Oren Gets Pushback in U.S. and Israel

Leading up to the release of his upcoming book, current Member of Knesset and former Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren has released a series of op-eds and excerpts attacking President Obama and claiming that he has intentionally damaged the U.S.-Israel relationship. Oren's allegations have immediately come under scrutiny, with a wide range of journalists, officials and even leaders from his own political party.

Dan Shapiro, the current U.S. ambassador to Israel, called Oren's criticism "an imaginary account," charging that the former ambassador is allowing his new position to cloud his views. JTA reports:

“I disagree with what [Oren] wrote,” Shapiro said in an interview in Hebrew with Army Radio on Wednesday morning. “He was an ambassador in the past, but he is now a politician and an author who wants to sell books. Sometimes an ambassador has a limited point of view into ongoing efforts. What he wrote does not reflect the truth.”

In the interview, Shapiro described the relationship between Netanyahu and Obama as “effective, and serving the interests of both countries, and even more than that – close.”

Shapiro said a meeting between Netanyahu and Obama at the White House is “is not so far away,” responding to a report the previous day in the Hebrew media, denied by both the Obama administration and the Prime Minister’s Office, that Obama had already extended an invitation to Netanyahu.

Moshe Kahlon, Israel's Finance Minister and the head of Oren's Kulanu Party, distanced himself from the former ambassador's comments, stating that they do not represent the views of his party. The Times of Israel reports:

In a letter to US ambassador Dan Shapiro, Kulanu party chief Moshe Kahlon apologizes to the White House for fellow party member Michael Oren — formerly Israeli envoy to the US — for his withering criticism of the Obama administration, Channel 2 reports.

“I distance myself from the statements made by Michael Oren,” Kahlon writes, according to Channel 2. “President Obama has greatly contributed to Israel’s security.”

Kahlon stresses that Oren’s criticism does not reflect his party’s stance, but is “only his personal opinion,” the TV report says.

Writing in JTA, Washington bureau chief Ron Kampeas asks if the type of relationship Oren seems to desire from the U.S. is even possible. Kampeas writes:

David Makovsky, a member of the U.S. State Department team that last year attempted to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace, said open disagreements and mutual surprises have characterized the relationship for decades.

He mentioned events starting from President Dwight Eisenhower’s threats to isolate Israel during the Suez war in 1956 through President George W. Bush’s endorsement in 2002 of Palestinian statehood, which caught Israelis by surprise. Makovsky also noted Israeli decisions that caught Americans off guard, such as the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 and Israel’s entry into Beirut during the 1982 Lebanon War.

“Aspirationally, there should be no surprises,” said Makovsky, who is now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East policy, a think tank regarded to have close ties to the U.S. and Israeli governments. “In all candor, this is not always the case on either side.”

Ilan Goldenberg, the chief of staff for the U.S. Middle East peace team until last year, said Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have made their grievances public.

He noted Netanyahu’s strategy of public lobbying against the emerging nuclear deal between Iran and the major powers. Obama favors the deal, and his administration officials have urged Netanyahu to make his disagreements known in a private setting.

“Obama has been willing to express disagreement more than previous presidents,” said Goldenberg, the director of the Middle East program at the Center for a New American Security. “But the big violator of no daylight now is Netanyahu, much more than Obama, even as Obama tries to reach out.”

Goldenberg also took issue with some of Oren’s examples. Oren wrote that Obama abrogated the “no surprises” principle “in his first meeting with Mr. Netanyahu, in May 2009, by abruptly demanding a settlement freeze and Israeli acceptance of the two-state solution.”

Those positions should not have taken Netanyahu by surprise, Goldenberg said: Two states had been a principle since the Clinton presidency, and freezes on settlement growth were the policies of U.S. administrations since almost immediately after the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel captured disputed territories.

“Saying ‘two states and 1967 lines with land swaps’ was unprecedented was dubious given 242 and the Clinton parameters,” Goldenberg said, referring to the 1967 U.N. Security Council resolution that called for Israel’s withdrawal from territories captured during the war.

Heather Hurlburt, a director at the liberal New America think tank, said she was taken aback by Oren’s insistence in the Op-Ed that Netanyahu’s offenses, including announcements of settlement building, were missteps, while Obama’s offenses were deliberate.

“Everything the Israeli side did that was damaging was accidental, but everything the Obama side did was a personal decision of Obama?” she asked incredulously.

In The Forward, editor-at-large J.J. Goldberg lists a number of ways that Oren, a former historian, misreads the history of the U.S.-Israel relationship. Goldberg writes:

Start with Bush: He did indeed promise to support the settlement blocs becoming Israel’s in a future agreement, but until there’s an agreement America still considers them occupied territory and deems construction there a hindrance. That’s been consistent.

Overall, U.S. policy on Israel’s borders has been unchanged since 1967. Successive administrations have called for a return to the pre-1967 armistice lines, with minor adjustments for security. The only major changes were the gradual American acceptance of Palestinian statehood, following King Hussein’s 1987 relinquishing of Jordan’s claim over the West Bank, and the addition of demography — meaning settlement blocs — alongside security as grounds for adjusting the lines. Both changes were first articulated by George W. Bush.

Also consistent are quarrels and surprises disrupting the relationship. The 1967-borders-with-adjustments principle was first spelled out by Richard Nixon’s secretary of state in the 1969 Rogers Plan . Sprung on Israel without warning, it was angrily rejected by then-prime minister Golda Meir. The principle was reiterated in the 1982 Reagan Plan , in which the revered Republican specified that “the general framework for our Middle East policy should follow the broad guidelines laid down by my predecessors” — including Jerusalem, whose “final status should be decided through negotiation.” This too was sprung on Israel and angrily rejected by then-prime minister Menachem Begin.

No daylight? Please. President Ford angrily declared a five-month “reassessment” of ties in March 1975, even suspending arms shipments. Jimmy Carter’s quarrels with Begin remain legendary. Reagan opened talks with the PLO at the end of his presidency, outraging Israel. George H.W. Bush’s presidency saw nonstop feuding.

Of course, as pro-Israel activist Steve Sheffey wrote yesterday, President Obama has proven, with concrete actions, that he remains one of Israel's closest allies. Sheffey writes,

The difference between President Obama and previous Republican presidents is that President Obama never used disagreements with Israel as an excuse to cut or even threaten to cut aid, military and intelligence cooperation, or loan guarantees...

No Republican president has a better record on Israel than President Obama. From record amounts of aid, to Iron Dome, to a perfect pro-Israel record at the U.N., to unprecedented military and intelligence cooperation, to building the international coalition that enabled sanctions that forced Iran to the negotiating table, President Obama's record on Israel speaks for itself.