On Nov. 15, 2012, just after Hamas had begun launching hundreds of rockets at Israeli civilians, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, hosted a dinner party in Washington, honoring then-Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. Those present had been certain the dinner would be canceled because Israel was under siege. But Oren moved back and forth from the dinner to the telephone to take calls from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the White House; he warmly toasted the special bond between Americans and Israelis. All of his skills were needed to work through a relationship between Obama and Netanyahu marked by serious tension.
Obama regards Netanyahu as an obstacle to peace. Netanyahu, like most Israelis, regards Obama as mired in something akin to an alternate universe when it comes to the Middle East, either unable to perceive the region’s realities or unwilling to adjust ideology to confront them.
The White House has regarded the publication of Oren’s book about his tenure here with alarm. It fears that Oren’s account of Obama’s zeal to land a nuclear agreement with Iran will reinforce concerns about the administration’s serial cave-ins to Iranian negotiating demands, and about the mounting evidence that a yawning gap exists between what the deal would mean, on one hand, and the White House’s claims about it, on the other.
Advance copies of Oren’s book, Ally: My Journey across the American-Israeli Divide, have sent administration spokesmen scurrying to denounce the mild-mannered Oren in vitriolic terms and to get others to do so. While crediting Obama where credit is due, Oren is pained by a White House slow to grasp the dangers posed by Islamist extremism in general, and Iran in particular. He has had the temerity to say so in his book. The Obama team has moved with Corleone family-like purposefulness to kneecap Oren, accusing him of “falsehoods” without identifying any.
Some of those enlisted to attack Oren, unable to refute anything contained in his book, have seized instead upon a recent article he wrote for Foreign Policy magazine. Openly stating that he was speculating, Oren wrote that he “could imagine” how Obama’s upbringing and education had helped shape his resistance to internalizing the reality of Islamist extremism. His critics professed to find this “insensitive” and “conspiratorial,” or worse.
This criticism is silly. Oren’s rumination about how Obama formed his worldview is standard fare for historians speculating about the way presidents’ outlooks are formed. It is no different than what historians by the dozens have done analyzing the roles played by Woodrow Wilson’s parents, or Richard Nixon’s harsh childhood, or Bill Clinton’s broken home, in shaping their presidencies.
The White House’s attacks have left the distinct impression it is grasping at straws to attempt to discredit a very serious book tackling troubling facts.
Jeff Robbins, a former U.S. delegate to the U.N. Human Rights Commission in the Clinton administration, is an attorney in Boston. This op-ed originally appeared in the Boston Herald.