The Impossible Dream: Obama, Israel, and Iran

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Early in Ally, a memoir of his tenure as Israel’s ambassador to the United States between 2009 and 2013, Michael Oren, who was born and raised in the US, recounts playing the title role in his New Jersey high school’s production of Man of La Mancha. Decades later, he self-deprecatingly writes about how he felt he was regularly reprising the role of Don Quixote while working as envoy of the Jewish state. Whether it was trying to speak over the cries of anti-Israel hecklers disrupting a lecture at UC Irvine—an experience replayed in late June when someone set off the fire alarm at a book talk in Philadelphia—or replying to hostile questions from the media, Oren has often found himself tilting at windmills.

After finishing Ally and interviewing its author, I can’t quite get the allusions to these quixotic pursuits out of my head. Maybe it’s because I recently saw (twice) the Washington Shakespeare Company’s acclaimed production of the 1965 musical, so popular in the nation’s capital that rumors began swirling of a Broadway revival. But in reading the voluminous commentary that has poured forth over Oren’s tome since the former ambassador took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and Foreign Policy to promote his book, it has occurred to me that it isn’t so much Oren’s diplomatic career that has been “The Impossible Dream” but President Obama’s Middle East policies.

Now a member of the Israeli Parliament (the Knesset) with the centrist Kulanu party, Oren has come under ferocious attack from the Obama administration and its allies in the media, in addition to prominent figures in the American Jewish community. The American ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, accused Oren, an award-winning historian who lectured at Harvard and Yale (where I took his course on America and the Middle East), of being nothing more than “a politician and an author who wants to sell books.” Writing in the Atlantic, Leon Wieseltier compares Oren (who chided Wieseltier for his “pathological” antagonism to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) to Inspector Javert, the lawman who pulls out all the stops in hunting down a poor father who steals a loaf of bread in Les Misérables. The Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman, meanwhile, has assailed Oren for “veer[ing] into the realm of conspiracy theories” and engaging in “amateur psychoanalysis” for speculating in Ally about how Obama’s childhood relationship to Islam might have affected his present-day attitude toward America’s role in the Middle East. Interestingly, many of those assailing Oren for psychoanalyzing Obama have no problem putting Netanyahu on the couch, speculating about how his relationship to his late father—a historian of Spanish anti-Semitism whose expertise endowed him with a tragic view of Jewish history—informed the younger Netanyahu’s view of the Jewish predicament.

- The remainder of this article can be read for free at World Affairs Journal

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