What’s the appropriate response to an anonymous slur hurled at an Israeli prime minister by a member of the Obama administration? Why, an anonymous accusation by an Israeli official tossed right back at Washington.
Israeli politicians spent most of Wednesday responding with outrage and concern to an article in The Atlantic quoting a senior American official calling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “coward” — and also using a more colorful but vulgar synonym that starts with “chicken.” Mr. Netanyahu and his allies denounced such a personal attack as inappropriate, while his critics declared it evidence of the dangerous deterioration of the state’s most treasured alliance that Mr. Netanyahu has caused.
Then, in late afternoon, a senior Israeli official offered a new spin. “It appears that someone in the administration is trying to pre-empt Prime Minister Netanyahu’s criticism of an imminent and highly problematic deal with Iran,” said the official, speaking on the condition that he not be named, since that is how this game is played. “It is a transparent attempt to discredit the messenger instead of dealing with the substance of his criticism.”
It would be easy to write all this off as what Aaron David Miller, a veteran Washington observer on all things Middle East, called “the nanny-nanny-boo-boo kindergarten school,” where “they call each other names.” But there are serious underlying differences in Israel and the United States regarding the fate of Iran’s nuclear program, and the downward dip between their leaders comes at a critical juncture.
With a Nov. 24 deadline looming, Israelis have watched, with rising concern, signs of an international deal that would allow Iran to preserve at least some of its nuclear program and would bring about the lifting of crippling economic sanctions. Worse for Jerusalem, President Obama’s aides have indicated that they will try to bypass a vote on the deal in Congress, where Israel’s support is strongest and Mr. Netanyahu has occasionally made direct appeals.
Mr. Netanyahu, who has spent much of his career arguing that a nuclear Iran is an existential threat to Israel, insists that allowing Iran to continue to enrich uranium at any level leaves it on the threshold of producing a bomb, and that a flawed deal is worse than no deal.
“There is no way to bridge this gap, because whatever is acceptable to America is not acceptable to us,” said Giora Eiland, a former Israeli national security adviser. “So there could be some kind of deliberate attempt to put Netanyahu in some kind of uncomfortable position, so when he says whatever he says in a month, it will be less relevant or attract less attention.”
Or, it could be an attempt by the anonymous Israeli official to change the subject and deflect attention from his leader’s character flaws, analysts said.
“Bibi’s in some respects at war with himself,” said Mr. Miller, using Mr. Netanyahu’s nickname. “His bravado masks a lack of confidence. He’s probably the most worried prime minister I’ve ever dealt with, and he worries about everything.”
The sour relationship between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Obama is no secret, and nothing new; the two have been disagreeing, sometimes politely and at other times far less so, since they both took office in 2009. In the Atlantic article, headlined “The Crisis in U.S.-Israel Relations Is Officially Here,” Jeffrey Goldberg wrote that the relationship between the two administrations is “now the worst it’s ever been,” an assessment shared by other analysts.
This week came the latest of what seems like umpteen rounds of Washington condemnation of Israeli announcements regarding construction of settlements in territories seized during the 1967 war. When Israel’s defense minister visited Washington this month, he was denied meetings with Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. (the snubbing was chalked up to the minister’s having been quoted — anonymously, of course — calling Mr. Kerry “messianic” in his pursuit of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal).
As Israeli commentators continued to parse the significance of the spat — among other matters, they struggled to translate the unfamiliar chicken-related put-down into Hebrew — the White House made a public effort to patch things up.
“The comments in the article do not represent the administration’s view, and we think such comments are inappropriate and counterproductive,” said Alistair Baskey, a spokesman for Mr. Obama’s National Security Council. Echoing other day-after apologias from both sides, Mr. Baskey said Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu “have forged an effective partnership and consult closely and frequently.”
Mr. Netanyahu, too, dabbed at damage control. “I respect and appreciate the deep ties with the United States we’ve had since the establishment of the state,” he said in a speech to Parliament. “We’ve had arguments before, and we’ll have them again, but this will not come at the expense of the deep connection between our peoples and our countries.”
Michael B. Oren, who last year finished a four-year term as Israel’s ambassador to the United States, was one of several analysts who pointed out that while the public (if anonymous) sniping has rarely been as harsh, there has so far been little substantive change in strategic cooperation. Analysts contrasted this with, among other nadirs, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s threat to sanction Israel over its conquest of the Sinai Peninsula in 1956; President Ronald Reagan’s delay of the delivery of fighter jets in response to Israel’s bombing of an Iraqi nuclear reactor; and the first President George Bush’s denial of $10 billion in loan guarantees to protest Israel’s settlement policies in Palestinian territory.
“If you say this is the worst crisis in history, it’s not — but I do not remember a time when language was used like that,” said Mr. Oren, a historian.
“They know each other quite well,” he said of Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Obama. “They’ve met, I think, altogether 14 times — that’s a lot of meetings — they’ve spent many hours on the phone together.”
“O.K., they disagree on some things,” he added. “What is it all about? I actually don’t know. It clearly is visceral.”
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