Grumpy Old Man: Birds of a feather

Someone in the Obama administration called Bibi ‘chickenshit.’ Could this be what happens when two chickenshits collide?

Obama and Netanyahu (photo credit: REUTERS)
Obama and Netanyahu
(photo credit: REUTERS)
What we have here is a barnyard brawl, a poultry-run scrap, if you will, between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama.
Both men are at the head of Western-style democracies with similar outlooks and ethics.
They’re supposed to be allies – you know, they way birds of a feather flock together.
Unfortunately, though, instead of smooth, graceful formation flight they seem to hit constant turbulence, scraping wingtips and even butting heads, like those birds of prey in nature films that tangle in mid-air for territorial supremacy while dinner scampers away below.
I’m using avian metaphors, of course, because of an appellation, both fowl and foul, that an unnamed “senior Obama administration official” recently used for Netanyahu, according to the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic.
“The thing about Bibi is,” Goldberg quoted the official as saying, “he’s a chickenshit.”
Goldberg went on: “‘The good thing about Netanyahu is that he’s scared to launch wars,’ the official said, expanding the definition of what a chickenshit Israeli prime minister looks like. ‘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 RULES of journalism apropos direct quotes and attribution go, for the most part, like this: “On the record” means you can name your source and quote anything he or she says. “Off the record” or “on background” (or “deep” background, for drama’s sake) is the exact opposite: no quotes, certainly no attribution and pretty much don’t publish this at all. It’s a mode used for helping you understand an issue, to put a spin on it or perhaps just for your source to ingratiate him- or herself with you for a time in the future when you and your media outlet can be put to good use. It’s also an implicit signal that you’d damn well better get one or two other people to verify what’s said.
Generally, you let the source choose what it’s going to be; after all, he or she has the information you want. The problems begin when your subject has an interest in words being reported verbatim, although without anyone being able to trace them. So both of you try to find a middle ground, for example, with “on the record but not for attribution” by name or by any descriptive that could pin down the identity or even possible identity of the source. It’s cheap journalism, but it generally works.
Goldberg is no neophyte. My guess is that his source is no neophyte either. You might call this person Deep Helzeleh.
Mark Felt was Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s legendary Watergate source, Deep Throat. He was No. 2 at the FBI in the early 1970s, a 30-year veteran of the bureau. It’s said that he was aghast that the Nixon White House was trying to stymie the agency’s efforts to get to the bottom of the June 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters.
Others believe it was just a case of sour grapes, the administration having passed him over when a new director was appointed.
There are two theories about the motivation of Deep Helzeleh. One is that this person has a serious grudge against the Israeli prime minister.
The other is that he or she was put up to it by a superior, the idea being to jolt the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts back to life while leaving enough room for higher-ups to distance themselves, express regret and even apologize.
As Goldberg pointed out, others in the White House and its environs have their own choice descriptives for our prime minister. “Over the years,” he wrote, “Obama administration officials have described Netanyahu to me as recalcitrant, myopic, reactionary, obtuse, blustering, pompous and ‘Aspergery.’ (These are verbatim descriptions; I keep a running list.)” That last term raised the ire of activists working to raise awareness and levels of understanding about Asperger’s syndrome. But it was “chickenshit” that seemed to finally make Bibi sit up and take notice.
He doesn’t brag extensively about his military service (although he has every right to), yet he makes sure everyone knows, as he said in his initial reaction to Goldberg’s piece during a Knesset speech memorializing assassinated tourism minister Rehavam Ze’evi, that “I am being attacked because I am willing to defend the State of Israel.”
Indeed, with hands on ex-commando hips and classic tough-guy expression, Capt. (res.) Netanyahu wants his electorate to believe he’s the only thing standing between them and the deep, dark abyss that’s surely up ahead, that he’s no pushover.
It’s this guy thing. I mean, even Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, of late no Netanyahu stalwart but a fellow veteran of the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, chimed in by saying the slur was “an insult not just to [the prime minister] but to the millions of Israeli citizens and Jews across the globe.”
But remember that Bibi, some of his coalition cohorts and/or their aides haven’t been much better in their assessments of US Secretary of State John Kerry or even Obama. Former ambassador to the UN Dan Gillerman told a US network anchor: “The president of the United States has, rightly or wrongly, portrayed a weak America and created a perception of a weak American president.” But Gillerman was a diplomat. Others have been more blunt, saying anything and everything to imply that in Israeli eyes the Americans are bumbling, clueless dolts when it comes to the Middle East. And yes, even chickenshit.
It’s been spewing forth for months. You can’t miss it.
They’ve got a point. There is something in the Obama administration’s foreign policy that makes a lot of people wonder whether it’s battle fatigue, a depleted treasury or just a plain lack of good ol’ American fortitude and guts. It’s been Wussville since January 2009, especially for our region.
Of course, Obama’s predecessor seemed to like the drama of confrontation, with his Eastwood- esque “Bring ’em on!” But even without comparisons, the current president’s apparently sincere belief that it’s time for America to back off a bit from its sense of global superiority has probably been far more damaging than beneficial. After all, the ones who need to show a little deference are now riding high.
“What’s he gonna do?” they’re probably saying. “Stride out, read a few measured lines from a teleprompter and that’s that? Go ahead! Make my day!” BIBI KNOWS that his stature around the world will not pick up without a serious, even earth-shattering deviation from his approach to peace efforts. But he also recognizes a gift horse when he sees one, and if the chickenshit affair did anything, it was to boost his popularity at home, particularly in his party – where, believe me, he needs it.
In fact, the thought occurred to me that the whole thing might have been a Nixon-like dirty trick.
Remember The Sting? There was a scene where, with some fast talking, Kid Twist, to plant the seeds of the ruse, takes over a Western Union manager’s office to make the gangster Lonnegan think he can get a leg up on the results of horse races and make a killing.
Let’s suppose that Goldberg had never met this “senior Obama administration official” before and Netanyahu, who perhaps has his own Chuck Colson, set up a session for some member of American Friends of Likud to impersonate….
Nah. Too far-fetched – although it definitely would put to rest the charges of being a chickenshit.