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Former Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren's Misconceived Memoir

Yishai Schwartz
Friday, July 24, 2015, 2:00 PM

Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide

By Michael Oren

RandomHouse (2015)

Reviewed by Yishai Schwartz

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide

By Michael Oren

RandomHouse (2015)

Reviewed by Yishai Schwartz

At the present moment, the only question worth asking about the Obama administration's Iran deal is whether it makes the world safer. Any other analysis represents the worst kind of parochialism. Eventually though, there will be time for other evaluations, including what the deal has done to the “unshakeable” bond between the United States of America and the State of Israel.

Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide, a memoir by Israel’s previous and until recently (i.e., until the appearance of this memoir) widely admired ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, may one day be an item of interest in those evaluations. Concern over an American rapprochement with Iran is one of the book’s major undercurrents. And Oren’s decision to accelerate the book's publication (“I also urged Random House to bring it out in June. … We’re at a crucial juncture now with the Iran issue”) as well as to market the book with a flurry of harsh, Iran-focused opinion pieces in the news media, has overshadowed pretty much everything else it contains.

In a sense, this framing decision is odd. A political memoir, covering an individual's own life and career, seems an ill-suited vehicle for criticism of particular, contemporary policy decisions—even momentous ones. At their best, memoirs are recollections, an account of one's life and times. Political memoirs by former senior government officials can have an important role to play in giving an account of the inside of decision-making that will be genuinely useful for later policymakers and historians. At their worst, of course, memoirs are merely exercises in narcissism, advertisements-for-myself—or, in the case of political memoirs, occasions for self-justication, self-pity, crocodile tears, score-settling, and sometimes the wholesale rewriting of history. But whatever else they might, or might not, be memoirs are about the past.

But in an era when persuasion on the basis of reasoned debate is passe, arguments aren’t so much analyzed as psychoanalyzed. This is depressing in general, but it is especially so in the case of Ally, given the current touchiness of American-Israeli relations. Oren’s roll-out of Ally played up the book's polemical elements—infuriating the Obama administration as well as a significant portion of the American Jewish establishment. This is unfortunate, especially given the book’s central thesis, that “preserving and strengthening [American-Israeli] unity is a supreme Israeli interest” and that when “making strategic choices, Israeli leaders must always take into account the impact of those choices on the United States.”

Even worse, this was also avoidable. As Israel’s ambassador, Oren often served as a unifying representative of a deeply divisive Israeli administration. He is an articulate, knowledgeable and astute observer of the Middle East, and his analysis of the upheaval engulfing his part of of the world is usually thoughtful and considered, if not always compelling. His personal story is actually quite inspiring. Prior to his ambassadorship, the New Jersey-born Oren was a respected historian and the best-selling author of definitive works on the 1967 Arab-Israeli “Six Day” war and the long history of American involvement in the Middle East. He recounts in the book how he came to scholarship; bullied as a child by the neighborhood antisemites and held back by learning disabilities, it was Oren’s published poetry that helped him escape remedial classes for Columbia and Princeton.

But that story can’t sustain a book. Worse, too often it’s smothered in cliche. Repeated comparisons of himself to Don Quixote feel stale, or worse, alarming after the fourth or fifth appearance. (Quixote? Really?) And the recurring story about how as a young visitor to Washington he shook Yitzchak Rabin’s hand and promised himself he would become Israel’s ambassador to the US is just a bit too trite. Oren rightfully points to the timing of his breakout bestseller Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, published just months after 9/11 as a major source of his success. But an extended digression where he blames the influence of Edward Said and his intellectual descendants for his inability to break into academia earlier feels like sour grapes. Said’s continuing impact is, of course, a real problem. But Orientalism is one of the American right’s favorite pinatas, and Oren’s condemnation (which doesn’t actually critique the work in a substantive way) reads more like a right-wing shibboleth than the critical statement of a scholar.

Ally’s most interesting moments come when Oren ruminates on his complicated blend of American and Israeli identities, and uses those as entry points into a broader political analysis. Over and over, Oren insists that that allegations of conflict are illusory: “One could be--in fact, should be--a Zionist as well as a patriotic American, because the two countries stood for identical ideals,” he writes. This a recurring theme, as when in the statement he makes, after being forced by American law to relinquish his US citizenship prior to becoming Israel’s ambassador: “The values I acquired as an American--the love of liberty, a dedication to equal rights, religious freedom, and democracy--were integral to my decision to move to Israel … my loyalties to the United States and the Jewish State are mutually validating.” American Zionists who read these statements want nothing more than to nod and cheer.

Interesting—but not necessarily compelling. It’s impossible to escape the reality that much of Ally is actually devoted to undermining this very thesis, and not necessarily wrongly. Writing about the Arab Spring, for example, Oren writes: “What Americans hailed as the start of a Middle Eastern march to freedom, Israelis feared was a crack in the regional order.” For Oren, this analytical debate is a product of deep differences in temperament and outlook. He writes further, “Israelis have difficulty understanding America’s missionizing zeal and the belief--hardwired into the nation’s identity--that the United States was created not only for its own good, but for all of humanity’s.” This is not just a difference in interpretation; it is a divergence in values. Then there are the physical facts of geography. As becomes clear again and again, Oren has firmly thrown his lot in on the Israeli side of this divide.

No doubt, Oren would dispute this characterization. It is not that Israel’s and America’s values diverge; it is that Americans (and particularly liberal Americans) have grown soft and have been blinded by those values. The Israelis, with their “tough neighborhood” cynicism have simply achieved the right balance of realism and idealism. Well, perhaps.

The book’s main problem is thus that it suffers from an identity crisis. Part memoir of the past and part contemporary political analysis, Ally whips back and forth between a personal reflection on the complexities of modern Jewish identity, on the one hand, and criticism of an American Middle East policy world that simply doesn't get it, on the other. But this combination of genres—personal stories plus political analysis—does not equal a political memoir. Or at least not a successful one.

A useful political memoir offers insight into the thinking of those who make decisions. When the author is himself a decision-maker, simply the act of self-revelation is itself a benefit. When the memoirist is an simply advisor, even if highly placed—such as an ambassador—rather than the "decider," a memoir's intellectual power still comes from the insider access, the intimate views of those other folks who truly are on center stage.

Unfortunately, Oren doesn’t—and didn’t—have this sort of relationship with the figures who matter most. He was never a member of Benjamin Netanyahu’s inner circle, and certainly never gained a particularly intimate perspective of Barack Obama or his senior advisers. Oren does deploy a handful of cute anecdotes with high-level presidential advisors, but there is rarely a sense that Oren enjoyed the sort of closeness, confidence or friendship that could produce truly revealing portraits of the people at the top. He offers judgments about interesting and important figures, including former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Ambassador Daniel Shapiro and Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg. But these portraits are thin, and the reader is never confident that Oren had the experience to truly back them up.

Oren-the-author, however, knows that a successful political memoir requires descriptions of decision-makers’ inner worlds, a reach into their minds, by an observer who, even if not one with a seat at the table, was privy to the inner debates and discussions. The memoirist has to offer an authenticity, a form of personal authority, that is more than that of a historian or journalist. He therefore does the only thing realistically available as a rhetorical move: he improvises. Which in this case means pursuing (what he himself describes, apologetically, as) “armchair psychoanalyzing.”

Now, many political memoirs are, at least in part, amateur psychoanalysis. They try to develop an “interior” understanding of individual leaders and their choices--but they generally do so (at least if they are successful) based on close personal relationships with their subjects that inform their psychological insights. So the warning sign here is “armchair.” Oren’s views and theories, both his policy views and psychologizing, are largely the product of close readings of public speeches and published biographies. Oren writes that his goal “was not merely to understand the origins of Obama’s policies, but to anticipate how they would shape the course of US-Israel relations.” Indeed, that’s many of his readers’ goal as well. It is why, in fact, they are reading a book by someone who had a front row seat to a piece of history and who made his career writing history based on previously unpublished records.

Against that expectation, Oren unfortunately comes up very short. “The excavation,” he writes, “took me to the two most authentic sources, the books he had written about himself.” It is these two books and President’s Obama’s Cairo speech (all sources that have been dissected and debated ad nauseum) that form the basis for much of Oren’s analysis. The handful of personal impressions gleaned from direct conversations are few and limited; and, in any case, they are meant to provide more flavor than substance.

Oren’s critics have seized (somewhat unfairly, but only somewhat) on one particular bit of this armchair psychological analysis, where he suggests that the President’s “rejection by not one but two Muslim father figures informed his outreach to Islam.” This is in equal parts, patronizing, cheap, and—there's no other word for it; psycho-history, today?) weird. It's not just Obama. Consider Oren's psychologizing with respect to other figures in the book--Benjamin Netanyahu, for starters. Of Netanyahu, he writes: “[His father’s] gloomy view of Jewish fate… the images of Masada, Auschwitz, and looming Jewish apocalypses permeated his speeches and even our private talks.” Or: “his brother, Yoni, the dashing Sayeret Matkal commander who lost his life rescuing Jewish hostages… would remain young, handsome and iconic [in ways]…Netanyahu could never reach.”

As a literary matter, the fact that Oren resorts to such banal tropes when describing Netanyahu is far more exasperating than even his bizarre etiology of Obama’s foreign policy (or his even stranger suggestion that “Obama had replicated his rearing by his dominant mother and grandmother by surrounding himself with powerful women.”) A foreign ambassador can perhaps be forgiven for lacking special insight into the American president and resorting to guesswork. But if he has no such knowledge of his own leader, what exactly is the point of writing a book?

Much of Oren’s time in Washington was spent trying to put out fires (or at least give the public appearance that the fires were mere candles) between the Obama administration and Netanyahu's Likud-led government. On Oren’s telling, the friction was primarily the result of the White House’s obsession with Israeli settlement-building and later, an overeagerness to cut a deal with Iran. The United States’ hardline on settlements (for instance, refusing to acknowledge distinctions between Jerusalem, the major blocs, and hilltops deep in Palestinian population centers) ensured a continuous clash and removed all American pressure from Palestinian President Abbas. The Obama administration's eagerness to conclude an agreement with Iran has magnified Iranian power and may have eliminated the opportunity to prevent it from gaining a nuclear capacity.

Many of these are fair criticisms. Some would make for decent opinion columns. And decades from now, when archives are opened, some might even make for good historical arguments. But tying them together in a memoir that is long on personal critique and short on inside knowledge is really just lame. Oren seems unaware that armchair psychoanalysis, particularly of contemporary political figures, based on supposed unconscious formations and motivations revealed by the analyst—fathers and brothers, mothers and grandmothers, and all that—is the crudest assertion of therapeutic authority, the superior authority of the analyst. As a mode of explanation, it elides rational policy argument: after all, explanations based on unconscious motives can’t be answered, because they can’t be falsified or proved wrong; but, on the other hand, they can’t be verified, either. In that case, the armchair psychologizing is not really about psychoanalytic insights, but instead about asserting authority that Oren doesn't and never had. Readers were never likely to buy this and, well, they didn’t.

So the anger that greeted the release of this volume was entirely predictable. It was likewise entirely predictable that a largely scoop-free memoir by a former foreign ambassador would have zero effect on the administration’s handling of the Iran negotiations (or the Congressional debate that now follows). Oren should have realized long before publication that the supposed benefits of this book—in terms of both his personal reputation and the larger American-Israeli special relationship—were non-existent, while the harms are substantial.

(Yishai Schwartz is an Associate Editor of Lawfare; he enters Yale Law School in 2015.)

Yishai Schwartz is a third-year student at Yale Law School. Previously, he was an associate editor at Lawfare and a reporter-researcher for The New Republic. He holds a BA from Yale in philosophy and religious studies.

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