I was careful to avoid the kerfuffle that Michael Oren’s newest book, Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide, raised among critics. I deliberately did not read any of the book reviews and made a promise to myself not to do so until I finished reading Ally. The day I completed the book the New York Times Book Review section arrived. Jacob Heilbrunn’s appraisal of Ally began on the front page and I felt compelled to read it and then say something about the book, that particular review and another related issue.
First my very succinct review of Ally; I liked it! I have actually enjoyed every book I have read that Oren has written. We are of the same generation and there is a certain reverberating circuit that his works trigger in me. I envy Michael Oren’s ability to articulate his thoughts and so clearly emote when he puts opinion and feelings on paper.
This particular book, Ally, is simply about his experiences as Israel’s ambassador to Washington, how he got there and what he dealt with in the job. Like it or not the title and meaning are clear, “My Journey” is right there on the cover. Most of what Oren writes is how many feel and feel for him. There is no doubt that Oren raises the ire of many when he is critical of some in Washington. You can feel his frustration and desire to explain life in Israel in a manner that fits with an American perception of the way things should be. Even as Oren is critical of President Obama, he simultaneously offers him praise though Oren’s critics seem to overlook the admiration. If you have any interest in the topic, and everyone should, I urge you to read Ally.
I find Heilbrunn’s review of Ally confusing. As the editor of the National Interest I am sure he is far more knowledgeable than I. After reading his review of Ally, though, I wonder if Heilbrunn understands the Middle East or even read the same book that I read. His worst criticism seems to be that Oren’s “personal odyssey exemplifies the shift from a liberal and secular Zionism to a more belligerent nationalism.” Sorry but this is a meaningless critique. If you live in Israel, or for that matter, just about anywhere in the Mid-East these days, liberal, secular and belligerent can reside quite comfortably in an individual. If you are well educated and have a vision of hope and peace for the future but someone is throwing stones, attacking you with knives, guns, cars, setting off bombs and shooting rockets at you and your family, belligerence is no contradiction to liberal and secular.
There are ways to understand the psychology and negotiate the soul of the Middle East, indeed even the simple business interactions there. When you enter the Souk the rules of negotiating include being liberal, secular and belligerent. Want to purchase something? Make an offer in a friendly way. Haggle the price with the shopkeeper as if you know exactly what the item is worth. Show your determination to be firm by walking away if the merchant does not budge. Odds are he will follow and you will be able to work out a reasonable offer.
Negotiations across cultures requires cultural competency an understanding of language, communication styles, psychology, even body language issues for deals to be properly agreed to. The lack of understanding of this point is a core issue of the “American-Israeli Divide.” The negative reviews of Ally simply miss this contention.
There is also a misunderstanding among those who do not appreciate the very serious reservations expressed about the Iran nuclear deal. Whether or not Ayatollah Ali Khamenei actually wants Iran to have a nuclear weapon to use indiscriminately or just wants to wipe Israel off the face of the earth, that regime has bargained like a Middle Eastern nation. The US and EU, China and Russia have for the most part not. Interestingly, only France very publicly and repeatedly threatened to walk away from the negotiations. The Iranians took note of that fact and played a very slow hand at the negotiating table. To those familiar with the psychology of negotiations, those familiar with the discipline of the Souk, we caved the Iranians got their price.
We remain allies. The US is committed to helping defend Israel. What many Americans do not understand is that Israelis are grateful for that but are rightfully concerned that once Iran has the sanctions removed it may have Hezbollah loose some of its 100,000 rockets aimed at Israel. This is not a nuclear threat but it has the potential to be an existential one.