Michael Oren’s new book about his years as Israel’s ambassador to the United States will — accidentally for him — turn out to be a big boost to the nonviolent movement for justice in Israel/Palestine. I have read every word, and I hope it reaches the best-seller lists and stays there, as an inadvertent but accurate account of how Israel’s power elite truly thinks and acts. The book is an extraordinarily revealing look into the highest echelons of the Israeli government, and Oren’s own animosities have prompted him to tell more than he may have intended.
The book is called Ally, and subtitled My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide. A better subtitle would be How Israel’s Government Disrespects Americans, Particularly American Jews, But Is Still Ultra-Sensitive to Criticism.
First reports have already jumped on a couple of Oren’s more ludicrous assertions, such as that President Obama is too soft on “Muslims” because his two Muslim fathers abandoned him, and that American Jewish journalists are too hard on Israel because they are afraid of anti-Semitism if they don’t criticize it. But there are plenty more juicy cherries to be picked from this particular tree.
Let’s start with Oren’s clash with the late Bob Simon, the CBS reporter who stood out as genuine and honest amid the timid mediocrity of most television journalism. Simon, who died too young in a car crash earlier this year, is right at the top of Oren’s long enemies list.
Here’s what enraged Oren: Simon, an experienced, courageous newsman who had been captured by the Iraqis during the first Gulf War, started working on a 60 Minutes segment about how Christians were suffering under the long Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Oren went into action immediately, going straight to Jeffrey Fager, the chairman of CBS News. Oren writes, “Fager rebuffed any charges of bias, pointing out that the program [60 Minutes] had positively profiled the Israeli Air Force and Hadassah Hospital.” Right away, this is an interesting revelation, confirming the suspicions of many media-watchers that the mainstream U.S. press regularly does puff-pieces about Israel to ward off criticism.
But Bob Simon kept after the story. He interviewed Oren himself, which turned out to be a painful experience for the ambassador: “A veteran now of hundreds of interviews, many of them hostile, I was shocked by Simon’s venom.” Simon even had the temerity to ask Oren directly why Israel was trying to suppress the story. Oren is predictably outraged at the segment that finally is aired. He notes that Simon is Jewish, which seems to increase his animosity.
Oren’s efforts to muzzle the broadcast were not entirely unsuccessful. He revealed that part of his strategy had been to delay the broadcast until after the football season, when 60 Minutes, which follows the games on Sundays, would have a smaller audience. Simon’s report did not air until April 22, 2012.
The Bob Simon episode is just one example of two major themes in this memoir; Oren’s (and Israel’s) acute sensitivity to any criticism whatsoever, and his rage at American Jews who do not follow the party line. Oren got his marching orders from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu right from the start:
“I have three words of advice for you,” Netanyahu told me in one of our first meetings. “Media. Media. Media.”
And so Israel’s top leader, who is supposed to be preoccupied with his nation’s survival, seems to constantly be calling Oren by cellphone with unimportant PR demands. Oren stumbles with writer’s block on his op-ed articles and letters to the editor. “Netanyahu, his impatience oozing from the phone, upbraided me, ‘Suck it up and get writing.'” The prime minister is also not satisfied with Oren’s TV presence: “Netanyahu judged my initial television appearances as ‘bloodless.’ He was right.'”
In time, Oren gets better at the PR game. As the religious ultra-right in Israel grows, there are reports that “ultra-Orthodox men spat at female Israelis outside of Jerusalem.” An anonymous Obama administration official warned that Israel was becoming another theocratic Iran. Oren remembers, “Though off the record, the remark so incensed Netanyahu that he instructed me to phone congressional leaders and remind them that women have served as the chief justice of Israel’s Supreme Court, the Speaker of the Knesset, and the prime minister.”
Another time, Oren gets an urgent call from the prime minister’s office, ordering him to get to a secure diplomatic phone immediately. He interrupts his Thanksgiving, sprinting through the Macy’s parade to reach the Israeli consulate on the east side of Manhattan, to learn what the top secret big crisis is: the Palestinian Authority is applying for state status in the United Nations General Assembly. Oren is ordered to start calling U.S. Congressmen immediately to block the move. He heads back to Washington, and at 4 a.m. he and Netanyahu discuss the looming danger.
In this never-ending PR campaign, Oren complains he is regularly stabbed in the back by Bob Simon and many other American Jews. Our next installment will look more closely at his hostility and barely concealed contempt for them.