- - Tuesday, July 7, 2015



By Michael B. Oren

Random House, $30, 412 pages, illustrated

From the time 15-year-old New Jersey Youth Zionist Michael Bornstein shook the hand of Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel’s ambassador to the United States, in a Washington hotel room in 1970, it was his ambition to hold that post one day. Four decades later he did. His beguiling, surprisingly frank memoir not only gives us the reality of what achieving his dream entailed, but tells us what he went through in order to get there, starting with emigrating to Israel, Hebraizing his name and going on to be a paratrooper in its armed forces, seeing active service.

But if there were stars in his eyes when he set his goal, there were tears in them when he had to renounce his American citizenship, a requirement imposed on him by his native land but not by his adopted one, which would have been content for him, like his American-born wife and Sabra children, to retain his dual nationality. One of the most striking things about Michael Oren is his level of patriotism — for both nations. No nonsense about divided loyalties here: As Israel’s ambassador he served its interests passionately and steadfastly with consummate integrity. But as the son of a U.S. Army soldier in World War II and Korea active in veterans’ affairs, this Jewish American, who suffered anti-Semitic bullying when young, nonetheless imbibed a fierce lifelong love of his native land. So much so that his children laughed at the way he regularly choked up reciting Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. He made a point of visiting many military bases while he was in a diplomatic post here, a pleasure for him as well as a duty.

On becoming Israel’s envoy in Washington, Mr. Oren heard from all sides how unique his ambassadorship was, how special the relationship between Israel and the United States. So it is no surprise to read of the warm bipartisan welcome he received on Capitol Hill. It is shocking, then, to read of the difficulties he encountered with access to the top echelons of the executive branch, notably Foggy Bottom and the White House. With the security services, it was a different story: Here there was terrific cooperation. But it came at a price, pressure to accommodate the Obama administration’s vision of forging ahead with its peace process, despite the Netanyahu government’s reservations. As Mr. Oren dryly comments, “The problem with the ‘no daylight on security but daylight on diplomacy’ tactic was that, in the Middle East, it did not work. By illuminating the gaps in their political positions, the administration cast shadows over Israel’s deterrence power.”

Of course, the huge elephant in Mr. Oren’s diplomatic parlor, then as now, was Iran’s nuclear capabilities and the expanding daylight between Israeli and U.S. policy on reaching an agreement. His portrait of John Kerry, as senator and secretary of state, hell-bent on achieving agreements with Syria and the Palestinians no matter the consequences, will send shivers down readers’ spines as they contemplate his ardor to reach an agreement with hydra-headed Tehran.

Perhaps nowhere is Mr. Oren’s skill at diplomacy more admirably on display than in his portrait of Prime Minister Netanyahu, which is nuanced and very different from the all-too-frequent caricature of a stiff-necked ideologue. Anything but a clone of his boss — as he writes: “I gave him loyalty, honesty, and the advice he did not always relish hearing” — he nonetheless shared a number of his concerns yet witnessed him on many occasions bending in order to accommodate the Obama administration. Mr. Netanyahu comes across as surprisingly pragmatic when he had to be and it is clear that, despite their differences, he had his ambassador’s respect.

When it comes to President Obama, he too had Mr. Oren’s respect, and not just on account of the office he held. He was susceptible to the presidential charm and appreciative of his many practical aids to Israel, as well as his resounding rhetoric on the strength of Israeli-American ties. But this consummate diplomat was too acute not to see that there was something missing. At his final White House summit in 2013, he “heard Obama reassure Netanyahu, ‘If war comes, we’re with you, that’s what the American people want.’ The remark recalled the conclusion I reached back in 2009, that Obama’s position on Israel reflected his understanding of its place in American affections. Still, I found myself wishing that the president would say, just once, ‘We’re with you, because it’s the right thing to do.’ Or, ‘We’re with you, because that’s in America’s interest. We’re with you, because, because both strategically and morally, Israel is our ally.’ “

Aye, there’s the rub. In a book full of penetrating insights, this might just be the most telling. And like all such gems it is the product not only of Mr. Oren’s challenging ambassadorial tenure in Washington but of a life well lived as an Israeli and as an American, a combination which makes him one of the most uniquely qualified judges of this ever more crucial special relationship.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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