The Right Kind of Unpopularity

By David Isaac

Shmuel Katz opens his book, “The Hollow Peace,” with a description of the days following Menachem Begin’s election in 1977. In a meeting with Begin, Shmuel describes being shocked by Begin’s decision to appoint Moshe Dayan as Foreign Minister.

I reacted forcefully. True, I had no official status in the Likud, but I had been active in the election campaign, and to my mind, a vast gulf yawned between the policy the Likud had promised the public and Mr. Dayan’s views … I expressed my misgivings regarding his probable deviations in his capacity as Foreign Minister. Begin soothingly explained … “You’ve nothing to worry about. I need Dayan because he is very popular abroad.” I did not accept this argument. “What we need as Foreign Minister now,” I said, “is not a popular person but somebody who is prepared to be unpopular.”

Popularity seeking Ambassador Michael Oren gives commencement speech at Brandeis University

The willingness to be unpopular was a quality Shmuel had in spades, and one which is sorely lacking among Israel’s politicos. A recent example is Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., who has been speechifying about the wonders of the Obama administration for months. As Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick writes, “Oren has acted as the Obama administration’s most energetic cheerleader to the U.S. Jewish community.”

It appeared finally that Oren had gone too far when he praised the U.S. administration in an interview with the Jerusalem Post last week, prompting the Netanyahu government to order him to cease and desist. At least that was one explanation given for the ambassador’s volte face during a foreign ministry briefing when he allegedly described U.S.-Israel relations as undergoing a “tectonic rift.”

Glick suggested hopefully that it might be the start of a new, saner strategy on the part of Israel’s government. That turns out to have been wishful thinking. Oren now denies ever having made the remark. In a Fox News interview today (July 2), Oren said he had been “grossly misquoted.” Pressed further on the state of the U.S.-Israel relationship he oozed platitudes about the “great and historic alliance” between the two countries, saying that he was confident of Obama’s commitment to Israel’s security.

Oren was then handed another golden opportunity by the interviewer, who asked about the plummeting of American Jewish support for Obama. Again, Oren dropped the ball. Here was a chance for him to say that while it’s not his place to comment on American domestic politics, American Jews are entitled to evaluate Obama’s policies and come to their own conclusions. The poll numbers suggest they are looking at those policies critically.

Instead, Oren shrugged off the question, saying he “couldn’t comment.” Oren hopes – no doubt with Netanyahu’s blessing – to gain Israel some popularity points with the Obama administration that will lead to short-term benefits. But those benefits will come at a cost of Israel’s long-term interests.

What makes the Israeli government’s weak-kneed strategy still more painful is that the political situation has shifted in its favor. As former Israeli Ambassador Yoram Ettinger pointed out, “Tell me who initiates the meeting and who wants a photo opportunity, and I’ll tell you who has the inferior position. The upcoming meeting between Israel’s prime minister and the US president was initiated by Obama, who is concerned about the outcome of the November election and his declining support by Democrats and Independents.” The upshot is that Netanyahu is in a position to resist American pressure, but doesn’t take advantage of it.

The pursuit of “popular” policies has been tried before with devastating results. What were the Oslo Accords but an attempt to be popular? The Labor government came to power in 1992 promising to achieve peace within a year – an irrational promise motivated by a desire to be popular with the Israeli public and the world. In the near term, it made Prime Minister Rabin and Foreign Minister Peres popular enough to win the Nobel Peace Prize. But look where Israel is now in terms of its popularity. So the pursuit of popularity, in the long-term, is not only devastating to a country’s basic interests, but to its popularity as well.

Shmuel was prescient in seeing the looming dangers to which Israel has reacted in such counter-productive fashion. In 1982, he warned of an “even darker cloud that has been gathering for the last seven years and more; the campaign for the delegitimization of Israel as a nation and a state. This obscene project is reflected by the new wave of anti-Semitism unprecedented since the days of the Nazis, whose central target is now the sovereign State of Israel.”

“The purpose will surely be defeated,” Shmuel wrote, “but the battle has yet to be waged with steadfastness, and with skill.”