THE LATEST furor in the toxic relationship between the Obama administration and Israel erupted over a barnyard epithet directed at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by a “senior administration official.” Ugly jibes between the two governments are not new: Secretary of State John F. Kerry has been on the receiving end of several from senior Israeli officials. But the crudeness of this one — Mr. Netanyahu was called “a chickens---” by someone speaking to the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, a frequent recipient of high-level White House communications — raised the question of why the Israeli leader provokes such passionate animus from an administration that coolly shrugs off insults from the likes of Vladimir Putin.
Part of the answer, no doubt, is legitimate and substantive frustration. Mr. Netanyahu recently announced expansions of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jersualem, ignoring U.S. appeals for restraint. The prime minister argues that the construction is in areas that are certain to be annexed to Israel in any peace settlement. But Mr. Kerry and the White House see them as provocations that at a minimum will make it harder to blunt another Palestinian diplomatic campaign at the United Nations — and at the worst will ignite violence in an increasingly tense Jerusalem.
Some analysts conjecture that dissing Mr. Netanyahu may be part of the administration’s groundwork for the deal it hopes to strike with Iran on its nuclear program this month. The Israeli leader is almost certain to oppose any accord, just as he denounced the interim arrangement struck last year; he can be expected to lobby Israel’s allies in Congress to oppose any lifting of sanctions. The “chickens---” label applied to Mr. Netanyahu, who served as an elite paratrooper, was linked to an assessment that, out of caution, he missed Israel’s opportunity to carry out a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Presumably Mr. Obama welcomed that prudence. But the administration, said the speculators, wanted to signal to both Tehran and Jerusalem that it would not be hesitant to do battle with Mr. Netanyahu over an Iran deal.
That seems to give the White House too much credit for calculation. In reality, the attack reflects an unreasonable and disproportionate reaction to Mr. Netanyahu’s resistance to U.S. nostrums on matters of crucial importance to his country — as well as rank unprofessionalism by one or more of the president’s senior aides. As Mr. Kerry pointed out, the indiscretion will only make it harder for the administration to reach an accommodation with Israel on Iran or the settlements.
U.S. administrations have often clashed with Israeli governments — including some that were considerably more militant on settlements than Mr. Netanyahu’s. But presidents prior to Mr. Obama tended to smooth over differences, at least in public. They understood that an open rift with Israel could encourage political assaults on the Jewish state by U.S. allies and military adventurism by adversaries — such as Iran. Given the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East and the very real threat that it will spread and escalate, Mr. Obama would be wise to initiate a reset with Mr. Netanyahu.