In a memoir to be published next week tracing his four years as Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren warns that aspects of US-Israeli relations are now “in tatters,” details how Washington has worked relentlessly to quash Israel’s military option on Iran, and accuses the Obama administration of handing Hamas its “greatest-ever strategic victory” by briefly barring US airlines from flying to Israel after a rocket fired from Gaza landed a mile from Ben-Gurion airport during last summer’s war.
Interviewed by The Times of Israel this week, Oren said that the book, “Ally,” represents an unprecedented case of a top Israeli diplomat publishing details of his term so soon after its completion — he was ambassador from 2009 to 2013 — and confirmed that it was carefully reviewed before its release by various Israeli authorities, including the Mossad, and some passages excised.
He said he urged his publishers to release it this month — “they wanted to bring it out much later” — because “we’re at a crucial juncture now with the Iran issue, and it’s very important to set certain records straight as we go into what could be a fateful period for the State of Israel.”
“Ally” is peppered with revelations that go to the heart of US-Israel ties, and also relate to peace efforts with the Palestinians, other regional developments, and sensitive discussions between Oren and various Israeli and American officials.
The former envoy, who penned an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal this week entitled “How Obama Abandoned Israel,” castigates the president in the book for having negotiated with “our deadliest enemy,” Iran, on what for Israel is the “existential issue” of Tehran’s nuclear program, “without so much as informing us.” He details the administration’s relentless pressure to prevent Israeli military intervention in Iran, asserts that Obama would not use American force against Iran except in the most exceptional circumstances, such as an attack on a US aircraft carrier, and claims the US president has long had no compunction about pursuing a diplomatic accord “even at the risk of reaching a deal unacceptable to Israel.” Were Israel to take “matters into its own hands,” Oren writes, “the White House would keep its distance and offer to defend Israel only if it were counterstruck by a hundred thousand Hezbollah missiles.”
In the interview as in the book, Oren indicated that the summer of 2012 may have marked the last point at which Israel could have effectively intervened to thwart Iran’s drive to the bomb. “There may have been a moment in 2012,” he said. “I don’t know.”
Among the revelations in the book is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately regretted apologizing to Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the deaths of Turkish civilians aboard the Mavi Marmara, in a phone call brokered by Obama as the final act of the US president’s visit to Israel in March 2013. “I think we made a mistake,” Oren quotes Netanyahu telling him later the same evening, as the two of them watch a TV news report in which Erdogan brags about having humiliated Israel in extracting the apology.
Now a Kulanu MK and thus a member of Netanyahu’s coalition, Oren describes the prime minister in generally positive terms in the book, writing that “I liked Netanyahu, but I never became his friend.” The US-born bestselling historian was a personal appointment of Netanyahu’s as ambassador.
Oren also reveals that when Joe Biden visited Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah in 2010, the vice president asked the Palestinian Authority leader to “look him in the eye and promise that he could make peace with Israel. Abbas refused.”
In his Times of Israel interview, Oren dismissed Palestinian statehood as unrealistic, though he said Israel needs to make plain its support in principle for a two-state solution and should not build in isolated settlements. “I think that our position should be, as a matter of diplomacy, we support the two-state solution,” Oren said. But “as a practical matter, think it out. We’re not just talking about moving 80 to 100,000 Israelis. We’re talking about creating a state that has no institutions, no economy, a corrupt, unelected leadership, which is incapable of defending itself, even last summer when Abbas was going to be overthrown. So how long is this state going to last? Really. No one is being realistic.”
Improbably, Oren also discloses in the book that it was strategic affairs minister Yuval Steinitz who initiated the idea of the peaceful removal of President Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons after Obama canceled a threatened punitive strike on the Syrian dictator for using chemical weapons against his own people in the summer of 2013. Steinitz pitched the suggestion to the Russians, writes Oren, and then Netanyahu took it to Obama.
In the interview, Oren described his book as “a cri de coeur… for an alliance that should be in a much better place than it is.”
He said the root of Israel’s problems with Obama lies in three aspects of the president’s abiding worldview: Obama’s “unprecedented support for the Palestinians,” the goal of “reconciling with what Obama calls the Muslim world,” and Obama’s “outreach, reconciling with Iran. From the get-go. You see that right from the beginning. He comes into office going after Iran.”
But the administration is also problematic, Oren added, because it “jettisoned the two core principles of the alliance, which were ‘no surprises’ and ‘no daylight.’ Obama said it: I’m putting daylight. And proceeds to put daylight, public daylight. And then surprises. I was told that with previous administrations,” said Oren, “we were always given advance copies of major policy speeches. The Cairo speech (that Obama delivered in 2009) was twice as long as the First Inaugural Address. It touched on issues that were vital to our security. We never had any preview.”
Given the deterioration in ties, and especially given Obama’s policy on Iran, Oren concluded in the interview that “we’re on our own,” facing what he termed “a broad spectrum of monumental threats all at the same time.” He said this conclusion was inescapable after Obama failed to act against Syria, and that it was at this point that “everyone” in Israel realized that Obama was not serious about his military option on Iran.
Still, Oren tried to put a brave gloss on Israel’s lonely position: “To me that’s a refreshing Zionist moment. We realize we’re on our own,” said Oren. “It’s a different topic, but I have a thing about this regional peace conference with the moderate Arab states that everyone keeps talking about here, certain parties. To me it’s running away from what I believe is an Israeli Zionist responsibility: taking our fate into our own hands. Waiting for the Saudis to somehow bring redemption? I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
Oren concludes the book by urging that bilateral ties be repaired, and says American and Israeli leaders “must restore those three ‘no’s’ — no surprises, no daylight, no public altercations — in their relations.”
Asked toward the end of the interview whether things would be better under a Hillary Clinton presidency, Oren said that Netanyahu had “a rapport” with her, and that “she understands certain things about Israel… She gets it.” Clinton and Republican candidate Jeb Bush both made major campaign speeches this week in which they promised US-Israel ties would improve if they were elected president next year.