Like those obsessives who, during hurricane season in America, get in their cars to follow the tropical storms, MK Michael Oren got on the plane to New York last Wednesday to launch his new book. But the new storm that, for the umpteenth time, has battered U.S-Israel relations wasn’t an act of nature. It was completely Oren’s own doing.
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The book by the former ambassador to Washington will be published only this Tuesday. But for the last two weeks, it has become a main topic of the conservative American press. The strategy adopted by Oren and his publisher is clear: They are aiming at readers who, to put it mildly, aren’t fans of U.S. President Barack Obama.
Every few days, a new story from the book is leaked. Some are rather gossipy, but all put the Obama administration in a negative light. Once, it was a senior State Department official who yelled at Oren; another time, it was that Obama failed to publicly credit Israel for its assistance during the Haitian earthquake because he was angry at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; in a third case, it was that the “brain” behind the American-Russian deal to disarm Syria of chemical weapons was actually Israeli minister Yuval Steinitz.
Obama and his staff haven’t enjoyed reading what Oren wrote. Nevertheless, they understood that any response would merely give him more exposure, so they initially decided to gulp down some ice water and restrain themselves. But when Oren published an op-ed under his own name in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, under the headline “How Obama Abandoned Israel,” not all the ice in the White House kitchen was enough to cool their fury.
One person who was particularly angry was U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro. He has been involved in managing the ugly relationship between Obama and Netanyahu since day one, and usually, he was the person who tried to calm things down. But hearing such claims from Oren, a man he considered a personal friend, deeply offended him. That same day, he held an extremely harsh conversation with Oren, during which the latter tried to defend himself and explain that he hadn’t chosen the article’s headline.
Initially, Shapiro addressed the issue through private channels: He called Netanyahu. An Israeli source familiar with the content of the conversation said Shapiro asked Netanyahu to issue a public statement refuting Oren’s claim that Obama had “deliberately” abandoned Israel from the moment he entered the White House in early 2009.
But Netanyahu refused Shapiro’s request, the source said, telling him that even though Oren’s statements didn’t reflect the government’s position, Oren isn’t an MK from his own party, and therefore, he saw no reason to publicly rebut him. Nevertheless, the prime minister added, he would consider a public statement on the matter at a later date.
Netanyahu’s refusal wasn’t a big surprise. After all, he presumably agrees with every word Oren wrote in the Wall Street Journal. For Netanyahu, Oren’s book launch and the op-ed he wrote couldn’t have come at a better time – just when he is trying to mobilize Congress and American public opinion against the nuclear agreement Obama is drafting with Iran.
Wednesday morning, Shapiro launched a public offensive against Oren in an interview with Army Radio. Despite his diplomatic language, his statements in that interview were exceptionally harsh. He called Oren’s account “imaginary” and said the former ambassador was merely a politician who was using criticism of Obama to promote his new book.
Shapiro also phoned the head of Oren’s Kulanu party, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon. Unlike Netanyahu, Kahlon acceded to Shapiro’s request; he summoned Oren and tried to convince him to apologize. But Oren refused, so Kahlon had no choice but to send Shapiro a letter rejecting Oren’s statements.
For perhaps the first time in his political career, Kahlon found himself in the position of putting out diplomatic fires. As if the serious crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations and the series of international problems Israel is facing weren’t enough, along came a member of his own party and poured fuel on the fire.
Kahlon had followed in the footsteps of his friend Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, by placing a former ambassador to Washington high up on his party’s ticket. Oren was supposed to be his diplomatic prop.
Instead, he is turning into the same kind of diplomatic liability that Danny Ayalon proved to be for Lieberman – except that the diplomatic incident Oren has caused is much worse than the one caused by the former deputy foreign minister. Ayalon may have humiliated the Turkish ambassador by seating him on a low chair, but Oren has just done pretty much the same thing to the U.S. president.
Oren’s op-ed, along with his statements in several media interviews about his new book over the last week, have raised serious doubts about his judgment. With messianic zeal, he has reiterated the mantra that his decision to publish his book at this particular moment, shortly before the agreement with Iran is supposed to be signed, was meant to “correct the record” and reveal the danger Obama’s policy poses for Israel. Oren has been speaking in apocalyptic terms, and it sometimes seems as if he thinks his book is what will save Israel from destruction.
Senior Israeli officials who have been involved in relations with Washington for the past six years raised an eyebrow at many parts of Oren’s op-ed. Off the record, they agreed with the claim by senior Obama administration officials that Oren was left out of the loop on most bilateral diplomatic activity.
“He mainly dealt with public diplomacy,” one said. Another senior official added, “Many things didn’t go through him. Sometimes he was briefed after the fact, and sometimes he wasn’t briefed at all.”
The senior officials also found it odd that Oren, who emphasizes at every opportunity that he’s a historian, wasn’t accurate about the facts in either of his two major claims against Obama. After all, this isn’t ancient history.
First, Oren claimed that Obama overturned a longstanding principle which holds that publicly, there should be no “daylight” between Israel and the U.S. In other words, disputes between the two countries should be resolved quietly, not aired openly before the entire world.
But if such a principle ever existed, then almost every American president has violated it. It suffices to recall the public spat between President George W. Bush and then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, or the vocal dispute over the 1991 Madrid Conference between the elder President George Bush (along with his secretary of state, James Baker) and then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
Moreover, Oren claimed that Obama had violated an American policy of more than 40 years’ standing when he said the borders of a Palestinian state should be based on the 1967 lines with territorial swaps. At the same time, Oren claimed that Obama had reneged on Bush’s letter to Sharon, which acknowledged that the settlement blocs would remain part of Israel under any Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
But here, too, the historical facts aren’t on Oren’s side. President Bill Clinton spoke of the 1967 lines when he presented his parameters for a final-status agreement in 2000; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke of the 1967 lines during the negotiations that followed the Annapolis summit in 2007; and even Bush’s letter to Sharon referred indirectly to the principle of the 1967 lines with territorial swaps.
Oren also forgot to mention one minor detail: It was Netanyahu who abandoned the policy of his three predecessors when, at his first White House meeting with Obama in May 2009, he opposed a Palestinian state and spoke instead about “economic peace.”
The enormous tension that Oren has interjected into U.S.-Israel relations this week will intensify even further next week, when his book is launched in Washington. He’ll presumably give interviews to every possible media outlet. He will attack the administration, and the administration will attack him.
In the end, it seems that Oren has been an apt student of the man who appointed him to the Washington job. Just as Netanyahu incited against Israeli Arabs and spread lies about them in order to garner a few more right-wing votes on Election Day, Oren incited against Obama in his op-ed and distorted the facts in order to sell another few books to conservative Republicans who loathe the American president.