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Michael Oren's anti-Obama book tour is a bad sign for the US-Israel relationship

Michael Oren.
Michael Oren.
Donald Bowers/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador from 2009 to 2013 and now an Israeli lawmaker, has been a central figure in the US-Israel relationship and its hardships.

Oren is about to release a memoir on his time as ambassador, and in recent days has been issuing a series of interviews and public statements about how it all went so wrong. His telling is both simple and damaging: The Obama administration and liberal American Jews, bespoiled by ideology, are dead-set against Israel.

Oren has claimed Obama "deliberately" damaged US-Israel ties. The president's outreach to the Muslim world, Oren said, was a "failure" rooted in his academic background and "earlier ties to Indonesia and the Muslim villages of Kenya." American Jews have failed to use their powerful positions in the media to help Israel, and instead "fight their Jewish identity to lend credibility to their criticism of Israel."

Oren's insults do not stand alone. If you follow his logic, Oren's implication is that Israel cannot count on Obama or American Jews, so the once-broad foundations of the alliance are essentially lost. As he should know himself from his time as ambassador, this plays into and thus exacerbates one of the most dangerous trends facing Israel: the growing polarization in American politics toward Israel.

Oren's narrative: Israel can't trust Obama, or even American Jews

Obama netanyahu (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Obama with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

The thrust of Oren's op-eds and interviews is quite clear: Oren thinks the White House is irredeemably hostile to Israel, and that America's liberal Jewish majority doesn't really get Israel or its problems.

"From the moment he entered office, Mr. Obama promoted an agenda of championing the Palestinian cause and achieving a nuclear accord with Iran," Oren writes in the Wall Street Journal. "Such policies would have put him at odds with any Israeli leader. But Mr. Obama posed an even more fundamental challenge by abandoning the two core principles of Israel's alliance with America."

These principles are "no daylight," meaning no public disagreement between the US and Israel, and "no surprises," meaning the allies don't shock each other with policies that affect the other. The truth is that American and Israeli leaders have broken these "principles" any number of times, though Oren suggests only Obama has. Boaz Atzili, an Israel scholar at American University, called Oren's piece "full of historical misrepresentations." On the issue of "no daylight," Atzili wrote, Oren is "simply wrong."

Oren sees the Obama administration as unprecedentedly hostile to Israel as a direct extension of Obama's "worldview," a result of childhood experiences that supposedly left him secretly desperate to please Muslims.

"I could imagine how a child raised by a Christian mother might see himself as a natural bridge between her two Muslim husbands," Oren wrote in Foreign Policy. "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."

That Oren would criticize Obama is hardly surprising, though his psychoanalysis is both condescending and borders on an accusation of divided loyalty — something that is rightly regarded as off-limits among many Jews who know where such accusations can lead.

Oren seemed to write off American Jews as well.

"It's very difficult for American Jews to understand the Israeli experience," Oren said in a Jewish Journal interview. These sorts of Jews, "who haven't gone through that process of running to bomb shelters," don't appreciate that experience.

He extended this line of reasoning, somewhat awkwardly, to the White House itself, arguing that the Obama administration employs the wrong kinds of Jews. "There were discussions in the White House in which there were six Jews — 3 Americans and 3 Israelis, discussing a Palestinian state — and the only non-Jewish person in the room was the President or the Vice President," he said, according to Haaretz. But the non-Orthodox and the intermarried American Jews in the administration "have a hard time understanding the Israeli character."

In that sense, then, Oren sees American Jews in a somewhat similar light as he sees Obama: while less overtly hostile than the president, their fundamental worldview inclines them to take positions that don't serve Israel's interests.

The problem with Oren's arguments

Though there's been a lot of nastiness between the United States and Israel under the Obama and Netanyahu administrations, the relationship is still fundamentally solid. US defense aid to Israel continues apace. Pro-Israel resolutions pass Congress by overwhelming margins, and polls show that the American public is still overwhelmingly sympathetic to Israel's narrative of its conflict with the Palestinians.

The biggest threat to this state of affairs, in the long run, is American partisanship. In the past 30 years or so, while Democratic support for Israel has stayed about the same, Republicans have become far more pro-Israel.

gallup israel partisan (Gallup)

In itself, this should be fine for Israel. But Republicans have attempted to leverage that difference for short-term political gain, attempting to paint Democrats as anti-Israel and to force disagreements between the parties, as they did with their unprecedented invitation for Netanyahu to openly bash Obama's Iran negotiations before Congress. This forced Democrats to choose between showing loyalty to their president and showing support for Israel; many felt they had no choice but to skip the speech. In other words, Republicans sought to make the US-Israel relationship more partisan, and thus weaker, because they knew it would help them politically.

At the time, strangely enough, Oren recognized the damage Netanyahu's speech did. Now his story is that the disagreements are fundamental to who Obama and liberal Jews are as people.

This type of talk is understandably offensive to a lot of American Jews. They're some of the people most likely to be paying attention this conversation. And they're also, by the way, a group that is highly important for the degree to which this polarization plays out. So are pro-Israel Democrats, who are being pressured by things like Netanyahu's Congress speech and Oren's book to pick sides between Israel and their president. That's not a healthy choice for Israel to force on American politics.

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