U.S.-Israel relations were reduced to a new low of insult, umbrage and disavowal on Wednesday as the Obama administration sought to distance itself from disparaging remarks about Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu attributed to an anonymous U.S. officials.
“The thing about Bibi is, he’s a worthless coward,” the unidentified official was quoted as saying, using Netanyahu’s nickname in an interview in The Atlantic magazine.
“The good thing about Netanyahu is that he’s scared to launch wars,” the official said, in apparent reference to past hints of possible Israeli military action against Iran’s nuclear program. “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.”
Netanyahu, the official was reported to have said, is interested only in “protecting himself from political defeat … He’s got no guts.”
The Obama administration disavowed the insults.
“Certainly that’s not the administration’s view, and we think such comments are inappropriate and counterproductive,” National Security Council spokesperson Alistair Baskey said in an e-mail.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu and the president have forged an effective partnership, and consult closely and frequently, including earlier this month when the president hosted the prime minister in the Oval Office.”
In response, Netanyahu took the moral high ground, asserting that it is only his staunch defense of Israel that makes him a target for insults.
“Our supreme interests, chiefly the security and unity of Yerushalayim, are not the main concern of those anonymous officials who attack us and me personally, as the assault on me comes only because I defend the state of Israel,” Netanyahu said.
“…Despite all of the attacks I suffer, I will continue to defend our country. I will continue to defend the citizens of Israel,” he said. He was speaking at a memorial for Israeli cabinet minister Rachavam Zevi, who was assassinated by a Palestinian terrorist in 2001.
Netanyahu’s oft-time antagonist, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, came to his defense. “The prime minister of Israel is not a private person. Cursing him and calling him names is an insult not just to him but to the millions of Israeli citizens and Jews across the globe,” he said in a statement.
By contrast, opposition leader Isaac Herzog was notably unsympathetic: “Netanyahu is acting like a political pyromaniac, and he has brought our relations with the United States to an unprecedented low.”
The row comes against the backdrop of Washington’s intense displeasure with recent Israeli announcements of building projects over the Green Line. But it is only the latest in a series of incidents that have raised concerns of a new crisis in Israeli-U.S. relations.
U.S. officials said the Obama administration last week refused Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon’s requests to meet several top national security aides. The rejection followed negative comments Yaalon made about Secretary of State John Kerry amid the collapse of peace talks with the Palestinians.
Wednesday’s disavowals were not likely to dispel the public perception of things gone seriously awry in the alliance.
American anger at the Israeli leader is “red hot” and the relationship between Israel and the U.S. is now in a “full-blown crisis,” according to The Atlantic’s senior columnist Jeffrey Goldberg.
Professor Itamar Rabinovich, Israeli ambassador to Washington between 1992 and 1996, told Walla! that relations have never been this bad before, commenting, “The two sides haven’t just taken off the gloves — they threw them in the trash.
“Crises between us and the United States in the past mostly stemmed from concentrated pressure on a certain issue: Eisenhower forced Ben-Gurion to retreat from Sinai in 1956, Ford pressed Rabin on the issue of Egypt in 1975,” noted Rabinovich.
“However, today there is a combination of a string of disagreements, practically on every meaningful issue in the region, and very awful personal relations between the leaders. It’s unprecedented.”
Goldberg, however, put much of the blame on the Israeli government.
“Much of the anger felt by Obama administration officials is rooted in the Netanyahu government’s periodic explosions of anti-American condescension,” he wrote.