The President Against the Historian
Oren’s candid account of Obama’s Mideast policy has won him the right
June 29, 2015
Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, has written the
smartest and juiciest diplomatic memoir that I’ve read in years, and I’ve
read my share. The book, called “Ally,” has the added virtues of being
politically relevant and historically important. This has the Obama
administration—which doesn’t come out looking too good in Mr. Oren’s
account—in an epic snit.
tantrum began two weeks ago, when Mr. Oren penned an op-ed
in this newspaper undiplomatically titled “How Obama Abandoned Israel.” The
article did not acquit Israel of making mistakes in its relations with the White
House, but pointed out that most of those mistakes were bungles of execution.
The administration’s slights toward Israel were usually premeditated.
for instance, keeping Jerusalem in the dark about Washington’s back-channel
negotiations with Tehran, which is why Israel appears to be spying
on the nuclear talks in Switzerland. Or leaking news of secret Israeli
military operations against Hezbollah in Syria.
Enterprise Institute Senior Fellow John Bolton on the controversy that’s
erupted over Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s new book, “Ally.” Photo
credit: Getty Images.
Oren’s op-ed prompted Dan Shapiro, U.S. ambassador in Tel Aviv, to call Mr.
Netanyahu and demand he publicly denounce the op-ed. The prime minister demurred
on grounds that Mr. Oren, now a member of the Knesset, no longer works for him.
The former ambassador, also one of Israel’s most celebrated historians,
isn’t even a member of Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party, which makes him hard to
typecast as a right-wing apparatchik.
it’s typical of the administration that no Israeli slight is too minor not to
be met with overreaction—and not only because Mr. Obama and his entourage have
thin skins. One of the revelations of “Ally” is how eager the administration
was to fabricate crises with Israel, apparently on the theory that strained
relations would mollify Palestinians and extract concessions from Mr. Netanyahu.
some extent, it worked: In 2009, Mr. Netanyahu endorsed a Palestinian state, an
unprecedented step for a Likud leader, and he later imposed a 10-month
moratorium on settlement construction, a step not even Labor Party leaders like
Yitzhak Rabin ever took.
no Israeli concession could ever appease Mr. Obama, who had the habit of
demanding heroic political risks from Mr. Netanyahu while expecting heroic
deference in return. In 2010, during a visit from Joe
Biden, an Israeli functionary approved permits for the housing construction
in a neighborhood of Jerusalem that Israel considers an integral part of the
municipality but Palestinians consider a settlement.
administration took the Palestinian side. Hillary
Clinton spent 45 minutes berating Mr. Netanyahu over the phone. Deputy
Secretary of State Jim Steinberg “summoned” Mr. Oren to Foggy Bottom and
read out his list of administration demands. What follows is one of the more
memorable scenes in “Ally.”
added his own furious comments—department staffers, I later heard, listened in
on our conversation and cheered—about Israel’s insult to the president and
the pride of the United States. Then came my turn to respond.
‘Let me get this straight,’ I began. ‘We inadvertently slight the vice
president and apologize, and I become the first foreign ambassador summoned by
this administration to the State Department. Bashar al-Assad hosts Iranian
president Ahmadinejad, who calls for murdering seven million Israelis, but do
you summon Syria’s ambassador? No, you send your ambassador back to
is filled with such scenes, which helps explain why it infuriates the
administration. Truth hurts. President Obama constantly boasts that he’s the
best friend Israel has ever had. After reading Mr. Oren’s book, a fairer
assessment is that Mr. Obama is a great friend when the decisions are
easy—rushing firefighting equipment to Israel during a forest fire—a
grudging friend when the decisions are uncomfortable—opposing the Palestinian
bid for statehood at the U.N.—and no friend at all when the decisions are
hard—stopping Iran from getting a bomb.
friends are with you when the decisions are hard.
“Ally” was published, Mr. Oren has been denounced in near-hysterical terms
in the media, Israeli and American. In Israel the carping is politics as usual
and in the U.S. it’s sucking-up-to-the-president as usual. The nastiest
comments came from Leon Wieseltier, the gray eminence of minor magazines, and
the most tedious ones came from the Anti-Defamation League, that factory of
moral pronouncement. When these are the people yelling at you, you’ve likely
done something right.
Oren has. His memoir is the best contribution yet to a growing literature—from
Vali Nasr’s “Dispensable Nation” to Leon
Panetta’s “Worthy Fights”—describing how foreign policy is made in
the Age of Obama: lofty in its pronouncements and rich in its self-regard, but
incompetent in its execution and dismal in its results. Good for Mr. Oren for
providing such comprehensive evidence of the facts as he lived them.