On November 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, D.C., honoring then-Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. Those present had been certain the dinner would be canceled since Israel was under siege. But Oren graciously moved back and forth from the dinner table to the telephone to take calls from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the White House, and warmly toasted the special bond between Americans and Israelis.
Oren is well-positioned to appreciate this bond, since he is a son of both countries. An American by birth, he obtained a Ph.D. in history from Princeton. He moved to Israel as a young man, serving in the Israel Defense Forces before beginning a distinguished academic career and authoring several prize-winning histories of the Middle East.
With no political or diplomatic background, he was an unconventional pick to serve as Israel’s ambassador to the US during President Obama’s first term. But his thoughtfulness and attractiveness to American progressives made him highly regarded here. And 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.
Because the approaching June 30 deadline for a nuclear “deal” with Iran is to be followed by the congressional review it tried to prevent, the White House has regarded this week’s publication of Oren’s book about his tenure here with alarm. It fears that Oren’s account of Obama’s zeal to land an 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 actually 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, and he has had the temerity to say so in his book. Accordingly, the Obama team has moved with Corleone family-like purposefulness to knee-cap Oren, accusing him of “falsehoods” without actually 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. There was nothing nefarious about Oren’s article.
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. Given the monumental challenges facing the US in the Mideast, the administration should have better things to do than to wage war on Michael Oren.
This op-ed originally appeared in the Boston Herald.