January 22nd, 2022

Reality Check

U.S.-Israel Alliance Won't Be Fixed Without Honesty

Jonathan Tobin

By Jonathan Tobin

Published June 19, 2015

The Obama administration isn't very happy about Michael Oren's new book.

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The revelations in the memoir by the former Israeli ambassador to the United States aren't particularly shocking for anyone who has been following the news since January 2009. President Obama came into office with some set ideas about creating daylight between Israel and the United States and has followed with more than six years of quarrels and public animosity.

As John Podhoretz writes about the book in the July/August issue of COMMENTARY,"The sheer unfriendliness of the administration is startlingly present on nearly every one of his memoir's 374 pages of text—and runs far deeper than the problematic relationship between the president and Oren's boss, Benjamin Netanyahu."

But though Oren, a respected historian and no right-wing ideologue, tempers his account with paeans to the goodwill of some figures in the administration and stops well short of attributing to Obama any ill wishes about Israel's survival, the reaction to his book from Washington has been furious.

That rage and the willingness of some Israeli politicians to kowtow to the pretense that everything is awesome between the Jewish state and Obama won't fix the problem that Oren has illustrated. To the contrary, if the relationship is to be repaired in the coming years, it will require the kind of honesty Oren has displayed.

The official position of the administration about Oren's book is that his account doesn't reflect reality and that he is nothing more than a politician who is seeking to sell books. State Department Spokesman Dan Kirby, who made a fool of himself on his first day on the job by trying to claim that Secretary of State John Kerry had not reversed himself on the conditions for an Iran deal, called the book "absolutely inaccurate and false" without actually contradicting a single fact in it.

Kerry and U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro similarly trashed Oren, claiming his account of Obama's hostility to Israel during last summer's war when the U.S. not only stopped arms shipments but also handed Hamas a victory by stopping American flights to Ben Gurion Airport was "imaginary."

Not satisfied with that, they demanded that Prime Minister Netanyahu disavow Oren's accounts of events. That Netanyahu refused to so even though Oren joined a different political party and didn't hesitate to criticize the prime minister, both in the book and in the campaign for the Knesset earlier this year, is very much to his credit.

Less honorable was the speed with which Oren's political ally, Kulanu Party head Moshe Kahlon, denounced the book and praised Obama. The same was true of Likud politician Gilad Erdan who rushed to attack Oren.

The motives for these denunciations are obvious. The president knows that the truth about his hostility to Israel is not only politically damaging but extremely ill timed. With the Iran nuclear agreement likely to be signed this summer, the administration wants to portray itself as a loyal friend to Israel in order to convince a skeptical Congress that this weak pact isn't a betrayal of the Jewish state.

On the other hand, unprincipled and opportunistic Israeli politicians like Kahlon and Erdan want to be viewed favorably in Washington because they think it gives them a leg up at home.

Is there an argument to be made for keeping quiet about the way Obama has sought, as Oren tells us, to downgrade the alliance? Might not Israel be better served by pretending that everything is okay while waiting and hoping for the election of a better ally next year? That's the instinct of many Israelis but they are mistaken. There may be times when silence is wise but given the nature of the threats to Israel and the extent of the damage done by Obama over the past years, now is the time for some truth.

The angry denials of tension by the Americans and the obsequious flattery of Obama by some Israelis might lead us to think that Oren is exaggerating things. But the former ambassador, whose even-handed account is highly critical of some decisions made by Netanyahu's government, merely wrote what everyone who follows the Middle East knows.

This administration came into office seeking to distance itself from Israel and has not missed an opportunity to ambush the Israelis and to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the direction of their foes.

There is also no secret about the fact that these efforts did nothing to advance the cause of peace or the interests of the U.S. or Israel. And that is why Oren's truth telling is so important at this moment in history.

Obama's hostility to Israel has deepened the conviction on the part of the Palestinians that they needn't compromise to make peace. Similarly, Iran has come to view the Obama administration as not only a soft touch in the nuclear negotiations but also not a stalwart ally to either Israel or the Arab nations that fear Tehran as much as Jerusalem does.

What has happened on Obama's watch has not merely created tension in the U.S.-Israel alliance, it has undermined the ability of the United States to be a force for stability or good in the Middle East.

Though, as Oren has made clear, the security relationship between the two countries remains strong, the perception that the U.S. no longer may have Israel's back at the United Nations or when it is under attack by terrorist foes like Hamas makes the already dim chances for peace even slimmer.

Obama may long, as he made clear in a recent speech, for a mythical Israel of the past but the more complex vibrant democracy that exists in reality is materially damaged by his efforts to isolate it.

Honesty about the problems he has created is the first step toward fixing them and re-establishing the united front between the two allies that is the prerequisite for stability in the Middle East.

That's a lesson that both American and Israeli politicians need to take to heart.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of Commentary magazine, in whose blog "Contentions" this first appeared.