention that by publicly airing differences with Israel, Obama broke with a long-standing principle that there should never be “daylight” in the relationship. Really? To take just a few examples, Dwight Eisenhower slammed Israel for the 1956 Suez operation and forced it into a humiliating retreat; Gerald Ford froze arms deliveries and announced a reassessment of the relationship as a way of pressing Israel to withdraw from the Sinai; Jimmy Carter clashed repeatedly with Prime Minister Menachem Begin before, during and after the 1978 Camp David summit. Ronald Reagan denounced Israel’s strike on the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq and enraged Jerusalem by selling surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia; George H.W. Bush blocked loan guarantees to Israel over settlements; Bill Clinton clashed publicly with Israel over the size of proposed West Bank withdrawals; George W. Bush called for a settlement freeze in the 2002 road map for peace and afterward repeatedly criticized Israel for construction in the West Bank. In other words, Oren has a point — except in the case of virtually every Republican and Democratic U.S. administration since Israel’s founding.
Or take the notion that Obama’s policy of supporting territorial negotiations based on the 1967 lines, with mutually agreed swaps, “overnight altered more than forty years of American policy” and constituted a U.S. endorsement of “the Palestinian position.” Again, really? Since the “Clinton parameters” in 2000, U.S. policy has been that the vast majority of the West Bank should form the basis of an independent Palestinian state, with major settlement blocks incorporated into Israel and territorial swaps to compensate the Palestinians. George W. Bush essentially supported the same thing, with a final status agreement to be achieved in accordance with U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 (which call for Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967) and “mutually agreed changes that reflect [demographic] realities,” as Bush put it in a 2004 letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. And Obama’s position? “The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines, with mutually agreed swaps,” he said on May 19, 2011, noting a few days later, in case it wasn’t clear, that “Israelis and Palestinians will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967.” Only by repeatedly and misleadingly suggesting that Obama is asking Israel to revert to 1967 lines without adjustments can Oren maintain his thesis about abruptly departing from the past, “abandoning Israel” or “endorsing the Palestinian position.”
Oren similarly advances the narrative — shared by Netanyahu and, to be fair, by many other Israelis — that Obama is naive about Iran and in the process of negotiating a bad nuclear deal because he is uncomfortable with the use of force and determined to pursue rapprochement with Tehran. These explanations for Obama’s policies are preferred to the simpler notion that an American president has other reasons to favor a diplomatic agreement that constrains the Iranian nuclear program rather than military strikes that would temporarily set it back, and that merely calling for a better deal does not suffice to produce one. Questioning Obama’s view of Iran as a rational, if nefarious, actor, Oren sees the Iranian regime as a messianic, apocalyptic cult that will somehow abandon its nuclear program and transform its foreign policy if only economic sanctions are tightened.
He approvingly quotes former defense minister Ehud Barak’s claim to U.S. officials that “one night of strategic bombing will restore all your lost prestige in the Middle East,” not realizing how similar that claim might sound to Netanyahu’s “guarantee” to Congress a decade earlier that invading Iraq would have “enormous positive reverberations on the region.” Maybe Obama is not in fact banking on a historic reconciliation with Iran but is instead simply no more eager to use force to solve the problem than was his predecessor, who reluctantly tolerated the emergence of an Iranian centrifuge capacity and began the international negotiations process, yet was rarely accused of being soft.
By mischaracterizing important aspects of U.S. policy and attributing critiques of Israeli policy to anything from Obama’s upbringing and education to Jewish American journalists seeking to enhance their careers, boost ratings or heal some deep psychological wounds — that is, to anything but Israeli policy itself — Oren’s account will provide plenty of fodder for those who want to blame Obama for U.S.-Israeli tensions. What it won’t do is help Israelis or Americans figure out how they are going to deal with the difficult problems the two countries should be tackling together.
Since leaving office, Oren has become a politician, successfully running for the Knesset as a member of a party that split from Netanyahu’s Likud. And he recently supplemented the book’s launch with a series of blistering op-eds and interviews, replete with pop psychology and leveling the outlandish charge that Obama made “deliberate mistakes” to damage U.S.-Israeli relations — a notion not just oxymoronic but inconsistent with the story and analysis in the book. Oren is an Israeli nationalist, was a loyal servant of Netanyahu for four years, and now has votes to win and a policy agenda to advance. So maybe it was unrealistic to imagine that he would use his book to reinforce his position as a bridge between the two countries he loves, rather than to peddle a false narrative of American abandonment of Israel. But it is disappointing nonetheless.