by Avi Davis
It is interesting to conjecture what the history of America-Israel relations, written 100 years from now, will read like. Will it paint the eight years of the Obama Administration as the very nadir in relations between the two nations, yet only a hiccup in a long and flourishing relationship that endured despite the pitfalls which almost upended it? Or will it instead be seen as the commencement of a long and rapid decline to the point where successive U.S. administrations began lining up against the Jewish state?
Whatever the judgement, it is inevitable that future historians will pay close attention to the words of Michael B. Oren, and his book Ally, a memoir documenting his four long years as Israel’s ambassador to the United States during the first years of the Obama Administration.
Oren, a renowned historian and author of two authoritative works on the Middle East ( Six Days of War and Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East) possessed excellent credentials to assume his ambassadorial post in 2009. A New Jersey born Jew, who had lived in Israel for 30 years, he had already acted as a kind of ambassador-in-waiting, with numerous book tours and a role as a highly respected television commentator and editorialist for distinguished American newspapers and magazines. A fervent Zionist, whose ideological commitment to the state had not wavered an inch from his teenage years, he also possessed the added strengths of being affable, politically limber and remarkably self effacing, to the point where his superiors recommended him as a man without an ego.
Of course Oren does have an ego, and he is as susceptible to flattery and praise – honors he received in copious amounts, as any man. Yet his book, which caused a firestorm upon its publication in June this year, is a modest and careful appraisal of not only his own journey along the America – Israel divide in the first years of the Obama Administration, but of the rocky relations which characterized the relations between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, two men as different as chalk and water.
As a careful monitor of the temperature of Washington political life, Oren from the beginning projected that Obama would be a very different kind of American leader – expressing no particular love nor admiration for the Jewish state and instead determined to impose ‘daylight’ between the two long term allies in order to conciliate Muslim opinion. He notes how Obama’s Cairo speech in June 2009, in which he defended Israel’s right to exist on the basis of the Jewish people’s persecution during the Holocaust and not on its 3,000 historical ties to its ancient homeland, gave an insight into the President’s thinking. The speech of course played directly into the prevailing Arab narrative which contends that the Jews are only recent interlopers with no historical ties to the land.
It was a statement that Obama was later forced to walk back; yet, in a series of crises in Oren’s first year as ambassador, the new appointee quickly realized that the president’s attitude to Israel was, as he first suspected, far more born of ideology than of practical statecraft.
This became first evident in early 2010 when Obama sought to reignite the moribund peace process by insisting that Netanyahu order a 10 month long moratorium on all construction in the West Bank. Such a decision would be politically risky for the right wing prime minister for whom the political support of West Bank residents and leaders was crucial. Nevertheless, members of the Obama Administration convinced the Israelis that a good will measure such as this would jump start peace talks, build trust between Netanyahu and Obama and bring the Palestinian leadership back to the table.
But quite the opposite happened. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas weaved and dodged for the entire length of those ten months, refusing to meet Netanyahu unless conditions, which would be clearly unacceptable to the Israeli leader ( such as pre-commitments over borders and the status of Jerusalem as well as the right of return 0f Palestinian refugees) were met. When the ten month moratorium expired, Abbas turned his back on the prospect of talks altogether and would not consider returning to the table without for a renewal of the moratorium.
And so developed a consistent pattern: Obama would demand Israeli concessions and when given, Abbas would merely pocket them and walk away, with no consequences whatsoever for his recalcitrance. Abbas would go much further over the course of those four years, applying for member status at the United Nations as well as applying for status as a member of the International Criminal Court, giving the Palestinians standing to sue Israel for war crimes, none of which he coordinated with the White House. And even more egregiously, the Palestinians made a gambit, in September, 2013 to have a State of Palestine recognized by the Security Council of the United Nations – a direct repudiation of the Palestinians’ commitments under the 1993 Oslo Accords.
None of this seemed to faze Obama nor his advisers who ordered a pro forma veto of the measures at the United Nations, but elicited no significant public reprimand or rebuke of the Palestinian leader. Which naturally caused Oren to ask himself how the President could allow himself to be consistently kicked in the teeth by Abbas and yet remain so publicly oblivious and forgiving of the Palestinian leader’s transparent contempt.
There was no greater evidence of the tectonic shift in the relations between Israel and the United States than in the intense private and public battle over the ongoing Iranian negotiations. Although Ally was published a month before the final agreement signed between the P5+1 ( the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany) and the Iranian Republic in Vienna, Oren nevertheless details the painful confrontations between Obama and Netanyahu over Israel’s national security issues and makes clear that Obama deliberately interfered in Israel plans to launch a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities and consistently argued that negotiations were the surest path to Iranian nuclear deterrence. In the end, he concludes, Obama seemed far more concerned with the consequences of an Israeli strike than he was with the likelihood of Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and that this has been the guiding spirit of his Iran strategy.
All of which begs the question regarding these confusing years – how did Obama’s statecraft, which placed such inordinate pressure upon its ally, the only democracy and stable polity in the Middle East,while more or less ignoring Palestinian malfeasance, advance America’s national interests? As the Arab Spring imploded and regimes increasingly hostile to the United States replaced long term allies in Egypt, Yemen and Iraq, Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry, seemed to become monomaniacal in their quest for a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict which proved only a mere side show to the real drama playing out in those countries. The stark reality that the entire Middle East was fast falling prey to a barbaric brand of Islamic fundamentalism seemed beyond them.
The tensions in the relationship should not, however, overshadow the more uplifting moments over the past seven years, such as when Obama reacted with immediate aid and concern after Israel suffered a catastrophic forest fire in 2011 and when visiting the Jewish state in 2013, delivered speeches which could have been lifted directly from the writings of the fervent right wing Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
And this is not to mention the unparalleled cooperation which continues between Israeli and U.S. military and intelligence services – reportedly more firmly set than at any time in recent history.
But the roller coaster ride which the author presents provides an alarming view of a White House which had arrogated to itself the right to assess its ally’s best interests, regardless of any input from the ally itself. It represented a very dangerous, some might say catastrophic, descent into bickering, distrust and suspicion when one would have expected that the rise of ISIS, the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and the prospect of a nuclear Iran, necessitated the forging of even closer bonds.
Oren’s final chapter is titled ” Goodbye Ally” which foreshadows a suggestion that a gulf between the two nations has become so unbridgeable that further cooperation- at least on a diplomatic level -has become increasing problematic. However this is hardly his conclusion. The “goodbye” in the chapter heading refers to his own departure from his post rather than a permanent rupture between the two allies and the author goes to considerable lengths to point out the across-the-board support for Israel demonstrated in Congress as well as the generally favorable attitude towards the state among American citizens.
Yet for all this bubbly optimism, the reader is left with the discomfiting notion that the once impregnable alliance has suffered severe, although not fatal damage during the Obama years, with an administration which was given over to the idee fixee ( not the first administration to believe it) of the Israel-Palestinian conflict as incontestably the root cause of instability in the Middle East. It paints the portrait of a president whose confidence in his own intellect and powers of analysis successfully rebuffed not only the opinion and advice of America’s friends and allies but the very facts on the ground.
Whatever the final judgement on Obama, the book provides a cautious warning to all statesmen – American, Israeli or other – that they should deal with the world as they find it and not as they wish it to be. As Congress begins the debate on the Iran deal in the second week of September that warning may carry a heady resonance.
Avi Davis is the President of the American Freedom Alliance and the editor of The Intermediate Zone.