Bibi’s man in D.C., still spin­ning for the boss

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Book re­view by Philip Gor­don

On Jan. 21, some of my Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil col­leagues started to ask about re­ports that Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu was plan­ning to speak to a joint meet­ing of Congress about the Iran nu­clear deal. This was un­likely to be true, I as­sured them — ru­mors about Is­raeli is­sues are hardly rare in Washington — and if “Bibi” were com­ing to town, I would have known about it, as I was the White House’s co­or­di­na­tor for the Mid­dle East and point per­son for Is­rael. Our re­la­tion­ship with our Is­raeli coun­ter­parts was so close and trans­par­ent that there was no way the prime min­is­ter would an­nounce a ma­jor speech to Congress with­out let­ting the White House know in ad­vance.

Or so I thought. I knew we were en­ter­ing new ter­ri­tory when I reached out to a se­nior Is­raeli of­fi­cial and got only a cryptic re­sponse: “It’s com­pli­cated.”

Com­pli­cated it is. My Is­raeli col­league was re­fer­ring to the events that led to Ne­tanyahu’s con­tro­ver­sial March 3 ad­dress to Congress, but the ad­jec­tive also nicely sum­ma­rizes the broader U.S.-Is­raeli re­la­tion­ship, the sub­ject of for­mer Is­raeli am­bas­sador Michael B. Oren’s sur­pris­ingly and mad­den­ingly par­tial book “Ally.” This unique part­ner­ship, based on shared history, com­mon val­ues, strate­gic in­ter­ests and do­mes­tic pol­i­tics, has be­come even more com­pli­cated in re­cent years as dif­fer­ences be­tween the two coun­tries have es­ca­lated.

Ne­tanyahu’s speech to Congress was a frontal as­sault on a sig­na­ture for­eign pol­icy ini­tia­tive of the U.S. pres­i­dent (who de­clined tomeet with the prime min­is­ter dur­ing his trip). It was fol­lowed in short or­der by sev­eral de­vel­op­ments that raised ten­sions fur­ther: sharp cri­tiques from U.S. of­fi­cials of Ne­tanyahu’s po­si­tions on both Iran and the Pales­tini­ans, elec­toral pledges by Ne­tanyahu to sup­port set­tle­ment ex­pan­sion and op­pose the cre­ation of a Pales­tinian state, the U.S. an­nounce­ment of a re­view of the Mid­dle East peace process in light of those com­ments, and grow­ing spec­u­la­tion about the fu­ture of a re­la­tion­ship in cri­sis. With Ne­tanyahu re­elected and now de­pen­dent on the sup­port of a nar­row, right-wing coali­tion, and Pres­i­dent Oba­main of­fice for another year and a half, it is prob­a­bly safe to as­sume we have not seen the last of the dif­fer­ences.

This is the con­text in which Oren’s book hits the shelves, and few are bet­ter placed than he to pro­vide a solid ac­count­ing of how we got here. U.S.-born and -raised, a re­spected his­to­rian who wrote a best­seller about Amer­ica’s role in the Mid­dle East, an Is­raeli citizen since 1979, a vet­eran of the Is­rael De­fense Forces, and Is­rael’s am­bas­sador to the United States from 2009 to 2013, Oren had a close-up view of many of the dra­matic events that led to the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion. For the six months in 2013 when my ser­vice in the White House over­lapped with his in the Is­raeli Em­bassy, I found him to be smart, pro­fes­sional, friendly and seem­ingly com­mit­ted to U.S.-Is­raeli re­la­tions.

The value of the book is that it re­flects a view gen­uinely held by many Is­raelis: that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, naively seek­ing to re­pair U.S. ties to the Mus­lim world and fail­ing to ap­pre­ci­ate Is­rael’s value to the United States, broke with decades of U.S. pol­icy to­ward the re­gion by sys­tem­at­i­cally sid­ing with the Pales­tini­ans and seek­ing a rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with Iran. The prob­lem with the book is that Oren’s main ar­gu­ment is a car­i­ca­ture, bol­stered by ex­ag­ger­a­tions and dis­tor­tions that will prob­a­bly con­trib­ute to the de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of the very re­la­tion­ship the au­thor pur­ports to cher­ish.

Take, for ex­am­ple, Oren’s con­tention that by pub­licly air­ing dif­fer­ences with Is­rael, Obama broke with a long-stand­ing prin­ci­ple that there should never be “day­light” in the re­la­tion­ship. Re­ally? To take just a few ex­am­ples, Dwight Eisen­hower slammed Is­rael for the 1956 Suez op­er­a­tion and forced it into a hu­mil­i­at­ing re­treat; Gerald Ford froze arms de­liv­er­ies and an­nounced a re­assess­ment of the re­la­tion­ship as a way of press­ing Is­rael to with­draw from the Si­nai; Jimmy Carter clashed re­peat­edly with Prime Min­is­ter Me­nachem Be­gin be­fore, dur­ing and af­ter the 1978Cam­pDavid sum­mit. Ron­ald Rea­gan de­nounced Is­rael’s strike on the Osirak nu­clear re­ac­tor in Iraq and en­raged Jerusalem by selling sur­veil­lance planes to Saudi Ara­bia; Ge­orge H.W. Bush blocked loan guar­an­tees to Is­rael over set­tle­ments; Bill Clin­ton clashed pub­licly with Is­rael over the size of pro­posed West Bank with­drawals; Ge­orge W. Bush called for a set­tle­ment freeze in the 2002 road map for peace and af­ter­ward re­peat­edly crit­i­cized Is­rael for con­struc­tion in the West Bank. In other words, Oren has a point — ex­cept in the case of vir­tu­ally ev­ery Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tion since Is­rael’s found­ing.

Or take the no­tion that Obama’s pol­icy of sup­port­ing ter­ri­to­rial ne­go­ti­a­tions based on the 1967 lines, with mu­tu­ally agreed swaps, “overnight al­tered more than forty years of Amer­i­can pol­icy” and con­sti­tuted a U.S. endorsement of “the Pales­tinian po­si­tion.” Again, re­ally? Since the “Clin­ton pa­ram­e­ters” in 2000, U.S. pol­icy has been that the vast ma­jor­ity of the West Bank should form the ba­sis of an in­de­pen­dent Pales­tinian state, with ma­jor set­tle­ment blocks in­cor­po­rated into Is­rael and ter­ri­to­rial swaps to com­pen­sate the Pales­tini­ans. Ge­orge W. Bush es­sen­tially sup­ported the same thing, with a fi­nal sta­tus agree­ment to be achieved in ac­cor­dance with U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil Res­o­lu­tions 242 and 338 (which call for Is­raeli with­drawal from ter­ri­to­ries oc­cu­pied in 1967) and “mu­tu­ally agreed changes that re­flect [de­mo­graphic] re­al­i­ties,” as Bush put it in a 2004 let­ter to Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ariel Sharon. And Obama’s po­si­tion? “The borders of Is­rael and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines, with mu­tu­ally agreed swaps,” he said on May 19, 2011, not­ing a few­days later, in case it wasn’t clear, that “Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans will ne­go­ti­ate a bor­der that is dif­fer­ent than the one that ex­isted on June 4, 1967.” Only by re­peat­edly and mis­lead­ingly sug­gest­ing that Obama is ask­ing Is­rael to re­vert to 1967 lines with­out ad­just­ments can Oren main­tain his the­sis about abruptly de­part­ing from the past, “aban­don­ing Is­rael” or “en­dors­ing the Pales­tinian po­si­tion.”

Oren sim­i­larly ad­vances the nar­ra­tive — shared by Ne­tanyahu and, to be fair, by many other Is­raelis— that Obama is naive about Iran and in the process of ne­go­ti­at­ing a bad nu­clear deal be­cause he is un­com­fort­able with the use of force and de­ter­mined to pur­sue rap­proche­ment with Tehran. These ex­pla­na­tions for Obama’s poli­cies are pre­ferred to the sim­pler no­tion that an Amer­i­can pres­i­dent has other rea­sons to fa­vor a diplo­matic agree­ment that con­strains the Ira­nian nu­clear pro­gram rather than mil­i­tary strikes that would tem­po­rar­ily set it back, and that merely call­ing for a bet­ter deal does not suf­fice to pro­duce one. Ques­tion­ing Obama’s view of Iran as a ra­tio­nal, if ne­far­i­ous, ac­tor, Oren sees the Ira­nian regime as a mes­sianic, apoc­a­lyp­tic cult that will some­how aban­don its nu­clear pro­gram and trans­form its for­eign pol­icy if only eco­nomic sanc­tions are tight­ened.

He ap­prov­ingly quotes for­mer de­fense min­is­ter Ehud Barak’s claim to U.S. of­fi­cials that “one night of strate­gic bomb­ing will re­store all your lost pres­tige in the Mid­dle East,” not re­al­iz­ing how sim­i­lar that claim might sound to Ne­tanyahu’s “guar­an­tee” to Congress a decade ear­lier that in­vad­ing Iraq would have “enor­mous pos­i­tive re­ver­ber­a­tions on the re­gion.” Maybe Obama is not in fact bank­ing on a his­toric rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with Iran but is in­stead sim­ply no more ea­ger to use force to solve the prob­lem than was his pre­de­ces­sor, who re­luc­tantly tol­er­ated the emer­gence of an Ira­nian cen­trifuge ca­pac­ity and be­gan the in­ter­na­tional ne­go­ti­a­tions process, yet was rarely ac­cused of be­ing soft.

By mis­char­ac­ter­iz­ing im­por­tant as­pects of U.S. pol­icy and at­tribut­ing cri­tiques of Is­raeli pol­icy to any­thing from Obama’s up­bring­ing and ed­u­ca­tion to Jewish Amer­i­can jour­nal­ists seek­ing to en­hance their ca­reers, boost rat­ings or heal some deep psy­cho­log­i­cal wounds — that is, to any­thing but Is­raeli pol­icy it­self — Oren’s ac­count will pro­vide plenty of fod­der for those who want to blame Obama for U.S.-Is­raeli ten­sions. What it won’t do is help Is­raelis or Amer­i­cans fig­ure out how they are go­ing to deal with the dif­fi­cult prob­lems the two coun­tries should be tack­ling to­gether.

Since leav­ing of­fice, Oren has be­come a politi­cian, suc­cess­fully run­ning for the Knes set as amem­berof a party that split from Ne­tanyahu’s Likud. And he re­cently sup­ple­mented the book’s launch with a se­ries of blis­ter­ing op-eds and in­ter­views, re­plete with pop psy­chol­ogy and lev­el­ing the out­landish charge that Obama made “de­lib­er­ate mis­takes” to dam­age U.S.-Is­raeli re­la­tions — a no­tion not just oxy­moronic but in­con­sis­tent with the story and anal­y­sis in the book. Oren is an Is­raeli na­tion­al­ist, was a loyal ser­vant of Ne­tanyahu for four years, and now has votes to win and a pol­icy agenda to ad­vance. So maybe it was un­re­al­is­tic to imag­ine that he would use his book to re­in­force his po­si­tion as a bridge be­tween the two coun­tries he loves, rather than to ped­dle a false nar­ra­tive of Amer­i­can aban­don­ment of Is­rael. But it is dis­ap­point­ing nonethe­less.

POOL PHOTO BY AN­DREW HARRER VIA GETTY IM­AGES

Is­raeli PrimeMin­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu has a strained re­la­tion­ship with the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

ALLY My Jour­ney Across the Amer­i­canIs­raeli Di­vide By Michael B. Oren Ran­dom House. 412 pp. $30

AN­DREW HARRER/BLOOMBERG

PrimeMin­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu speaks to a joint meet­ing of Congress in March. In the con­tro­ver­sial ad­dress, he crit­i­cized an emerg­ing nu­clear deal with Iran.

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