My conversation on June 17 with Knesset Member and former Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren lasted for about an hour and a half. We were interrupted by the bell – calling Oren to cast a vote – but that was somewhat useful. The conversation dealt mainly with the US-Israel relationship and what Oren says in his new book Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide (Random House, 2015) about US President Obama.
An article by Oren in the Wall Street Journal (June 16), setting out his key conclusions about the Obama Administration’s relationship with Israel – entitled “How Obama Abandoned Israel” – made headlines. [Ed note: Including in Australia, where the article was reprinted in the Australian on June 18.]
Oren rejects the criticism that has been levelled at him following the publication of this article and quotes from the book. He says he sees a “critical need” to say what he has to say at this point in time, to give “a balanced pro-Israeli perspective to what is happening in the relations between the two states,” Israel and the US.
Rosner: There’s a lot to talk about, but I’d like to make it a bit tough for you and start off by asking you to answer a yes or no question.
Oren: That is tough…
So, this is about something that you clearly imply in your book, you even write it in some way, but you never say it explicitly. Has President Obama damaged Israel’s security?
We are less secure today than we were five years ago.
Because of President Obama’s policies?
We’re less secure than we were five years ago. I mean, it takes two to tango, there are some things that we did, but yes…
So maybe we’re also less secure because of Israel’s policies?
We are, but there were two core principles of the alliance, which I wrote about in the Wall Street Journal [“no daylight” and “no surprises”], that the President made a conscious decision to jettison, and that, to me, is not open to interpretation. It’s true.
Let’s take the Cairo speech [to the Muslim world in 2009]. The Cairo speech is a revolutionary document. It’s almost twice as long as [Obama’s] first inaugural address. So here we have a President going to Cairo. Obviously, he skips Israel, which was unpleasant, but the important thing is that there were components in the speech which are vital to Israel’s security. Obviously the Palestinian issue, but more importantly the Iranian issue, to which he devotes a significant section of the speech….
Then there’s the whole question of Israel’s right to exist, which he connects to the Holocaust…
Which Netanyahu later criticised him for…
Yes. To his credit, [Obama] did spend the next couple of years taking it back, because it’s the Arab narrative. In my book Power, Faith and Fantasy, I describe the meeting between Ibn Saud, founder of the Saudi dynasty, and President Roosevelt in 1945. Roosevelt asked him, “Why don’t you support these Zionists? What do you care about a couple of Jews in Palestine?” and Saud says “well the Europeans killed a bunch of Jews, some of them survived, and now the Europeans want to dump them in Palestine.” That’s the Arab narrative, and that’s more or less what Obama was saying in Cairo…
Well, he did correct it later and did show a more nuanced understanding of the history of Zionism in later statements and interviews.
I know exactly the day that happened. It was in November 2011 at the UN. The President started talking about a Jewish state with a 3,000 year old connection to the land, and he didn’t depart from that. That’s to his credit.
You know, a lot of people are portraying [my book] as an anti-Obama book. It’s not. It’s an attempt to set the record straight, and part of the record is very difficult. And yes, there’s criticism. But when Obama did that in 2011 I was thrilled. I was thrilled when he came to Israel in March 2013 and every single speech was “Jewish state”. In the book I go into the gestures he made – laying a wreath on Herzl’s tomb, going to see the Dead Sea scrolls – all of that was intentional, in order to broadcast “Jewish state”…
But the Cairo speech was a total surprise. I mentioned the speech of May 19, 2011, where Obama made the 1967 borders and [land] swaps the basis for negotiations. I had been assured by the White House a day before that that was not going to happen (talk about “no surprises”). It’s difficult to understand this unless you’re in the middle of negotiations, but in the terms of reference, the TOR that we had exactingly worked out with Hillary Clinton, the Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with swaps was the Palestinian position, not an American or Israeli position. And the President, without informing us, moved it. You can’t understand the Prime Minister’s anger the next day, on the 20th, without understanding what happened the previous day, what happened on the 19th. And there are many other examples like this.
Look, the President builds his whole case, the case for his being pro-Israel, around the issue of keeping Israel secure. Your book basically refutes this argument. But then you refuse to just say “yes, the President hurt Israel’s security.”
Let me unpack it. You want a yes or no answer? Not every question can be answered with a yes or no answer. I think there are things we did that didn’t help our security, so I don’t know if it’s a fair question to place to a thinking person, with all due respect.
Yes, security cooperation today is greater than it was in previous years. I don’t know exactly how close security cooperation was in the Bush years, but it is intensely close, and if you ask anyone in the Israeli military or the security establishment, they’ll tell you that.
But the point you make in the book is that security is about more than just arms and closer cooperation on strictly defence and military issues – diplomacy is also security.
It’s not just diplomacy. Conducting negotiations with Iran for seven months behind our backs [in 2013], and trying to strike a deal that’s bad, very bad, for our security? Yes, we deeply appreciate the aid and the support for Iron Dome [Israel’s anti-missile system], but we’re not just about Iron Dome, are we? The agreement with Iran is overwhelmingly viewed here, not just by Netanyahu (I’m sitting in the Knesset, where this is the closest thing to a consensus issue) as a bad deal. Does that render us more secure or less secure?
Tell me, do you have any idea why President Obama decided to breach these two principles, of “no surprises” and “no daylight”?
Well, I spend a lot of the book studying the President and his worldview. There’s a section of the book called “Obama 101”. I am a historian, and I used history research tools that I’ve learned in the course of decades. I set out to create a situation in which the President wouldn’t surprise me… to understand where he came from is to understand his worldview, and he comes from a worldview I knew very well from teaching in American campuses.
I’ve been a visiting professor at Harvard, Yale and Georgetown, and I know these ideas. These are ideas that are common in American campuses, and in recent times they have penetrated into and, for the large part, coloured the beltway thinking.
I even quote a standard text for foreign policy that was authored by several prominent members of the Obama Administration. I think it’s called American Foreign Policy for the 21st Century. It talks about the collegial approach to international affairs: America’s not the leader any more, not America up front, America works together with different alliances, it works heavily with international institutions…
It is interesting that Israel is not listed as a strategic ally there, only as a party to a problem, and that’s the one problem that the United States has to lead in solving, the … Palestinian problem…
So this is strategic thinking…
There are also deep ideological feelings there. In the book I talk about Obama’s “kishke issues” [Ed. Note: “Kishke” is a Yiddish word meaning kidneys and to ‘feel something in one’s kishkes’ means deeply or as a fundamental part of one’s identity] – Palestine is definitely a kishke issue; the Muslim world is a kishke issue; non-proliferation is a kishke issue; and reconciling with Iran is such an issue. Now all of these issues at some point intersect with us.
We’re on all those vectors. And if you follow the arc of his two terms, you see how deep-seated these issues are, how they haven’t changed. Towards the end of the book I talk about how one might expect experience, especially the experience of the Middle East in the last five years, to alter one’s thinking, and it was remarkable to me just how impervious that thinking was to change.
I have an article coming out in Foreign Policy – I’ve been dying to write this article for years – called “Obama and Islam”. It’s not anti-Obama – it’s an analytical/academic piece. I take Obama to be the third major western leader to reach out to Islam. The first was Napoleon in 1798, the second was [German Emperor] Wilhelm II in 1898, and then there’s Obama. So he believes there’s a thing called “the Muslim world”, which is actually an Islamic concept, and that you can address it and accommodate it. You can engage with it in dialogue, and you can reconcile with it. That’s the basis of the Cairo speech.
Five years later, after everything that’s happened, that approach hasn’t really changed…
One of the themes in the book is how when we encountered Barack Obama’s Administration we were encountering something Israel had never known before. It was a new type of challenge, and my advice to the PM was “let’s understand what we need to interact with here and figure out how to best deal with it.” And in the book I talk about what I recommended and what the PM did, which is not what I recommended for the most part.
Obviously, in the book you focus on the current Administration and the current President because these are the institutions you had to deal with. But thinking about it, knowing America so well, is it really personally President Obama, is it his party, is it a specific constituency with which Israel might have a future problem as well? How deep are these beliefs and what are the chances Israel is going to have to re-engage with such approaches in the future?
From my very first meeting with the Prime Minister, when I was a candidate to be Ambassador, the message I brought to him was “this is not the America you remember”; that more than the cause, Barack Obama was a symptom of the far-reaching transformations that had occurred in America in the years since many Israeli leaders studied there. I had a different experience. 2008 was the first year I lived the entire year in America since I made Aliya in the ’70s, or since I was a student at Princeton in the early ’80s.
So it seems we will not see the end of it when the Obama administration leaves.
Of course not… Obama was indicative of very deep-seated changes that had occurred in America, and I wasn’t surprised by his victory in 2012, which I predicted long in advance, not because I’m so prescient, but because I was looking around me…
But if this is not just the President, if it’s a process America is going through, maybe the days of the two principles – “no daylight” and “no surprises” – are just gone…
No. I think those two principles are in accord even with the changes in America. The whole thrust, the thesis, is that the US-Israel relationship is vital not only to the security of both countries, it’s vital to the stability, such as it is, of the Middle East, and to the world. That’s not going to change because America has a non-white majority. These are core interests that should not change, and it is crucial to restore these core principles.
You imply that every PM would have had the same problem with the Obama Administration. Do you really think it wouldn’t have been easier for a Prime Minister Herzog or a Prime Minister Livni?
I didn’t say the same problem. I said they would have had a problem. Yeah, they would have had a problem. I think the fact that the chemistry was as it was, as it is, between the two leaders didn’t help matters at all. Listen, this is not Yitzhak Rabin and Bill Clinton, and it’s not Sharon and Bush, or Olmert and Bush. It’s not. Strange enough, it’s closer to Ben Gurion and Eisenhower, or even Ben Gurion and Kennedy. People don’t necessarily have these historical perspectives, but there have been some very tense relations, though never so publicly and so persistently.
© Shmuel Rosner, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.