Michael Oren: Inside Obama-Netanyahu’s Relationship
When Michael Oren was named Israel’s ambassador to the United States in 2009, he set out to learn as much as he could about America’s new president, Barack Obama.
A historian by training, Oren read Obama’s works, including his memoirs, and concluded that the new leader would pursue a new foreign policy approach, including: direct outreach to the Muslim world; a renewed effort to work with international institutions, such as the United Nations.; and a “recoiling from a dependence on American military power.
Oren presented his conclusions to the Israeli government. “Not all of them were easy to hear,” he recalls. “Not all of them were palatable.”
In this interview with FRONTLINE’s Michael Kirk, Oren, who now serves in the Israeli Knesset as a member of the centrist Kulanu Party, speaks candidly about the issues that occupied his time as ambassador, including the peace process with the Palestinians, Israeli settlement policy, the Arab Spring and Iran. Below is an edited transcript of the interview, conducted on Aug. 24, 2015.
When Prime Minister Netanyahu was speaking to Congress last March, you’re back in Israel. You see it. What are your thoughts?
Well, my thoughts were rather unique, because I was running for office at the time. Israel was at the height of its elections, and I was not on the prime minister’s party, and caught in a difficult situation. On one hand, I was concerned that the prime minister’s speech to Congress would create a partisan wedge and in many ways sort of drive those Democrats who were not enamored of the Iranian deal more into the camp of those who were. On the other hand, I agreed entirely with the prime minister’s message. It was that this was a bad deal, and that the alternative to a bad deal was a much better deal, and that deal was attainable.
You recognize that guy standing there? I mean, that was fire and brimstone at times.
It was. And I was not a member of Netanyahu’s party before he named me ambassador. He named me ambassador because we got to know each other mostly through my writing about the United States and its relationship with Israel. He understood at the time, in 2009, that it was a different president with a different worldview, and that Israel might have needed someone who understood America a little better.
But I also came to know him over the course of nearly five years. And the person I came to know was unusual for a leader in the sense that he saw himself as a man in history. Not every leader sees himself as a man in history. …
Netanyahu was very much a man in the Churchillian sense. He saw himself as having a historical mission, and the historic mission was to save Israel from an Iranian existential threat. …
[In your book, you write that] when you get the job, you do research to try to understand as much as you can about who Barack Obama is. … What do you discover, … and what do you tell Netanyahu about it?
I had come into the job as ambassador not as a career diplomat but as a historian, and I used a historian’s tool to try to understand the man who is now the leader of the most powerful nation on earth and Israel’s most important ally. …
It was my job as ambassador, basically to the degree that I could, to get into his head and see the world the way he saw it, so that we could know where he was going and whether we could adapt ourselves to this worldview. …
I had to look at the things that he himself had written, the books. … He had written a book shortly after his graduation from Harvard Law School. This was in the ’90s, before, apparently, he’s contemplating running for national office. The book, Dreams of My Father, is an incredibly candid book. It’s a window into someone’s soul. … I read it many times. I have a dog-eared copy of this book.
What I discovered there was a very interesting individual, a very complex individual, but a person who had a worldview. And I began to piece together that worldview and to make certain assumptions and conclusions, and then present them to the Israeli government. Not all of them were easy to hear. Not all of them were palatable.
One was that yes, Barack Obama was a transformative president, not only the fact that he was the first African American president, but he was there to change many aspects of American foreign policy. The most obvious one, the one that most directly affected Israel, was the outreach to the Muslim world. … The president referred to himself by his full name. He, in virtually every speech, beginning with the first inaugural address, referred to his Muslim family ties. His first trips abroad are to Turkey and to Egypt. His first foreign interview on TV is with Dubai Television. And the message is always the same: I am the bridge. A big part of my family are Muslims. Here is the bridge.
There’s a line in the Cairo speech of June 2009, which is an extraordinary line. He says, “I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was revealed,” which in itself is an extraordinary statement, citing it.
Why? Because first of all, it’s the first time, to my knowledge as a historian, that a president of the United States addresses the world adherents of one faith. … It’s the center of the al-Azhar Rectory, one of the great seminaries of the Muslim world, of Islam, over the centuries. And he’s making this address to world Muslims. So it’s an extraordinary event.
The address itself is twice as long as the Second Inaugural Address, very long speech. And there are many aspects of the speech which have direct impact on Israel, the most obvious of which is the condemnation of settlements. Linking Israel’s existence and justification to the Holocaust, which was a problem from Israel — it belies the Israeli narrative that Israel arose not out of the Holocaust, but out of the 3,000-year connection with this land. And [he] recognizes Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy, which was a significant departure from American policy. … So that was one aspect of the worldview.
The other aspect was that the United States would work with international institutions much more, a collegial approach to managing foreign policy. America wasn’t going to be the world’s policeman anymore. Some of those institutions, like the U.N., have proven to be quite inimical to Israel over the years. So that in itself was also a problem.
There was a recoiling from a dependence on American military power. The president had one statement which sort of stayed with me over the years. The statement was, “Whether we like it or not, America is the world’s leading military superpower,” which was a line that you probably couldn’t imagine John Kennedy saying, or even Bill Clinton, certainly not Ronald Reagan. That showed that there was a reticence there, a recoiling from that type of military power. It doesn’t mean he wasn’t going to use military power; he used it very effectively with drone warfare.
All of those conclusions had to be presented to the Israeli government. This is who we’re dealing with, to the best of my knowledge.
And the reaction?
I have one more point, if I might. … I was on sabbatical for an entire year in 2008 before becoming ambassador. It’s the first time I actually lived in an American neighborhood, and I was quite shocked. I talk about, in my book, about the Rip Van Winkle effect, of waking up after 25 years and seeing everything change. It was a very different America than the America I had left nearly 40 years ago, which was very much a WASP-dominated society. This was now a country with a non-white majority. There were no Protestants, no WASPs on the Supreme Court. Unwed mothers now outnumbered wed mothers. This was an interesting America, and it was an America that I saw that Obama was as much a symptom as a cause of the transformations in America.
And as early as 2009, shortly after taking office, one of the messages that I gave to the Israeli government is that we have to plan for a two-term president, because the transformations, I believed, were permanent. …
We’ve interviewed many people in the States who were there at the moment of creation of the Obama administration, and they’re in transformative mode. … They’re also very fixated on the peace process. They say to Obama not only the things that you’ve just outlined, that Obama will be different, [but] there will be this thing that will eventually be called the Obama Doctrine, that he’ll unclench the fists, theoretically, of the Arab world, that they’ll step back a little bit from Israel, in symbolic and other ways, and that they’ll push Netanyahu around a little bit to get him involved in the peace process. Are you aware of all of that kind of churn that’s going on inside the earliest days of the Obama administration?
I was. … From an ambassadorial perspective, it was irrelevant who was responsible for the initiatives. I personally thought — and not just personally; I think it was a general Israeli approach — that they were ill conceived; that the notion of publicly pressuring Israel on the settlement issue actually pushed the Palestinians further from the negotiating table than brought them closer to it, because in the Middle East, if you’re getting something for free, why go into a negotiation where you’re going to have to pay for it? That was sort of a constant conversation which I had, which other representatives of Israel had, with the administration. We understand you don’t like settlements. Settlements are controversial in Israel themselves. I have certain strong feelings about settlements. But let’s keep our feelings about settlements separate from the tactical question of how to get the Palestinians to the negotiating table and actually sit with us.
The fact of the matter is that there was a direct correlation between the amount of pressure put publicly on Israel and the settlements and the reluctance of the Palestinians to negotiate. And eventually they just walked away from the table.
When Prime Minister Netanyahu goes for that very first meeting in [May] 2009, you are with him.
I’m with him, but I’m not ambassador yet. I’m ambassador designate. … I attended that meeting. The interesting part about it, in the meeting, there was a separate — of course, there was always a one-on-one in any meeting, … and the one-on-ones between Netanyahu and Obama, without exception, went on at least twice as long as they were scheduled each time. They met, to the best of my recollection, about 12 times. They always went on longer.
And they always emerged, usually with a sense of goodwill, smiles on their faces, lots of pats on their backs. Usually we would read the next day, or in a couple of hours, in the newspaper, how badly it had gone. …
In that first meeting of May 2009, the group session was to talk about Gaza. Keep in mind, Israel had just completed Operation Cast Lead in the previous January, only days before the inauguration, by the way, which was a major consideration for Israel in ending the operation. We didn’t want to be fighting on the day that Barack Obama became the 44th president.
The question was how then to reconstruct Gaza, which had suffered extensive damage. Our problem was that there were 1,000 tunnels under the Egyptian border and that you could bring in concrete to rebuild buildings that had been damaged in the fighting, but Hamas would grab the concrete and use it to build bunkers and tunnels. And this became the discussion. …
But I think that even Netanyahu, from what I came to understand later about the meeting, was taken aback by the departure, by the very strong departure on American foreign policy.
In what sense?
To use an administration term, there was going to be a full-court press on the settlement issue, and the settlement and Jerusalem issue, which are going to be particularly difficult for the head of Likud. This is a party with a platform and a constituency on the two-state solution. Now Netanyahu, a month later, would deliver the Bar-Ilan speech, in which he accepted the two-state solution. But at the time, he was not yet prepared. He had not laid the groundwork yet. And in a different type of environment, in a different type of rapport, you say to the president of the United States: “Listen, I’m going to come out with this, but give me a little wiggle room here; give me a little latitude. Let me lay the groundwork for this. Don’t rush it.” But I don’t think he got that type of latitude. …
My general disposition as ambassador was to say, “Let’s try to be as flexible as possible, certainly on the peace issue, because eventually we’re going to have to dig in our heels on the Iran issue.” … Occasionally I was successful in persuading people back in Israel that this was the approach. But every time the prime minister made a major concession like the Bar-Ilan speech, or like the moratorium on the settlements, which went from November 2009 until September 2010, he didn’t get much credit for it, and this cost him substantially in terms of the support in his own party.
What we needed is what’s known in diplomacy as tailwind. We needed the president to come out and say very unequivocally: “This is a major move. This is a great contribution to the peace process. This took guts on the part of Netanyahu.” Couldn’t get those statements. And ultimately, that type of approach strengthened the hands of those who were against making those kind of concessions. …
… [The diplomat] Dennis Ross told us in an interview that they were extremely naïve about being transformative … and that Cairo, in many ways, is a manifestation of that. The decision not to stop in Israel: You’re over in the neighborhood; you’re not going to stop in Israel? What kind of signals do you want to send?
Not only they didn’t stop in Israel, he went to Buchenwald, which tended to fortify the case that Israel’s justification emerged from the Holocaust. Now I don’t know if this is too much inside ball, but that’s the Arab narrative. The Arab narrative is, Europeans killed European Jews, and they dumped the survivors in Palestine, and the Arabs have to pay for Europe’s crimes against Jews. Why should Arabs pay?
Now, that narrative was problematic. Why would you make peace with an illegitimate refugee state of Europeans? So even that, in terms of tactically the peace process, was a step backward. What you want to say to the Arab world, in which Obama, to his credit, eventually did in his November 2011 speech to the General Assembly of the U.N., he says: “Israel is not about the Holocaust. Israel is about a 3,000-year Jewish claim to the area.”
But at the time, he’s got some bad advice handed to him or something?
I think this was the most centralized American administration certainly since World War II. And I learned early on that the roads of decision making, virtually without exception, led to the Oval Office. And yes, the president might have gotten advice from [White House Chief of Staff] Rahm Emanuel, from [Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton. At the end of the day, the person who really decided was the president himself. And the president’s worldview — and I will keep on harping on that — all of these decisions were very much in keeping with the worldview.
And the worldview is?
The notion of linkage is practically doctrinal in the Obama administration. What does linkage mean? That if you solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, you will solve a whole series of other conflicts in the Middle East. …
So if you believe that the Arab-Israeli conflict is the core conflict, and the core of that conflict is what the administration calls the Israeli occupation and the settlements, then that leads you, obviously, to the conclusion that you have to force Israel to give up the settlements, to talk about a two-state solution, to stop building parts of Jerusalem. …
Now also, during this time, [Obama makes a] video on New Year’s to the people of Iran and writes a letter to the supreme leader. Your thoughts about the efficacy of something like that from the president of the United States?
Well, these actions were efficacious insofar as they achieved an Iran nuclear deal. And Israelis and I were keenly aware of these moves in 2009. The president’s outreach to Iran, the fact that in the Cairo speech he says that Iran has the right to peaceful nuclear energy — we’re talking about the world’s largest state sponsor of terror that is openly pledging to destroy us. It’s a genocidal regime under [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, and the supreme leader is talking about the killing of what was then 7 million Israelis. To recognize the right to even peaceful nuclear energy is problematic from an Israeli perspective.
So what was the thought? …
We’re in a new age; we’re in a new era; and we have to figure out how to react to this. How can we preserve our fundamental security? How do we preserve the U.S.-Israel alliance with its bipartisan base? These are all the challenges. …
The Bush administration had withdrawn the U.S. ambassador from the U.N. Human Rights Council, which had singled out Israel under [item] 7 [of the HRC’s standing agenda]. This was the only country in the world that gets investigated for human rights violations every year. And the Human Rights Council condemns Israel more frequently than all countries in the world combined. Bush had pulled his ambassador out. Obama sends an ambassador back.
Obama sends an ambassador back to Damascus. Obama renews ties with Qaddafi. We’re watching many things going on. … We’re dealing with a transformational moment, which is rife for ramifications for Israel’s security.
So we have to somehow figure out what’s going on. We have to somehow get a sense of what we’re going to comment about, what we’re going to express dismay about. For example, we kept very quiet over the renewal of U.S.-Syrian ties. We kept quiet over the renewal of the U.S.-Libyan ties. OK, let that one go. But there were some issues in which the prime minister said, “OK, we’ve got to dig our heels in on this issue.”
One of them was the question of creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank. And here we get into a situation which is very difficult, I think, for Americans virtually across the political spectrum to understand, in that Israel is in the worst possible quandary when it comes to the Palestinians.
We have to preserve this country as a Jewish and democratic state, but we also have to preserve its fundamental security. By creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank, you could create a state which could become like Gaza or South Lebanon, areas from which Israel withdrew only to see them become launching pads for thousands of rockets. A West Bank Palestinian state that has no national institutions, that has no real economy, that has a corrupt and unelected leadership — how long does that country exist before it falls to Hamas or later to ISIS, which would be an existential threat for Israel? So we have the quandary of, if we create a Palestinian state, we may well face an existential threat. But if we don’t create a Palestinian state, we may face an existential threat. …
There’s also a large Israeli population that doesn’t want to give up these territories because they view them as God-given, as part of our divine patrimony. So immensely, immensely complex. And the prime minister felt he had to dig his heels on that issue. But look, there were all these other issues that he didn’t dig his heels in. …
The Arab Spring happens, and Obama goes to the State Department in May and gives the speech that I think breaks what everybody says is the sort of cardinal rule. He doesn’t let Netanyahu, doesn’t let you know that they’re about to mention the ’67 borders, that it’s going to be a part of that.
On the contrary, I was informed that they would not mention it. I was in the White House the previous day.
So tell me the story.
… The pillars of the U.S.-Israel relationship, two of the pillars had always been no daylight, no surprises. Now, that doesn’t mean that these pillars weren’t at various times dodged. Israel in 1981 attacked the Iraqi nuclear reactor without telling the United States. Israel negotiated with the PLO in September 1993 without telling the United States, rather belatedly. But those examples are few and very far between. For the most part, these two principles held.
What is “no daylight”? No daylight was, we can have our differences, and they can be sometimes very deep differences over settlements over Jerusalem. But to the greatest degree possible, we’re going to try to keep them behind the scenes and work them out between us, which was very different than the Obama administration’s position was, from the first day, to take these disagreements and put them out front. Obama was quoted in a meeting with American Jewish leaders, saying, “I intend to put daylight between Israel and the United States.” It was a decision.
No surprises meant that if the United States was going to give a major policy statement on the Middle East that would impact Israel and its security, then Israel would have a chance to view that statement in advance and to submit its comments. That was the case, in 2002, with Bush and the roadmap. He gave it to Ari Sharon before he [went] public with it.
Israel had no advance warning of the Cairo speech. Complete shock. By that time, I had been almost two years in the office, and I had grown accustomed to the fact that I was not going to get any advance warning. But on the previous day, on May 18, 2011, I was in the White House, and I asked, “OK, what’s in the speech?” There was a lot of excitement around the speech. This was going to be the president’s major address about the Arab Spring, which had broken out five months earlier in Egypt.
I was just very curious. There were rumors floating around. I had long anticipated that the administration may say something about the ’67 borders, but I received assurance that it wasn’t going to be there. And roughly a quarter of the speech of May 19 was about the ’67 borders, and it became the headline. The headline in the New York Times was, “President Obama Endorses the ’67 Borders.” The rest of the speech, about the Arab Spring, went virtually unreported. …
Now, for Israel, this was a major development. I did a lot of press at the time, and it was difficult to explain why this was so earth-shattering. Everyone knew that ’67 borders were going to be the basis of the peace agreement. That’s what the conventional wisdom was.
In diplomacy, you work out a framework for negotiations. It’s called a terms of reference, TOR. And Israel and Secretary Clinton had worked out, laboriously, over many weeks, perhaps months of negotiations, the TOR. Now, I have this TOR more or less emblazoned on my soul, to this day, and it goes something like this: The United States believes that through good-faith negotiations, it can reconcile the Israeli goal of an independent Jewish state within secure and defensible borders and the Palestinian goal of an independent Palestinian state, based on the 1967 borders with mutually agreed swaps. And there sometimes was a little add about taking into account changes on the ground, which was a reference to settlement blocs. So what in the TOR had been a Palestinian goal all of a sudden moved over to an American goal, by the way, for the first time since 1967.
Now, the ’67 borders were very problematic from Israel’s stand of view. Our major highway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem runs through the ’67 borders. The ’67 borders includes our holiest site, the Western Wall. It puts the Palestinian state’s borders within mortar range of Israel’s airport. Very problematic. …
So again, it pushed the Palestinians away from the table, but also created great problems for the prime minister, and it was a breach of trust. That was the true problem here, because peace, if you can achieve it, has got to be based on trust. It’s got to be based on mutual trust. We’re talking about the lives of our kids here. You’ve got to be able to be able to put your trust in somebody, and particularly in your best ally.
So it was quite a tense period. And Netanyahu, as it happens, comes the next day, May 20. … He was going to make a major address to AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee], and he was going to address a joint session of Congress.
… What do you think is going to happen?
I had never seen him like that coming out of the plane. You know, you come out of the plane, usually you land at Dulles or at Andrews Air Force Base, and you smile for the cameras. There was no smile. There was no wave. You can almost imagine the steam coming out of his ears. We proceeded to Blair House, where his team of advisers tried to calm it down, but he had things he wanted to say to the president. …
Does he ride in the car with you from the airport?
So what’s he like in the car?
He’s angry. He’s angry. … And I understood it. Moreover, I was the one who had sent the report the previous day that the White House had said that he wasn’t going to be there. So, you know, I become the messenger here. And the events transpired very quickly then.
We have a good meeting in the White House. There is a one-on-one that characteristically goes on more than twice its scheduled time. The two leaders emerge. They have this talk. Netanyahu gives his about-10-minute speech, which he managed to memorize very quickly. He has that capability. And the remarks are addressed to the Palestinians. The Palestinians have to understand that Israel is the Jewish state. They have to understand that Israel has to have a prolonged military presence along the Jordan River to prevent any future Palestinian state from becoming Gaza or South Lebanon.
There are a number of things that the Palestinians have to understand. They understand that Palestinian refugees are going to come back to Palestine and not to Israel. Not particularly controversial. And then afterward, the prime minister and the president stroll on the South Lawn for about 20 minutes. I’m at a respectable ambassadorial distance, but they’re having a perfectly congenial talk. The president slaps the prime minister on the back, shakes his hand, says, “Goodbye, my friend.”
We go back to the Blair House thinking, OK, we’ve gotten by this. It was unpleasant, but we’ve managed to defuse the crisis. No sooner than we’re back that the headlines blare, for the first time in history, a foreign leader has lectured the president of the United States in the Oval Office — lectured — and precisely the type of showdown at least I had hoped, and others had hoped, to their credit, had hoped to avoid.
… So you are with a lot of other guys while they’re in there for a couple of hours talking to each other, the president and Netanyahu, or for an hour and a half?
Yes. … We’re in the Roosevelt Room.
And is [White House Chief of Staff] Bill Daley and all those guys around?
Mm-hmm, they are.
And you guys were all cordial but slightly anxious about what is actually happening behind closed doors?
We actually had a serious discussion about the content of the speech. And Secretary Clinton was there and made the case that major efforts had been made to change the tone of the speech, change the content of the speech. I think she mentioned that the word “Hamas” hadn’t appeared in the speech, and that we should take this with a greater sense of equanimity.
Because you guys had indicated that there was some electric tension in the air.
I had very open channels with people in the White House. Right after the speech, I called and said, “You understand this is going to be problematic, and you understand that this is going to evoke a very strong reaction from Jerusalem.”
And they said?
That it would be a mistake to react angrily to this. …
So there they are, the two guys. And we’ve all seen the stock footage. The prime minister is talking. Obama is doing this and looking like —
He’s actually listening very intently. … He was focused. I didn’t get the sense that he was angry. I didn’t get that sense strolling around the White House lawn afterward.
But Bill Daley was angry.
Bill Daley was very angry.
He was whispering, “Who the hell does this guy think he is?”
… He didn’t say this to me; he said it to somebody else on the staff that, “Is your boss in the habit of coming to people’s houses and lecturing them?” And I only heard that back at Blair House, by which time it was all over the news anyway. But the whole point of our preparation was to avoid that moment. And, you know, diplomacy is supposedly the art of the possible. Sometimes it’s the art of the unattainable, the unachievable. And this was that moment.
Now, it begs the question whether various parties had an interest in making that a crisis moment. Now that I can’t know, but I could never rule out the possibility. The same thing was true about the so-called snub.
Do you think it was a snub?
I didn’t at the time, never crossed my mind. What happened was that the prime minister was making sort of a snap visit to Washington. In the U.S.-Israel relationship, there’s almost never a situation where the prime minister and the president are in the same city and they don’t meet. …
The prime minister was coming into Washington, and was going to give a speech. It turned out, I think, that it was the Jewish Federations were meeting there in Washington. That location changes every year — just happened to be there. The president was not supposed to be in Washington that day, but his schedule changed, … so we hastily threw together this meeting. It was really an 11th-hour job. We rush over to the White House. We get in there at 7:00. There’s no cameras, nothing. It’s not a state visit. We’re there to work. We sat in the Roosevelt Room and worked until 9:00 on peace process issues, at which point the president said: “I’m going to have some dinner and go to bed. We’re basically finished here. It’s fine.”
The press later came out with the contention that he had left us in the Roosevelt Room to have dinner with his wife and two daughters, but his wife and two daughters were not in town that night. We worked until 11:30, and we continued to have this discussion with the president’s team. At 11:30 at night, the prime minister asked the president to come down again from his quarters to meet with him again to discuss some issues. The president stayed for at least an hour, and then we remained at the White House until about 2:30 to 3:00 in the morning.
I get back to the hotel, and we were snubbed: no photographs, no dinner, the president left us to have dinner with his family. Now, I hadn’t felt snubbed at the time, but there was the headline. Who was responsible for that spin? It could have been many people. And all of a sudden, you have to deal with the new reality. …
[What happened during Vice President Biden’s visit to Israel?]
This, I believe, is in March 2010, when the vice president comes here. And Vice President Biden has had a long, warm connection, not just with the American Jewish community but with Israel, … and [he] had a close relationship with Netanyahu.
He comes here with a good visit, and we’re just coming back from the Holocaust Memorial, from Yad Vashem. We’re in the basement of the hotel where I see Dennis Ross coming at me with his cell phone, saying, “What the hell is this?” Someone has announced the building of 1,600 units in a Jerusalem neighborhood called Ramat Shlomo. Now, Ramat Shlomo is actually not in East Jerusalem; it’s in northwest Jerusalem. But it’s an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood that is beyond the ’67 lines, had been Jordanian territory, [and the announcement] was immediately interpreted as a slap in the face to the vice president and perforce to the president.
Netanyahu had no idea that this was coming. The announcement was made by a midlevel Interior Ministry official. These apartments were going to be built years in advance, years from that time, but it was part of a process, a seven-tier process you have to go through in order to build some 200-and-whatever units.
In the United States, Israel announces that it’s going to build 1,600 settlements. That was the headline by some very prominent journalists. And we’re stuck. We spent pretty much that entire night working out the language of the speech that the vice president was going to give the next day at Tel Aviv University, in which he was going to condemn this announcement.
Now, in diplomacy there’s a hierarchy of vocabulary. You can regret something. You can deplore something. You can abhor something. The most severe word you can use is “condemn,” and he used it. And many Israelis were taken aback by it. Some Israelis applauded it. It’s the nature of democracy. But we agreed to it. We signed off on it in the middle of the night.
I took the vice president on a helicopter tour of Israel after that, said goodbye to him at the steps of his airplane. We got past it. We managed to avert a crisis.
I run across the tarmac to another jet, fly back to Washington, and learn that I am the first foreign ambassador under the Obama administration to be summoned to the State Department — not Syria’s ambassador, not any other ambassador, but the Israeli ambassador — and I’m to be dressed down for insulting and humiliating the president. I had learned that there had been a 45-minute conversation between the secretary of state and the prime minister in which he had been excoriated by her, and that I would be reprimanded for humiliating the president.
I hastily gathered my staff. This is, remember, you land at 5:30 in the morning when you come back, so I’m in Washington around 8:00. This is going to take place probably around 10:00, 10:30. I make a decision that I’m going to speak my mind about this, that this crisis had ended. This is an artificial crisis. Nobody in Israel is going to believe this anger. We’ve apologized. We’re going to apologize. We’ve signed off on this document with the vice president about the condemnation. OK.
And it’s a tough meeting at the State Department. It is. And it’s a very tough week. Perhaps the lowest moment, I must tell you, was not the reprimand at the State Department. The roughest moment was when [Obama senior adviser] David Axelrod appears on the Sunday talk shows and is asked point blank whether Israel is a strategic asset or a liability to the United States, and he dodges the question.
I saw this as a strategic problem. It’s not a PR problem. But basically, here is the largest superpower in the world, our primary ally, being equivocal in the face of our enemies, that maybe the alliance isn’t so strong. And for me that’s a threat, a threat to my family. It’s very personal here; it’s not just diplomatic. I was most distraught by that. And I had been given assurances — again, from, I don’t want to name elements in the White House — that the Sunday morning talk shows would attempt to walk back the crisis and not exacerbate it further. And it was exacerbated further.
Then everything changed. Starting in April, there was what we called the love offensive, which I talk about, where all of a sudden, you almost smell the brake oil burning. The administration pivoted and started saying very nice things about the relationship. And it changed for a couple of months there. There are different interpretations of why this happened. My hope was that it would continue.
… It seems like the peace process is kind of put on a high shelf, and the president is aiming for re-election. … Did you have that sense?
There was a whole set of events that overshadowed the peace process. Sure, the peace process had reached sort of a dead end. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had basically abandoned the peace process and had turned to the U.N. in an attempt to get recognition for a Palestinian state without giving us peace. He declared in a New York Times article that he was going to legalize the conflict, in other words, go to the International Criminal Courts and try to get the sanctions on Israel, a flagrant departure from Palestinian commitments to the United States under the Oslo Accords, which they expressly, but they’re not supposed to, seek an alternative route.
The response of the administration was always to give in to the Palestinians and not to hold them to task, which is what any parent would recognize as reinforcing behavior. It always had the opposite effect of making the Palestinians more intransigent rather than less so.
I can’t say that we didn’t aid it [with] our settlement policy. Settlement policy was problematic in the peace process, and I was also very up front, and often publicly so, about my reservations about the policy. But I don’t think that that policy was the core reason why Mahmoud Abbas ran away. There was a tremendous loss of credibility in American diplomacy after the Arab Spring, which we haven’t talked about any of that yet. …
So they’re really learning lots of things. … The idea of, we’re going to speak to you about a united Muslim world, all of the approaches that they had made part and parcel of the Obama Doctrine —
— didn’t work. And keep in mind, the Arab Spring breaks out in Syria. One of the first things that Assad does is kick out the U.S. ambassador that the president had reappointed to Damascus, Robert Ford. Libya, the administration had reached out to Qaddafi. Now it is part of an operation to oust and ultimately kill Qaddafi. Bahrain, which has an Arab Spring, the administration’s reaction is very standoffish, because Bahrain is also home to the Fifth Fleet. The Saudis quickly intervene with their army. They’re not going to let Bahrain fall to insurgents.
[It was] sort of a patchwork of policies that do not reinforce a sense of American credibility throughout the Middle East, just doesn’t. I wish it were otherwise. And that has an impact on Mahmoud Abbas’ thinking, a lot of people’s thinking.
But there were two other issues that transpired in 2012 that I think I have to point out. One is the American elections. … There’s going to be a lot of talk about Netanyahu’s interference in the American political process, his support for [the Republican candidate Mitt] Romney. My orders, my instructions were unreservedly, “Stay out of it, whatever you can do.” … By protocol and by tradition, the Israeli ambassador goes to both conventions. I went to neither. I wasn’t going to get dragged into it. Very difficult.
Then Gov. Romney decides to pay a visit to Israel, and that becomes an issue because Sen. Obama had visited Israel in 2008. It was a short visit. But Romney comes and holds a fundraising event at the King David Hotel. There’s lots of pressure put on the prime minister to attend that event. He did not. I didn’t attend that event.
But there’s a dinner that night between Netanyahu and Romney. I think he would have afforded the same hospitality to any other head of a party running for the presidency.
So you don’t think he was supporting Romney during the —
I saw no evidence of it. On the contrary. Again, I write about this. There was an attempt to set a meeting between the prime minister and the president in September at the U.N. when they’re both at General Assembly, and the president won’t take the meeting. So what do they say? You don’t know who the spin is coming from. …
Ronen Bergman writes a story in the New York Times in January 2012 [about a potential Israeli military strike on Iran]. When do you first get the sense of that level of discussion happening in Jerusalem?
I always worked under the assumption that Israel had the right, the duty, the capability to act pre-emptively against an existential threat, the Iranian nuclear threat. I also understood that there were going to be different opinions about it, as there should be in a discussion. It struck me that there was a greater probability in the summer of 2012, and I think that was also a widely held assumption.
That there was a higher probability of no interaction that summer. I always bring history into it. On Oct. 29, 1956, Israel went to war against Egypt, in what became known as the Sinai-Suez Crisis. That was four days before the U.S. presidential election. And President Eisenhower wasn’t happy and threatened to sanction Israel, and actually forced Israel to withdraw from Sinai. I always kept that example in my head, to know that with the elections looming, that this could inform the American reaction in ways that might not be down to our benefit, because it was so close to the election.
The problem was that Israel was operating according to a number of timetables. … There were a number of clocks ticking. One clock was the rate at which Iran was enriching uranium. Another clock was the rate in which they would complete the enrichment and move underground, at which point it would be too late. The military option would become much, much more difficult. …
How important to the prime minister was this, and why?
Two reasons, which are not unrelated to one another. One is that Iran poses not one but several existential threats to Israel. It’s completely unique in Israel’s history. The obvious threat is you have a regime that says it’s going to wipe us off the map. It’s got a nuclear program. It’s conducting weaponization experiments secretly. It’s got an intercontinental ballistic system that’s capable — indeed, its only real purpose is to carry nuclear warheads. So it’s obvious we’re facing an existential threat from this, because we’re a country that’s the size of New Jersey, and only half of it is populated. The rest of it is desert. …
Iran is also the world’s largest state sponsor of terror, and if Iran gets the bomb, terrorists get military nuclear capability. So we don’t have to worry about an ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile]; we’ve got to worry about a ship container coming into Haifa Harbor, untraceable.
Thirdly, once Iran gets a bomb, everybody gets a bomb. Egypt gets the bomb; Turkey gets the bomb; Saudi Arabia gets the bomb. We saw what happened in the Arab Spring. Who knows who’s going to be controlling these countries in the future? Who knows? So Israel finds itself inhabiting a profoundly unstable nuclear neighborhood in the Middle East. So it’s multiple existential threats. This is not including Hezbollah. …
And then there’s Benjamin Netanyahu, who sees himself as a man in history, sees himself in the Churchillian sense, and sees himself as a man with a mission, which is to save this country from what he calls a “messianic” genocidal “cult” that runs Iran — and I’m practically quoting him now — where the most radical regime on earth will possess the deadliest weapons on earth.
It’s a theme that recurs. And yes, it’s part of his worldview. Yes, he gets it from his father and others. You will not find a Netanyahu speech that does not mention the Holocaust, that doesn’t mention anti-Semitism, the Inquisition. That is his view of Israel, of Jewish history, and it very much informs his policymaking. He sees himself as this man with a mission to save this country from a recurrence of a Holocaust-like occurrence. …
When you are with him from 2009 on, is he intense about this sort of one-on-one? Does he talk about it that way? And is it getting more intense as we get to 2012?
His worry of the bomb escalates. … Iran goes from having 6,000 centrifuges in 2009 to close to 19,000 centrifuges in 2012. It goes from having enough fissile material for one bomb to having enough fissile material for at least four bombs. So it’s also gearing up,
Meanwhile, Iran is rejecting compromises. There were several compromise offers made to the Iranians; that they would ship out much of their nuclear stockpile to Russia, to France to be turned into nuclear isotopes for medical uses. They turned this down. Israel supported it — and after great debates, by the way, because these compromises, in many ways, contradicted the Security Council resolutions that said that Iran had no right to enrich. Yet we were implicitly recognized in that right by saying it had to ship out some of its nuclear stockpile. So it was a concession on the part of Israel, one that, again, Israel didn’t get a lot of credit for, and which the Iranians rejected and for which they did not pay a price.
In November 2013, you guys get the word that the White House has been secretly negotiating with Iran. How did that feel? How did that go down?
I was out of office at the time. For me, it was a type of an implosion, not so much a surprise as it was an implosion, because my position throughout the term of my office was that yes, we can disagree, and even on some very core issues like the peace process, but at the end of the day, the U.S.’s alliance is a paramount alliance. And the entire world looks at this alliance as a litmus, that America’s commitment to Israel’s security is, to use the Obama administration’s own words, “unbreakable” and “unshakable.”
Yet we’re confronted with this reality, in which our principal ally has negotiated behind our backs for seven months with our worst enemy. Now, that is hard to square with the position I had taken publicly for the previous years. I don’t know how I would have reacted had I still been in office at that time. I don’t know how I could have explained it away. It would have been very, very difficult. I’m not sure I could have. I think about it often to this day. …
What is [Netanyahu’s] play? …
The American public opinion is his last card. Europe has gone along rather willingly with this. … It’s not a particularly strong hand, but you play the hand you’ve got, you’ve been dealt.
And when you think about fundamental change, has there been a fundamental change in the relationship between Israel and the United States over this issue? Or is it unique to this president?
I think it’s too early to tell. The question is not just what I think; it’s how it’s perceived, and how it’s perceived in the region. I could make a very strong case that, you know, security cooperation is stronger than ever — Iron Dome, Arrow 2, Arrow 3; that support for Israel among the American people is close to an all-time high; support in Congress is pretty much chamber to chamber, you know, party to party, on most issues. The Iranian nuclear issue is an exception, not the rule.
But the perception, certainly around the world and specifically in this area, has a very different perspective, very different perception. And we have to acknowledge it, and we’re going to have to act accordingly. …
On the Arab Spring, you defined the Obama point of view. I don’t think you talked about Netanyahu’s point of view.
Or Israel’s point of view. … What happens in the Arab Spring is completely unique perhaps in the annals in the U.S.’s relationship, and very difficult. I was often asked, what was more difficult for me as ambassador, to explain Israel to America or America to Israel? And unhesitatingly I always respond, it is much more difficult to explain America to Israelis.
Americans pretty much get Israel, you know, except for things like the settlement issue with Jerusalem. Here is a country made up of people who have come back to their homeland after 2,000 years of exile. They’re fighting some of the same enemies of the United States; they’re struggling; they have a democracy. They pretty much get it.
America is very difficult to explain to Israelis, and it was never more difficult than in the winter and early spring of 2011, the outbreak of the Arab Spring, because what you had was an outpouring of support which was completely bipartisan. Republicans, Democrats, Tea Partiers, everybody is applauding what’s happening in Tahrir Square, what’s happening in Tunis, what’s happening in Syria. There was applauding. This is democracy breaking out. It’s Lexington and Concord. It’s that great moment. The sheer exuberance was amazing.
Israelis are slapping their heads and saying, “Oh, my God, what a disaster,” because what they see is not an outbreaking of democracy; they see an outbreaking of chaos that’s going to be quickly snatched and dominated by Islamic extremists. …
I think many Israelis would have preferred to be wrong. Our official line was, we’ve always been the Middle East’s only democracy. We would be very happy if we were one of many functioning democracies in the Middle East. And it was more than just a line; it was a hope. But it was a hope that wasn’t backed by a tremendous sense of confidence. And there was deep fear here about the consequences of the Arab Spring, and there still is.
We were just hit by rockets from Syria the other day for the first time since 1973. … We now have Iran on our borders. We have ISIS on our borders. There is something of a civil war going on in Egypt that doesn’t even make the press very often. Jordan has been destabilized by an influx of refugees. ISIS has appeared in Jordan. These are all products of the Arab Spring. This is a Middle East we had not known, and for which we have been trying to play catch-up ball ever since. …