Obama Administration officials attempted to distance themselves from administration officials’ insults aimed at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after those comments set off a firestorm of criticism from lawmakers, organizations and pundits.
In an article written by journalist Jeffrey Goldberg for The Atlantic, anonymous administration officials used choice words to denounce Netanyahu for what the article claimed was the administration’s belief that the Israeli leader lacks vision, leadership and courage to make tough political decisions necessary to handle the region’s problems.
“The thing about Bibi is, he’s a chicken—-” one official is quoted telling Goldberg. “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.”
Confronting the outrage prompted by those undiplomatic comments, along with further allegations in the article describing the administration’s internal disdain for the Israeli prime minister as having recently reached a boiling point, National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey denied that there was anything unusual in the relationship between President Barack Obama and Netanyahu.
“Certainly, the comments in the article do not represent the administration’s view, and we think such comments are inappropriate and counterproductive,” Baskey said. “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.”
Although the White House’s response was timely, it fell short of a complete disavowal of what the officials unartfully tried to tell Goldberg — that members of the administration are angry at recent reports that Israel was moving forward with plans to build additional housing units in East Jerusalem.
“Obviously, despite the extremely close relationship between the U.S. and Israel, we do not agree on every issue,” Baskey said. “For instance, we have repeatedly made clear the United States’ longstanding view that settlement activity is illegitimate and complicates efforts to achieve a two-state solution.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest delivered a message that was almost identical to Baskey’s but added that Senior National Security Advisor Susan Rice will be conducting numerous meetings with Israeli officials in Washington, D.C., which Earnest believes is proof of continuing friendly relations.
When asked whether the White House will investigate the source of the comments like it had in other national security leak cases, Earnest was unclear in his response, telling the reporters that such news media leaks were not unusual. Yet, Earnest did not deny that the comments were made.
But beside the list of incendiary words used to express their frustration, little of what the officials in Goldberg’s article said surprised security experts and others who closely follow the diplomatic developments between the two nations.
There were many indicators of the icy relationship between Obama and Netanyahu throughout much of the president’s administration, including disparaging comments by the president himself when he was caught on a hot mic in 2011, complaining to then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy about having to deal with Netanyahu every day.
Most recently, the White House refused to grant requests from Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon to meet with Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and Rice in an apparent snub during his visit to the United States last week.
“What is shocking here is that these comments were not made off the record but on background — meaning the White House official knew they would be printed and linked to the White House,” said Elliot Abrams, who served as a top national security adviser to President George W. Bush. “That was deliberate, a deliberate ad hominem attack on the elected prime minister of a close ally. This is sophomoric behavior of a sort we have a right to expect no White House official will engage in and no president will tolerate.”
Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers also chimed in to condemn the insults.
“We know that relations between allies can be strained at times.
But there is no excuse for Obama administration officials to insult the prime minister of Israel, our closest ally in the Middle East, the way they did,” Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in a joint statement. “Apparently, the Obama administration does not believe it has enough problems on its hands dealing with America’s enemies in the Middle East. It also wants to insult and alienate our allies. That does nothing but harm to America’s national security interests, and President Obama must put an end to it immediately.”
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, expressed alarm at the anonymous comments, saying that he was “shocked” and “disappointed” and called on the administration to put an end to such damaging leaks.
“I realize that two allies, such as the United States and Israel, are not going to agree on everything, but I think it is counterproductive and unprofessional for administration officials to air their dirty laundry in such a public way,” Engel said in a press release. “I am getting tired of hearing about the leaks and denials. This ought to be the last time we hear of such talk because it is getting to a point where nobody believes the denials anymore.”
For his part, Netanyahu took the attacks in stride, reminding the people of Israel that a majority of Americans unequivocally support them, despite administration grumblings.
“As prime minister, I am responsible for Israel’s security. I care about the lives of every citizen and soldier,” he said in an address to a special Knesset session in memory of former Tourism Minister Rechavam Zeevy, who was assassinated in 2001. “I have been on the battlefield many times. I have risked my life for the country, and I am not prepared to make concessions that will endanger our state.”