The flap over an Obama administration official’s obscene reference to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not going away, especially given the administration’s total lack of interest in identifying the senior official who spoke in that manner, giving an adequate apology or actually condemning the comment (as opposed to calling it “counterproductive”).
As bad as the insult was, worse was the official’s mocking of Netanyahu for not “[pulling] the trigger” and boasting “now it’s too late” for Israel to attack Iran. The comment is both wrong (Israel is fully capable of acting, as are the Sunni states) and can only give comfort to the mullahs, for whom the only deterrent may well be an Israeli strike. (As an aside, some time ago I had a cordial debate with Jeffrey Goldberg arguing that Obama would never act militarily against Iran; he insisted Obama would. His interview with the unnamed official unfortunately proved him to have been horribly wrong.)
The controversy will continue, in part, because the pro-Israel community is outraged. David Harris of the American Jewish Committee, hardly the most vocal critic of the administration, was blunt. “Alas, ‘chickens—‘ more aptly describes the behavior of any official who would use anonymity to describe the leader of a democratic ally in such an insulting way to a reporter,” said Harris. “Are there U.S.-Israeli differences on some issues? Sure. That’s no secret, just as there are occasionally differences between us and other key U.S. friends. But those differences are best managed privately by both sides, not publicly — and certainly not by resorting to such epithets.” David Brog, executive director of the Zionist group Christians United for Israel, observed, “Far more troubling than a stupid statement from an unnamed staffer is the fact that this remark is indicative of a broader disrespect for Israel that seems to animate much of this administration’s behavior.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) was the first of the 2016 candidates to weigh in, to our knowledge, releasing a statement Wednesday chiding the White House: “I’m hopeful the president of the United States shares the complete and total disbelief many of us felt that a senior official working in the West Wing of the White House would use profanity to describe the leader of our greatest ally in the Middle East.” As many Obama critics were demanding, he called on Obama to “demand to know who said this and ask for their resignation as there is absolutely no excuse for such language coming out of the White House. If the President receives no answer as to who said this he should consider making wholesale changes to his staff in order to guard our vital interests and for the sake of maintaining an important relationship with a key ally.”
Moreover, as we move toward the deadline for the Iran P5+1 talks, the latest insult will bolster critics who say the administration can’t be trusted and doesn’t know its allies from its friends. As the president’s foreign policy comes down around his ears, the image of a petulant and immature leader becomes more vivid. The question remains why the administration voices such animosity against an ally and holds its tongue when it comes to Iran, whose behavior has become much worse — and why wouldn’t it? — as it exploits the president’s frantic quest for a deal.
Charles Dunne of Freedom House tells me, “Executions in Iran have increased since Rouhani’s election. . . . Gender violence has surged and harsh punishments for relatively minor crimes continue unabated. In short, I would argue that the human rights situation has worsened in important respects over the last year.” The administration’s portrayal of Rouhani is so at odds with reality that it suggests the president’s views are no longer based on reason, but are driven by emotional and personal pique. “Our worry here is that a nuclear deal will take precedence over pressure on the human rights front, which we have contended is a major humanitarian disaster in its own right,” says Dunne. He’s got that right. No peep from the president about any of that.
And of course the White House once again has damaged its own party, putting it, its candidates and surrogates in an uncomfortable position. The National Jewish Democratic Council was obliged to issue a statement, although mealy-mouthed, expressing its concern.(“The National Jewish Democratic Council expresses surprise and disappointment at the profane and inappropriate language attributed to a senior administration official in describing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Even in informal conversation, the use of the term was unprofessional and does not meet the standard of civility and deference that has typified the Administration even in disagreement with its long-time ally.”) Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) as well as the DNC have refused to respond to a request for comment, but how long can they keep deflecting? At some point their silence confirms that they are nothing more than unprincipled rubber stamps for an incompetent and wrongheaded president.
If nothing else, the incident demonstrates how critical an independent legislative branch is to the maintenance of a close U.S.-Israel relationship. And it should remind voters in the next election that an established pro-Israel record and coherent worldview, not a self-label, are essential in discerning who is the most capable replacement for Obama. He or she can’t come quickly enough.