Netanyahu Responds to U.S. Official: I Am Not a 'Chickensh—t'

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Photograph by Getty Images

The White House defended its commitment to Israel as it sought to tamp down controversy over an anonymous comment attributed to a top Obama administration official denigrating Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu lashed out at the comment, contained in an article in The Atlantic magazine. An unidentified senior U.S. official is quoted by columnist Jeffrey Goldberg calling Netanyahu a “chickensh-t” who’s afraid to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians or Sunni Arab states.

The flap threatened to worsen already tense relations between President Barack Obama and Netanyahu, amid a deepening feud with the U.S. over Israeli construction in contested east Jerusalem.

Republicans seized on the episode ahead of congressional elections next week to portray Obama as insufficiently committed to supporting Israel, a sensitive political issue for many Jewish and evangelical Christian voters.

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said in a Twitter message yesterday that Obama “sets the tone” for his administration and “either condones profanity & disrespect used against Israel or he does not.”

“It’s a little rich to have a lecture in profanity from the speaker of the House,” countered White House press secretary Josh Earnest. Boehner once used the same derogatory term to describe Obama in a newspaper interview and has acknowledged telling Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada to “Go F-ck yourself.”

U.S. ‘Committed’

Earnest said the comments in the article “do not reflect the views of the president.” He said the U.S. is “as committed as it ever has been to the security of Israel.”

The two leaders “consult closely and frequently,” and Obama has met with Netanyahu more than any other foreign leader, Earnest said. He said he doesn’t know who made the slur and doesn’t know whether Obama does. “I would be surprised if he did,” he said.

Netanyahu, a former commando, addressed the comments at a memorial ceremony in parliament for a cabinet minister assassinated by a Palestinian.

“I risked my life for my country, and I am not willing to make concessions that will endanger our country,” the Israeli leader said.

‘Attacked Personally’

“Our paramount interests, first and foremost security and the unity of Jerusalem, are not of vital importance to those same anonymous sources who attack us and me, personally,” he said. “I am being attacked personally only because I am defending the state of Israel.”

Frictions between the two administrations deepened this week over Israeli plans to speed up construction of about 1,000 homes in Jewish areas of east Jerusalem, the sector of the holy city the Palestinians claim for a future capital. The U.S. State Department called the plan “incompatible with the pursuit of peace.”

Israel captured east Jerusalem, along with the West Bank, from Jordan in 1967 and annexed it that year in a move that isn’t internationally recognized. It has since ringed the Arab neighborhoods of the eastern sector with Jewish areas where about 300,000 Israelis live alongside a similar number of Palestinians.

“The personal relationship between the American and Israeli leaders is about as bad as it’s ever been, probably even worse than we imagine,” said Jonathan Spyer, a political scientist at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, an Israeli college north of Tel Aviv. Asked about polls showing Obama’s Democratic Party losing control of the Senate in next week’s midterm elections, Spyer replied, “I don’t think Netanyahu is shedding any tears over that prospect.”

‘Diplomatic Pyromaniac’

One of Netanyahu’s closest political allies, Strategic Affairs and Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz, called the published comments “offensive.” They “hurt the state of Israel and its citizens,” Steinitz said, because “the prime minister is not a private figure” and “represents the attitudes” of the nation.

Isaac Herzog, leader of the opposition Labor party, accused Netanyahu of acting “like a diplomatic pyromaniac” and bringing relations with the U.S. to a new low. “The political games he’s playing with the American administration on the backs of Israeli citizens have to stop,” he told Channel 2 TV Online.

Settlement Position

Netanyahu’s hard line on settlement construction is welcomed by coalition partners who say Israel has the right to build in both east Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Obama and Netanyahu have had testy relations during their nearly parallel administrations, disagreeing over the Palestinian issue and talks with Iran. Outspoken criticism of U.S. policy by Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon has only frayed relations further.

Netanyahu has warned world powers led by the U.S. against signing a “bad” nuclear deal with Iran that would not ensure it couldn’t build bombs. Ya’alon has questioned U.S. resolve to deliver on its pledge to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear state and derided Secretary of State John Kerry’s commitment to peacemaking as “messianic.”

Goldberg wrote that the Obama administration thinks Netanyahu is bluffing with his threats to attack Iran’s nuclear program to keep it from developing the capability to produce weapons. Iran, which denies it seeks to build atomic arms, is trying to reach a deal with world powers under which it would curb its nuclear ambitions in exchange for lifting international sanctions.

Possible Veto?

Goldberg also said the U.S. may not offer Israel the diplomatic cover it has given it in the past at the United Nations. The Palestinians are seeking a UN Security Council resolution setting a timetable for an Israeli withdrawal from east Jerusalem and the West Bank, a move chief negotiator Saeb Erekat has said Kerry opposes.

Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid warned of a “crisis” in relations between the countries on Oct. 25, after Israeli media reported that Ya’alon was denied access to senior American officials during a visit to the U.S., including Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden. The withholding of access was meant to signal displeasure with Ya’alon’s criticism of U.S. policy, the Ynet website reported.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.