from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Michael Oren’s Myths

June 22, 2015

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Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, Michael B. Oren, has been all over the papers, online magazines, and blogs in the last week. He has had opeds in the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy.com, and gave a two part interview to Shmuel Rosner, the political editor of the Jewish Journal. Most of what has appeared are excerpts from Oren’s new book, Ally, in which he recounts his time in Washington. Oren has stirred passions among Israel’s supporters, its detractors, defenders of the Obama administration, and its harshest critics. This is all because Oren’s depiction of President Obama, his worldview, and his administration’s approach to the Middle East is not generous, to put it diplomatically.The people who dislike President Obama are going to use the book to bash the president and the people who do not like Prime Minister Netanyahu are going to use the book to bash the Israeli leader. Bashers gotta bash, but all that heat does not get anyone anywhere in thinking about the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship, which no matter how anyone looks at the world is the most important bilateral relationship Jerusalem has and among the most important that Washington maintains. I have not read Ambassador Oren’s book yet, but based on what has appeared so far, it seems he may have missed an opportunity to examine how best the United States and Israel can move forward. The fundamental problem is his a-historic and unrealistic view of what the special relationship actually looks like.

In the interest of full disclosure, my father-in-law is related to Michael Oren in a way that only my mother-in-law can explain. I think it has something to do with a common great aunt from different sides of the family. On the two or three occasions that I have met Oren, we were unable to figure it out. His book Six Days of War was stunning and helped me immeasurably when I wrote The Struggle for Egypt.

The strangest part of what Oren has made available from Ally so far was his June 16 piece in the Journal titled “How Obama Abandoned Israel,” specifically when he writes, “…Mr. Obama posed an even more fundamental challenge by abandoning the two core principles of Israel’s alliance with America. The first principle was ‘no daylight.’ The U.S. and Israel always could disagree but never openly. Doing so would encourage common enemies and render Israel vulnerable.” I read that passage over and over again because for a historian like Oren it seemed like such a glaring and obvious mistake. Didn’t Henry Kissinger “re-assess” the U.S.-Israel relationship in 1975 over Israel’s foot-dragging on the redeployment of forces in the Sinai Peninsula and in the process delayed weapons deliveries to Jerusalem? Weren’t there very public disagreements between the Carter administration and the Israelis over peace with the Palestinians? What about Ronald Reagan’s decision to delay the delivery of F-16s to Israel? George H. W. Bush’s “I’m one little guy here” comment in the bruising battle over loan guarantees in 1991? Who could forget the controversy over the Har Homa settlement during the Clinton years? I do not remember if George W. Bush ever had it out with either Ariel Sharon or Ehud Olmert publicly, but if he did not, his administration is the exception that proves the rule.

As I have often emphasized, Israel, Israeli politics, and U.S.-Israel relations are not my thing so I consulted a few sources. Here is Bernard Reich, professor emeritus of political science at the George Washington University and author of Israel: Land of Tradition and Conflict, on the the U.S.-Israel relationship:

The two states developed a diplomatic political relationship that focused on the need to resolve the Arab-Israeli dispute, but while they agreed on the general concept, they often differed on the precise means of achieving the desired result. The relationship became especially close after the Six Day War, when a congruence of policy prevailed on many of their salient concerns. Nevertheless, the two states often held differing perspectives on regional developments and on the dangers and opportunities they presented. No major ruptures took place, although significant tensions were generated at various junctures.

Reich then recounts the “increased public tension and recrimination” that marked U.S.-Israel relations during the Carter years before pivoting to the Reagan administration, which went so far as punishing the Israelis for running afoul of Washington.

Ronald Reagan is often regarded as a great friend of Israel. He may have been, but there was most certainly daylight between the United States and Israel in the 1980s. Reich’s former colleague, Howard M. Sachar, recounts in great detail in volume two of his monumental work, A History of Israel how the Reagan administration’s 1982 proposal to deal with the Palestinian issue left Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin “stunned and disbelieving.” This was not a dispute that was kept within the confines of the White House and the prime ministry. Even after Israel raised objections to the plan—which was developed in consultation with the Jordanians and Saudis, but not the Israelis—President Reagan outlined his vision in a televised address to the American people. The proposal included: a settlement freeze, giving Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem the opportunity to vote in elections for an envisioned autonomous quasi-government in the West Bank, Palestinian responsibility for civil and security matters in the West Bank, and the eventual establishment Hashemite-Palestinian confederation to bring the conflict to an end. That seems like a very public difference of opinion, no?

I could go on with a variety of examples from the Bush and Clinton years, but readers understand the point. Anyone who has ever been up close to U.S.-Israel relations understands that there is often tension and sometimes it breaks out into the open. Contrary to Oren, there never was a “no daylight” principle and demanding that there was one distorts the historical record and sets up the U.S.-Israel relationship for future trouble. The Israelis have a right to be angry about a variety of issues. They believe that they have not gotten a fair hearing on the Iran nuclear negotiations, which directly affects their security. The nasty things that unnamed senior officials have said about Netanyahu seem gratuitous, especially in light of the fact that, as Oren writes, Mahmoud Abbas never paid a price for defying the United States. Yet the Israelis are on significantly shakier ground demanding that no U.S. president ever call them out on policies that might harm American interests in the region. By setting this impossible-to-meet standard, Oren’s book thus seems destined to do precisely the opposite of what he wants for U.S.-Israel ties.

Among Israelis and their supporters there is an erroneous view that with the change of administration in January 2017, the bilateral relations will snapback [intentional] to the mythical “no daylight” moment that Michael Oren has conjured. Instead, the U.S.-Israel relationship will likely continue to follow the same pattern it always has—close cooperation with periodic public recriminations—but because Oren and others have set out unrealistic expectations, the coming crises will no doubt be more harmful to the relationship in the long run. As they say in Hebrew, Ze haval.

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