Michael Oren’s new book “Ally,” to be published next week, details what he calls “My journey across the American-Israeli divide.” A highly unusual case of a diplomat describing very specific aspects of his service so soon after completing his term, the ex-ambassador to Washington fills the volume with a stream of revelations.
These range from the trivial, like the day his wife passed up the opportunity for a chat with George Clooney, to the significant, including sensitive discussions with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli and American figures. Here are some of the highlights, arranged in the order they pop out of the pages:
1. Netanyahu’s take on the Hebrew press: Criticized on all sides in the Israeli media for his 2009 speech at Bar Ilan University in support of a two-state solution, Netanyahu tells Oren, half in jest, “If I walked on the Sea of Galilee, the Israeli papers would write, ‘Bibi can’t swim.'”
2. Ambassadorial non-training: Unlike new American ambassadors, who undergo an intensive course in diplomacy and embassy-running, Oren says he received “zero instructions” upon being appointed in May 2009 to the most crucial job in Israel’s overseas diplomacy; this despite coming to the post from outside the Foreign Ministry hierarchy. “No one briefed me on Israel’s positions on crucial issues such as bilateral trade and nuclear proliferation,” he writes. And nor was everyone at the embassy in DC told about him. On his first day at work, June 21, he was stopped by an embassy security guard, who asked him, “Who are you? What is your purpose here?” The guard’s boss intervened: “Gaon” (genius), he chided. “He’s the ambassador.”
3. Kissinger’s bleak assessment of Obama’s approach to the Middle East: Meeting with Henry Kissinger early in his term, Oren finds the ex-secretary of state gloomy over the president’s eagerness to reconcile with Iran. Surely, says Oren, the White House realizes that an “Iran with nuclear capabilities means the end of American hegemony in the Middle East?” Retorts Kissinger: “And what makes you think anybody in the White House still cares about American hegemony in the Middle East?”
4. Oren stunned by Obama’s attitude to the United States: Reading the president’s memoir “Dreams From My Father,” the ambassador says he scoured the book in vain “for some expression of reverence, even respect, for the country its author would someday lead” but finds none. Instead, in Oren’s reading, “the book criticizes Americans for their capitalism and consumer culture, for despoiling their environment and maintaining antiquated power structures.” He notes that Obama accused Americans traveling abroad of exhibiting “ignorance and arrogance” — the very same shortcomings, notes Oren dryly, that the president’s critics assigned to him.
5. Cold-shouldered by Hillary: While he later spent many hours with her, secretary of state Hillary Clinton inexplicably rebuffed a series of initial requests from Oren for a private meeting, even though his and her predecessors had frequently held such sessions. She once “socked” him on the arm when they happened to pass, and laughingly claimed that he wasn’t returning her messages. But still she wouldn’t meet with him.
6. Too heeled-out for Clooney: Oren’s wife Sally once spurned the opportunity to join him in a conversation with George Clooney at the residence of the French ambassador, because she’d been wearing heels all night and her feet “were killing her.”
7. Abbas’s no-peace stare: At the suggestion of veteran US official Dennis Ross, Vice President Biden, visiting Israel in 2010, asked Mahmoud Abbas, when he called on the Palestinian Authority president in Ramallah, to “look him in the eye and promise that he could make peace with Israel. Abbas refused.”
8. Closed Gates: Former US defense secretary Robert Gates had “a visceral dislike” of Netanyahu, writes Oren. He’d known Netanyahu since the prime minister was deputy FM, and back then thought him superficial, glib, arrogant and outlandishly ambitious. As an adviser to George H.W. Bush, Gates had gone so far as to recommend that the young Netanyahu be banned from the White House.
9. Gilad’s mad mantra: Several times in the book, Oren records a similarly worded response from the veteran senior Israeli Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad to this or that perceived incomprehensible administration policy or statement. Responding to the administration’s giddy reaction to the “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia at the end of 2010, for instance, Gilad asks Oren, “Are they mad?… This is the Middle East, not Manhattan!” Likewise, hearing that various US politicians had returned from visits to Bashar Assad in Syria to assure Clinton that the butcher of Damascus was “a reformer,” Gilad explodes, “Are they mad?”
10. Obama blindsides Israel in talks with Abbas: In January 2011, seeking to persuade Abbas to drop a UN Security Council push to condemn Israeli settlement building, Obama held a 55-minute phone call with Abbas in which he offered to press for a renewed settlement freeze and declare what at that time would have been unprecedented US backing for a Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 lines with land swaps. “Israel was never consulted about this conversation nor even informed,” Oren states. Netanyahu was so “outraged” when he found out that the ambassador “could barely hold the receiver to my ear” when Netanyahu called him.
11. Netanyahu’s TV fave: Oren paints an empathetic and sometimes admiring picture of Netanyahu as “a biblical figure” with biblical strengths and flaws, who he says he liked but never became friendly with. He describes “Bibi” as a man “reputedly” of indulgences from which he seemed to “derive no joy” — eating and drinking “with a grim resolve” and “resignedly” smoking his cigars. Netanyahu never seemed to relax, writes Oren, “except when watching the TV series ‘Breaking Bad.'”
12. Obama won’t hit Iran: By early 2012, Oren has reached the conclusion that “in the absence of a high-profile provocation” such as an attack on a US aircraft carrier, Obama would not order the use of force against Iran, notwithstanding the president’s endless talk of all options being on the table. Furthermore, the US would pursue a diplomatic accord “even at the risk of reaching a deal unacceptable to Israel.” And if Israel “took matters into its own hands, the White House would keep its distance and offer to defend Israel only if it were counterstruck by a hundred thousand Hezbollah missiles.”
14. More Erdogans please: Evidently unfazed by the Turkish leader’s pro-Hamas and anti-Israel positions, Obama tells a Netanyahu-led Israel team at the White House in 2012: “We could do much worse than have a bunch of Erdogans in the Middle East.”
15. The Iran window closed: While Netanyahu continues to this day to declare that Israel can and will intervene if necessary to thwart Iran’s nuclear program, Oren writes that, “In terms of the Iranian program’s pace, even weather-wise the summer of 2012 indeed seemed the last opportunity to attack.” After Netanyahu delivers his speech to the UN that September, the one remembered for the cartoon bomb, Obama calls him at his hotel to praise him. The president, writes Oren, is “audibly relieved,” having concluded that “the peak of Israel’s threatened attack on Iran” has now passed.
16. What Kissinger said: Two years after that sobering conversation with Kissinger, Oren by late 2012 has concluded that the president is determined “to withdraw from the Middle East irrespective of the human price.” Interpreting remarks made by Obama in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, in which the president says that the US could never have “changed the equation on the ground” in Assad’s blood-drenched Syria, the ambassador writes that this comment marked an admission by Obama “that America could no longer grapple with a region swept by such massive sandstorms.”
17. An apology regretted: In the final act of his visit to Israel in March 2013, Obama brokers a call to Turkey’s Erdogan in which Netanyahu, among other comments designed to heal the frozen Israel-Turkey ties, apologizes for tactical mistakes perhaps made by the IDF in the Mavi Marmara incident. When the call is done there are high-fives and hugs, but Netanyahu tells Oren later the same evening, “We may have made a mistake.” The two men sit in Netanyahu’s office watching a TV news report in which mothers of Israeli naval commandos who were involved in the affair accuse him of abandoning their sons, and then watch Erdogan boast about having humiliated Israel in forcing the apology. Writes Oren, “Wearily, Netanyahu repeated, ‘I think we made a mistake.'”
18. Any one of three: It is well known that, as his pre-conditions for joining Kerry’s ill-fated 2013 peace push, Abbas demanded that Israel freeze settlement, negotiate on the basis of the 1967 lines, and release dozens of Palestinian terrorists. What Oren states definitively, however, is that “Kerry succeeded in convincing Abbas to settle for just one of these demands” and to let Netanyahu choose which. Previously, various US and Israeli officials have said that wasn’t quite the case. The prime minister controversially opted against a reversible settlement freeze, chose not to accept the pre-1967 lines as the basis for talks, and instead opted to release dozens of security prisoners, including many of the worst offenders. The talks predictably collapsed in spring of 2014.
19. The Steinitz-Netanyahu Syrian proposal: After Obama first dithered and then decided not to deliver a threatened punitive strike against Assad for using chemical weapons against his own people in the summer of 2013, the idea of a diplomatic solution to the crisis, under which Syria’s chemical arsenal would be removed peacefully, was raised. Israel was deeply distraught over Obama’s failure to act, aware that it would be seen in Iran as evidence that, for all his claims to the contrary, the president was bluffing when it came to military action. And yet, Oren writes, it was Israel — in the shape of Likud minister Steinitz and Netanyahu himself — that initiated this diplomatic path out of the crisis. The idea of peacefully removing Assad’s chemical weaponry was first raised by Steinitz, who pitched the suggestion to the Russians. And it was then Netanyahu who took it to Obama. While the president went on to hail a historic agreement, Oren notes, “Israel’s role remained unmentioned.” Until now.
20. Ties in tatters: The Obama administration’s admission in late 2013, soon after Oren returns home from Washington, that it has been secretly negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran strikes him as evidence of how low relations have sunk. “Most disturbing for me personally was the realization that our closest ally had entreated with our deadliest enemy on an existential issue without so much as informing us,” he writes. But in Oren’s assessment, ties have worsened yet further ever since. He notes that Obama denounced the loss of Palestinian civilian life during last summer’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza as “appalling” — a word the president had last used to describe Gaddafi’s massacre of Libyans. He points out that the administration “delayed the delivery of munitions needed by the IDF” and ordered US airlines not to fly to Israel after a rocket landed a mile from the airport, handing Hamas its “greatest-ever strategic victory.” By the end of the war, Oren concludes grimly, “aspects of the US-Israeli alliance” are “in tatters.”
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