don’t know that I’ve ever read a book quite as eye-opening as Michael Oren’s Ally, the bestselling historian’s stunning new memoir of his four years as Israel’s ambassador to the United States. For what Oren has written is an account of serving as a diplomat during a Cold War—the Cold War the Obama administration launched against Israel upon coming into office.
It turns out that, as bad as things looked between the Obamans and the Israelis from the outside, it was even worse on the inside. 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. Oren’s first meeting at the State Department with then–Deputy Secretary Jim Steinberg sets the tone: “He was a dedicated angler renowned for tying flies in his spare time. Fittingly, Steinberg’s attitude toward the Jewish state called to mind the old Israeli adage, ‘He loves us like a fisherman loves fish.’”
Oren is later verbally abused, and irrationally so, by another State Department official, Tom Nides, when Palestinian efforts to seek recognition of UN statehood threaten to trigger long-standing legislation passed by Congress to shut down Palestinian diplomatic and economic relations with the United States. “You don’t want the f—king UN to collapse because of your f—king conflict with the Palestinians, and you don’t want the f—king Palestinian Authority to fall apart either,” Nides rages at Oren.
Even the administration’s gestures of affection or acts of support were often loaded. Oren uses the Hebrew word for hug, chibbuk, to describe cynical efforts to “keep us close” and restrain Israeli freedom of action: “American contributions to the IDF’s missile defense, for example, diminished Israel’s case for striking Iranian nuclear plants preemptively, and generated more time for talks.”
His dealings with the elite media were likewise unpleasant. He called the New York Times editorial-page editor, Andrew Rosenthal, after the paper published an op-ed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in which Abbas effectively suggested the Arabs had accepted the UN Partition Plan of 1947. The conversation went thus:
“When I write for the Times, fact checkers examine every word I write,” I began. “Did anybody check that Abbas has his facts exactly backward?”
“That’s your opinion,” Rosenthal replied.
“I’m an historian, Andy, and there are opinions and there are facts. That the Arabs rejected partition and the Jews accepted it is an irrefutable fact.”
“In your view.”
“Tell me, on June 6, 1944, did Allied forces land or did they not land on Normandy Beach?”
Rosenthal…replied, “Some might say so.”
There are elements of Ally I found discomfiting—especially his frequent protestations about how much certain politicians and media types with whom he developed friendly personal relations care about Israel when they display no such care or concern in their public words or actions. (And I seriously doubt that the actor–director Ben Affleck has “a statesman’s knowledge of the Middle East, which he studied in college.”) Still, Ally makes it nerve-jangingly clear just how difficult a job it has been for anyone to serve as a guardian of the special relationship between Israel and the United States with a president and a team who are either by default or by ideology effectively hostile toward the Jewish state itself—or the very idea of a Jewish state.
Oren recounts how he himself fell for the Obama Romance in 2008. But this was before he understood the deep and profound coldness within Barack Obama, “a chill” that “distanced him from traditional American allies—not only Israel—whose ambassadors complained to me of the administration’s unprecedented aloofness. ‘Obama’s problem is not a tin ear,’ one of my European colleagues lamented, ‘it’s a tin heart.’”
But it is not his tin heart that has led Obama to engage in this Cold War with Israel. It is his tinpot ideology.