Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon was forced to apologize this week for having slighted US Secretary of State John Kerry when he referred to his continual shuttles to Israel and the Palestinian Authority as “messianic” and “obsessive.” State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki described Ya’alon’s words as “offensive and inappropriate.”
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That wasn’t all. Ya’alon’s criticism was 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 Kelly, the negotiations with the Palestinians and Kerry’s commitment to Israel’s security.”
This virtual ultimatum turned the incident quite into a round of arm-wrestling in which Washington appeared determined to push Jerusalem’s arm down decisively.
But is any of this really about the emotional pain Ya’alon purportedly inflicted on Kerry? The notion that breaches of courtesy are insupportable in international relations is disingenuous at the very least.
Otherwise, why would the Obama administration adopt so lenient an attitude toward Iran, where America is daily denigrated as “the Big Satan?” The Palestinian Authority’s own higher-ups have not shied away from verbal onslaughts on the US. Nevertheless, there were no reactions similar to that which greeted Ya’alon’s comment.
Moreover, the topmost American movers and shakers have not been excessively gracious toward their Israeli counterparts.
Memorably, in November 2011, US President Barack Obama chitchatted chummily with then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy during the G20 summit in Cannes, both unaware that the microphone before them was on. “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 from captivity in the Gaza Strip.
Obama not only failed to defend Netanyahu, he 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 complained.
The trouble was that this unambiguous articulation of aversion towards Israel’s democratically elected head of government – a staunch ally of America – was inadvertently broadcast to journalists covering the event.
No hint of an apology ever came from Washington or Paris. Of course, it may be argued that what Obama and Sarkozy said was uttered in a private conversation that was not intended to be made public, and hence their private comments do not count.
That, however, also happens to be how Ya’alon came to say what he did. He was engaged in an entirely private conversation, not intended for the public’s ear. The one difference is that Obama’s opinion was revealed by an open microphone, whereas a tabloid reporter leaked Ya’alon’s off the record remark.
To be sure, it is always desirable for diplomacy to be conducted without verbal fisticuffs, in an air of polite exchanges, without unnecessary distractions. But in the real world, what is desirable is not always what happens.
Nobody – neither in Washington nor in Jerusalem – is made of plastic and can be forced into a mold. It is the nature of antipathies that they eventually rise to the surface.
More often than not, they are prudently glossed over – as Netanyahu chose to do in reaction to the badmouthing at Cannes.
When a great fuss is kicked up over private pronouncements, we must ask ourselves why. Diplomacy is not about sensibilities but about interests.
It is the duty of Israeli leaders to make sure that the existential interests of this country, as they perceive them, are not compromised. Israelis too are entitled to hold views and to express them.
Their counterparts abroad have no right to impose silence upon them. Indeed, politicians/statesmen/diplomats should not pretend to be offended. When they do, it inevitably becomes part of the power games they play and the pressures they exert.
All headliners say things in confidence, and all know what the other side thinks. They should conduct their affairs as politely as possible. But flying off the handle and taking public umbrage for private banter is not only self-indulgent but arrogant.