The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, a respected expert on U.S.-Israel relations, reported on Tuesday that a senior Obama administration official vented about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Using Netanyahu’s nickname, the official told Goldberg:
The thing about Bibi is, he’s a chickens–t. … The good thing about Netanyahu is that he’s scared to launch wars. 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 got no guts.
That wasn’t all, Goldberg reported: “Over the years, 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.),” Goldberg wrote. “But I had not previously heard Netanyahu described as a ‘chickens–t.'”
U.S. officials don’t even employ such language, at least with reporters, when speaking of unfriendlies such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin or Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, let alone allies. So what gives?
Netanyahu, in remarks to his parliament Wednesday, said he was “being attacked personally only because I am defending the state of Israel.”
It’s simple, wrote Jonathan S. Tobin in Commentary Magazine following the publication of Goldberg’s article. “President Obama and his foreign-policy team aren’t just annoyed by the prime minister,” he said. “They’ve come to view him as public enemy No. 1, using language about him and giving assessments of his policies that are far harsher than they have ever used against even avowed enemies of the United States.”
Perhaps the most surprising part of the chickens–t affair is that U.S. officials disputed only part of Goldberg’s story. In an e-mail exchange with the Jerusalem Post, senior officials declined to comment on whether anyone called Netanyahu “chickens–t,” but took issue with Goldberg’s suggestion that there is a crisis in the two countries’ relationship, calling that a simplification.
“However, there are times,” National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey said, “when we disagree with actions of the Israeli government and we must raise our concerns, such as our concerns about Israel’s settlement policy. 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.”
It’s no secret Obama and Netanyahu privately — and sometimes publicly — dislike one another. There’s years of bad blood between the two leaders, exemplified by Netanyahu’s perceived support for Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election.
According to The Washington Post’s Katie Zezima, who took a thorough look at their strained relations, things got most heated in November 2011 when French President Nicolas Sarkozy let loose on Netanyahu. “I cannot bear Netanyahu,” Sarkozy told Obama. “He’s a liar.” Obama reportedly responded: “You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you do.”
If things were tense then, now they’re downright acrimonious. In January, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon called Secretary of State John Kerry “obsessive and messianic,” saying he hoped Kerry “gets a Nobel Prize and leaves us alone” — causing the Obama administration to deny Ya’alon’s request for a meeting this month. Then, after the United States criticized Netanyahu’s recent plan to build more than 1,000 homes in east Jerusalem — a plan many experts fear could fan ethnic tensions — the prime minister told Obama to “check the facts.” Anti-settlement rhetoric, Netanyahu said, was “disconnected from reality. … Just as the French build in Paris and the British build in London, Israelis build in Jerusalem. We will continue to build in Jerusalem.”
Meanwhile, Goldberg reported Netanyahu recently told several people he has “written off” the Obama administration that, in turn, is consumed by “red-hot anger” over settlement policies that compromised Kerry’s peace talks. Most damning, Goldberg got confirmation of the administration’s controversial view of Bibi: When he asked another senior U.S. official whether Netanyahu was a “chickens–t,” that official agreed, adding he also thinks Bibi is a “coward.”
Much of the enmity seems focused on the fact that Netanyahu, despite years of bluster and bloviation, never launched a preemptive attack against Iran over its nuclear facilities. “It’s too late for him to do anything,” the official told Goldberg. “Two, three years ago, this was a possibility. But ultimately, he couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. It was a combination of our pressure and his unwillingness to do anything dramatic. Now, it’s too late.” A second official added: “Bibi’s bluffing.”
Israeli officials are firing back. Economy Minister Naftali Bennet was incredulous.
“The leader of Syria who slaughtered 150,000 people was not awarded the name ‘chickens–t’,” he wrote in a statement, as reported by the Jerusalem Post. “Neither was the leader of Saudi Arabia who stones women and homosexuals or the leader of Iran who murders freedom protesters. If what appears in the press is true, then it seems that the current US administration is throwing Israel under the bus.”
The State Department may dispute the name for what Goldberg calls a crisis. But it’s unclear what this is if not that.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Benjamin Netanyahu never publicly supported Mitt Romney in the 2012 election. There was only perception he favored Romney over Barack Obama. Thanks to David Bernstein, a blogger for The Volokh Conspiracy, for pointing this out.