In third day of the “chickenshit”-gate scandal the fallout continues in this diplomatic crisis between the United States and Israel, while more leaders are denouncing the events. The scandal revolves around an unnamed senior official in President Barack Obama’s administration who called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyshu a coward and other profanities in article published in the Atlantic. On Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry finally condemned the remarks, Jewish communal leaders responded after a delay, United States and Israeli national security advisors meet to smooth over the teetering diplomatic crisis, and Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon canceled a military aircraft order that had been made in April 2013. Almost everyone in the Israeli government, Jewish communal organizations, and the Obama Administration have spoke out against the insults aimed at Netanyahu. Everyone responded except one, President Obama, who as usual likes to stay above the fray and keep himself blameless.
Secretary of State John Kerry made his first remarks about the name calling incident on Thursday when speaking at the annual Washington Ideas Forum hosted by the Atlantic magazine. Kerry made sure that he thoroughly condemned the insult, saying; “We condemn anybody who uses language such as was used in this article. It does not reflect the president, it does not reflect me, it is disgraceful, unacceptable, damaging.”
The Obama Administration has being trying to distance themselves from the remarks, implying that the source might have been unverified, and not truly a senior White House official, in attempt to avoid a looming diplomatic crisis between the two long-time allies. Kerry continued this insinuation and questioning, stating, “I have never heard that word around me in the White House. I don’t know who these anonymous people are who keep getting quoted, but they make life much more difficult.” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest first made the implication that the source was possibly made up and it might not be true, throwing the blame from the administration to Jeffrey Goldberg, who authored the article.
Kerry however, still did not give up his dreams of brokering a peace agreement between Israel the Palestinians and stated, “We still believe it is doable, but it takes courage and strength, both sides have to be prepared to compromise in order to do it.” The harsh direction the Obama Administration has taken with Prime Minister Netanyahu led some political analysts to believe that after the midterm elections, Obama might be more forceful regarding a peace agreement. The administration might corner Israel on their terms including parsing Israel’s border down to the pre-1967 lines, and cutting down the capital Jerusalem and giving East Jerusalem to the Palestinians, terms Netanyahu opposes.
In an attempt to fan the flames on the crisis, the US and Israeli National Security Advisors Susan Rice and Yossi Cohen met on Thursday at the White House, their meeting was announced on Wednesday, Oct. 29. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest in his Wednesday press briefing tried to promote the meeting as not a crisis control measure, but rather a regular occurrence that represents the countries close bond. Earnest explained; “This meeting – and the fact that it occurs every six months – serves as a testament to the unprecedented level of coordination and cooperation between the United States and Israel, and between the president of the United States and the prime minister of Israel.”
US National Security Advisor Rice also spoke about the name calling incident at the Washington Ideas Forum Wednesday evening. Rice discussed the special relationship between Israel and the US; “We share information and engage in strategy on the range of issues that are of mutual interest in the region, from Iran to ISIL and all of the issues that we’re discussing here today, and many others. That kind of deep cooperation, consultation, sharing, strategizing is unprecedented, and that’s something that has evolved uniquely in this administration.”
The first to respond from the White House’s camp was National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey, who denied the insults, saying; “Certainly, that’s not the administration’s view, and we think such comments are inappropriate and counterproductive. Prime Minister Netanyahu and the president have a forged an effective partnership, and consult closely and frequently, including earlier this month when the president hosted the prime minister in the Oval Office.” State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki, US National Security Advisor Susan Rice, White House Press Secretary Earnest were all dispatched early on to diffuse the predicament where they used the words “inappropriate,” “counterproductive,” and “unacceptable” in their mild condemnations. They denied that is how the administration feels, admitted to the differences of opinions between the two countries especially regarding settlement construction, but also reiterated the close and longtime relationship between the countries.
As much as the Obama Administration was trying to downplay the crisis between the two countries, there have been active repercussions. Just this past week Israel had increased an April 2013 order for V-22 Osprey to 44 military aircraft including an additional squadron of F-35 fighter jets. Instead, on Thursday, Oct. 30 Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon canceled the military purchase. Just last week during a 5-day official trip to the US, he denied his requests to meet with Secretary Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden and National Security Advisor Susan Rice. Instead, Yaalon met with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Powers, and that was reluctantly granted. After his snub and the insult to Netanyahu, he decided to cancel the order, which never had much support from the government because of its high costs.
Right after the article was released there was a string of condemnations for the attack on the Israeli Prime Minister, from the Israeli cabinet members, coalition partners and members of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, from Republican congressional leaders, including the Speaker of the House John Boehner, and from Netanyahu himself. Netanyahu responded to the article in a speech to the Knesset on Wednesday, Oct. 29, declaring; “I risked my life for my country, and I am not willing to make concessions that will endanger our country. I am being attacked because I am willing to defend the State of Israel. The safety of Israel is not important to those who attack me anonymously and personally. They’re attacking me because I stand for our safety and our security interests.”
The media analyzing the situation decried that the “contempt” from the insult proves the relationship between the two leaders and countries is at a “low” point, “unprecedented” and a “crisis.” The majority of the news media however, acknowledged the strained relationship between Obama and Netanyahu, some even listing their past slights to each other. Former Israeli Ambassador to the US Prof. Itamar Rabinovich put it bluntly “the two sides haven’t just taken off the gloves – they threw them in the trash.” He also pointed out that “very awful personal relations between the leaders” is “unprecedented.” Another former Israeli ambassador Danny Ayalon observed, “In terms of the personal relations between the prime minister and the president, which is supremely important, there has never been something like this.” In terms of diplomatic relations this kind of personal hatred used to not affect business and relations between countries, the two leaders are making personal, professional an art form. As Ayalon indicated, “What we are seeing between Netanyahu and Obama – personal loathing, scorn, ugly leaks of one against the other – these are things we never knew in the past.”
American Jewish communal leaders were slow to respond. All condemned the remarks, and most wanted the administration to hold the “anonymous” senior official accountable. On Wednesday Rabbi Marvin Haier, the founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center was the first from the Jewish organizations to condemn the administration’s insults and demanded that “Obama needs to reveal the name of the source quoted, remove himself from the statement and apologize on behalf of the American government.”
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which represents “55 Jewish organizations,” also issued a strong condemnation. Chairman Robert G. Sugarman and executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein expressed in their statement that “We are deeply concerned by a number of recent public and private criticisms, personal insults and inappropriate characterizations emanating from official sources. These often anonymous, but no less harmful, declarations undermine the common interests of the United States and Israel on the critical issues which face both countries and the real extraordinary cooperation on the security, intelligence, political and other levels.” The organization’s leaders also “asked that the person responsible be held to account and the appropriate steps be taken by the Administration. We call on officials, media and others in the public arena to consider the consequences of the words and deeds. Apologies do not undo the damage and every manifestation of division between these two allies is exploited by the enemies of both.”
The National Jewish Democratic Council, (NDJC) who rarely criticizes a Democratic president found justification in doing so, all the while remaining neutral on the fundamental political and policy differences between Israel and the US regarding the conflict with the Palestinians. The NDCJ stated that they “express surprise and disappointment at the profane and inappropriate language attributed to a senior administration official in describing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Even in informal conversation, the use of the term was unprofessional and does not meet the standard of civility and deference that has typified the Administration even in disagreement with its long-time ally.”
The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) took the opportunity to criticize in general the way the administration treats Israel in a press release. ZOA National President Morton A. Klein statement strongly denounced the most recent incident, concluding “We clearly see a disturbing pattern of Obama officials making outrageous remarks hostile to Israel, which make headlines around the world — and then making a weak statement that fails to retract them, after the damage is done. This is nothing but a form of bias and hostility towards Israel. The ZOA calls on President Obama to name, condemn and fire the official who called Prime Minister Netanyahu a ‘chickensh..t.'”
The Ruderman Family Foundation, a Jewish organization that helps and “advocates” for those within the community that have disabilities, found fault not with the main insult, but with that fact that the Obama Administration, used a disability Asperger’s Syndrome, and turned it into a insult. The president of the Ruderman Family Foundation Jay Ruderman in his statement expressed that “The term ‘Aspergery’ was used in a manner that is insulting to the millions of people around the world with Asperger Syndrome. It is never OK to insult someone by referring to them by using disability in a negative manner. The Foundation calls on the administration to release a statement denouncing the use of the name of a disability in a derogatory manner (in this case ‘Aspergery’).”
No surprise, the leftist Anti-Defamation League was mild in their rebuke, and was satisfied with the White House’s response. ADL’s national director Abraham Foxman said the White House and Administration’s response “should bring closure to this issue.” Continuing he actually commended the administration, writing; “We welcome the White House’s distancing themselves from the inappropriate characterizations of the prime minister of Israel. It does a disservice to the bilateral relationship which, despite differences from time to time, has served the national security interests of both countries and the quest for peace and freedom globally.”
The potential diplomatic crisis erupted on Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 28, 2014 when journalist Jeffrey Goldberg’s article entitled “The Crisis in U.S.-Israel Relations Is Officially Here” was published in the Atlantic. In the article, an Obama administration senior official who refused to be named, hurled insults at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. The official revealed, “The thing about Bibi is, he’s a chickenshit. The good thing about Netanyahu is that he’s scared to launch wars. The bad thing about him is that he won’t do anything to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians or with the Sunni Arab states. The only thing he’s interested in is protecting himself from political defeat. He’s not [Yitzhak] Rabin, he’s not [Ariel] Sharon, he’s certainly no [Menachem] Begin. He’s got no guts.” Goldberg listed all the other the various insults hurled at Netanyahu from the Obama Administration through the years, they include; “recalcitrant, myopic, reactionary, obtuse, blustering, pompous, and ‘Aspergery.'”
The main reason behind the administration’s strong feelings against Netanyahu is Israel’s continued building in East Jerusalem and the West Bank settlements. Just this past week Netanyahu and the State Department were fighting over new construction announcements, with the US continued their strong censures, while Netanyahu maintains Israel has a right like every other country to build in their capital city. Netanyahu argued on Tuesday, Oct. 28; “We have built in Jerusalem, we are building in Jerusalem and we will continue to build in Jerusalem…. When Abu Mazen incites to murder Jews in Jerusalem, the international community is silent and when we build in Jerusalem they are up in arms. I do not accept this double standard.” The projects included 1000 new housing units in two East Jerusalem neighborhoods, and a new development project in the West Bank that includes “2,000 new units, 12 new roads, parks, student villages, and renovation of the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.” So far, the Prime Minister’s Office only formerly announced the 12 roads in the West Bank.
Despite the Obama Administration’s fancy rhetorical footwork, they have not strongly condemned enough the comments that came from a senior official, neither have they apologized, instead they tried to deny it was legitimately said, insinuating Goldberg used an unreliable source or made it up. President Obama’s favorite game is the blame game, the motto of the administration is never take responsibility for their actions or mistakes, just find someone who they can use as a scapegoat. Most probably, Goldberg did not risk his entire career and a senior official did spill the beans, and as a senior official in the administration, he or she would be privy to the inner thoughts and opinions of the president’s foreign policy team, and even that of the president.
Speaking of the President Obama, he is the only one from the administration that has not denounced the remarks. He routinely deals with Israel and his rocky relationship with Israel lends credence to the official anonymous insults. Obama has to not only hold that official accountable, he has to apologize and for once and take responsibility. Obama is the president and if he would not feel that way about Netanyahu even to a certain extent, the official would have never have name-called the Israeli prime minister and elaborated on the administration’s position. The Jerusalem Post reported that “no phone calls” were even “scheduled” between the two leaders. The question remains when President Obama will address the issue, or will he? The way the president personally handle this situation will reveal if that it is truly how he feels about Netanyahu and Israel.
- Sixth Annual Washington Ideas Forum, Secretary of State John Kerry; Harman Center; Washington, DC, Oct. 30, 2014
- Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, Oct. 29, 2014
- PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s Speech at the Special Knesset Session in Memory of Rehavam Ze’evi, PMO, Oct. 29, 2014
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. She covers US, Canadian & Israeli politics, with a particular focus on the Obama presidency, Congress, domestic policy, and elections.