United States Israel relations have gone downhill fast. At the beginning of the month, President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a friendly meeting at the White House, but in four weeks, the fragile personal relationship has all collapsed. Now a crisis and break between the two countries is possible after a senior Obama Administration official resorted to school yard name-calling, where he called the Israeli prime minister “chickensh*t” and a “coward” which was quoted in the Atlantic by journalist Jeffrey Goldberg in his entitled “The Crisis in U.S.-Israel Relations Is Officially Here” and published Tuesday, Oct. 28, 2014. Greenberg concluded that there is now a “full-blown crisis” between the two supposed and long-time allies.
In the Goldberg article, the Obama administration senior official refused to be named, but had some explicit choice words for Netanyahu, and openly stated the animosity Obama has tried to hide throughout his presidency for his Israeli counter-part. The official revealed the Obama administration has a “red-hot anger” against Netanyahu and Israel’s government for continuing to build in the West Bank settlements and East Jerusalem, and they put the blame entirely on Israel for the peace talks collapsing. The official stated the administration thinks that everything Netanyahu does is politically motivated and meant to ensure he can be reelected.
The relationship between the two leaders has never been good or even stable; these new remarks take it to a new level. Obama has also made his distain and annoyance Netanyahu known, though he denies it, sending his emissaries to do the dirty work and insulting for him. Goldberg listed the various insults hurled at Netanyahu from the Obama Administration through the years, they include; “recalcitrant, myopic, reactionary, obtuse, blustering, pompous, and ‘Aspergery.'” As CNN points out the two leaders are no longer hiding how they feel about each other.
The senior Obama official called Netanyahu “chickensh*t” based on the way he is handling the peace process, and called him a coward from threatening, but not actually launching a war with Iran. Continuing the official asserted, “The thing about Bibi is, he’s a chickensh*t. 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.”
Another official from the administration who spoke to Goldberg stated the US does not believe Netanyahu would ever attack Iran. The official recounted that the “Obama administration no longer believes that Netanyahu would launch a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. It’s too late for him to do anything. Two, three years ago, this was a possibility. But ultimately he couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. Now it’s too late.” The official concluded; “The feeling now is that Bibi’s bluffing. He’s not Begin at Osirak.”
Prime Minister Netanyahu responded to the insults and slurs in a speech to the Knesset on Wednesday, Oct. 29 in which he took the high road. Netanyahu declared; “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 prime minister also refused to acknowledge these remarks can break Israel and the US’s supposedly good and historically long relationship, expressing; “I laud the deep connection we have with the United States. We have more support from the American people than ever, and our strategic ties continue.”
Members of the Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud Party came to his defense and denounced the Obama Administration’s insults. While opening the Knesset on Wednesday morning, Oct. 29 Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein responded; “The unrestrained criticism against Israel and its leader quoted today from ‘officials’ in the White House crossed all lines. You can have disagreements, but in diplomatic relations – certainly among close allies – it is appropriate to maintain a respectful dialogue.” International Relations Minister Yuval Steinitz also condemned the insults; “The prime minister of Israel is not a private [citizen] and he represents the position of the democratic and sovereign State of Israel and its constant fear for its existence and security. Therefore offensive comments toward him are insults against the State of Israel and its citizens.”
Initially, the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office responded that ” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will continue to insist on the security interests of the citizens of Israel and the rights of the Jewish people in Jerusalem, and no pressure will change that.” Jewish Home Party leader, coalition partner and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett issued a statement defending Netanyahu and denouncing the remarks, saying, “The United States administration is planning to throw Israel under the bus. Israel is stronger than all those who curse it.” Bennett reminded the Obama Administration that they cannot just hurl insults at the leader of a foreign, because “The prime minister is not a private individual, but the leader of the Jewish State and the Jewish world as a whole. Serious curses such as these against the Israeli Prime Minister are harmful to millions of citizens of Israel and Jews worldwide.”
Continuing Bennett listed all the Middle East leaders that Obama and his administration should be attacking instead; “The leader of Syria who slaughtered 150,000 people was not awarded the name ‘chickensh*t’, Neither was the leader of Saudi Arabia who stones women and homosexuals or the leader of Iran who murders freedom protesters. If what appears in the press is true, then it seems that the current US administration is throwing Israel under the bus.” Bennett demanded the administration “immediately reject these gross comments.”
Only Israel’s left that chose to defend the Obama Administration, and justify the criticism. The opposition leader and head of the Labor Party Yitzhak Herzog spoke to Israel’s News 2 Online about the situation. Herzog spoke of his political nemesis, stating, “Netanyahu is behaving like a political pyromaniac and has brought relations with the United States to an unprecedented low.” Herzog in his comments that are clearly politically motivated criticized the prime minister’s policies; “The debate here is not about the harshness of the expressions but about the substance, and this is where Netanyahu is damaging Israel’s security. The political games that he is playing vis-a-vis the American administration at the expense of Israel’s citizens must stop.”
The Obama Administration is trying to hide and distance themselves from the remarks. National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey stated; “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.” National Security Adviser Susan Rice stated on Wednesday afternoon that there is no crisis, “The relationship is not in crisis. The relationship is fundamentally stronger in many respects than it has ever been.”
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest was evasive in his daily press briefing on Wednesday, and would not comment on the particular senior official who started the whole diplomatic mess, dismissing that it could all be fiction and made up. Earnest did however; defend the administration saying the comment was “directly in opposition to the true view and policy of this administration. Comments like that do not reflect, at all, the administration’s view,” the press secretary concluded with the favorite line about the special relationship, relaying that “This is a critically important relationship. The United States is as committed as it has ever been to the security of Israel.”
Republicans took the opportunity to do their favorite partisan hobby attacking President Obama’s policies and position. With less than a week before the midterm elections where the GOP has made the main issue a referendum on Obama’s agenda and control of the Senate on the line, this was another chance to point out the president’s failure. Senators John McCain, R-AZ and Lindsey Graham, R-SC issued a joint statement, while another war erupted between Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-OH and the White House over the use of “disrespectful rhetoric.” The Republicans were in consensus Obama is letting his personal feelings and disillusions jeopardize national security and relationships with important allies.
Sens. McCain and Graham in their statement wrote, “We know that relations between allies can be strained at times. But there is no excuse for Obama administration officials to insult the prime minister of Israel, our closest ally in the Middle East, the way they did this week. Apparently the Obama administration does not believe it has enough problems on its hands dealing with America’s enemies in the Middle East – it also wants to insult and alienate our allies. That does nothing but harm to America’s national security interests, and President Obama must put an end to it immediately.”
Speaker Boehner in his terse censure of the president and the White House focused on the “profane” language, disrespect and “belittling” of important allies and delusions about the nation’s enemies. Boehner noted that the “Obama administration… has repeatedly chased after adversaries at the expense of core U.S. national security interests and the security, confidence, and trust of our allies. Nowhere is the fundamental failure more apparent than in the disrespectful rhetoric used time and again by this administration with respect to the special relationship the United States has with the state of Israel.”
Continuing Boehner highlighted Obama’s general distain disrespect especially for Israel, and he needs to take responsibility for the remark. Boehner observed; “Over the last several months, I have watched the administration insult ally after ally. I am tired of the administration’s apology tour. The president sets the tone for his administration. He either condones the profanity and disrespect used by the most senior members of his administration, or he does not. It is time for him to get his house in order and tell the people that can’t muster professionalism that it is time to move on.”
It all started when just hours after Netanyahu and Obama met on Oct. 1, the Obama White House and State Department criticized the Israeli government for going through with constructing over 2,600 new homes in East Jerusalem for both Jews and Palestinians. The incident flared up even more when Netanyahu responded that the criticism on Israel’s building plans was against “American values” in an interview with Bob Schieffer CBS News’ “Face the Nation” that aired on Sunday, Oct. 5. Both the White House and State Department objected to Netanyahu’s comments with Psaki answering in her Monday, Oct. 6 press briefing, “I have to say it was a bit odd to use ‘American values’ when clearly we’ve had a consistent view and a consistent position on this particular issue.”
Then directly after a Hamas terror attack where a car drove through pedestrians on Wednesday, Oct. 22, which killed a three-month-old baby and another woman and injured seven at Jerusalem Ammunition Hill light rail station, protests ensued. In an attempt to calm the city, the Prime Minister’s Office announced that Netanyahu “recommended” that 1000 “housing units” be built in East Jerusalem, consisting of 400 in Har Homa and 660 in Ramat Schlomo. Netanyahu is also planning a new “infrastructure project in the West Bank” that will build roads beneficial to both Jews and Palestinians in the region. That project is only one part of the prime minister’s West Bank building project, which will include “2,000 new units, 12 new roads, parks, student villages, and renovation of the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.”
Earlier in the week on Monday, Oct. 27, there was another verbal war between the State Department and the Israeli prime minister about Israel’s construction plans for East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Spokeswoman Jen Psaki denounced Israel’s plans saying, “We continue to make our position absolutely clear that we view settlement activity as illegitimate and unequivocally oppose unilateral steps that prejudge the future of Jerusalem.” She also declared, “moving forward with this type of action would be incompatible with the pursuit of peace.” Still she insisted, “The defense relationships remain as strong as ever and the ties between us are unshakable.”
While Netanyahu firmly responded twice in two speeches the first one on Monday, Oct. 27 in his speech opening the Knesset’s winter session. There he focused on Israel’s right build in Jerusalem, backing up his arguments with history and analogies to other countries. Netanyahu expressed; “There is wide agreement among the public that Israel has the full right to build the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Every Israeli government in the last 50 years did that, and it is also clear to the Palestinians that those places will stay under Israeli control in any mutual agreement. The French build in Paris, the English build in London, the Israelis build in Jerusalem. Should we tell Jews not to live in Jerusalem because it will stir things up?… Building is the natural answer to those who want to remove us from our land. They want death and we are building life.
Then again, on Tuesday, Oct. 28 at “cornerstone-laying ceremony for Ashdod’s new southern port,” Netanyahu was even more forceful, even questioning the US condoning Palestinian terrorism against Israel, but finding fault in Israel building homes in their own country. Netanyahu affirmed, “We have built in Jerusalem, we are building in Jerusalem and we will continue to build in Jerusalem. I have heard a claim that our construction in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem makes peace more distant. It is the criticism which is making peace more distant. These words are detached from reality. They foster false statements among the Palestinians. 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 State Department had to have the last word with Psaki replying in her Tuesday, Oct. 28 daily press briefing; “Our view on construction is longstanding. And we’ve stated it many times here. We’ll continue to express those views. We’ve – as I mentioned yesterday, we continue to urge both sides to take steps that are conducive to what they state they want to achieve, which is peace in the region and a two-state solution.”
If that was not enough US Secretary of State John Kerry blamed Israel for ending the peace talks with the Palestinians which he believes is the direct cause for the rise of terrorist and extremist group ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. At a State Department event in honor of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha held on Thursday, Oct. 16, Kerry made his accusations against Israel. Secretary Kerry stated, “There wasn’t a leader I met with in the region who didn’t raise with me spontaneously the need to try to get peace between Israel and the Palestinians, because it was a cause of recruitment and of street anger and agitation that they felt — and I see a lot of heads nodding — they had to respond to. People need to understand the connection of that. And it has something to do with humiliation and denial and absence of dignity.”
Ministers in Netanyahu’s cabinet rightfully criticized those remarks including Economy Minister Bennett and Communications Minister Gilad Erdan. Bennett charged Kerry as being anti-Semitic in his accusation and giving credence to ISIS with his remarks, writing, “Even when a British Muslim beheads a British Christian, someone will always blame the Jew. We don’t justify terror; we fight terror. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict statement encourages ISIS, and is a boost to terrorism worldwide.” While Erdan stayed away from the controversial, just expressed his disagreement, “I actually respect Kerry and his efforts, but every time he breaks new records of showing a lack of understanding of our region and the essence of the conflict in the Middle East I have trouble respecting what he says.”
Upper level cabinet ministers chastised Bennett for his bold response to Kerry. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, the leader of the Israel Beitenu party commented in an interview to Channel 2 on Saturday evening, Oct. 25, “There can be differences of opinion between friends, but there needn’t be attacks…. I think there’s no alternative for us to the United States, and such incitement only hurts [us].” While Finance Minister and leader of the Yesh Atid Party Yair Lapid told an audience on Saturday in Tel Aviv, the situation signals that “there is a crisis with the Americans and it must be dealt with like a crisis,” and “we must not pretend that there is no crisis. The relationship with the US is vital and we must do everything in order to (repair it).”
The US response was to insult Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon during his five-day official trip to the US. The administration refused to schedule a meeting between Yaalon and 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. According to the Times of Israel, the administration wanted to nix the meeting with Powers too, but they started their objections too late. The State Department made it seem like it was usual protocol to refuse a defense minister’s request to meet with the Secretary of State, and have instead meet with his US counterpart the Defense Secretary Hagel. Psaki responded that that meeting was “a natural, standard procedure,” while White House Press Secretary Earnest declared, “I can’t speak to any meetings that didn’t occur.” The exception to that rule has in the fact applied in the past to Israeli ministers. The administration would have canceled the Hagel-Yaalon Tuesday, Oct. 21 Pentagon meeting as well, but were afraid to cause a diplomatic crisis instead, a loose lipped senior official caused it a week later.
Just prior to embarking on his trip Yaalon still hoped to meet with Biden and Kerry on his official trip, and he made an attempt to act as the Israeli government peacemaker saying; “Relations between the US and Israel are based on shared interests and values, and we can’t let this disagreement or that cast a shadow on them. America assists Israel in a wide range of fields, including of course security, and we must remember this and thank the US and its leaders for this. There are intimate relationships between the two countries’ security establishments, unprecedented in their scope and in their importance for Israel’s security, and between me and my friend Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel there are close relations.”
At the end of his US trip Defense Minister Yaalon was less complimentary, exactly his verbal revenge for being rebuffed. Yaalon was downright critical of the Obama administration in an interview he had with the Washington Post before returning to Israel. The defense minister responded back to Kerry’s assertions that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict gave rise to ISIS, and denounced the myths that ceding any Israeli territory in the West Bank would have created peace calling the concept “irrational” believing it would only create “Hamastan,” a Hamas run terror center like Gaza. In fact, Yaalon does not believe Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas “is a partner for peace,” declaring at “The core of the conflict is their reluctance to recognize our right to exist as a nation state of the Jewish people…”
Although Defense Minister Yaalon was not involved in this round of war of words with Kerry, the administration took out their anger on him. The Obama administration decided to punish the defense minister for comments he made back in January when Kerry and Obama where pressuring Israel to agree to peace framework, that would have push back Israel to their pre-1967 borders. At that time Yaalon told Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth that Kerry was “inexplicably obsessive” and “messianic” and that he has “nothing to teach me about the conflict with the Palestinians.” Yaalon concluded that “All that can ‘save us’ is for John Kerry to win a Nobel Prize and leave us in peace.” Although he apologized then, he is still paying the price for his comments. In his Washington Post interview, he is still backpedaling, calling it a “misunderstanding.”
How ironic, that the Obama Administration forgets that the constant terror attacks Israel experiences from the Palestinian Authority’s government partner, terrorist group Hamas. Who makes peace or negotiates with terrorists that like to regularly send rockets and bomb your country and do even your legitimate existence? Never mind the conditions for peace including US forcing Israel to release thousands of terrorists from jail, so they can attack and murder again, shrinking Israel’s border to the point that the country would not be able to protect itself and taking away the most holy and important half of its capital city, Jerusalem. Those apparently were not enough legitimate enough reasons for Israel to not agree to the US’s peace framework. The US in the same place would have done the same maybe even worse.
President Obama always likes to blames someone for the problems he faces as president, when the economy could not recover fast enough he blamed his predecessor Republican President George W. Bush, he also blamed Bush for Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama spent his entire first presidential term blaming Bush. Then Obama blamed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney for everything in the 2012 presidential campaign. Now, with just a little over two years left in his presidency, facing a lame duck sessions his lowest job approval ratings, highest disapproval ratings and the possibility of losing his only lifeline a Democratic Senate, the president is looking for someone else to blame.
Obama is facing his greatest obstacle with the war against ISIS. Obama was forced to fight, order a military intervention, when he wanted to be a peace president not one who does not declare new wars. Since his early and premature withdrawal from Iraq is the real reason for ISIS, Obama does not want history to attribute the blame on him; instead, he is doing what he does best, put the blame on someone else. For President Obama, the best way to spare his legacy regarding his middle East policy is to blame, Israel, everyone else does it, why should he not?
The whole world over routinely blames Israel, for the troubles in the Middle East, all while defending the “poor” Palestinians completing ignoring, that in the global fight against terrorism, the Palestinians regularly practice and promote terrorism against Israel. This mindset is the force behind the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, that even Kerry was threatening Israel with if they did not comply with the peace agreement the US desired. This anti-Israel sentiment has rightfully been labeled the new anti-Semitism, a new excuse to espouse hatred against the Jews.
Instead of trying to alienate Israel, Obama should realize how much he needs the only democracy in the fragile Middle East and do everything to nurture rather than alienate that political relationship, rather than pander to America’s enemies. Obama should never take Israel for granted nor underestimate Netanyahu’s threats of war, because one day he could be surprised if the Israeli prime minister turns out not to be the “coward” and “chickensh*t” he thinks he is.
- PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s Speech at the Special Knesset Session in Memory of Rehavam Ze’evi, PMO, Oct. 29, 2014
- Excerpt from PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s Remarks at the Cornerstone-laying Ceremony for Ashdod’s new Southern Port, PMO, Oct. 28, 2014
- PM Netanyahu’s speech at the opening of the Knesset winter session, MFA, Oct. 27, 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.