A new memoir shows why Israel is struggling to make its caseby Bronwen Maddox / July 16, 2015 / Leave a comment
Now read Bronwen Maddox’s interview with Silvan Shalom
If you stand on the Golan Heights and look down into Syria, listening to the sporadic crump of shellfire, you are looking at a crossroads in the jihadist battlefield. Coming up from the south is al Nusra Front, a group loosely affiliated with al Qaeda; in the hills towards Damascus (only half an hour’s drive away) are the forces of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and beyond them, a flank of Islamic State. In the farming villages below are scraps of the Free Syrian Army rebels (the ones that Britain and the United States sorely hoped at one point would dislodge Assad, but have rarely been on the ascendant). Round the corner to the west sits Hezbollah, keeping out of this fight for now. If you ask the question “Whose side are we on?” there is no palatable answer in the vista below; in search of anything that could contain Syria’s chaos, Britain and the US have performed almost a 180-degree turn in the past two years on the groups they hope might prevail. The only conceivable and clear answer is that we are on Israel’s side, though—a democracy whose essentially western values spring from deep ties in the US and Europe.
Then consider the way that the Islamist government of Hamas has chosen to run Gaza: not only supporting repeated rocket attacks against Israel, but attempting to impose conservative Islamic customs and declaring that homosexuality is punishable by death. Again, this is no repository of western values.
So why, the call from Israeli politicians and diplomats goes up, does so much of the western world criticise us, and champion the Palestinian cause instead? And why does even America not seem to understand us? Why, in Barack Obama, did it pick a President who has made the fixation of his second term the signing of a deal with Iran to curb—but not eliminate—its nuclear programme? These are the questions which Michael Oren has set himself in this memoir of his spell as Israel’s Ambassador to the US from 2009 to 2013. They are good questions because they go to the heart of Israel’s increasingly strained relations with countries that share its fundamental values.
Unfortunately, in a partisan and breathtakingly selective account, Oren (who was born in America but surrendered his US nationality on taking up the post) has not equipped himself to give answers that would be useful to either side. He has not written a diplomatic book, it is fair to say. It has caused waves for his criticism and “amateur psychoanalysis” of Obama, although less in its actual text than in his articles accompanying it; in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, he blamed Obama more than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who appointed him, for the “crisis” in US-Israel relations, saying that “while neither leader monopolised mistakes, only one leader made them deliberately.”
It is relevant that Oren has left the diplomatic service to enter Israeli politics in the Kulanu party, formed late last year. Combative, self-absorbed, fluent in his factual distortions, he purports to be on an exercise in furthering understanding but instead has delivered one in wilful incomprehension. Oren systematically brushes away powerful and growing criticism of Israel’s policies, above all of its constant expansion of settlements on the West Bank (territory it has occupied since the 1967 war) and in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as the capital of their state. Israel is right; everyone else is wrong, and if they’re European, probably anti-Semitic too. He affects an undiminishing bemusement about why the world does not understand Israel better. Asked on campuses “Why are Israel’s public relations so bad?” he answers, in effect, “Because we don’t shout loudly enough.”
That is a pity, because the questions he sets out to answer are immensely important, and his insights and experiences are often valuable despite the filter through which he presents them. He is indeed writing at a critical point; American attitudes to Israel are shifting, ticking by small gradations down the temperature scale, even if they’re still a long way from cool. Obama, however much loathed or distrusted by many in Israeli politics for his determination to take a tough line on settlements and his pursuit of the Iran deal, is unlikely to be a one-off, more like a forerunner of the detachment that is likely to grow as the US’s Hispanic population swells and its domestic politics reflect that complexity. Meanwhile, European Union countries are ever more vocal in their criticism of Israel’s settlement building and policies towards the Palestinians, and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) protest movement is gaining traction.
Most seriously for Israel’s government, Palestinians themselves have now found a course of unilateral action which may attract increasing international support, in applying to international organisations such as the International Criminal Court for recognition as a state. Coming fast up on the wings, audible particularly among younger Palestinians, is a new tactic capable of causing Israel serious trouble: the call to “give us the vote, if Israel will not give us a state.” If there is a single word that presents a threat to Israel, in the absence of a deal with the Palestinians, it is “apartheid”—the charge that Israel is denying civil rights to the Palestinians whose lives it controls. The parallels with South Africa are not very apt (as Israeli diplomats devote much time to asserting)—not least in that three decades of Middle Eastern diplomacy has been directed towards the goal of creating separate Jewish and Palestinian states, rather than a single, united population. Nor does the charge acknowledge Israel’s need to keep its own population safe, or the myriad difficulties of negotiating with Palestinian leaders. But the charge has force because of the truth within it that in this long conflict, Israel holds most of the cards.
Oren acknowledges the dilemma that it is now commonplace to note: that Israel has a choice between remaining a majority Jewish state, or a democratic one, in the sense of according civil rights to all the people in the land it controls. But he shrugs off the scale of international criticism of the settlements in the West Bank, which have made many governments sceptical that Israel is serious about a deal. “While the Land of Israel—including the West Bank—remained our birthright, sustaining it came at a rising international price,” he says. Although recounting his support for a two-state solution, he is firmly of the Israeli school that holds that it is wrong to talk of an “occupation” as the United Nations does, because you cannot “occupy” land that is by rights yours.
For an academic historian, as he was previously (best known for his bestseller Six Days of War) he engages in an astoundingly partial reading of history, particularly of the “special relationship” with the US. He quotes John Adams to claim that this stretches back two centuries; “I really wish the Jews in Judea an independent nation,” America’s second President said. Yet Oren conveniently ignores the times since the creation of Israel when US presidents have indeed been tough on the state. He does not choose to mention that Dwight Eisenhower forced Israel to pull back from the 1956 Suez operation; that Gerald Ford froze arms sales to push Israel out of the Sinai; that Jimmy Carter clashed with Prime Minister Menachem Begin over the 1978 Camp David summit; that Ronald Reagan appalled Israel by selling spy planes to Saudi Arabia; that George H W Bush blocked loan guarantees because of the West Bank settlement building; that Bill Clinton repeatedly criticised the settlements, as did George W Bush. This record confounds Oren’s assertion that Obama has introduced distance into a relationship whose founding principle was that there should be “no daylight” between the two countries.
He is also unfair in asserting that Obama “overnight altered more than 40 years of American policy,” in supporting negotiations with the Palestinians based on the 1967 border with mutually agreed “swaps” of land—parts now within Israel, in exchange for the retention of the main West Bank settlement blocks. This has been US policy since Clinton established it in 2000; George W Bush essentially repeated it. Obama did not, as Oren seems to imply, endorse reverting to the 1967 border without swaps.
He gives Israel all the compliments, in absurd national generalisations; “Whereas Americans always wished me ‘Have a nice day’ but did not always mean it, Israelis sometimes said ‘Shalom’—peace–and always did.” He comes close to saying that Americans were shallow enough to choose Obama only for his looks. “Americans prefer their presidents to be eloquent, attractive, and preferably strong-jawed. Such qualities, in the life-or-death stakes of Israel, are irrelevant,” adding that Israelis were “confused” that “Americans would choose [in Obama] a candidate lacking in any military, administrative or foreign policy experience.” There are grotesque omissions; a section beginning “that radiant moment was soon eclipsed by plumes of white phosphorous” is surely about to discuss Israel’s use of that chemical in responding to a barrage of rockets from Gaza in late 2008. The civilian casualties, with children burned to the bone by flying droplets of the burning chemical, produced world outrage, although Israel insisted it used it only as a smokescreen. Nope; that sentence proves to be merely a dollop of colour writing introducing some of his passing thoughts about Operation Cast Lead, as the military operation was called.
And his self-absorption is beyond reproduction; in what is essentially a relentless transcription of his diary, he is always centre stage, his own story fused with that of Israel’s. He marvels at how he became a paratrooper, then at his first bestseller (and his second). He tells us that “The post of Israel’s Ambassador to the United States is exceptionally senior” and that it requires “a gravitas born of the realisation that the Ambassador’s words might impact the lives of millions;” he notes, too, that, “A visiting Israeli Prime Minister, requiring maximum security, merits the third-largest motorcade in America [after the US President and the Pope].” When he presents his credentials to Obama, he demands that the President also receive his parents; told that protocol permitted only spouses and children, he said: “But those other ambassadors are not from a Jewishstate”, adding that “my parents deserved to be at the White House.” (Protocol gave way.) He says of 9/11, when he was told by phone of the attacks on the Twin Towers: “The trauma of that September 11 day would remain with me always.” Only you, Michael? If you excised the sentences in which he compliments himself or his family, the book would be shorter by a third.
Yet unattractive as his self-absorption is, it is not irrelevant. Grandiose but needy, constantly tugging at the sleeve of Uncle Sam and extravagantly boasting when that elicits even routine recognition—this is, unfortunately, the authentic tone of at least an occasional strand of Israel’s always-anxious diplomacy with America. His endless point-scoring makes for an exhausting read. But Israel’s relations with the world are fought often in a war of words, in which its ambassadors and embassy press officers (often highly-ranked foreign ministry officials) are the paratroopers. They just don’t normally lose their perspective on how they will be perceived as much as does Oren.
That aside, however, there at least three valuable points to draw from his account. The first is his description of how US attention to Israel has been waning. It might not seem that way from other countries, watching the steadiness with which both parties in both houses of Congress support Israel. But he charts the rise of criticism on campuses from the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and attributes the shift also to the changes in America itself. “Despite my frequent visits, I had not lived in the US for nearly two decades and found the country significantly altered. The mostly middle-class, white and Protestant-dominated society I remember had been largely replaced by a more financially-strapped, multiracial and religiously diverse population. Once right of centre, American now leaned leftward,” he says, adding, “Obama personified these changes.” He is right that changes within the US, and its strained finances, are bound to add to its detachment. As former Clinton advisor James Carville told him: “You all in Israel got to wake up—that till is empty.”
The second is his account of the Iran negotiations from Israel’s side. It is not illuminating on the key point that the world would like to know: how close did Israel come to launching an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities to delay the presumed progress towards weapons capability? He merely lists the three schools of thought within the US administration on a pre-emptive airstrike against Iran: better that Israel do it, although the US will have to mop up; better that the US does it, given that it will be drawn into the aftermath anyway; and the one that has been dominant throughout—better that the US makes no strike whatsoever and exerts immense pressure on Israel to do the same.
He is, too, somewhat unfair on the Obama team’s motives. He argues—as Netanyahu has done—that Obama is naive in treating Iranian leaders as rational and is throwing away the security of the region because he does not want to use force. The retort of the Obama team, though, would be that a perfect deal is not available, and that a constraint on the Iranian programme for a decade is a lot better than military strikes into the heart of a region already in flames. There is much to be said for both sides’ arguments; the deal on the table is hardly a reassuring one. But it is striking that Israel’s concerns in this have had less traction than you might expect them to have had a couple of decades ago—and they are hardly groundless. That is a measure of its new difficulty in getting its point across, and Oren’s frustration and surprise have some justification.
That brings us to the final interest in Oren’s book: its success in conveying both the strength of the sense of mission of many who live in Israel and their justifiable fears about its security. Many of the country’s diplomats struggle to explain these points to those sitting in safer, older countries. He acknowledges the discomfort that he feels when Israeli children have to go to Cyprus for a civil wedding, as Israel permits only those by a rabbi. But all the same, when he first flew from the US to work on a kibbutz, age 15, he wrote back to his parents “I know who I am and why I am here.” There are good answers to the campus question of why Israel’s public relations are so bad, although they are not the ones that Oren gives. One is that Israel is, in building additions to the settlements, defending what much of the world regards as indefensible. The problem is not the delivery but the message itself. That is not, of course, to say that the settlements are alone responsible for the hostility that Israel faces or even for the rise of the BDS movement. But they play far more of a part in the shift in European opinion in the past three or four decades, and that on American campuses, than Oren allows. Stopping building would remove a powerful driver of the BDS movement. Shouting more loudly about why Israel cannot stop building will not.
A second answer, though, is that there is indeed something wrong with an approach to diplomacy that regards it as a form of combat, where every slight, real or imagined, must meet with a harder fusillade in return. The truth of what Israel’s allies are trying to tell it will then never penetrate its politics. Israel undeniably has essential points to make, which tower over the details of diplomacy, from its right to security to its claim to share the essential values of the west. The cost of diplomacy like this is that they are lost in the crossfire.