Michael Oren, Israel's Ambassador to the United States, is a remarkably talented man. He is a distinguished historian, who has written the definitive non-military history of the Six-Day War and a work of cultural history on American attitudes to the Middle East. He is a compelling speaker, who has taught at both Yale and Harvard. His by-line virtually assures publication of any op-ed piece he writes, in the New York Times, Washington Post, or Wall Street Journal, and those pieces will be written by him, not an embassy staffer.
Oren also has a job that involves continuously tripping through various minefields. He must not appear to be highly critical of the current American administration, with which Israel must work on a hostof issues. His first concern is not to alienate the policymakers running Middle East policy on behalf of Israel's strongest and traditionally staunchest ally. Any publicity given to sharp policy differences between America and Israel works to Israel's disadvantage by convincing Israel's enemies that American support is waning, which can lead to a perception of Israeli weakness and growing vulnerability. Moreover, playing up those differences can only hurt the government the ambassador serves domestically: The issue of who can best maintain Israel's relationship with the United States is always near the top of the political debate in Israel.
At the same time, the Israeli Ambassador cannot afford to be seen as intervening heavy-handedly in American domestic politics. To do so could erode the largely bi-partisan support Israel enjoys in Congress. Nor can Israel ever afford to forget that just as it must deal with a Democratic administration today so might it find itself dealing with a Republican administration in two years.
Thus I was a bit surprised to receive an email from my brother, apparently culled from a synagogue discussion board, in which the author, wife of National Deputy Finance Chairman of the Democratic Party, described Ambassador Oren's speech at the Israeli Embassy's annual Rosh Hashanah reception as the "best stump speech for President Obama that I have heard from any world leader." She described Oren as invoking the president's name again and again, as he described his leadership of the global sanctions regime against Iran, his preservation of Israel's qualitative military edge, and success in bringing the parties back to the bargaining table to further the Middle East "peace process."
There is no way I can vouch for the accuracy of this account, as the speech was not widely reported in the media, but the bullet points quoted are quite detailed. And the picture they offer is in striking contrast to Oren's description of Israeli-American relations as at a nadir, widely quoted in the Israeli press, after Vice-Presiden Biden's ill-fated visit in March. (Oren denies having characterized Israeli-American relations in that fashion.) In an article commissioned and then spiked by Vanity Fair entitled "American Jews and President Obama," Edward Klein and Richard Cheshnoff, quote an unnamed source describing Oren as "shaken" after a State Department dressing-down the same day Secretary of State Clinton was reading Prime Minister Netanyahu the riot act for a planning commission decision to issue building permits adjacent to an existing Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem.
Some of the bullet points quoted in the email are highly questionable: for instance, the claim that Israel's qualitative military edge – allegedly ignored for eight years under President Bush – has been restored by President Obama. That must have been before the proposed $60 billion arms package for Saudi Arabia. And others are ambiguous – e.g., the statement that members of Joint Chiefs of Staff have visited Israel four times under President Obama, as opposed to none under President Bush. The significance of that figure all depends on what message the Joint Chiefs conveyed: Was it one of greater military cooperation or that Israel better not attack Iran? It makes a difference.
AMBASSADOR OREN was certainly right to offer fulsome praise to the Obama administration for securing U.N. sanctions against Iran, even if he privately believed they were too little and too late. Positive reinforcement never hurts, and it would clearly be counterproductive to publicly criticize the sanctions. But to describe President Obama as having "led the global effort to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon," omits as much as it reveals. Left out is the year wasted in a futile attempt to "engage" Iran, during which deadline after deadline was allowed to pass without response, despite the contemptuous rejections offered by Ahmadinejad at every juncture. That the engagement would yield nothing could have been easily predicted based on the five years Ahmadinejad had already played the Europeans for fools. If President Obama had either carrots or sticks that the Europeans had not previously waved before Ahmadinejad, they were never revealed.
The year of engagement was not just non-productive, but counterproductive. It permitted the Iranians to move ever closer to achieving a full nuclear weapons capacity. Moreover, the Obama administration's passivity convinced Ahmadinejad that he ultimately had nothing to fear from the Obama administration, certainly not militarily. Because of the policy of engagement that was in place, the administration reacted tepidly to the outbreak of widespread demonstrations in Iran, after the rigged elections of 2009, and did nothing to encourage the protestors or supplement their efforts, even though such regime change would be by far the least costly form of neutralizing Iranian nuclear development. Though the United States ultimately took the lead in securing the sanctions regime through the U.N. Security Council, and subsequently followed up with additional unilateral sanctions, the administration resisted calls from both the Europeans and the United States Congress for harsher, unilaterally imposed sanctions long before that.
Finally, when Secretary of Clinton spoke of the United States spreading its nuclear shield over Israel and other Gulf allies, she appeared to accept Iran's obtaining nuclear weapons as inevitable and to rule out any American military action to prevent it. Yet a nuclear Iran terrifies not just Israel but all the Sunni states in the short-run. The Europeans are aware of the not-so-distant threat posed to them by a radical Islamic state with a global agenda and lots of missiles capable of reaching Europe.
AMBASSADOR OREN'S praise of President Obama for getting the "peace process" back on track is consistent with the apparent view of the Netanyahu government that Israel's interests are served by playing along with the American fantasy that peace with the Palestinians is just around the corner. Nothing could be further from the truth.
But even if one were to assume that the chances of a final settlement agreement are high, Obama's emphasis on the settlement issue has effectively killed negotiations before they start, as the Washington Post's Jackson Diehl pointed out last week. By harping on Israeli settlements, most recently in his speech at the U.N., Obama has made it impossible for Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas not to condition negotiations on an extension of the previous ten-month settlement freeze (during which the PA sat on its hands and rejected all overtures to negotiate.) Once again the United States has thrown the onus on Israel rather than the Palestinians for the failure of talks to begin.
Aside from its mismanagement of the dynamics of negotiations, the Obama administration's Middle East policy has been marred by a series conceptual failures. The first of those misconceptions is that an Arab-Israeli peace is within grasp. Shortly after assuming office, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel told the ADL's Abe Foxman that the President viewed peace as attainable and fully intended to make it his issue. That optimism flew in the face of half a century of failure in Middle East diplomacy, and utterly refused to take into account a new factor that rendered success even less likely: the control of the Gaza Strip by an organization ideologically and theologically committed to the destruction of the State of Israel in any borders.
The President's optimism from the beginning could only be explained by the assumption that it could pressure Israel into huge territorial and security concessions, since no evidence existed that the Palestinians were softening their stance from that taken by Arafat at Camp David in 2000. The magnitude of the concessions sought from Israel was made clear by the administration's refusal to be bound by President George W. Bush's April 2004 letter, which spoke of new realities on the ground since 1967 and the creation of large settlement blocs. For the Obama administration, even the post-1967 Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem, in which several hundred thousand Jews live, are deemed settlements.
The all-purpose answer to Israeli security concerns offered by the Obama Middle East team is the presence of American and international peacekeepers, something which Israel has always opposed for many reasons – not the least of which being that such troops always prove useless, as they have done most recently in Lebanon.
The American peacemaking model continues to be predicated on an erroneous top-down model of signed agreements by Palestinian leaders. But until the Palestinian population has been prepared for peace and the renunciation of some of its most cherished claims, such an agreement cannot provide Israelis with any confidence in the end of hostilities that they seek. Nothing of the kind has taken place.
Incitement against Jews and Israel continues to be a staple of the official Palestinian media and textbooks. Over fifty percent of Palestinians continue to express their approval of the most murderous terror attacks against Jews. Moreover, the current crop of weak Palestinian leaders is no more likely to conclude a peace agreement, in the face of popular opposition, than was the far stronger Arafat at Camp David.
Driving the Obama administration's Middle East agenda to a larger degree than any previous administration is the erroneous assumption that the Palestinian-Israel conflict holds the key to solving all the region's other problems. That linkage cannot withstand scrutiny. For one thing, it fails to comprehend that the great threat from the region is radical Islam, and that for the Islamists Israel is only a secondary issue. Their battle, as they continuously proclaim, is with the entire West, and their goal is the imposition of Islamic law (Sharia) on the entire globe. The Israeli-Arab conflict has nothing to do with Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons, for instance, and its resolution would not slow that pursuit one iota.
Even on the scale of bloodletting, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ranks low in comparison to other conflicts in the region: the Iran-Iraq War, the Algerian civil war, Syria's brutal destruction of the Moslem Brotherhood in Homa; the Egyptian-Yemen war.
To date then, the Obama administration has not succeeded in making Israel any safer, and by making settlements the central issue in the peace process may have actually fueled the international delegitimization of Israel. Nervous articles are sprouting in the Israeli press about just what may be in store for Israel after the midterm elections, when the fear of alienating Jewish voters is less immediate.
That those such fears are not easily quelled has a lot to do with some of the rough moments in U.S.-Israel relations over the last two years – moments that suggest that the relationship is not as it was yesterday and the day before that: the President's Cairo speech in which he pointed to the Holocaust as the Jewish people's sole connection to the Land; Secretary of State Clinton's harridan rant at President Netanyahu, filled with orders to do this, do this, do this, or the United States will be forced to conclude that our interests are no longer congruent; the President's suggestion that failure to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict comes at the cost of American blood in Afghanistan; and decision to allow Israel's nuclear capacity to be placed on the international disarmament agenda.
So Ambassador Oren is right to express every drop of gratitude to theadministration coming to it, and perhaps a few more. He is right to present relations as on an even keel, and to express confidence in American good will towards Israel. But it is still a bit early for stump speeches for President Obama.