Ex-ambassador Oren breaks down U.S.-Israel alliance

According to Michael Oren, the unofficial long-standing agreement between the United States and Israel had been one of “No daylight, no surprises.”

In the Barack Obama years, there have been too many surprises and too much daylight between the two nations, said Oren, who was in the Bay Area to talk about his time as Israel’s ambassador to the United States as recounted in his controversial new book, “Ally.”

Oren spoke about the strained bilateral relations during a June 30 appearance at Palo Alto’s Oshman Family JCC. The Commonwealth Club sponsored the event.

photo/commonwealth club-richard ressman Former Ambassador Michael Oren in Palo Alto on June 30

Best known as a historian of the 1967 Six-Day War, Oren accepted the ambassadorship in 2009, early in the Obama administration, and served nearly four years. He said one of his first tasks on the job was to “get inside Obama’s head” and better understand the new president’s geopolitics.

“I saw a president who put heavy emphasis on outreach to the Arab and Muslim world,” Oren told the JCC audience of several hundred, “and to international organizations like the United Nations. My role was to figure out who is this new [American] leadership and can we adapt to it?”

What he found, to his dismay, was an administration prepared to change that tradition of “no daylight, no surprises.”

One of the most egregious violations of the policy, he said, came when Obama demanded an Israeli settlement freeze not only in the West Bank but also in Jerusalem, including in neighborhoods long considered part of a unified city.

Oren said this announcement came with no forewarning, making it both a surprise and a public airing of differences — daylight — between the two allies.

The former ambassador stressed that the biggest continuing source of strain in bilateral relations centers on the looming deal with Iran and its nuclear program. Oren summed up the profound disagreement by noting the United States believes Iran to be rational. Israel does not.

“Iran poses an existential threat [to Israel] on many levels,” he said. “If Iran gets the bomb that creates a profoundly unstable nuclear neighborhood [in the Middle East]. Our margin for error on Iran is exactly zero.”

Since its release last month, “Ally” has come under fire from administration officials, who challenge Oren’s take on Obama’s commitment to Israel. In his presentation, Oren noted that in most respects the alliance remains strong — militarily, economically and culturally.

He also recounted how, at the White House Hanukkah party in 2010, he approached the president, personally asking for immediate American help in fighting a raging wildfire in Israel’s Mount Carmel area. Obama responded by saying, “Get Michael what he needs.”

A number of military firefighting planes, along with crews from as far away as Boise, Idaho, headed for Israel to help combat the forest fire, which might otherwise have swept into Haifa.

“Israel has no substitute for the United States as a reliable ally,” Oren said, “and the United States doesn’t have much alternative to us. So we have each other, and we have to work to replenish the relationship.”

During a Q&A period, Oren expanded on his views of the Iranian nuclear deal, saying if a deal Israel disapproves of is signed, the Jewish state “will have to recalculate” its strategic options. “Iran has proxies,” he added. “Hezbollah [in Lebanon] has 100,000 rockets, more than NATO.”

He also talked about his new job as Knesset member. Oren said that after living in Israel for 40 years, he thought he knew the country, but it wasn’t until entering Israel’s parliament that he fully grasped the diversity. “We are a flagrant democracy,” he said. “We’re not the ‘My distinguished colleague from South Carolina’ types.”

As for the controversy over his book, Oren remained sanguine.

“It came from a place of deep caring, deep concern,” he said. “It has ruffled feathers, but it started a conversation. We have to take measures now to address our divisions and re-establish trust.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.