I’ve been meaning to write a few posts on Israel over the last ten days because of a series of related developments tied to BDS, the Adelson-Netanyahu alliance and the broader issue of Israel’s and Zionism’s battle for hearts and minds around the world but also specifically on the slippery ground of American college campuses. But I was drawn to do so tonight because of the dramatic reappearance of Michael Oren, historian, former Israeli ambassador to the US and now a member of Benjamin Netanyahu’s rightist coalition, as an MK for the centrist/center-right Kulanu party.
I wrote about Oren last December and January after he announced he was running on the Kulanu slate. At the time, this was a significant development because it was a clear break with Netanyahu – not only in the sense of running on a separate party list but more specifically because he set out a basic and even fundamental critique of Netanyahu’s rule – one that was neglecting the centrality of the US-Israel alliance, allowing a bond which he described as having “an enormous, almost existential, significance for us” to be knocked about on the ordinary bumps and rocky roads of domestic politics and personality conflicts.
From his speech announcing his decision to join Kulanu …
“We must take our fate in our hands. I understand how critical our relationship with the United States is. It has enormous, almost existential, significance for us and we cannot lose that. There is no replacement for the U.S. as Israel’s most important ally. The U.S. is not just the source of aid for our security, such as Iron Dome, the U.S. is our partner when it comes to democratic principles and the willingness to protect our freedom. Today, more than ever, it is clear to everyone that Israel-U.S. relations are the foundation of any economic, security and diplomatic approach. It is our responsibility to strengthen those ties immediately.”
And then a bit later …
“The behavior over the last few days created the impression of a cynical political move, and it could hurt our attempts to act against Iran. It’s advisable to cancel the speech to Congress so as not to cause a rift with the American government. Much responsibility and reasoned political behavior are needed to guard interests in the White House.”
Welp, times change.
After the election I wondered what role Oren would play, not just going back into business with Netanyahu – this sort of turnabout and allying with enemies and freenemies is the most common thing in the world in Israeli politics. But how exactly would he find his place in a rejectionist government that seemed content to accelerate the process of diplomatic isolation and fracture with Washington which Oren himself had identified as something approaching an existential threat?
Well, turns out, he seems to be managing it pretty well.
Today he kicked off a round of a publicity for a new memoir of his time as ambassador, which at least in the publicity gloss seems to have one basic message: both leaders, Obama and Netanyahu, contributed to the deterioration of relations between the two governments. But only one leader damaged the US-Israel bond on purpose: President Obama.
Under the unsubtle and unlovely headline, ‘How Obama Abandoned Israel‘, Oren delivers a history of the years since 2009 in which errors or apparent provocations on Benjamin Netanyahu’s part are based on misunderstandings, poor timing, being undermined by bureaucrats in Israel and something that looks a lot like a lot of bad luck. He is well-meaning but unlucky and occasionally hapless. It’s President Obama who sets out as a matter of policy and design to degrade the bond intentionally and as a matter of considered policy.
If Oren believes it is critical for Israel to “take responsibility” and immediately strengthen ties with the White House, as a former ambassador and member of the current government, he’s picked a funny way to go about it.
I don’t think you can say it’s as simple as Oren singing a different tune now that he is an MK in Netanyahu’s coalition. He’s too subtle an operator for that. I don’t believe he is that craven. Indeed, a good bit of this book must have been written before the March election. But it’s impossible to look at Oren’s changed tune and not find some ample role for situational convenience.
Where things really get interesting and sad though is a part of Oren’s book that Chemi Shalev focuses on in this write up. Oren now says that one of Israel’s big problems in the United States is Jewish journalists who are so indifferent to their Jewish identity or so self-hating that they lead the charge against Israel in the American public square, in part for professional self-promotion. Publications like The New Yorker, The New York Times, The New York Review of Books come in for especial criticism as “Jewish-edited” publications which are nonetheless not friendly enough to Israel. Netanyahu himself plays a special role with antipathy for Netanyahu in particular becoming an analog for hatred of Jews in general. “The antagonism sparked by Netanyahu,” Oren writes, “resembled that traditionally triggered by Jews. We were always the ultimate Other – communists in the view of capitalists and capitalists in communist eyes, nationalists for the cosmopolitans and, for jingoists, the International Jew.” And to be clear, he’s talking about Jews who don’t like Netanyahu. So Jews don’t like Netanyahu for all the hideous and dark reasons gentiles have historically not liked Jews.
The whole thing descends to a parodic, almost Dolezalesque level of gobsmacking when Oren puts forward Leon Wieseltier as the exemplar of these self-hating, anti-Israel Jews who are consumed by antipathy for Benjamin Netanyahu. If you’re familiar with Leon, you get what I’m talking about. If you are not, if you’re reduced to arguing that Leon Wieseltier is bashing Israel or Netanyahu because of some inner conflicted Jewish identity torment or need to advance professionally you’ve not only lost the argument with a big swath of American Jewish opinion you’ve simply lost touch with reality. This isn’t to say Wieseltier is unassailable or some standard of American Jewish opinion. Not at all. In another context I’d have – and have had – all sorts of criticisms. But Wieseltier was a good bit of the intellectual ballast for thirty years at what has to be considered one of the most pro-Israel publications of prominence in the United States ever. Ever.
If he’s now your example of identity conflicted self-hating Jews bashing Israel out of some mix of professional self-advancement and crypto anti-Semitism, you’ve gone from dialog and engagement, even heated engagement, with your American Jewish brethren to a sort of defensive crouch (let’s call it aggressive fetal) geared toward making yourself feel good but little else.
Winter 2014/2015 Michael Oren seemed to understand – whether out of electoral convenience or not – that the United States is the senior partner in this alliance. Simply crapping on the US President or American Jews, who despite not holding a candle to the numbers of Israel’s evangelical supporters, are still a not insignificant foothold of the alliance, accomplishes little. And Israel is the junior partner.