Sunday, June 28, 2015

In a Position to Know

Former Israeli Ambassador to the US,  Michael Oren
There is a lot of angst among supporters of The President about comments made by Michael Oren in his new book, Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide..

Michael Oren was Israel’s ambassador to the United States  during Prime Minister Netanyahu’s first term in office (2009-2013). Oren is a rare breed of Israeli patriot. Raised in America where his religious upbringing was in the Conservative movement, he became so enamored with Israel that he made Aliyah. When he was asked by the Prime Minister to be his ambassador to the US, he agreed but was saddened to renounce his American citizenship, as is required by Israel law for its major public servants.  

This is usually the case with American expatriates in Israel, They all love the country of where they were raised and hate renouncing their citizenship. But as lovers of Israel and wanting to serve their new country they did so.

Michael Oren is a respected historian. And I believe that his tenure as the ambassador to the United States is seen by most observers as well executed. That was my impression, too.  

One of the things that added to his prestige was his honesty in assessing events pertaining to Israel and the people in them.  As such he received high praise in parting company with his political mentor and his party, Likud -  and joining Kulanu, a party more in line with his political philosophy. He was widely praised by Obama administration supporters for criticizing Netanyahu’s acceptance of House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to address congress.  And then later - criticizing him again for the way he conducted his political campaign during the last election.

I therefore don’t believe Oren’s integrity can be challenged. But, challenged it is because of what he revealed about Obama’s change of America’s longstanding policy with respect to its relationship with Israel. A revelation he saw ‘up close and personal’. One that should make Netanyahu’s criticism of Obama more understandable if not totally acceptable – even to his Netanyahu’s critics.

First it should be made clear that Oren did not accuse Obama of hating Israel. He actually said the opposite and blames his changed policies with Israel on his view that his new policy will result in peace. It should also not be lost on anyone that it was the President that pushed for and got funding for Israel’s ’Iron Dome’  protection system.  And it was Obama that increased military cooperation and intelligence sharing between the two countries. There should be no mistake about that. Nor should that be underestimated and under appreciated.

What Oren is saying is that Obama’s the negative policy shift with respect to Israel outweighs the aforementioned benefits.

The current relationship between the two countries is not Netanyahu’s fault, says Oren. The fault lies almost exclusively with the President. Netanyahu was just reacting to that. From the very beginning Obama seemed to turn away from Israel and seek to improve relationships with Arab nations. Not that there was anything wrong with that. But the way it was done was wrong. It was done without consultation with America’s closest ally in the Middle East. Israel was completely snubbed early in his Presidency when he chose to ignore her entirely on a speaking tour to major Arab states. Netanyahu had nothing to do with that decision. That was the first Obama snub… not of Netanyahu, but of Israel.

An important change – which Oren believes to be of fundamental importance – is that Israel was not consulted when the United States went on a mission that would have great – even existential significance to her: negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.

Again, this ‘snub’ had nothing to do with Netanyahu. The President chose to ignore Israel and had no input from them despite what the President must have known was an issue of great concern to them. Seven months of secret negotiations ensued without Israel’s knowledge.

Another thing the Obama administration did that dismayed Israel was in how he pursued the so-called peace process. He put immense pressure on Israel to grant concessions to the Palestinians without asking a single concession of them. It was always Israel that was criticized about actions it took that Obama saw as counter to the peace process (like building in the settlements) without ever criticizing the Palestinians about anything.  He surely did this to increase his credibility among the Arab States.

What many people forget is that under an agreement made with then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon  the Bush administration agreed that major settlement blocs would be part of Israel in any future agreement. And yet Obama insisted on a total freeze on construction in those settlements. Obama also chose to ignore Israel’s numerous peace offers to the Palestinians which they rejected.

The fear now is that the Obama administration will no longer veto anti Israel resolutions at the UN. That would put Israel into a position where it could be deemed an outlaw state with sanctions being against it being honored by the entire world.

Those who say that this is all about a personality clash between the two leaders, are not reading this correctly. It isn’t about personalities. It is about policies. The two leaders have different visions of how to go forward.

Predictably, Oren is now being discredited for parting from the conventional wisdom that blames Netanyahu for the deteriorating relationship between our two countries. But one has to be consistent. One cannot say he has credibility when they like what he says and then say he doesn’t when they don’t. And all the criticism coming out now reflects exactly that, in my view.

I believe Oren. He was there. His critics were not. I trust him. He is in a far better position to know the truth than all of his critics.

I don’t know how this will all play out during the rest of the President’s tenure. Nor do I know what the next occupant of the White House will do. But for the moment, I do not like what I see.