Considering that the official release date for Michael Oren’s new book, Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide, was June 23, it is hard to believe how many words already have been written and spoken about the book. According to Amazon, one day before the book’s release, it was #1 on their best-seller list for books on the Middle East.
In fact most of those commenting on the book have been reacting to what Oren himself and others are saying about the book. They have not yet even read it. Thanks to the spinmeisters, thousands will buy the book and only a small fraction will actually read it.
The book signals the third stage of Oren’s public life, from historian and author of an outstanding book on the Six-Day War to diplomat in Washington representing Israel to politician who was recently elected to the new Knesset as the number four person in the new Kulanu Party headed by Moshe Kahlon. The problem with this new phase in Oren’s career is that many of his followers — here in New Jersey, where he was raised, and among American Jews who have held him in very high personal esteem — are now fixated on asking what Oren’s true agenda is and has been.
As a scholar he answered to the academic community. In his scholarly endeavors he associated himself largely with the right-leaning Shalem Center in Jerusalem, although Oren suggested he was conservative but not exclusively on the Right. When he was tapped to represent Israel as ambassador in Washington, it clearly suggested his views were very much in keeping with those of the prime minister.
After stepping down as ambassador in 2013, Oren did not join Netanyahu’s Likud Party. There he would have had to earn his stripes in a party weighed down with party veterans. Oren decided to run with Kahlon — himself an ex-Likudnik — giving him a better shot at a Knesset seat. Oren presumably knew that his book might emerge as early as three months after the election, just in time to inject himself and his views into numerous political discussions, within the Jewish world and over Mideast affairs. Oren understood, as did Netanyahu when he addressed a joint session of Congress on the subject of Iran in March (a speech, by the way, that Oren said he “recommended against”), that his book would be read in the context of those negotiations. Oren must have recognized that he might not only influence the Iran negotiations, but also affect the disposition of the American Jewish community ahead of the 2016 presidential election.
Three issues surrounding the book have aroused the Jewish and general media. First is his assertion that President Obama violated the long-standing proposition of “no surprises” between allies. Second, as Oren put in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Immediately after his first inauguration, Mr. Obama put daylight between Israel and America.” Third, Oren asserts Obama showed unprecedented favoritism to the Arab countries at the expense of Israel’s interests.
As far as the first two are concerned, there are numerous examples over the last 67 years of “surprises” and “daylight” between the two countries, yet they never seriously affected American’s relationship with its ally. Other allies — Churchill’s Great Britain comes to mind — were left in the cold or in the dark by the United States, and their special relationships endured.
As far as Obama’s prioritizing his relationship with the Arab world at Israel’s expense, this is a misreading by Oren. The president did misspeak in his Cairo 2009 speech and should have visited Israel during that first trip to the region, but Oren’s assertion that this portended a major shift in U.S.-Israel relationship misses the forest for the trees. In Ally, he notes the many instances of security and diplomatic cooperation that continued despite the tension. Obama was not “abandoning” Israel, but was trying an alternative tack. It unnerved Netanyahu, and Oren.
Obama, by many accounts, is not a good administrator, does not delegate power well, does not trust many advisers, likes to play his cards close to his vest, cannot make small talk, and is much too cerebral in his presidency. These traits — more than any deep-seated animus to Israel or, as Oren has suggested in a Foreign Policy op-ed, his “personal interactions with Muslims” — are more obvious explanations for the tensions between the two countries.
Whatever Oren’s agenda, his negative portrayal of America’s relationship with its ally has done Israel a real disservice. He further riled up many of Israel’s friends in the United States against the president, alienated pro-Israel moderates, and, quite undiplomatically, gave the White House more reasons to distrust the current Israeli government. The controversy may be good for Oren — his career, his book sales, his ideology. It may have resulted from his genuine concern over the Iran nuclear deal. It is not, however, constructive for the U.S.-Israel relationship.