Critic: Michael Oren shouldn’t have published his memoirs this soon

Historians in the News
tags: Netanyahu, Obama, Michael Oren



Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as deputy assistant to the president and deputy national-security adviser in the administration of President George W. Bush. He is the author, most recently, of Tested by Zion, published earlier this year by Cambridge University Press.

It was a political and historical anomaly for Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to dispatch the historian Michael Oren to Washington D.C. to represent him and his country in 2009. Oren was not a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party; he had no political involvement inside Israel; he had no foreign-policy or diplomatic experience; and he was not an intimate of the prime minister’s. In all these ways he differed from his predecessors. When Netanyahu first served as prime minister of Israel from 1996 to 1999, his ambassadors were Eliyahu Ben-Elissar and Zalman Shoval—both old hands of his Likud party and familiar diplomatic and political figures. Ben-Elissar had been chief of staff to Menachem Begin and then Israel’s ambassador to Egypt, and had chaired the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the Knesset. Shoval had been the country’s U.S. ambassador from 1990 to 1993. Later, Ariel Sharon sent his personal diplomatic adviser Daniel Ayalon to Washington; Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert, selected Sallai Meridor, a former chairman of the Jewish Agency and head of the World Zionist Organization. Today Netanyahu’s man in Washington is one of his closest advisers, Ron Dermer, who spent the first Obama term in an office 20 feet from Netanyahu’s.

Oren, by contrast, is a mildly right-of-center academic with a Ph.D. from Princeton whose politics, he rightly explains in his new memoir, were “difficult to pigeonhole.” An American from New Jersey who made aliyah when he was 17, Oren was known for his authorship of two excellent and well-received books, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East (2002) and Power, Faith, and Fantasy: The United States in the Middle East, 1776 to 2006, which came out in 2007.

Presumably Netanyahu decided not to send a Likudnik to Washington in 2009 because in the newly elected Congress, both houses had strong Democratic majorities and the new president was a liberal Democrat himself. The choice of Oren was a gesture and a hope: Dispatch an academic, an intellectual, who might develop better relationships with Democratic politicians in Congress, with Obama and his new team, with the liberals (many of them liberal Jews) in the media, and with the overwhelmingly liberal American Jewish community.

Oren has now told the tale of his four years in Washington in Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide.1 The first thing to say about the book is that it should not have been published—not before January 2017, that is. Oren writes about Netanyahu, Obama, and many other people who are still in power, and he writes about issues and problems over which they are still fighting. Revealing such matters while Netanyahu and Obama are still in office complicates their relationship. Doing so might have helped the commerical success of Oren’s book, but it is harmful to the prime minister for whom he worked and the interests of the country he was representing. To be sure, such conduct is not without precedent: Robert Gates, who (after succeeding Donald Rumsfeld in 2006) stayed on to serve Obama as secretary of defense for two-and-a-half years, until mid-2011, published his memoir, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, in January 2014. Obama then had three years left to serve as president. Presumably Gates did not feel his “duty” included keeping his mouth shut at least until his former boss and colleagues left office. Oren also felt no such obligation, and he is as wrong as Gates was. ...




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