Insulting Netanyahu: Spontaneous combustion or intelligent design?

 Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu shakes hands with US President Barack Obama at the White House (photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu shakes hands with US President Barack Obama at the White House
“It’s simply not the way partners and allies treat each other,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
These comments were not made Wednesday – in the wake of “Chickenshit-gate” – but rather back on July 28 in reaction to anonymous Israeli officials who slammed Secretary of State John Kerry for his clumsy handling of efforts to broker a cease-fire during Operation Protective Edge. (She used other language on Wednesday, coming out strongly against the comments and terming them “inappropriate and counterproductive.”) Washington back in July was livid, just livid, at Israeli officials – unnamed – and pundits who harshly criticized Kerry for bringing Qatar and Turkey into the cease-fire equation.
What particularly raised their ire was Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit quoting “very senior officials” in Jerusalem as describing “the proposal that Kerry put on the table as a ‘strategic terrorist attack.’” Not the way “partners and allies treat each other,” Psaki pontificated. America, her words implied, would never do such a thing.
Until, of course, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg comes around and quotes a “senior Obama administration official” knocking not Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies, but slamming – nay, cursing – Netanyahu personally.
“Chickenshit,” the source said, in reference to the prime minister of the Jewish state, using a word that will go down in Israeli political lore. And over the years, Goldberg added, “Obama administration officials have described Netanyahu to me as recalcitrant, myopic, reactionary, obtuse, blustering, pompous, and ‘Aspergery.’”
Aspergery? Asked to comment on the matter Wednesday by Israel Radio, Labor MK Nahum Shai said Washington was not Jerusalem, and that this type of comment must have been thought out and made at the direction of someone high.
His comments reflected an exaggerated Israeli penchant to attribute a great deal of order, discipline, harmony and calibration to everything that comes out of Washington – as opposed to the undisciplined, shoot-from-the hip style of Jerusalem’s politics. In this Washington of the imagination, everything runs like clockwork, and only in undisciplined Israel could a defense minister say privately that the US secretary of state was “obsessed” with the Middle East or had a “messianic complex.”
In this construct of reality, therefore, Goldberg’s senior official could not just be one staffer venting frustration at the prime minister; there must be much more behind it.
Perhaps these remarks were the result of a directive given to some official to talk to Goldberg on the eve of the midterm elections in America, or amid political troubles in Israel to denigrate the prime minister, or to send some kind of message prior to the November 24 deadline on a deal with Iran.
The first two options do not make much sense.
Looking at it from US President Barack Obama’s perspective, denigrating the prime minister on the eve of the midterm elections does not seem overly wise. America will go to the polling stations on Tuesday, and the polls show that Obama’s Democrats are in trouble. Does he really need another issue to be used against him? Indeed, it did not take but hours before the Republicans pounced on this, saying that not only does Obama not deal with America’s enemies the way he should, he mistreats America’s friends.
If these words were meant to impact the Israeli political scene, with the assumption being that the country will soon go to the polls, the comments were counterproductive, because they will rally much of the public around a prime minster viewed as being publicly insulted.
This is not 1999, when the Israeli public had a great deal of trust and confidence in then-president Bill Clinton.
That Clinton did not get along with Netanyahu, and that he was subtly working for his defeat in the race at the time against Ehud Barak, is something large swaths of the Israeli public could excuse and even support, because they believed Clinton had Israel’s back, that he was Israel’s friend, and that if there was a problem in the relationship, that problem must be because of Netanyahu.
Fast-forward 15 years and the situation is vastly different.
Obama does not have Israelis’ confidence, not by a long shot. What these ad hominem attacks are likely to trigger – and in fact have already triggered to some extent – is a rally-aroundthe- leader effect.
Hanan Kristal is Israel Radio’s political analyst and is not known as a Netanyahu cheerleader.
Yet even he said Wednesday that to call Netanyahu a coward on Iran is highly problematic, when a better description would be responsible or restrained.
A third option for those who see that there was an invisible hand behind these insulting comments is that they were tied to Iran.
According to this school of thought, adhered to by some senior Israeli officials, these comments indicate that the US is on the verge of signing a nuclear deal with Iran, and is trying to preempt what is certain to be Netanyahu’s withering criticism by “discrediting the messenger” and saying in advance that he had his chance to act on Iran but blew it because he is a coward.
Or these comments may just be a spontaneous eruption of pent-up frustration by an administration official toward Netanyahu, someone this administration sees as one source of an American Middle East policy in shambles.
Either way, this incident shows that despite how we often perceive ourselves as undisciplined, and not behaving like a “real” or developed country, when it comes to anonymous officials making over-the-top comments, Israel by no means has a monopoly on stupid.