What does the Obama administration hope to accomplish by trashing Israel in the press? This is the most important question after an apparently coordinated wave of anonymous quotes welled up in Tuesday’s press. Relations with Israel have steadily worsened over the course of Obama’s presidency, and little of what was said was out of step with some views being expressed in broader policy circles. But why say it, and why now?
The wave began Monday night, with Foreign Policy ’s Gopal Ratnam saying that the White House was “undermining” Israeli defense minister Moshe Yaalon during his recent visit to the United States by denying him access to several key officials. This wasn’t surprising—Yaalon had called Secretary of State John Kerry “obsessive and messianic,” among other insults. But the tone of the snub was sharp. Ratnam quotes “a pro-Israel congressional aide,” who we can reasonably assume is a Democrat close to the administration, saying of Yaalon that “there is a limit to how much you can shit all over the White House and expect to get every meeting you want...I don't know why the Israelis continue to feel the need to express their disagreements in offensive terms with this administration.”
But the executive excreta fell much thicker on Tuesday afternoon in a column by the influential journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, who quoted “a senior Obama administration official” calling Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “chickenshit.” Goldberg asked “another senior official who deals with the Israel file regularly” about this assessment, and the official “agreed that Netanyahu is a ‘chickenshit’ on matters related to the comatose peace process, but added that he’s also a ‘coward’ on the issue of Iran’s nuclear threat.” The first official also said that Netanyahu is “scared to launch wars,” is principally concerned with his own political survival, and has “got no guts.” And the second official crowed that it is now “too late” for Netanyahu to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, saying that “a combination of our pressure and his own unwillingness to do anything dramatic” meant that Netanyahu “ultimately...couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger.” Said the second official, “The feeling now is that Bibi’s bluffing.”
And the end of Goldberg’s column contains what may be a set of threats from the administration to Israel: first, to allow Palestinian actions at the UN that will “isolate Israel from the international community,” and second, to “make explicit” America’s vision of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement—a vision that is likely to diverge significantly from Netanyahu’s vision. Goldberg, a seasoned observer of U.S.-Israeli relations, writes that he doesn’t “remember such a period of sustained and mutual contempt” between the two allies, and lays the blame for the split at Netanyahu’s feet, calling his government “disconnected from reality” and his foreign policy a formula for “disaster.”
All this cloacal talk is sure to touch off a firestorm in Israel. The administration seems to want Netanyahu to pay a domestic price for his policies. Yet Goldberg’s assessment is that Netanyahu’s approach “has its charms” for the Israeli electorate, and Bibi appears to be in a solid position at home. There are few clear alternatives to the man TIME magazine once branded the “king of Israel,” and his principal challengers nowadays are to his right. So there’s little reason to believe that the Obama team’s remarks will topple him, or that we’d get something much better if he did fall.
The timing of the remarks is equally baffling. The Iran negotiations come to a head on November 24. If there’s a deal, the administration will come under immense pressure at home, particularly from Israel’s strongest defenders in Congress. A better relationship with Israel would mitigate that pressure. And if there’s not a deal, the administration may wish to extend the interim deal with Iran—another political friction point in which pro-Israel factions will be at odds with the administration. Yet the White House has opened fire early, and rather than attacking Netanyahu’s Iran approach, it’s engaging in playground name-calling. It’s hard to see what good this will do, and the damage could be serious. There has been a growing feeling in Washington that Israel would not have been willing to push Congress to confront the president on Iran, that it would prefer to live with a tolerable deal than to have an open battle with its closest ally. If Congress is already attacking Obama on Israel and if Israel and America are already fighting each other, these incentives change.
Further, if the administration doesn’t want Netanyahu to attack Iran, accusing him of bluffing and calling him a coward might not be the best way to ensure that. And as one observer noted, the administration is effectively “taunt[ing] Netanyahu for trusting in the Obama admin's promises” to deal with the Iranian problem in return for Israel backing off its threats. With American allies in Europe and Asia questioning the reliability of our defense guarantees, should the White House be gloating that it’s played an ally for a sucker?
The Obama team’s thoroughly undiplomatic language, in other words, will likely have little payoff. Perhaps this is in continuity with the administration’s common approach to international crisis: to treat strongly-worded speeches as an effective and low-cost form of action, even when they continue to be neither.
Or perhaps the officials merely wanted to vent after nearly six years of dealing with an exasperating Israeli leader. If that’s the case, their “chickenshit” talk should have been reserved for their colleagues, their spouses, their friends, their pets, their houseplants, their therapists, or even Siri. But a major journalist? Obama’s staffers have damaged an important relationship for no benefit other than the self-satisfaction of a sharp insult. Such actions are a mark of arrogance.
John Allen Gay, an assistant managing editor at The National Interest , is coauthor of War with Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences (Rowman and Littlefield, 2013). He tweets at @JohnAllenGay.
Image: Flickr/ The Israel Project . CC BY-SA 2.0.