A Former Israeli Ambassador Takes Aim at Obama—and American Jewry

The historian and Knesset member Michael Oren accuses the president of distancing the U.S. from Israel, and calls out left-wing Jews and Israel’s Jewish critics in the American press.

Benjamin Myers / Reuters

In a recent post, I suggested that the intervention of two men, the former U.S. national security advisor Tom Donilon and the former Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, might help improve the dysfunctional relationship between the Obama administration and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

At the time I wrote this, both men had reputations as people who were concerned about preserving the extraordinarily complicated, and extraordinarily close, U.S.-Israel relationship, and both had spent a good deal of time calming the waters between Obama and Netanyahu. Today, Donilon maintains that reputation. As for Oren …

Put it this way: If Goldblog readers would allow me to withdraw the suggestion, I’d be much obliged. Oren has created a new role for himself: acid critic of the Obama administration and of left-leaning American Jews (especially in the press and in the White House) who, he believes, are trading on their Jewishness when they criticize Israel. Oren’s critique, at its heart, is simple: Obama, in part because he wanted to reconcile the U.S. with the “Muslim world” (a very large, ill-defined, and politically complicated concept, in Oren’s mind), decided to distance the United States from Israel; to surprise Israel by altering U.S. Middle East policy without prior notice; and to negotiate with Israel’s most potent enemy without alerting Israeli leaders.

I’ve resisted weighing in on the various eruptions surrounding Oren’s new book, Ally, as well as the series of provocative op-eds he wrote in the lead-up to the book’s release last week, for a number of reasons: 1) I’m busy; 2) Oren and I have been friends for a decade, from a time when he was just another ink-stained wretch rather than a high-ranking diplomat and, now, a member of the Knesset; and 3) I’m mentioned in the book, which I read in galleys in May, quite frequently (mainly references to my interviews with Obama and Netanyahu, and also to various other controversies in which I’ve found myself enmeshed).

I decided, though, that the best course of action for me would be to interview Oren at length on his book and op-eds. This is what I did last week in New York, the night after his appearance at the 92nd Street Y, during which he was interviewed (expertly) by the writer and Friend-of-Goldblog Jonathan Rosen. An edited (but probably insufficiently condensed) transcript of our conversation can be found below. But before we get there, let me briefly unpack a couple of the controversies Oren sparked.

First, I find much of the criticism of Oren to be unfair. Haaretz, the left-leaning Israeli newspaper, has been running a character-assassination campaign against him for more than a week. And though I understand the general critique of the current U.S. ambassador to Israel (and now-former Oren friend) Dan Shapiro—and sympathize with his view that Oren has manipulated reality in certain places in order to advance an overly simplistic anti-Obama line—I don’t believe, as Shapiro apparently does, that Oren was motivated to criticize Obama in the manner he did out of a desire to sell books. (Nor do I believe that Netanyahu is 100 percent at fault for tensions in the relationship.) I believe Oren was motivated by a desire to highlight what he considers to be Obama’s exceedingly dangerous approach to Iran, a country whose government seeks Israel’s annihilation. In any case, ascribing motive is a dangerous business. My views on Oren line up to some degree with those of David Rothkopf, the high panjandrum of Foreign Policy magazine, who wrote about Oren here and who also published the most incendiary of his three recent op-eds.

And about those op-eds: One of the issues here is that Oren’s opinion pieces—which appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy, and the Los Angeles Times—were in some ways caricatures of the book. Ally is somewhat more nuanced than any of his op-eds. In the case of the Wall Street Journal op-ed, the piece itself was more nuanced than the headline—“How Obama Abandoned Israel”—though to be fair to the headline writer, Oren paints a picture of Obama in the article that is much more one-sided than the portrayal of the president in Ally. You would not know from Oren’s op-eds that he spends much of his book praising Obama for the various good deeds the president has performed on Israel’s behalf.

It was this Wall Street Journal op-ed that angered Shapiro, and made many of Obama’s allies in Washington so upset. You’ll see our exchange below on questions of Obama’s policy shifts on Israel and on the issue of whether it is truly unprecedented for an American president to disagree publicly with Israel.

My position is radically different from Oren’s on all of this. I think he, like many Israeli officials, can be myopic on the issue. For four decades, successive Israeli governments have publicly rejected American demands (requests, pleas, remonstrations, etc.) to stop planting settlements on the West Bank. A president comes along who makes the traditional American case with a bit more alacrity, and all of a sudden the sky is falling. It is Israel’s policy of continued settlement in the West Bank—settlement that endangers the two-state solution, and therefore Israel’s future as a democracy and as a haven for the Jewish people—that puts daylight between Jerusalem and Washington, not a president who calls Israel out for its settlement policy.

The larger, more troubling controversy came with the Foreign Policy piece, in which Oren wrote the following:

In addition to its academic and international affairs origins, Obama’s attitudes toward Islam clearly stem from his personal interactions with Muslims. These were described in depth in his candid memoir, Dreams from My Father, published 13 years before his election as president. Obama wrote passionately of the Kenyan villages where, after many years of dislocation, he felt most at home and of his childhood experiences in Indonesia. I could imagine how a child raised by a Christian mother might see himself as a natural bridge between her two Muslim husbands. I could also speculate how that child’s abandonment by those men could lead him, many years later, to seek acceptance by their co-religionists.

I grapple with Oren’s foray into psychoanalysis in our conversation below. As I understand it, Oren and his publisher rushed this book into print in advance of the June 30 deadline for the Iran nuclear agreement in order to call attention to what he perceives to be weaknesses in the deal. I wish that Oren had more tightly focused his work on a substantive critique of the Iranian regime and its intentions, and on the American approach to the nuclear issue, rather than on Obama’s alleged daddy issues. Oren has important points to make about the deal, and about the nature of the Iranian regime, and he makes them at length in his book, but his arguments have been obscured so far by these other arguments.

I do recommend you read his book for any number of reasons, not least of which is that it illuminates a clear and growing divide between the American and Israeli Jewish communities, and illustrates the way in which even a person who comes from the Israeli political center understands (and misunderstands) his brethren in America, including and especially his brethren who practice journalism.

Here is an edited version of our conversation, which, you will undoubtedly notice, reads occasionally like a transcript of two Jews yelling at each other on a park bench in Brooklyn:

Jeffrey Goldberg: So what’s with all the torn-between-two-Muslim-daddies psychobabble about Obama?

Michael Oren: In retrospect, I probably should stay away from psychoanalysis. I’m not a psychoanalyst. But these were questions I asked myself while trying to understand the president’s revolutionary approach to the Muslim world.

Goldberg: What’s so revolutionary about it?

Oren: It’s completely revolutionary.

Goldberg: It’s not.

Oren: I think President Obama would be the first person to agree that it was revolutionary. It was transformative.

Goldberg: But wait: Any president who followed George W. Bush would have sought to reset relations with the Muslim world, with Muslim nations, just to try to lower the temperature. So I don’t get how revolutionary this is. And I just don’t get how this veered into analysis of Obama’s relationship with his Muslim father.

Oren: In the book it’s more qualified than the piece I wrote for Foreign Policy. I wrote, “I don’t like armchair psychoanalysis.” I do it with Bibi too, I talk about his relationship with his father.

Goldberg: So how are you trying to resist psychoanalysis?

Oren: I try to resist it, but it is tempting for anyone who is trying to analyze these complicated figures. But anyway, you asked what was revolutionary about [Obama’s approach to the Muslim world]. First off was this very basic assumption that there’s a thing called the Muslim world, which is actually an Islamic concept. No American’s ever done that. There are only two other leaders who did this. One was Napoleon in 1798 and one was Wilhelm II in 1898. So it’s unusual.

Goldberg: That’s not the highly controversial part. The controversial part in that is your speculation that he’s trying to reconcile with the Muslim world because he was abandoned by two Muslim fathers.

Oren: I said that I should stay away from the psychoanalysis. But in fact he writes extensively about his time in Islamic countries. He says in the Cairo speech, “I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the place of its birth ... where it was revealed,” even using that line, “revealed.” The fact that he gives a speech in Cairo, which is one of the great seats of learning of Islam—he mentions this in his speech. He didn’t give this speech in Washington, he gave this speech in Cairo, and it’s more than twice as long as the first inaugural address. It’s very long and very detailed. But there’s nowhere in that Foreign Policy article, or even in the book, where I say that reaching out to the Muslim world is bad for Israel. Never said that.

Goldberg: But you did say that he was a champion of the Palestinian cause. In your Wall Street Journal op-ed, you said that—I’m paraphrasing here—any Israeli leader would be angered that Obama championed the Palestinian cause.

Oren: He came up with—

Goldberg: George W. Bush was a champion of the Palestinian cause. He called for a Palestinian state.

Oren: He did indeed, but Obama also reversed the conditions of championing the Palestinian cause.

Goldberg: What do you mean?

Oren: Under Bush, there was a sequence. The sequence was that the Palestinians had to democratize, had to create democratic institutions, and then they would have a peace based on a two-state solution. That part about democratization and creating the basis for a viable state—the institutions—was dropped with Obama and so you get peace first, and then you think about democratization. So the order was reversed. It was subtle, but it was there.

Goldberg: Just stay with me here on Obama and his Muslim background. Do you believe that President Obama seeks reconciliation with the Muslim world for these deeply personal reasons having to do with unreturned love from Muslim father figures, and that he saw distancing the U.S. from Israel as a way to bridge the gap with—

Oren: The answer is no.

Goldberg: But you wrote something in Foreign Policy that suggests this is—

Oren: —I was trying to figure out what are the origins of his feelings toward Islam. He has deep feelings about Islam, obviously. [He] talks about them—I’m not making them up—and he has a high regard for Islam. And I wanted to know where it came from. If George Bush all of a sudden came out and expressed very strong feelings about Islam, you’d want to know where they’re coming from. I think these were legitimate questions for an ambassador to ask and to inquire about, and think about.

Goldberg: Your prime minister presumably was interested in knowing the answers.

Oren: No, I don’t think the prime minister knew the details of my research. I came to my job as an historian. I used historian tools. What do you do? You go back to the sources. So I go back and read about what [Obama] had to say about Islam, where he came from, his discussion of his family life. It’s in the first inaugural address. It’s in virtually all of his major policy speeches, certainly in the first half of his term. It’s almost an imperative question you have to ask. Where is this coming from? Did I say it was at the expense of Israel? No, I actually say in the book it’s a good thing that he’s reaching out to Islam. As long as it’s not at Israel’s expense, it’s a very good thing for Israel. It’s in the book, no one is going to look at that. And I never said that in the Foreign Policy article either.

Goldberg: But as you know, the controversy comes in part because these questions are so Dinesh D’Souzaish. I mean, why do you think you’ve stepped in it, to the degree that you agree that you stepped in it on this particular question?

Oren: Have I stepped in it? I didn’t know I’d stepped in it. I know there are people saying things that I didn’t say in the article, such as that Obama abandoned Israel to embrace Islam. It’s not there, it’s just not there. I wanted to show in this article how you go about analyzing his worldview. I thought what was interesting was the degree to which Obama’s relationship to what he called the Muslim world has not changed in light of all the profound changes that have swept across the Middle East over the past few years. For example, this is a very disciplined administration when it comes to lexicon. So you have violent extremists; we do not have Islamic terrorists. And I suggested in the opening article that one of the reasons the United States didn’t have much representation at that Charlie Hebdo march was because the march was against Islamic extremism, which would have been a problem.

Goldberg: What is this argument that Obama couldn’t go to the Charlie Hebdo rally because he believes these guys were so distorting Islam—

Oren: Well, he determines who is in the Muslim world and who isn’t. He’s said it. ISIS is not a part of Islam. And the rally was called to condemn radical Islam.

Goldberg: So you think it was a deliberate attempt to avoid condemning Islam?

Oren: Yes, which is legitimate. He made a decision: “I am not going to call these guys out.” And the march was a march against radical Islam. And frankly, I could not see Obama there. I would be very, very surprised if he showed up.

Goldberg: You know, there is no president in American history who has killed more Islamist terrorists than this president.

Oren: And I say that in the book, too. In this article I was not presuming to pass judgment on whether it was bad or good. I was showing how an ambassador would view this and what kind of conclusions you could reach.

Goldberg: Let me go back to this other issue, a part that strikes me as unfair, this idea that [Obama] was so influenced by his exposure to Muslims, to Islam. There’s an omission here. Fine—it’s fair game to look at the people and ideas who influence a president. But what about his exposure to Lester Crown, Newton Minow, Abner Mikva, all of his Jewish mentors, his Jewish supporters early in his career, when he was seen as the Jewish candidate in Chicago. These are important to grapple with, too.  You don’t talk about this. I mean, just over the last month, he’s shown that he wants to be a liberal champion of Israel, he talks about the justice of Zionism. I just think you’re focused so much on the Muslim side—

Oren: But again, you’re talking about the last month. I’m talking about 2009.

Goldberg: You yourself write in the book that Obama has given amazing pro-Zionist speeches, that there are different moments when he’s said things about Israel that are quite meaningful.

Oren: I mentioned one of his speeches—I think at the UN in [September] 2011—which is probably one of the most Zionist speeches ever given by an American president—

Goldberg: —Right. This doesn’t come through in your op-eds. I get it, these op-eds have to have an argument, but—

Oren: —And they can’t be too subtle. You have 700 words to make a subtle argument. In that article about Obama abandoning Israel, I talk about—

Goldberg: You don’t actually believe Obama has abandoned Israel—

Oren: No, he’s abandoned two core principles that create a lot of problems. He abandoned the idea of “no surprises” in the relationship. That’s just what I said in the op-ed.

Goldberg: Different presidents have surprised Israel in various ways—

Oren: Lots of surprises—and we surprise them. We bombed Iraq in 1981.

Goldberg: So what Obama has done is not unprecedented?

Oren: The question is whether it’s a matter of policy—whether it was a one-off here and there. But this was a policy: Obama even said, “I’m putting daylight, diplomatic daylight, between Israel and the United States.”

Goldberg: That’s the most important thing that he said on this subject to you?

Oren: No, but it’s very important. There are things that were more important.

Goldberg: So here’s a theory—tell me why it’s wrong. Hear me out for a second. The theory is, eight years of George W. Bush, no real progress on the peace front, and it was a close embrace between Israel and the U.S., so Obama comes in and says, maybe I’ll do a little pushing instead of embracing. That’s not a revolutionary argument.

Oren: It’s empirically wrong. Eight years of no daylight with Bush produced an Israeli pullout from Gaza—the first unilateral pullout from lands captured in 1967, at great controversy and cost to the State of Israel—and produced a full-fledged peace offer to [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas, all of Gaza, half of Jerusalem, and almost the entire West Bank. So it’s empirically untrue. And traditionally, historically—this is what Nixon understood. Nixon was no lover of the Jewish people, but he understood that Jews and Israelis make concessions when we feel secure. Everyone got it. [Obama] made, for whatever reason, a policy decision to put in daylight. But it was a very sophisticated policy, so he said, “We’re going to have daylight on diplomacy, but no daylight on defense.” But it doesn’t work that way. Look, I was scared of the daylight. My job as ambassador was always to go out and say, “There’s no daylight.” Because I was afraid of the daylight. It scared me because, in the Middle East, I understood nobody distinguishes between diplomatic and military daylight. There’s just daylight. So my job was always to go out and say, “There’s no daylight.”

Goldberg: It seems to me you were unleashing a lot of feelings in this book that you kept suppressed for four or five years. And one of the areas you’re most disappointed with has to do with the patterns of American Jewish life.

Oren: But also, to be fair to me, I also show my intolerance of certain patterns of Jewish life in Israel that I didn’t show as ambassador.

Goldberg: Yes.

Oren: I am revealing a lot of feelings about where we are as the Jewish people today.

Goldberg: So a couple of things stood out to me. Your criticism of Jews in the media, trying to distance themselves from Israel. By the way, Leon? [Atlantic contributing editor] Leon Wieseltier, of all people, as a guy who is showing hostility to Jews by showing hostility to Bibi?

Oren: Leon is interpreting this in a very strange way.

Goldberg: Have you talked to him?

Oren: He’s written me some very rough emails. He thinks that I’m calling him an anti-Zionist. I quote Leon in a passage about Bibi. It has nothing to do with Bibi.

Goldberg: No, it does—you wrote that the anger sparked by Bibi resembles the anger sparked by Jews, and you mention Leon in that passage as someone who has a pathological hatred of Bibi.

Oren: No, it wasn’t Jews.

Goldberg: It was Jews.

Oren: It’s all about a portrait of Bibi, which was a very hard section for me to write, as you can imagine. At some point, I realized that I was going to have to portray Netanyahu. So one thing I did was talk about attitudes toward Bibi in the press, particularly among the Israeli journalists. Then I talk about American journalists. And then I talked about how I noticed something about Bibi—the way people describe Jews as “The Other,” Bibi became “The Other.”

Goldberg: Well that seemed to follow right from your Leon Wieseltier section.

Oren: It was the furthest thing from my mind. I’m Leon’s buddy, why would I want to hurt Leon? And I write about him lovingly in the book.

Goldberg: And you have these hard feelings about [New York Times columnist] Tom Friedman—

Oren: I do, I do.

Goldberg: You kind of imply that he’s some sort of disloyal Jew—

Oren: —I have deep differences with how he’s portrayed Israel and how he’s portrayed the Middle East. Deep differences. It’s not personal. I can sit with him and have a perfectly lovely conversation. After a while, I just stopped briefing him because it was not a good use of my time. I could spend an hour with him on the phone, it wasn’t going to have any impact. OK. But I also think he said some things that were very problematic, not the least of which about Jews buying seats in Congress. That’s problematic. And, you know—

Goldberg: OK, but that’s different than calling—

Oren: —I’m hard on Jews who, because they’re Jews, feel morally compelled to be harder on Israel.

Goldberg: Then there was a description of Steve Simon [a former U.S. National Security Council official] as an “apostate” Jew. It’s a heavy word, apostate. It’s one thing to say, “A guy who was Orthodox and has become secular.”

Oren: He became very secular. He became a WASP.

Goldberg: Well, you can’t become a WASP, except if you’re Ralph Lifshitz.

Oren: Steve did his best.

Goldberg: So there are these Jews in your mind who are trying to gain position in broader American society by dumping on Netanyahu when he doesn’t deserve to be dumped on.

Oren: There were many Jews who made it big in public life and didn’t dump on him. What about that?

Goldberg: This concerns me for a couple of reasons: One, we’re talking about people who are our mutual friends, and sitting in judgment of Jews like this is—

Oren: My problem is that the Jews—it’s part of the American Jewish success story—is that they’re very prominent in the media, proportionally. And in government. I don’t expect them to be pro-Israel. My issue is with the Jewish journalists who say, “I’m Jewish, therefore I have greater credibility in criticizing Israel.”

Goldberg: That’s why you bring up [Washington Post columnist] Ruth Marcus.

Oren: Yeah. And Ruth, I very much like her. But she writes a domestic column, she only writes about one other country, and that’s Israel. And that was the issue I had. I’m not expecting people who are Jewish to be more pro-Israel. I am expecting them, if they are members of the Jewish people, I expect them, as I said in the book, to be grateful that we are living in a moment which is totally unique in the history, when we have these two vastly successful, powerful Jewish communities, and we should be grateful. But that’s the whole thrust of that position—it comes down to the question of ingratitude, and what I have a problem with is Jewish journalists who say, “I’m Jewish, but I’m not those Jews.”

Goldberg: So this is something new that you’ve discovered in America when you came as ambassador—a slow dissolution of the bonds between these two groups? What are we talking about?

Oren: Yes, but then I also have an historic perspective. I knew it happened in the ’30s, I knew it happened. In the 1967 war, which was the foundational event for me, tens of thousands of American Jews went out to protest in the weeks before the war. You know, during the waiting period. They were protesting against the Vietnam War. They weren’t demonstrating for Israel.

Goldberg: So this gets to my point. There’s this feeling that runs through the book that you feel betrayed by American Jewry—by the community from which you come.

Oren: I felt sad. I feel sad. Last night I gave a talk in which I spoke about the fact that they didn’t understand us. We don’t understand them sometimes as well. But American Jews have a very hard time understanding—not just remembering, but understanding—what it was to withdraw from Lebanon in 2000 and get thousands of rockets fired at you. To withdraw from Gaza in 2005 and get thousands of rockets fired at you. What it was to embark on the Oslo peace process and get a thousand Jews blown up, including my sister-in-law.

Goldberg: This book is a sort of document of a relationship slowly unraveling. A relationship of two ships passing in the night. I’m not talking about America and Israel, I’m talking about two groups of Jews.

Oren: I don’t disagree. The book was a cry. My path took me into Israel, gave me an Israeli perspective that most American Jews don’t have, but I never lost track of where I came from. I talk a lot about Women of the Wall [an organization advocating for women to pray at the Western Wall], because I realized that the Women of the Wall went to the heart of the rift between us. That the Western Wall that was supposed to unite us was going to tear us apart irrevocably as a people. If one woman had been seriously injured—God forbid killed—then not just the Jewish people, but Israel and the United States, would be torn apart. I lived with that fear all the time. Much as I lived with the fear about what was going on with Iran, I lived with the fear of an American Jewish woman being hurt at the Wall. I spent hours and hours going back and forth with Israelis, trying to get them to understand. What we saw as a matter of law and order and crowd control and Supreme Court ordinances and status-quo agreements, Americans saw as freedom of religion, women’s rights, free speech.

Goldberg:  It’s two ships.

Oren: This book was not easy for me. This book came from a very deep and caring place. And at the end of the book, I spend four or five pages talking about what we can do to change it, to bring it back from the brink. It’s interesting, the first draft of the book ended—you’re going to appreciate this —with chickenshit.

Goldberg: Chickenshit for dessert.

Oren: I must have spent 20 hours on Israeli television trying to find the Hebrew equivalent for the word “chickenshit.” Nobody knew. I couldn’t do it. Chickenshit—it doesn’t work in Hebrew.

Goldberg: Pachdan?

Oren: Yeah, but it’s much stronger than that, and pachdan doesn’t convey the crassness of it. And I said in my initial version, what I really wanted to say was, “Stop.” And then I go into this, stop. Like scream, shout, “Stop! Stop this stuff, this is nuts. This is nuts.”

Goldberg: Chickenshit was a symbol of—

Oren: I was going to tear my hair out at that point. If someone in the White House says this about the democratically elected leader of an allied country, what are other countries in the world going to think about the United States? If you are disparaging your democratic ally in this way, what does it mean for America’s security? Who’s going to trust you? And the last couple of days, we’ve been talking about some of the reactions to the book, I have been called basically a money-grubbing politician—a guy who’s out to sell books. I’ve been called a liar. I’ve been called someone who culturally stereotypes. I’ve been called a lot of things and I think that this is a pattern. Rather than engaging me on the very substantive issues that I’m raising, and that I’m raising in the most truthful way I can, sometimes at great cost to myself, the reaction is to sort of disparage.

Goldberg: Why do you think [U.S. Ambassador to Israel] Dan Shapiro got so upset with you? I mean, you guys were close.

Oren: I don’t even want to go there, you’d have to ask Dan that question.

Goldberg: Dan has made his public statements.

Oren: Dan called me a politician who wants to sell books, which I think is a part of the pattern. One of the observations I make in the book is that the administration is very disciplined. It’s one of the most disciplined administrations you’ll ever encounter, and the messaging is very consistent, unlike the Israeli messaging which is—

Goldberg: There is no messaging.

Oren: Exactly, it’s an oxymoron. Dan said that this is a time to calm things down, and that I threw a pail full of fuel on the fire. I’ve heard that five or six times from different sources. So that is the message. I’m pouring a pail of fuel on the fire. But if that lights up a fire that gets people to see clearly this Iranian agreement, which could endanger the lives of our children, then that’s fine. Then use any metaphor you want.

Goldberg: So go to Iran for a minute. So I read your dialogue about the Iranian threat with [the Times of Israel editor] David Horovitz, who I love, and when I read it—and I acknowledge, I’m living in a safe place, not necessarily in range of whatever Iran might one day have—but I felt like I was reading two old Jews being hysterical at each other. It was like you were whipping yourselves up into a frenzy.

Oren: But David’s not like that. David’s very low key. I’m much more emotional than David is.

Goldberg: Anyway, it got me thinking: Are they just being hysterical, or am I just not feeling this impending sense of doom that you’re feeling?

Oren: I’m not a particularly apocalyptic person. I know some people who are, and we have some friends who are.

Goldberg: Well you live in a city that specializes in the apocalyptic thinking, obviously.

Oren: Read my apocalypse.

Goldberg: What?

Oren: It was a joke.

Goldberg: Oh. I get it.

Oren: It’s my next book, actually. Read My Apocalypse.

Look, I know too much about the Iranian nuclear program. Maybe I just know too much about history. I don’t subscribe to the lachrymose version of Jewish history. I don’t subscribe to it. It’s not part of my worldview. If I didn’t have a very bright worldview, I couldn’t do what I did, but the Iranian nuclear program presents not one but multiple existential threats to us, and of that I’m certain. And some things I actually can’t say, but what I would say is that Iran has begun a major upgrading campaign for its proxies in the region. They have 100,000 rockets. If those rockets become guided rockets, that would be the first conventional strategic threat we have faced since 1973. And you have to believe that they’re going to put a lot of that money they will get from this agreement into more upgrading.

Goldberg: Well, I had this conversation with the president a few weeks ago, and he said—

Oren: —That they can be anti-Semitic and rational.

Goldberg: —No, I’m referring to his cautious optimism that they will spend their windfall on domestic projects.

Oren: I saw what he said. They can serve as a rational regional actor; they can bring about some kind of reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites. This goes against everything we talked about. I talked about the intimate discussions, and which I can’t go into, but what I can say is that they were frank, they were very good discussions, we looked at the same data, we reached pretty much the same conclusions. Where was the difference? The difference was in reading the nature of the Iranian regime.

Goldberg: Reading the motivation.

Oren: The nature, which is the essence of the regime. Are they rational or are they not rational? And understanding that irrational regimes can sometimes take rational steps. Here’s a good example of the fact that our margin for error on Iran is exactly zero. And what’s at stake here is not [Obama’s] legacy. It’s not who has got whose name on what.

Goldberg: Why are so many people I know and you know, from [former Israeli officials] Amos Yadlin to Meir Dagan to Yuval Diskin—why are they so much more sanguine about this than you or the prime minister?

Oren: They’re not.

Goldberg: They’re not?

Oren: The debate you heard in December 2012 was a deafening debate. I actually quote [former Israeli Foreign Minister] Avigdor Lieberman quoting The Good, the Bad and the Ugly—“If you’re going to talk, talk. If you’re going to shoot, shoot.” He quotes—it’s not Clint Eastwood, it’s the Jewish guy.

Goldberg: Eli Wallach?

Oren: Eli Wallach. He quotes Eli Wallach, and I agreed with that. But it was a very loud debate, a deafening debate in Israel about what America would do. That debate ended suddenly in September of 2013 over the Syrian chemical red line. It ended. It was amazing how that stopped. When Obama didn’t send a couple of Tomahawk missiles into Damascus, the debate in Israel ended, and I—

Goldberg: Because the Israelis realized that the U.S. is not going to ride to the rescue?

Oren: All of those people you named have been quiet since then.

Goldberg: They haven’t been that quiet. Amos Yadlin says that there’s ways that this deal can work for Israel.

Oren: I can’t speak for Amos. I’m just talking about as a matter of public debate, OK?

Goldberg: Was it a mistake for Israel not to use the military option [against Iran] somewhere between 2010 and 2012, when the Americans were worried that you were going to do something?

Oren: I don’t know. I don’t know.

Goldberg: When Obama said to me, “As the president of the United States, I don’t bluff,” you think he was bluffing?

Oren: The Israeli public—

Goldberg: I’m asking you, not the Israeli public.

Oren: I’m not being diplomatic here. In the book, I talk about what I think were the triggers for a possible military strike, and even then I was a minority voice. I thought that Obama would use military force at certain points, but now he’s coming out and saying it wasn’t really much of an option.

Goldberg: Do you feel you’re a part of a modern-day Bergson Group now? [The Bergson Group was a World War II-era organization of Revisionist Zionists that campaigned for greater American Jewish militancy on behalf of European Jewry.]

Oren: Am I in the Bergson Group? That’s a great question. Only a few people would understand that.

Goldberg: Eight people in the world know what this means.

Oren: And one of the eight is [J Street Founder] Jeremy Ben-Ami.

Goldberg: Oh right, his father was in the Bergson Group.

Oren: Jonathan Rosen put it in a harder way. I almost cried last night, the way he put it.

Goldberg: What did he say?

Oren: You know the joke about the two Jews who are about to be executed by the SS?

Goldberg: One refused a blindfold and the other one says, “Don’t make trouble?”

Oren: Don’t make trouble. Rosen said, “Are you the Jew who is refusing to put on the blindfold?” It just hit me in the gut when he said that.

Goldberg: Iran wants you dead, and America is inadvertently helping it achieve that goal. Is that your bottom line?

Oren: The American impetus may be noble. Really.

Goldberg: Maybe this deal will stop [the Iranians] from getting a bomb.

Oren: The impetus may come from a good place, but the Israeli reading of it is that the outcome will not be good, and that is an understatement.