Michael Oren's Wildly Unconvincing, Deeply Trivial Attack on Obama

If absence of public disagreement is a 'core principle' of U.S.-Israel affairs, Oren must have forgotten to tell his boss, the prime minister.

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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Obama in Washington D.C., June 9, 2015.
Obama in Washington D.C., June 9, 2015. Credit: Reuters
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

Former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren has published a book that he summarized in a Wall Street Journal op-ed this week entitled, “How Obama Abandoned Israel.”

Strong words. “Abandon” means “cease to support” or “give up completely.” So in what way has Obama abandoned Israel? By eliminating or even reducing military aid? No. Oren acknowledges that Obama “significantly strengthened security cooperation with the Jewish state.” By withdrawing diplomatic support? No. The Obama administration has so far not only vetoed every United Nations resolution critical of Israel, it has expended enormous energy pressuring other countries to oppose them.

In 2011, when Mahmoud Abbas was seeking UN approval for a Palestinian state, a source close to the White House told me that he personally lobbied 150 foreign diplomats against the Palestinian bid. “Sometimes,” he mused, “I feel like I work for the Israeli government.”

So how has Obama “abandoned” Israel? According to Oren, by violating “the two core principles of Israel’s alliance with America.” What are they? “The first principle was ‘no daylight.’ The U.S. and Israel always could disagree but never openly.”

Former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren addressing an AIPAC conference in early March.Credit: AFP

Really? Like when Ronald Reagan called Israel’s attack on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear facility a “tragedy,” instructed American diplomats to condemn it at the UN and withheld the sale of U.S. warplanes in retaliation? Or when George H.W. Bush not only denounced Israeli settlement building but withheld loan guarantees in an effort to force Israel to comply? Or when, in December 2000, Bill Clinton laid out parameters for a final peace agreement that, on Jerusalem, refugees and the size of a Palestinian state, went further than Ehud Barak felt comfortable? Or when the George W. Bush administration abstained rather than veto a 2004 resolution condemning Israel for demolishing Palestinian homes and a 2009 resolution calling on Israel to end its war in Gaza?

If Obama has “abandoned” Israel by publicly disagreeing with its government, then so have all his predecessors. And if the absence of public disagreement is a “core principle” of U.S.-Israel affairs, Oren evidently forgot to tell that to Benjamin Netanyahu, who has publicly disagreed with the White House’s support for a Palestinian state near the 1967 lines and its nuclear negotiations on Iran.

The “other core principle” that Obama has violated, Oren argues, “was ‘no surprises.’” Obama abandoned Israel, he claims, by not informing it beforehand about policy decisions that could affect the Jewish state. “Obama discarded that principle,” Oren writes, “in his first meeting with Mr. Netanyahu, in May 2009, by abruptly demanding a settlement freeze and Israeli acceptance of the two-state solution.” Huh?

By the time Obama and Netanyahu first met at the White House, U.S. presidents had been supporting the two-state solution for a decade, and Obama had repeatedly endorsed that view himself. The United States had opposed settlement building for even longer, and Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, had pushed for a settlement freeze as part of the road map in 2003. So how exactly was Obama blindsiding Netanyahu when he urged Bibi to embrace these two long-standing American positions? (Especially since he was at the same time pledging that, in return for a settlement freeze, the U.S. would pressure Arab regimes to begin lifting their boycott of Israel.) If this violated the “no surprises” principle, then what do we call Netanyahu’s decision to schedule a speech to Congress behind Obama’s back for the purposes of publicly assailing his policy on Iran?

Oren’s argument isn’t just unconvincing; it’s trivial. Yes, it’s preferable to give allies due warning and to keep disputes private if that makes them easier to resolve. But these procedural issues don’t lie at the heart of the Obama-Netanyahu conflict. At its core, the conflict is about substance. Obama supports a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines, with land swaps; Netanyahu does not. Obama supports a nuclear deal that allows Iran to maintain some nuclear infrastructure; Netanyahu believes that continued sanctions and the threat of war can make Tehran capitulate completely.

You can’t determine whether Obama has “abandoned” Israel or, by contrast, whether Netanyahu has abandoned his own country’s best interests, without making an argument on these substantive issues. Yet in his op-ed, Oren doesn’t even try.

In this regard, Oren resembles the American Jewish leaders who helped him pressure the White House during his time as Israel’s ambassador. Establishment American Jewish leaders have no real position on the two-state solution. They may support it rhetorically, but they will never criticize an Israeli prime minister for undermining it. Nor do they have a fixed position on Iran. If Netanyahu were to endorse Obama’s nuclear negotiations tomorrow, their criticism would cease overnight.

Their real position, like Oren’s, is simple: The United States should back Israel no matter what. The issues themselves are secondary. The test of whether America is a good ally is whether it gives Israel unstinting support irrespective of what Israel does.

What’s remarkable isn’t that Obama failed that test. It’s that anyone who claims to care about American interests would want him to pass.

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