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A Misunderstanding of Principles

What Michael Oren doesn’t get about our special relationship with Israel.


First, some full disclosure. I know and like Michael Oren. He’s a talented historian turned diplomat now turned politician — a triple transition that’s never easy to make, particularly if you want to keep your credibility intact.

During the years Oren spent in Washington as Israel’s ambassador, we met for periodic assessments, usually to lament the sad state of the U.S.-Israel relationship. Oren was always pretty discreet. No telling tales out of school. In our conversations, he went to considerable lengths to put the best face on a bad situation. Not surprisingly for a diplomat, he kept his frustrations pretty much under control.

And that’s why I was pretty surprised by the historian-turned-diplomat-turned-politician’s article in the Wall Street Journal in which Oren tries to explain the current dysfunction in the U.S.-Israeli relationship as 9 parts Obama’s doing and one part Bibi’s. To wit, he writes, “[I]n truth while neither leader monopolized mistakes, only one leader made them deliberately.” (Also important to mention: Oren also wrote a much-discussed article here at Foreign Policy.)

I’ve been pretty critical of the Obama administration’s approach to Israel both on style and substance. Obama has overreached on peacemaking, picked gratuitous fights with Israel he couldn’t win, and allowed his rhetoric (see: calling for a comprehensive settlements freeze) to go well beyond any real capacity to achieve it. At times, he’s allowed his own personal frustration with Netanyahu to pass for policy.

But surely the state of U.S. relations with Israel isn’t the result of one leader — indeed, you need two to tango. And having dealt personally with Netanyahu in his first incarnation as prime minister, I can attest that he’s hardly the ideal dance partner. He’s preternaturally suspicious, usually thinking short term and always about his own politics. And the fact that he and Obama don’t agree on much when it comes to the two biggest issues of the day — Iran and the Palestinians — virtually guarantees unending problems, tension, and conflict for which they both bear responsibility. Even with all of Obama’s deficits, to say that Bibi isn’t a big part of the problem — or represents only the minutest share of the problem — strains the bounds of credulity to the breaking point. Indeed, this view of the relationship is either just obtuse or willfully politically calculated.

Even harder to understand is Oren’s assertion that Obama abandoned the two core principles of the U.S.-Israeli alliance: the “no daylight” and “no surprises.” (The former meaning that there would be no public airing of discord and the latter is, well, self-explanatory.)

Having watched and participated in the U.S.-Israeli relationship for a good many years in both Democratic and Republican administrations, I’m not at all sure what U.S.-Israeli relationship Oren is referring to. Regardless of Obama’s imperfections when it comes to Israel, there’s a serious problem in charging that Obama has abandoned principles that only episodically characterized the relationship. And here’s why.

“No daylight”

Oren opines that the first principle of the U.S.-Israeli alliance that Obama has forsaken is that while both parties could disagree, they would not do so publicly. I admit there’s been far too much public bickering between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu governments.

But public discord has long been a prominent feature in the U.S.-Israeli relationship and probably always will be. Two countries that sit in very different places simply cannot see the world the same way nor should they be expected to do so. Obama and Netanyahu are heirs to a long line of presidents and prime ministers who have been quite vocal in speaking out against one another’s policies for all kinds of reasons: Eisenhower speaking against Israel’s Suez operation in 1956, Ford calling for a reassessment of U.S.-Israeli relations in 1975, Carter railing against Israeli settlements in 1978, Reagan protesting Israel’s attack against the Iraqi nuclear reactor; in 1981, Bush and Baker hammering Israel on settlements from 1989 on, and W. Bush administration calling on Israel to stop its attacks in Gaza in 2009. And the Israelis have given their fair share back, including Rabin, Begin, Sharon, and of course Netanyahu. Sometimes these public airings have been helpful, most often not. But there’s never been period in which they haven’t occurred — never.

“No surprises”

This second principle, closely related to the first, that Oren says Obama abandoned is the “no surprises” policy — which he really doesn’t define in his Wall Street Journal piece. And to be sure, the principle as it relates to this relationship is complicated. Presumably Oren is referring to the idea that the United States would coordinate its policy with Israel first and not take unannounced initiatives that undercut Israel’s positions, particularly on security.

And there have been times, particularly when Israel and the United States were cooperating on joint enterprises, that the United States went to great lengths to reassure Israel it would coordinate its positions in advance. During the Clinton administration we perfected this to an art form. I remember an impatient Saeb Erekat, then-chief Palestinian negotiator, during both the Wye and Camp David summits in 1998 and 2000, asking me why we hadn’t given the Palestinians our proposals, while knowing full well we were waiting for the Israelis to review and react first. But there were also many times when neither the United States nor Israel were in lockstep, including the 1982 Reagan peace initiative which surprised and dismayed Begin because he felt Reagan didn’t understand Israel’s position on the Palestinian problem, Israel’s entry into Beirut and the Palestinian refugee camps in 1982, and Baker’s speech on giving up the settlements to the AIPAC conference in 1989. Indeed, Baker to his credit felt strongly about not compromising U.S. credibility by retaining the capacity to act independently of the Israelis, particularly when there was an actual agreement possible, this one involving a peace conference in Madrid in 1991.

Based on this article alone, it’s clear that Michael Oren has major issues with President Obama. Fair enough. Have at it. But the “no daylight” and “no surprise” rules — broken as many times as they’ve been observed — aren’t the cause of the dysfunction in the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Instead they are symptoms of a much deeper malaise.

Simply put: When it comes to the two most pressing issues of the day — Iran and the peace process — President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu are separated by a Grand Canyon-like divide. And fired up by conviction, constrained by suspicion and mistrust, neither seems willing nor able to find a practical and durable way to manage them, or give one another the benefit of the doubt.

Under these circumstances, what can we realistically expect? Perhaps in a galaxy far, far away, on an advanced, more fully evolved planet, close allies would never try to willfully surprise or embarrass one another. And if they did, well, there’d be some kind of compelling justification, or exigent circumstance. But back here on planet earth, these things happen. Expect a lot more of it as long as Obama and Netanyahu are in charge.

Photo Credit: Donald Bowers/Getty Images Entertainment

Aaron David Miller, a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center, served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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