Obama Administration spokespeople attempted to distance themselves from administration officials’ insults aimed at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Wednesday, after those comments set off a firestorm of criticism from lawmakers, organizations and pundits.
In an article written by journalist Jeffrey Goldberg for The Atlantic, Tuesday, anonymous administration officials used choice words to denounce Netanyahu for what the article claimed was the administration’s belief that the Israeli leader lacks vision, leadership and courage to make tough political decisions necessary to handle the region’s problems.
“The thing about Bibi is, he’s a chickenshit,” one official is quoted telling Goldberg. “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.”
Confronting the outrage prompted by those undiplomatic comments, along with further allegations in the article describing the administration’s internal disdain for the Israeli prime minister as having recently reached a boiling point, National Security spokesman Alistair Baskey denied that there was anything unusual in the relationship between President Barack Obama and Netanyahu.
“Certainly the comments in the article do not represent the administration’s view, and we think such comments are inappropriate and counter-productive. Prime Minister Netanyahu and the president have forged an effective partnership, and consult closely and frequently, including earlier this month when the president hosted the Prime Minister in the Oval Office,” Baskey said.
Although the White House’s response was timely, it fell short of a complete disavowal of what the officials’ unartfully tried to tell Goldberg – that members of the administration are angry at recent reports that Israel was moving forward with plans to build additional housing units in East Jerusalem.
“Obviously, despite the extremely close relationship between the U.S. and Israel, we do not agree on every issue,” Baskey said. “For instance, we have repeatedly made clear the United States’ longstanding view that settlement activity is illegitimate and complicates efforts to achieve a two-state solution.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest delivered a message that was almost identical to Baskey’s but added that National Security Advisor Susan Rice will be conducting numerous meetings with Israeli officials in Washington, D.C. this week. Earnest said that he believes that this is proof of continuing friendly relations.
When asked whether the White House will investigate the source of the comments like it had in other national security leak cases, Earnest was unclear in his response, telling the reporters that such press leaks where not unusual. Yet, Earnest, did not deny that the comments were made.
But beside the list of incendiary words used to express their frustration, little of what the officials in Goldberg’s article said surprised security experts and others who closely follow diplomatic developments between the two nations.
There were many indicators of the icy relationship between Obama and Netanyahu throughout much of the president’s administration, which include disparaging comments by the president himself when he was caught on a hot mic in 2011, complaining to then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy about having to deal with Netanyahu every day.
Most recently, the White House refused to grant requests from Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon to meet with Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Rice in an apparent snub during his visit to the United States last week.
“What is shocking here is that these comments were not made off the record, but on background – meaning the White House official knew they would be printed and linked to the White House,” Elliot Abrams, who served as a top national security adviser to President George W. Bush, told Washington Jewish Week. “That was deliberate – a deliberate ad hominem attack on the elected prime minister of a close ally. This is sophomoric behavior of a sort we have a right to expect no White House official will engage in–and no president will tolerate.”
On Wednesday, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers also chimed in to condemn the insults.
“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.” said Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in a joint statement. “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.”
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, expressed alarm at the anonymous comments, saying that he was “shocked” and “disappointed” and called on the administration to put an end to such damaging leaks.
“I realize that two allies, such as the United States and Israel, are not going to agree on everything, but I think it is counterproductive and unprofessional for administration officials to air their dirty laundry in such a public way,” wrote Engel in a press release. “I am getting tired of hearing about the leaks and denials. This ought to be the last time we hear of such talk because it is getting to a point where nobody believes the denials anymore.”
Goldberg’s article quoted two administration officials, including one described as someone “who deals with the Israel file regularly.” This second official backed up the other’s “chickenshit” comment and added that inside the administration, Netanyahu is believed to be a “coward” because of hesitation in making consequential decisions, such as whether to bomb Iran’s nuclear capabilities, which Israel constantly complains about as the nuclear negotiations with Iran continue.
The official described how United States intelligence personnel waited with bated breath in 2010 and 2012, believing that Netanyahu would launch pre-emptive airstrikes on Iran’s nuclear sites. Since the strikes didn’t occur, Netanyahu’s threats have lost credibility, leading to the cowardice accusations in Goldberg’s article.
Abrams called these accusations immoral.
“I am disgusted by what those White House officials did: first the administration uses all the pressure it can to stop Israel from bombing – and now it accuses the PM of being a coward because he didn’t bomb,” he said.
According to Goldberg, the foreign policy ramifications resulting from the White House’s frustration with Israel and Netanyahu may be yet to come, specifically after next week’s midterm election which would mark the beginning of the Obama Administration’s “lame duck” period. With the president no longer being responsible for the welfare of his party’s candidates, or concerned about his own political future, some believe that there’s a chance the administration could act unilaterally on its displeasure with Israel and depart from the United States’ unconditional diplomatic support.
With little to lose, President Obama could seek to get even with Netanyahu — for what the administration believes was his scuttling of this year’s Israel-Palestine peace negotiations, the civilian casualties in this summer’s Gaza conflict and continued settlement building — by helping craft a “stridently anti-settlement resolution” at the U.N. or lay down its own map of a two state solution based on 1967 borders, wrote Goldberg.
Though Abrams agreed that such unilateral actions are possible, he went on to say that the officials’ accusations were unwarranted, since much of Netanyahu’s decision-making in a parliamentary system like Israel’s, must come as a result of consensus from his governing coalition.
“People who say ‘He should have done this’ or ‘He should have done that’ are very often – like these punks in the White House who are mouthing off – happy to suggest that Netanyahu commit political suicide and destroy his coalition,” he said. “Sure, because they are on the left and want it destroyed anyway, but to call an elected leader names because he does not choose to destroy his government whenever young kids in the White House demand it strikes me as irresponsible and childish.”
For his part, Netanyahu took the attacks in stride, reminding the people of Israel that a majority of Americans unequivocally support them despite administration grumblings.
“As Prime Minister, I am responsible for Israel’s security. I care about the lives of every citizen and soldier. I have been on the battlefield many times. I have risked my life for the country and I am not prepared to make concessions that will endanger our state,” said Netanyahu in an address to a special Knesset session in memory of the late former-Tourism Minister Rechavam Zeevy, who was assassinated by a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in 2001.
“It must be understood that our supreme interests, with security and the unity of Jerusalem first and foremost, are not among the top concerns of those anonymous elements that are attacking us and me personally, because the attack on me comes only because I am defending the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said. “If I did not defend the State of Israel, if I did not vigorously uphold our national and security interests, they would not attack me. And despite all the attacks against me I will continue to defend our state. I will continue to defend the citizens of Israel.”
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Update: Oct. 30, 7:40 p.m. –
Secretary of State John Kerry added to the condemnation of the anonymously sourced remarks by Obama administration officials cited in Jeffrey Goldberg’s article for The Atlantic, calling them “disgraceful, unacceptable and damaging,” but that he was not yet ready to give up on trying to accomplish peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
“I think we need to work quietly and effectively, and we condemn anybody who uses language such as was used in this article. That does not reflect the President, it does not reflect me,” said Kerry while answering questions at the Sixth Annual Washington Ideas Forum in Washington, D.C.
“It is disgraceful, unacceptable, damaging, and I think neither President Obama nor I – I’ve never heard that word around me in the White House or anywhere – I don’t know who these anonymous people are who keep getting quoted in things. But they make life much more difficult, and we are proud of what we have done to help Israel through a very difficult time,” Kerry said.
Kerry repeated his belief that a two-state solution is the only viable option in the region, since in his view, a one-state solution would hurt Israel’s chances of remaining a Jewish state.
“To be a Jewish state, you clearly have to resolve the issue of two states. If you don’t, and you were a unitary state and people have equal rights to vote and participate as citizens, is Israel going to have a Palestinian prime minister? I don’t think so… Not going to happen,” he said. “…[A]s everybody knows from the investment I made much of last year, is to find a way to bring the parties to make peace in the Middle East. We still believe it is doable, but it takes courage. It takes strength. You have to be prepared – both sides have to be prepared to compromise in order to do it.