Speaking the truth can be a dangerous undertaking. It can expose the speaker to all sort of chastisement. This isn’t only so in any given country’s domestic affairs but very much so in relations between states.
Ours, after all, is a globalized reality. This fact can induce and intensify inordinate hubris in some leaders with pretensions to hold sway over more than their own specified domain. White House occupant and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Barak Obama, for instance, often conducts himself as if the American electorate and the Nobel committee had put him in charge of the whole earth.
Had Obama been an unqualified success, his conceit may be suffered but his isn’t and he doesn’t like to hear that he isn’t.
Despite his resplendent liberal credentials, Obama’s concept of liberty is a tad constricted. Everyone – everywhere on the face of this planet and beyond – is perfectly free to go into raptures over him but it’s a whole different opera when not-so-flattering opinions are sounded.
Obama, his appointed sidekicks and salaried mouthpieces resent criticism. Plain and simple.
Quite clearly, the US president and secretary of state don’t subscribe to George Orwell’s ever-relevant observation that “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
Therefore, woe to the Quixotic sorts – both on America’s home turf and abroad – who insist on telling Obama and crew precisely what they’re loath to hear. Woe all the more to the recidivists who persist in upsetting the Obama administration’s omniscient ones.
Very obviously Israel’s defense minister Moshe Ya’alon is among the least stomached recidivists, even if he speaks his mind at closed meetings or in private conversations.
Ya’alon must come to grips with the fact that freedom of speech isn’t universally countenanced in our Obamaesque existence. Someone can be counted upon to leak or record uncomplimentary evaluations of the dear leader and then woe to him who dared tell it like he sees it.
The only way to avoid Obama’s self-righteous censure is to obsequiously shut up. Not to do so is imprudent in the extreme.
Nonetheless, Ya’alon keeps breaching the gag order that has been imposed on Israeli statesmen by Obama’s eminently ultra-liberal administration. Its honchos detest unfavorable analyses, which amounts to not wanting them voiced – not even behind closed doors.
Actually it’s not merely what is said but who says it. Restrictions on free speech especially apply to notable absentees from Obama’s list of favorites. Ya’alon most certainly is not featured on that list but a host of Iranian ayatollahs who harbor no inhibitions to stridently denounce America as the “Big Satan” are among the favorites who must never be called to order, no matter what.
Ramallah figurehead Mahmoud Abbas (now in his tenth year of office as “president,” despite having supposedly been elected in 2005 to only a four-year term) can also rant as he pleases. No amount of mind-blowing mendacity, outright incitement, rampant terror-glorification, extraordinary distortion or in-your-face extortion will ever land this perpetual favorite in hot water.
Yet whatever bespectacled soft-spoken Ya’alon says is guaranteed to get him into scalding disfavor, even if he dares talk in camera. He presumably should curb his tongue even in the privacy of his bedroom, as is advisable for anyone of whom the White House so indignantly disapproves.
The latest kerfuffle Ya’alon set off began at a nonpublic Tel Aviv University forum where he maintained that what’s ballyhooed as American largesse to Israel ought to be perceived “in proportion.” There’s mutual benefit to the special relationship: “it’s no favor America is doing; it’s in their interest. They get quality intelligence and technology. We invented the Iron Dome [anti-rocket defense]and the wings of the F-35 stealth fighter. We invented the Arrow” anti-ballistic missile system.
Ya’alon’s candor packed particular sting when he homed in on America’s manifest weakness in the Mideast, Far East and Eastern Europe: “If you sit and wait at home, terrorism will come again – even if you hunker down. This is a clash of civilizations. The image of feebleness doesn’t pay off. “
Negotiations with Iran, where the West is unquestionably bamboozled, were chosen by Ya’alon as his prime example: “Comfortable Westerners prefer to put off confrontation – if possible till next year, or the next president. But in the end things blow up… We in Israel have to behave as though we have nobody to look out for us, except ourselves. “
Surely that’s a smidge less rude than “Big Satan” harangues yet apparently not so in the eyes of Obama/Kerry. Well-founded frankness cuts incomparably deeper than malevolent name-calling. Ya’alon’s sin is confronting Obama/Kerry with the truth. This truth hurts and hence Ya’alon is the unbearable inflictor of pain who must be dealt with harshly to make the discomfort he dishes out disappear.
Time and again Ya’alon is forced to sort-of make amends. He hasn’t recanted what he said but he phoned his US counterpart Chuck Hagel to explain that he meant no offense.
This “clarification” was prompted by a furious phone call from the seemingly unflappable Kerry to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Kerry all but urged Netanyahu to fire bad-boy Ya’alon. State Department Spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki raged further about Ya’alon’s comments, deeming them to be beyond the pale of what she and her boss permit as “constructive.”
And she and her boss refused to back off. A few days after first reproaching Ya’alon, Psaki was at it again. The US, she griped, is “disappointed with the lack of an apology” from him. In smug school-marmish tones she then raised "concerns" about Ya'alon's "pattern of behavior.”
A couple of months ago, in an entirely private off-the-record conversation, Ya’alon slighted Kerry by referring to his continual shuttles to Israel and the Palestinian Authority as “messianic” and “obsessive.” On that occasion etiquette-guru Psaki described Ya’alon’s words as "offensive and inappropriate."
But that wasn’t all. Ya’alon’s adjectives were blown up into a major diplomatic confrontation when an unnamed ”senior US official” demanded that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu “put this right by publicly expressing his disagreement with the statements against Secretary Kerry, the negotiations with the Palestinians and Kerry's commitment to Israel's security.”
This virtual ultimatum turned the entire episode rather overtly into a round of arm-wrestling in which Washington appeared determined to humiliate Jerusalem. No such firmness has in recent years been evinced against the real miscreants on the international arena.
Consequently, we might be forgiven for jumping to the reckless conclusion that it’s easier to lash out against a loyal ally – with a solidly democratic and pluralistic worldview – than it is to take on the diverse despots that make Obama look really wishy-washy.
Besides, the idea that breaches of courtesy are intolerable in international relations is disingenuous in the very least. Apart from Obama’s lenient attitude vis-à-vis vituperative verbal onslaughts from Tehran and Ramallah, there’s the minor matter of the conspicuous lack of graciousness from America’s topmost movers and shakers toward their Israeli counterparts.
Recurrently Kerry has cracked the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) whip against Israel. He never condemned the hostile ostracization of Israel but he issued quasi-veiled threats of more of the same should Israel (and it alone) not toe his line obediently, as if Israel has no interests to legitimately protect. Nothing of the like was even hinted against the PA.
Just recently Obama prepared a spiteful welcome to Washington for Netanyahu. However, when Abbas visited the White House, there wasn’t the mildest nuance of displeasure with his recalcitrant obstructionism.
But most telling of all was the incident in which comments Obama didn’t mean to make known were embarrassingly overheard. These were way less polite than the words Ya’alon didn’t aim to publicize.
Obama’s memorable gaffe of a couple of years ago was already noted previously in this column but it can’t be recalled too often. At the time, Obama chitchatted chummily with French president Nicolas Sarkozy during the G20 summit in Cannes. Both were unaware that the microphone before them hadn’t been switched off.
"I can’t stand him. He’s a liar,” a chagrined Sarkozy blurted in reference to Netanyahu. Sarkozy’s feathers were just then reportedly ruffled because Netanyahu didn’t credit him with Gilad Schalit’s release.
Pointedly, Obama not only failed to defend Netanyahu but he actually expressed unreserved agreement with his French interlocutor. "You're fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you," Obama carped.
The trouble was that this blunt articulation of unambiguous aversion towards Israel’s democratically elected head of government – America’s staunch partner – was inadvertently broadcast to journalists covering the event.
No hint of an apology ever came from either Washington or Paris. Of course, it may be argued that what Obama and Sarkozy said was uttered in a private conversation that wasn’t intended for our ears and accordingly it doesn’t count. But so were Ya’alon’s remarks uttered in private circumstances and not intended for outside ears. They were also markedly less personal or injurious.
To be sure, it’s always desirable for diplomacy to be conducted in an air of impeccably genteel manners, without unrefined distractions. But, alas, in the real world what’s desirable is rarely likely.
It’s the nature of antipathies that they eventually rise to the surface. More often than not, they’re discreetly glossed over. Netanyahu indeed chose to overlook the badmouthing at Cannes (which isn’t unexpected if the insulted party is comparatively clout-deficient).
A not-so-hidden agenda can be justifiably suspected when unholy fuss is kicked up over private pronouncements. Diplomacy isn’t about sensibilities but about interests.
It’s the distinct duty of Israeli leaders to make sure that the most vital existential interests of this country, as they identify them, aren’t compromised. Israelis too are entitled to hold views and to express them.
To quote the US Declaration of Independence, “we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
But Obama evidently has strayed far from the ethos of America’s Founding Fathers. His thinking appears closer to that enunciated by the clout-packing pigs of Orwell’s Animal Farm: “all animals are created equal but some are more equal than others.”
Debunking the Bull, Sarah Honig’s book, was recently published by Gefen.