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Interview: Michael Oren

Friday, October 23, 2015| Permalink

by Yossi Klein Halevi

Michael Oren is the author of three New York Times bestsellers, including his latest book, Ally: My Journey Across the America-Israeli Divide, an account of his four years as Israel’s ambassador to Washington. Oren was interviewed by Yossi Klein Halevi, author of Like Dreamers, which won the Jewish Book Council’s 2013 Everett Foundation Award for Jewish Book of the Year.

YHK: In publishing Ally, an intimate portrayal of American-Israeli rela­tions, you’ve been accused of violating the discretion of a diplomat. Why did you write this book?

MO: I felt an urgent need to set the record straight and to tell Israel’s side of the story—especially during the time leading up to the Iran deal—and to remind readers about why the American-Israeli alliance matters. With all due respect to diplomatic niceties, this isn’t a time for Jews to be silent, even former diplomats. I wrote this book because I perceive a life-and-death threat to my country.

By the way, Hillary Clinton and former secretaries of defense Leon Panetta and Robert Gates all came out with memoirs shortly after concluding their terms, and those books also included strong criticism of Obama.

YHK: How do you feel about the way the book has been received?

MO: I learned what it means to go up against the Washington foreign policy establishment. Most of the critical reviews were written by peo­ple who are prominently portrayed in the book—a violation of journal­istic ethics. A campaign was launched, complete with talking points, to undermine my most basic credibility. I was accused of writing the book to make money, of describing meetings where I wasn’t present, and of “spinning” for the Israeli government. Seven Israeli agencies—including the IDF and the Mossad—vetted every line of the book. Not one of my critics took on its central arguments.

On the other hand, the positive response has been overwhelm­ing. None of my previous books seem to have touched readers the way this one has. This is my most personal book, and it’s the book I’m most proud of. I wrote 400 pages in 11 months. Parts of it were written during sleepless nights during last year’s Gaza War. There are five pages that deal with the relationship between American and Israeli Jews. Those pages took me over a month to write. They came from a place of deep caring and anguish. My hope was and remains that that section would initiate an honest discussion about how to restore a shared sense of peoplehood.

YHK: What’s your sense about the current relationship between Israe­lis and American Jews?

MO: The majority of Israelis and of American Jews have moved so far apart politically in recent years that the Israeli center is perceived as right-wing in America. I wrote an emphatically centrist book that talked about the need for a two-state solution, limiting settlements, affirming Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people that embraces Reform and Conservative Judaism. I talk about the need to reinforce bi-partisan­ship in American support for Israel and for Israel to reach out to diverse communities, which is what defined my term as ambassador. I reached out to the LGBT community, to Hispanics, to African Americans. I was the first Israeli ambassador to host Muslim American leaders for the Iftar, the break-fast meal during Ramadan.

It was deeply disturbing to me that the fateful issues I raised—the gulf between American and Israeli Jews, the transformation of America’s policies toward Israel, the existential threat of the Iranian deal—were largely ignored or derided by critics as a neo-con screed. That in itself says a great deal about the current state of discourse on Israel and Jewish peoplehood.

YHK: You’re a historian by training. What tools of the historian did to you bring to this book?

MO: My methodology for this book was the same as for my previous books. I created an extensive database which included timelines of U.S.-Israel, U.S.-Middle East, and American and Israeli politics, and as­sembled files of portraits of key individuals and analyses of the central issues. The narrative is multi-layered. A discussion of the peace process, for example, would refer to other events occurring at the same time, like a blizzard in Washington or the death of Michael Jackson. That concern for narrative is how I write history. When I wrote about the Six-Day War, I also wrote about what was happening at the same time in Vietnam and the ’60s revolution in America.

I also used the same methodology in analyzing individuals. For example, I ask: What was the impact of Netanyahu’s historian father on his son’s worldview? To my dismay, that same methodology, when applied to Obama, was condemned as inappropriate. But raising those questions is as essential for writing history as it is for diplomacy.

YHK: Did you keep a diary?

MO: Along with my classified notes, I kept a non-classified diary of impressions, and that’s what I drew on for Ally. I strove to preserve con­fidences and to spare people embarrassment. Needless to say, there’s a great deal that I could have written that I chose not to.

YHK: The Michael Oren of Ally tells a very different story about American-Israeli relations during the Obama era than the story told by Michael Oren the ambassador. How did you function with that dis­sonance?

MO: It exacted an immense emotional and even physical price. As I say in the book, paraphrasing a seventeenth-century English writer, the role of a diplomat is to lie for two countries. It came as a great relief to be able to tell at least part of the truth as I experienced it. The full story will only be told by future historians.

YHK: What’s next for you as a writer?

MO: The historian in me wants to write a three-volume book about the creation of Israel. The novelist in me has other projects in mind. But at the moment I’m engaged in legislation, as a member of Knesset, deal­ing with issues ranging from improved conditions for lone IDF soldiers to maintaining the balance between Israel’s Jewish and democratic character.

Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and a contributing editor of The New Republic. He is author of At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land and Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, winner of 2013 Everett Foundation Award for Jewish Book of the Year

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