Michael Oren, the Problem Isn't U.S. Critique of Israeli Policies – It's Israeli Policies

J Street president questions whether 'no daylight' and 'no surprises,' the two principles Oren says hold the U.S.-Israel relationship together, really mean what the former ambassador thinks they mean.

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In the latest entry in the debate over U.S.-Israel relations under Barack Obama, former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren writes in The Wall Street Journal that the U.S. president made “calculated mistakes” in his approach to Israel and “abandoned” core principles of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

I leave to Oren's fellow historians the task of refuting the many factual errors and erroneous assertions he makes and on which his argument rests. Others will hopefully challenge the ambassador’s decision to ignore consistent U.S. positions over decades and to label Israel's relentless and deliberate program of settlement expansion as simply mid-level missteps.

For now, what concerns me more is Oren's underlying argument that the strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship hangs on two threads: “no daylight,” meaning the United States should never publicly articulate a policy disagreement with the government of Israel, and “no surprises,” meaning that the United States should clear policy statements with the Israeli government for comment and, it can be inferred, for approval.

Perhaps at some points in history, great powers have defined relations this way with dependent client states. Never in history has the junior partner in an alliance demanded such control over the words and actions of its more powerful partner.

The strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship should derive not from an American demonstration of public and uncritical fealty to Israeli policy, but from the two countries working together to advance a core set of shared interests and values that the alliance reinforces and on which it rests.

There is growing tension between the United States and Israel not because of Obama’s public disagreement with the policies of the Netanyahu government but because those policies are leading Israel down a path that runs counter to the interests and values of the United States, as well as to Israel's own long-term interests, to say nothing of the values on which the country was founded. 

Specifically, by dramatically expanding settlements and deepening its occupation of territory over the Green Line, Israel is placing ever-steeper obstacles in the way of achieving a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, long recognized not only as a fundamental American interest but as the only means of guaranteeing Israel's long-term security as well as its Jewish and democratic character.

American and Israeli political, military and intelligence leaders, along with every presidential administration since George H.W. Bush, have doggedly pursued a resolution to the conflict based on the principle of two states for two peoples. And in light of growing instability throughout the region, many now see a two-state solution as a vital step that could allow deeper cooperation with American allies in the region, including Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states, to address the many regional challenges they have in common with Israel and the United States.

The U.S.-Israel relationship is also grounded in a set of shared values, rooted in the democratic political tradition as well as in religion. At their core, these values demand an unwavering commitment to, and pursuit of, equality and justice.

The unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict challenges those shared values by leaving Israel in political control of millions of Palestinians who lack the very political and personal freedoms both countries claim to cherish so deeply. 

An Israeli government that works relentlessly to achieve two states demonstrates its commitment to shared U.S. and Israeli interests and values, thereby strengthening the fabric of the U.S.-Israel bond. An Israeli government that systematically expands settlements and deepens occupation – contrary to international law – tears away at that bond, day by day and fiber by fiber.

The “daylight” we see today in the U.S.-Israel relationship has been opened not by American criticism of or opposition to Israel's policies but by those policies themselves. It is hypocritical for Israeli leaders to place the blame for growing tensions solely on the U.S. president while turning a blind eye to the very policies that led the president to articulate his critique in the first place.

And the real “surprise” is that more people who care deeply about the U.S.-Israel relationship in both countries cannot bring themselves to speak out publicly about the danger that lies ahead for Israel if it continues down a path marked by never-ending conflict and perpetual occupation.

Jeremy Ben-Ami is the founder and president of J Street.