The Obama administration on Wednesday distanced itself from disparaging remarks about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attributed to a senior administration official.
A senior Israeli official said the words were likely tied to a deal with Iran.
“It appears that someone in the administration is trying to preempt Prime Minister Netanyahu’s criticism of an imminent and highly problematic deal with Iran that will guarantee the Islamic Republic’s position as a threshold nuclear power,” the official said. “It is a transparent attempt to discredit the messenger instead of dealing with the substance of his criticism.”
The November 24 deadline for talks between the world powers and the Islamic Republic is looming, and Jerusalem has voiced concern that the Iranians may be allowed to retain nuclear threshold capabilities.
The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg on Tuesday quoted a senior official as saying about Netanyahu, “The thing about Bibi is, he’s a chickenshit.”
The good thing about Netanyahu is that “he’s scared to launch wars,” Goldberg quoted the official as saying.
“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,” the official continued.
Goldberg, considered well connected in the White House, said that over the years Obama administration officials have described the prime minister as “recalcitrant, myopic, reactionary, obtuse, blustering, pompous and Aspergery.”
Netanyahu addressed the insults in the Knesset, at a ceremony marking 13 years since the assassination of tourism minister Rehavam Ze’evi.
“As prime minister, I am responsible for Israel’s security,” he said. “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 country.”
Israel’s supreme interests – security and the unity of Jerusalem – “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,” he said.
Netanyahu said that if he did not uphold Israel’s “national and security” interests, “they would not attack me. And despite all the attacks against me, I will continue to defend our country. I will continue to defend the citizens of Israel.”
A senior Israeli official said Jerusalem was troubled by the personal attack on the prime minister’s character, “the leader of a loyal and democratic US ally who repeatedly risked his life in combat in the defense of his country.”
Another official said Israel was watching closely to see what will happen in Washington in the wake of the comments. Several legislators from both parties have voiced criticism of the comments, he said.
For instance, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the speaker of the House of Representatives, called for an investigation, accusing the president of “setting the tone for his administration” and condoning “profanity and disrespect used by the most senior members.”
“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,” Boehner said.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest declined to confirm or deny that a senior administration official had referred to Netanyahu as a “chickenshit.”
Earnest said he trusted the veracity of Goldberg’s reporting and that the insult, if in fact uttered, 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,” he told reporters.
“ This is a critically important relationship. The United States is as committed as it has ever been to the security of Israel.”
Earnest suggested the White House would not seek to identify the official responsible, citing daily anonymous sourcing of administration officials by journalists that go unverified.
He added that the close relationship between the two governments – one that “transcends individual presidencies” – does not mean the Obama administration would “paper over our differences.”
Continued settlement activity “only serves to complicate efforts to achieve a two-state solution,” he said.
US National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey, meanwhile, said in an email that the words “certainly” did not reflect the administration’s view, “and we think such comments are inappropriate and counterproductive. 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.”
No phone calls are scheduled between Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama.
Despite these comments, US officials confirmed to The Jerusalem Post that the frustrations behind Goldberg’s article were real, though whether he accurately depicted the policy implications of those tensions is another matter.
In the piece, Goldberg wrote that the Obama administration “may actually withdraw diplomatic cover for Israel at the United Nations.”
The US has historically used its veto power on the UN Security Council to block one-sided anti-Israel resolutions.
Whether this will change or there will be other policy consequences for what the administration views as counterproductive Israeli behavior has been a question for months, and one that officials say is “too soon” to ponder in a strained relationship just short of a crisis.
In Israel, meanwhile, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett was the first cabinet member to come to Netanyahu’s defense, issuing a statement late Tuesday night saying that the prime minister is not a private individual, and that cursing him is “an insult not just to him but to the millions of Israeli citizens and Jews across the globe.”
“The leader of Syria who slaughtered 150,000 people was not awarded the name ‘chickenshit,’” he said. “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 called on the US administration to “immediately reject these gross comments.”
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein said that the White House’s “unbridled criticism crossed every line.
“When the prime minister of Israel is insulted in this way, all Israelis are insulted,” he said in the Knesset. At the same time, Edelstein said ties with the US were still strong, “despite someone in the White House who is sowing poison.”
Finance Minister Yair Lapid called to “lower the flames.”
“It is not nice for me or any other Israeli to hear attacks on our prime minister. They need to be off the table,” he said.
“There is a crisis, and we need to end it; it’s not helpful to anyone.”
Shas MK Ya’acov Margi, however, said that Netanyahu earned the insult from the US and that there is no reason to complain about the Americans.
Meretz chairwoman Zehava Gal-On said the Obama administration’s disrespect for Netanyahu shows how sick of him it is.
“After he destroyed his relations with the Americans by continuing to build in Jerusalem and being unwilling to reach a diplomatic agreement...
Netanyahu brought Israel to the worst low point in relations with our most important ally,” she said.
And opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Labor) said, “Our security is based partly on our strategic bond with the US, on mutual trust, openness and honesty.
“We cannot burn this relationship,” he said. “We must protect Israel wisely.”