WASHINGTON – The most important lesson from recent weeks of bickering between American and Israeli officials isn’t the choice of their words to insult one another, but their calculated choice to do so publicly in the first place.
Declaring a “crisis” between Israel and the United States is just a headline. So is the focus among Israeli media outlets on the anonymous use of the term “chickenshit” to describe Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – as entertaining as it may be.
Focusing on the insult itself, media coverage of the controversy gets lost in an insult that distracts from the real development in US-Israel relations: the Obama administration is so gravely troubled with Israel’s policies that it feels it cannot afford to remain silent.
For the first time, in a determined, consistent fashion, administration officials are allowing long-standing concerns over public rebukes, military tactics and policies on the ground – namely, settlement activity – to seep into the public view.
The language they have employed this week is exceptionally heated, if measured.
“There are times when we disagree with actions of the Israeli government and we must raise our concerns, such as our concerns about Israel’s settlement policy,” US National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey said by email on Tuesday night. “We raise these concerns as a partner who is deeply concerned about Israel’s future and wants to see Israel living side by side in peace and security with its neighbors.”
The criticism is sincere at its heart: President Barack Obama does not fear whether Israel will survive, but how it will survive, he told Thomas Friedman in an interview in August.
Opposition to settlement activity is not new, neither from Obama nor from his staff. That includes former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is likely to run for president in 2016 on a platform that includes vocal opposition to settlement activity.
US officials believe their counterparts in Israel have been misled to believe their two governments are equal players in the relationship. The Obama administration views Israel as one of many vital allies across the Middle East, the relationship with it sacrosanct but not inviolable, vulnerable to criticism just as any other; Israel, on the other hand, is thoroughly dependent on the United States.
State Department officials are intimately aware of the fact that settlers and their political representatives are openly opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state. Netanyahu’s affiliation with those groups troubles the administration and, for many of its officials, raises long-term questions about the viability of US support.
The Obama administration targeted Israeli settlement policy in 2009 unsuccessfully, “fear-mongering” on Iran by Netanyahu in 2011, and Israel’s heavy hand in Gaza this past summer. Without qualifying the battles it has chosen, one can say with certainty that the White House has been unafraid to challenge Israel on a host of serious policy disagreements.
In its criticism of the Gaza conflict, Operation Protective Edge, this administration became the first to publicly question Israel’s adherence to international humanitarian law, after the IDF shelled a third school facility run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.
The National Security Council does not even try to characterize Obama’s relationship with Netanyahu as friendly anymore.
Calling the relationship “effective,” Baskey noted a productive meeting between the two men in the Oval Office earlier this month.
But just an hour after Netanyahu left that meeting, White House press secretary Josh Earnest and State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki questioned, for the first time, the prime minister’s basic commitment to peace.
Three weeks later, his defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, arrived in Washington to even less fanfare: a small honor guard at the Pentagon, a hug from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and a public snub from the White House and State Department, which refused all requests for meetings by Ya’alon with senior administration officials.
Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, says that personal animus is not at root of the conflict between the two principals.
“There is no denying that there are fundamental disagreements between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government on a range of issues. This has been the case since 2009,” Schanzer said. “But this crisis would never have become full-blown were it not for Iran’s nuclear program.”
The White House has indeed focused its response to recent tensions aired in the press on its concerns over settlements. But the real impetus for the insults against Netanyahu – as reported by Jeffrey Goldberg, a prominent columnist on Jewish and Israeli issues for The Atlantic – was his feverish differences with Obama on how best to handle Iran.
“As Netanyahu sees it, Israel’s survival is on the line,” Schanzer continued. “But so is Obama’s legacy.”
Put another way: The Israeli government views an Iranian nuclear program not sufficiently contained as an existential threat to the country’s existence. The US government views the program, alternatively, as a strategic threat.
Most important: After months of unprecedented security and intelligence cooperation on a technical level, the two sides have failed to reconcile their standards for what would constitute sufficient containment of the program.
This is not a war of words or a crisis of “chickenshit”: These are policy differences that are consequential to both parties and, in the coming days, might prove irreconcilable. The impact of such failure will extend beyond public diplomacy. And Netanyahu might have his chance to prove detractors wrong.