The flap over Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned visit to Washington, only two weeks before Israel’s general elections, was just what critics of the prime minister needed: a chance to attack his foreign policy credentials and to try and drive home the message that Netanyahu has botched relations with America.
There was little surprise to hear Netanyahu’s rivals from the left, led by Tzipi Livni, Yitzhak Herzog and Yair Lapid, slam the prime minister’s handling of this latest crisis. But less expected was the emergence of a new Netanyahu critic, one that until not long ago was the prime minister’s close confidant and emissary to Washington.
Michael Oren, formerly Netanyahu’s hand-picked ambassador to Washington, who is now running for the Knesset as part of the Kulanu party led by centrist Moshe Kahlon, was the latest to lash out at the prime minister’s conduct.
“The behavior over the last few days created the impression of a cynical political move, and it could hurt our attempts to act against Iran,” Oren told the Israeli website Ynet. “It’s advisable to cancel the speech to Congress so as not to cause a rift with the American government. Much responsibility and reasoned political behavior are needed to guard interests in the White House.”
Oren’s advice on relations with America carries a lot of weight both in Israel and overseas. As the most recent ambassador to Washington who has worked closely with Netanyahu and with the Obama administration, and as a scholar who has researched Israeli-American relations, Oren is perceived as a leading expert.
Even more important is the fact that Oren, with his perfect English and the understanding of American society that only a New-Jersey-born-and-raised Israeli can hold, is openly speaking out against his former boss, who was also his main political ally in Israel.
Has the relationship between the U.S. and Israel hit rock bottom, compelling the former ambassador to speak out against Netanyahu?
This is only part of the answer.
Oren’s concerns over Netanyahu’s stewardship of Israel’s relations with the Obama administration are being voiced only after the former ambassador decided to enter Israeli politics, running for a seat in a party that is seeking to peel away Likud voters by discrediting Netanyahu’s record on domestic and foreign issues. During his term in Washington, and in the nearly two years that have passed since leaving the post, Oren refrained from speaking out on the issue, despite numerous moments of tension in relations between Israel’s government and the White House.
But even with this necessary political caveat, Oren’s warnings against the Israeli prime minister cannot be easily disregarded, at least as they address the overseas audience. Oren, a well-known figure and frequent TV commentator, still enjoys a reputation as a credible centrist watcher of Middle East issues. The same is true of General Amos Yadlin, the former head of Israel’s military intelligence and recent Labor Party recruit, who has also spoken out against Netanyahu’s handling of the Iranian nuclear issue.
Both are now challenging Netanyahu on the American public opinion battleground, a field the prime minister used to dominate exclusively.
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman