October 20, 2018

One question for Michael Oren

Former Israeli ambassador Michael Oren is coming to Los Angeles this week to speak about his new book, “Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide,” and I’m going to miss him. 

I was invited to be Oren’s on-stage interviewer at his appearance at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum in Yorba Linda on July 2, but another commitment simply makes that impossible.

And that’s a shame because, boy, do I have questions.

“Ally” is Oren’s memoir of his time as Israel’s ambassador to the United States. As Jewish Journal President David Suissa detailed in our cover story on the book last week, much of “Ally” is a stirring account of an American-born Israeli whose life epitomizes the devotion to the shared values and deep historical bonds that most American Jews feel toward the United States and Israel.    

It is also a riveting insider’s diary of what it takes to be the man between the prime minister and the president, between Israeli and American lawmakers, between Israelis and American Jewry, between Israel and the world — “to bridge,” as Oren puts it, “a potentially yawning American-Israeli divide.”

Over the past week, however, the book has become better known for Oren’s assertion that President Obama set out to disrupt the close Israeli-American relationship, breaking the two “cardinal rules” of the U.S.-Israeli relationship: There can be “no daylight” between the two countries in public, and there can be “no surprises” when it comes to their private diplomacy.

Oren’s critics, now multiplying like speeches at a Jewish banquet, claim the historian has his history wrong. Many presidents, up to and including George W. Bush, disagreed openly with Israel, they point out, and found themselves at odds with Israeli policies.

Had I had my chance to question Oren on stage, I would, of course, have had him address some of those criticisms — how could I not?  And just for fun, I’d want Oren to back up a tossed-off assertion in the book that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is “so rarely right on Middle Eastern issues.” Oren versus Friedman could be its own reality show — “America’s Next Top Maven.”

But my one big question about “Ally” is this: Where’s Bibi?

Agree with Oren or not, he lays out a long, anecdote-rich case that Obama’s Middle East initiatives on Palestinian-Israeli peace harmed Israeli-American relations. 

But one thing you won’t find in Oren’s book is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doing anything but reacting to the ideas, demands and programs that the Obama White House initiates. 

Here are some phrases that don’t appear in the book: “Later, the prime minister took the initiative …” or “That’s when Bibi put forth his own peace plan …” or “And then Bibi happily surprised the world ...”

Bibi is there to resist the administration or acquiesce when the pressure gets unbearable, as with the settlement freeze; or ask for support when the United Nations, or a forest fire, or Gaza gets out of hand. But one thing Bibi doesn’t do is what his predecessors Rabin and Sharon finally did: lead the way.  

I can understand that Oren would be hesitant to turn around and bite the hand that gave him his dream job. But Oren subsequently has joined a party that ran against Bibi in the last election, so there must be some “daylight” between them. Did it ever frustrate Oren that his boss was constantly playing defense?

This issue has not gone unnoticed in Israel itself. In a review of “Ally,” Yediot Aharonot columnist Nahum Barnea took Oren to task for ladling too much blame on the U.S. president.

“Obama believed that distancing himself somewhat from Israel’s policy, while boosting the security aid and continuing the diplomatic support, would allow him to achieve the peace he and Israel have been hoping for,” Barnea wrote. “He was wrong, of course: Netanyahu had different plans; Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had different plans. The responsibility for the failure is divided between the three of them. We, as Israelis, should demand responsibility first of all from our prime minister.”

I’ve spent countless hours poring over Oren’s brilliant book “Six Days of War” as a primary source for a project I’ve been writing. In Oren’s telling, the unsung hero of the 1967 war was then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. Eshkol felt President Lyndon Johnson was insufficiently supportive of Israel in the face of threats from well-armed Arab neighbors — threats that were far more immediate and existential than what Israel faces today. But Eshkol kept his criticisms out of the press. He understood who really needed whom. He worked hard to find ways Johnson could swing behind Israel. By the time Eshkol decided to launch a pre-emptive attack, Johnson knew all other options had been exhausted. Eshkol used a crisis to build a relationship. Bibi has helped turn a relationship into a crisis.

The Obama who emerges from “Ally” may be, in Oren’s estimation, untrustworthy, but the Bibi that doesn’t emerge is just as revelatory.

David Suissa will interview Michael Oren on stage at the Simon Wiesenthal Center on July 1 at 7 p.m.  The event is sold out, but you can watch it live or later at jewishjournal.com/michaeloren.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @foodaism.