In an op-ed published last week in the Wall Street Journal, former Ambassador of Israel to the United States Michael Oren accused President Barack Obama of abandoning two core principles of the United States-Israel alliance, and his follow-up days later in two other major American publications set off a cascade of reactions stateside and in Israel.
Oren wrote in his piece “How Obama Abandoned Israel” that Obama has forsaken the principles of “no daylight” and “no surprises.” He followed up with criticisms in the Los Angeles Times and Foreign Policy of the president’s approach to Iran and the Muslim world.
The American-born historian, who served as ambassador from 2009 to 2013 and was elected to the Knesset this spring, is promoting his new book Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide.
The publication is a rare move by an ambassador only recently relieved of his post. In a lengthy interview with David Horovitz of The Times of Israel, Oren said the timing of the release of the book was his choice; his publisher wanted to wait.
The op-eds and book publication prompted a response from Oren’s nominal boss, Moshe Kahlon, head of the Kulanu Party, who wrote to U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro last Wednesday to clarify that Oren’s book was written before the former ambassador joined the party. Kulanu was formed during this year’s Israeli election cycle and joined Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition in May.
“The moment I became aware of Dr. Oren’s recent article I summoned him immediately to my office and he made it clear that all that was written reflects his own personal views,” wrote Kahlon, Israel’s finance minister.
Shapiro, in an interview with Army Radio, called Oren’s version of events “imaginary.”
“[Oren] was an ambassador in the past, but he is now a politician and an author who wants to sell books,” said Shapiro. “I can say as an ambassador that sometimes ambassadors have a very limited view of the conversations between the leaders, and his description does not reflect the truth about what happened.”
His sentiments were echoed by John Kirby, State Department spokesperson, during the June 17 press briefing.
When asked Secretary of State John Kerry’s opinion of the op-ed, Kirby said, “And it’s the secretary’s view that [Oren’s] account, particularly the account of President Obama’s leadership in the U.S.-Israeli relationship, is absolutely inaccurate and false, and doesn’t reflect what actually happened in the past.”
But others believe Oren’s version of events.
Mark McNulty, communications director for the Republican Jewish Coalition, described Oren’s writing as a “very succinct, put together, well-researched sort of timeline of the Obama administration’s doing exactly what they said they wouldn’t do, which is put daylight between the United States and Israel.”
On the other end of the political spectrum, Steve Sheffey, a Democratic activist who frequently writes for the National Jewish Democratic Council’s blog, made his feelings known via social media, tweeting: “Real question is whether Harper Lee’s new book will bump Oren’s new book off the fiction bestseller list.
Sheffey, who at one time considered himself a fan of Oren both as an ambassador and author-historian, called Oren’s op-ed “dangerously misleading.”
“I was really surprised,” said Sheffey. “In his Wall Street Journal op-ed he said things that were demonstratively wrong, like two plus two equals five wrong. It’s amazing that he would sacrifice his reputation to say that.”
But McNulty contended that “anybody who’s saying they’re surprised by this is being completely disingenuous.”
Oren did say back in March, prior to the Israeli election, in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, “One of the principles of the U.S.-Israel relationship over the years has been ‘No surprises.’ And I did my best to pursue that principle,” referring to keeping the White House informed of the Israeli prime minister’s 2011 speech to Congress.
Oren’s assessment of Obama on the Foreign Policy website on June 19 — “I could imagine how a child raised by a Christian mother might see himself as a natural bridge between her two Muslim husbands. I could also speculate how that child’s abandonment by those men could lead him, many years later, to seek acceptance by their co-religionists,” wrote Oren — also earned the ire of the Anti-Defamation League.
“It is legitimate and appropriate for anyone to criticize the policies of this administration. Ambassador Oren’s essay, however, veers into the realm of conspiracy theories, and with an element of amateur psychoanalysis he links U.S. policies in the Middle East to the president’s personal history of having a Muslim father,” said Abraham H. Foxman, ADL national director, in a prepared statement. Foxman urged Oren “to walk back these unjustified attacks.”
Articles sprang up in major Israeli and American newspapers, both secular and Jewish.
Among the many politicos and pundits who weighed in was former congressman Mel Levine (D-Calif.), who defended Obama’s record on Israel in an op-ed published in The Jerusalem Post.
He offered a tit-for-tat rebuttal of Oren’s op-ed and concluded: “The former ambassador has a right to disagree with the president’s tactics, but to place the blame on President Obama distorts the facts, and presents a startlingly unfair rendition of the past seven years and conveniently ignores the history of the US-Israeli relationship throughout the years.”
Netanyahu, who was reportedly asked by Shapiro to disavow Oren’s comments on Obama, has no intention of addressing the fallout from Oren’s op-eds publicly. The Israeli embassy in the United States likewise said current Ambassador Ron Dermer was unavailable for comment.
Oren acknowledged the controversy Monday in a Facebook post and shared why he felt compelled to “explain [his] truth.”
“It is easiest and most simple to praise specific things and to hint at others, but on the eve of this very evil agreement with Iran, I chose to present the truth as I see it, sharply and unambiguous,” he wrote in Hebrew. “I see it as my responsibility and a continuation of my service [to Israel] and yes, I was aware, that this would lead to criticism even from very dear friends.”
Oren continued, “I hear the voices that say the timing is cynical or problematic, but after years of working and giving I think that it is clear beyond any doubt that the good of the country [is near to my heart]. As a historian, I know how important it is to present our narrative, the Israeli narrative, to the world in real time.”