Reaching for the Truth

All of us can, at most, “Strive for Truth” [It’s a borrowed title], and so I appreciate Rabbi Shafran’s clarification of his position. And to the best of my recollection, there hasn’t been a back & forth discussion/argument of this nature on Cross-Currents in over a decade, much as different authors often disagree. The more one reads Cross-Currents, the more the reader recognizes that the Orthodox are hardly the monolith they are often portrayed to be; a debate of this nature just makes this as explicit as possible, and thus where Rabbi Shafran and I emphatically agree is that this is a positive dialog for several reasons.

I see no reason to depart from Rabbi Shafran’s enumeration of my points, and I’ll let people respond to both articles in the comments below.

1) My point was that there seemed no need for Rabbi Shafran to wander down this road, especially considering the tenuous ground upon which his arguments stand. What is the purpose of demonizing Oren? Instead of being a brilliant historian and dedicated public servant, all of a sudden he’s a right-wing nut job attacking Obama just to sell books, and Kafui Tov for not recognizing how wonderful Obama really is. Really?

Oren’s not a right-winger, he’s not a Netanyahu crony, and he only confirmed what those of us who have followed the news reports carefully have seen for years. As Rabbi Shafran conceded, the egregious omission of Israel in the countries rushing to provide aid to Haiti — that and that alone — disturbed him greatly, and “seemed to contradict” his “positive judgment of Mr. Obama’s regard for Israel.”

As described by Oren’s close friend, Yossi Klein Halevi, Oren had a good reason to release this book now:

Michael Oren is one of the most selfless public servants of the Jewish people I’ve been privileged to know. And he wrote “Ally” for one overriding reason: to challenge Obama on Iran. That’s why he timed its release just before the deadline for concluding the Iranian negotiations. His explicit intention was to call into question the credibility of the President of the United States when he repeatedly declares that he has Israel’s back. Not because Michael believes that President Obama hates Israel or wishes us harm, but because Michael believes – as do I – that the President’s Iranian policy is placing Israel under existential threat. “Ally” is Michael’s cry of alarm – the culmination of a commitment that we began together in 2006, when we co-authored an article for the New Republic warning against American complacency toward a nuclearizing Iran.

2) It’s clear that Rabbi Shafran did not understand what Oren said. The quote, in context, reads “The first principle was ‘no daylight.’ The U.S. and Israel always could disagree but never openly. Doing so would encourage common enemies and render Israel vulnerable.” It is extremely well-known that the United States disapproved of the expansion of settlements, and said so. Could Michael Oren, familiar as he was with the history of the US-Israel relationship, have intended to say that all of Reagan, Bush I, Clinton and Bush II had never publicly disagreed with Israel at all? No.

What was Oren actually saying? That Obama made it a policy. Instead of highlighting the firm partnership between the US and Israel, he highlighted the disagreements — as he said he would do in his 2009 speech. That is what Oren was talking about, and it remains unrebutted.

3) I do not understand Rabbi Shafran’s claim that the change and tenor “is Mr. Oren’s judgment only.” The Bush letter acknowledged that Israel would not leave the entirety of the West Bank: “it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” The unwritten subtext approved Israel building in existing Jewish neighborhoods and settlements. Having been approved by both the House and Senate (including the votes of Sen. H. Clinton and Rep. R. Emanuel), it was a firm pledge from the United States to Israel.

Sorry, but Rabbi Shafran can’t have it both ways. If he wants to claim that there was no shift, then why did Obama need to disavow the letter? Why was an assurance from the House, Senate and previous President null and void, if nothing had changed? The very fact that the letter was set aside is clear proof otherwise. And if this had precedent, neither Rabbi Shafran nor any of Oren’s other critics have shown us where. [What Obama did was set a precedent, relevant to its relationships with all other countries: the commitment of one administration, though backed by both houses of Congress, can be dropped by the next without a backwards glance. The United States feels no obligation to keep its word.]

Further, Rabbi Shafran claims that “Mr. Obama has never addressed his position on the ultimate status of any settlements, opting instead to leave all such things to any negotiations between Israel and the PA.” But this, too, is incorrect. What Obama did was adopt the Palestinian negotiating position as US policy.

From page 208 of the book: “the capstone [of Obama’s new plan] would be recognition of the 1967 lines as the basis for peace. This, the president would likely say, would merely express the obvious and reiterate long-standing US policy. In reality, though, America’s embrace of the 1967 lines would undermine the Terms of Reference so fastidiously forged by Hillary Clinton. That TOR talked of ‘the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines’ – that is, not the Israeli or American goal. Endorsing those borders, even with mutually agreed land swaps, meant granting an immense concession to the Palestinians while they refused to even enter peace talks. It meant tying those talks to lines that, in broad areas in and around Jerusalem and along the Jordan Valley, no longer existed… Instead of taking Abbas to task for not negotiating and for opposing construction in neighborhoods Israel would ultimately retain, the administration rewarded him.”

There is an account earlier in the book which shows how Obama’s new attitude played out in real life — both towards Israel, and towards the Bush promise.

Ramat Shlomo is a (charedi) neighborhood on the northern edge of Jerusalem, and unquestionably one of those neighborhoods included in Bush’s letter as part of Israel. It is slightly to the northwest of Ramat Eshkol, and as much a part of Jerusalem. In 2010, as Joe Biden came to Israel, the Interior Ministry approved a plan to build 1600 new housing units. The plot of land being developed lies in between Ramat Shlomo and the green line, between HaRav Rephael Toledano Street and Yigal Yadin (Route 1). An you can see from the map, this simply develops a small tract of land that links Ramat Shlomo to the rest of Jerusalem.

In “Ally,” Oren describes how he and everyone else in the administration was as surprised as the Americans, when a Ministry bureaucrat approved the permits for these new units. From pp 137-139:

Finally, close to two a.m., Ron Dermer and I ran with a handwritten draft to the hotel lobby where [US Ambassador to Israel] Dan Shapiro waited peevishly. He visibly brightened, though, when he read our assurances. We typed them up in the business center and went upstairs for a few hours sleep.

The air itself felt supercharged the following day as the vice president rose to the Tel Aviv University podium. He spoke about feeling at home in the Jewish state, about the “unbreakable bond… impervious to any shifts,” between it and the United States… But then he turned to the Ramat Shlomo plan, which, he said, undermines the trust required for productive negotiations. ‘At the request of President Obama, I condemn it immediately and unequivocally.’

Some left-wing students clapped at this as well, but other Israelis seethed. Diplomacy provides a word-scale for expressing levels of displeasure, beginning with regret and disapprove and escalating to denounce and deplore. But the harshest of all is condemn. “the administration never condemned Iran for killing its own people,” Ron muttered, “but Israel gets condemned for building homes in a Jewish neighborhood in our capital city.”…

I… boarded a plane and arrived in the United States at five o’clock Friday morning to learn that Secretary of State Clinton had excoriated Netanyahu for forty-five minutes over the phone, rebuking him for humiliating the president and undermining America’s ability to deal with pressing Middle East issues… And then I heard that the State Department, protesting “the deeply negative signal about Israel’s approach to the bilateral relationship,” had summoned me to an immediate meeting.

As in the case of the word condemn, diplomacy provides a calibrated lexicon to describe requests for high-level meetings. The scale descends from the amicable “respectfully invited” to the more neutral “asked to come.” The lowest, by far, is “summoned.”

So all of a sudden, building within Jerusalem meant the Israelis were not interested in peace. During the freeze insisted upon by Obama, people in Ramat Eshkol could not repair their porch — and Rabbi Shafran calls this consistent with previous US policy!

4) Whether or not the US has an obligation to inform Israel was never under discussion. The question to be asked is, did Obama value the historically tight collaboration with Israel on critical issues of national security (to both countries)? By deliberately shutting out Israel, and consciously acting to limit Israel’s options, he showed an entirely different attitude than previous Presidents. Oren, as the Ambassador of Israel to the United States, certainly knew the history of communication between the two countries, and found Obama’s refusal to communicate with Israel an ongoing concern — especially when it came to a nuclear Iran.

From p. 334: “Administration sources meanwhile continued leaking reports of IDF air strikes in Syria. One of these, a May 3 bombing of a Damascus warehouse purportedly containing yet another shipment of advanced missiles for Hezbollah, was said to have killed forty-two Syrian soldiers. Israel again withheld comment on the action, but the American leak spurred Assad to threaten counterattacks. At the embassy, I asked my staff what would impel some U.S. official to risk triggering bloodshed between Israel and Syria. Perhaps, one diplomat suggested, the White House wanted to distract Israel’s attention from efforts to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran.”

5) Note that the Dominican Republic is connected to Haiti; they share a common island. According to Oren’s account — and the JTA’s revised version — the Israel ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Amos Radian, was the first official to come to Haiti following the quake on Wednesday the 13th, and was joined by an advance team to find a site for Israel’s hospital on the 14th.

But here, again from the book, is Oren’s fuller description of what happened, from pp. 131-133:

It began on January 14, forty-eight hours after a massive earthquake devastated Haiti. Vast swaths of the impoverished Caribbean country lay in ruins, with at least 150,000 dead. With its war-born experience in dealing with casualties, its expert medical teams, and its biblical traditions of caring for the week, Israel responded. More than 200 Israelis, many of them volunteers from the IsraAID relief organization, immediately took off for Haiti and set up the first completely equipped hospital unit. Yet the operation could not have been mounted without the logistical assistance of the United States. Some of the Israelis even slept in chairs at the US Embassy. Throughout, I was on the phone around the clock with the State Department, coordinating our joint efforts.

So again, Oren knew what the real situation was, because he was intimately involved. He knew that the Americans were quite well aware that what Israel was doing was on an entirely different level than that of any of the countries that made Obama’s list, up to and including the US itself — in the words of one American doctor, “it’s something that almost makes you embarrassed to be an American” when he compared Israel’s hospital effort to their own.

None of the critics have successfully challenged any of Oren’s facts, because they cannot. This is classic mudslinging and character assassination — throw anything you can at Oren and hope that something sticks. When proven wrong, just go try a different angle. This isn’t our way. Ally is not only precise in its descriptions of events, it is backed up by the record — and as such, it stands on its merits.

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