Judith Martin, the popular American columnist better known as “Miss Manners”, advocates restraint when responding to insults: “I don't believe in answering rudeness with rudeness”, she once said in an interview. In extreme circumstances, however, – such as when a man asks a woman whether she’s expecting – Martin does permit to “defend one’s own honor.”
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“That means registering that one knows when one has been insulted, and refuses to tolerate it,” she wrote in a column.
The admonishing tweets sent out over the past 24 hours by National Security Adviser Susan Rice in the wake of Israel’s recent verbal offensive against Secretary of State John Kerry are meant to convey a similar sentiment: that his Israeli insulters have crossed the red line of diplomatic etiquette – a word for which there is no Hebrew translation.
The U.S. Administration, to quote the sterner Howard Beale from the movie Network, is “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore”.
Because recently, the steady trickle of insults and invective from Jerusalem seems be evolving into a tempestuous torrent. Tempers had hardly calmed down after Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon described Kerry as “obsessive” and “messianic”, when Bayit Yehudi MK Motti Yogev – from the ruling coalition – described Kerry as an anti-Semite; and only a few hours after Yogev asserted that the epithet was “not personal”, Kerry spoke in Munich about the dangers of boycott and the entire Israeli leadership subjected him to a sustained and indignant barrage, accusing him of “trying to pressure us with threats”, “holding a gun to our heads” and serving as “trumpet (shofar, actually) for the anti-Semitic boycott.”
Now, abusing U.S. presidents and their ministers is hardly a new concept, especially at times when the peace process seems to be going forward. From the days that Gush Emunim stood outside the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1974 and shouted “Jew boy” at Secretary of State Henry Kissinger all the way to the title “anti-Semitic Pharaoh” that the settlers affixed to Obama before the settlement freeze of 2010, the Israeli right wing has always reacted with unbridled ferocity to what it considers to be U.S. efforts to seize its God-given estate.
The difference now is in the frequency of the flare-ups, in the seniority of the Israeli disparagers – from the prime minister on down – and mainly in the deep mutual resentment from which the altercations stem. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes that in securing the interim nuclear agreement with Tehran, Kerry and the Administration operated behind his back and stuck a knife in it while they were there. Obama and Administration officials were subsequently astounded by what they saw as Bibi’s brazen enlistment of the Jewish establishment in support of the now-stalled Senate sanctions bill, which they view as an overt attempt to undercut Obama’s foreign policy.
And the intensity of the bilateral clashes is further fueled by the suspicions and bad chemistry that have characterized the relations between Obama and Netanyahu from the day they both took office in 2009. In the eyes of the White House, one Administration insider told me this week, a direct line connects Netanyahu’s public reprimand of Obama at their White House meeting in May 2011 to his barely disguised support for Mitt Romney in 2012 to his “over the top” reactions to the Iran accord to the current campaign against Kerry.
But in Netanyahu’s favor, he added with a smile, stands the fact that he usually distances himself from his own insults even before he’s finished dishing them out.
The Americans are well aware, of course, of the coarse, confrontational and in-your-face nature of Israeli political discourse – they just don’t think it should be levelled at them. True, Obama and Kerry are often subjected to the same kind of vilification by their political rivals, but that’s the whole point: for some reason, the Administration does not expect Israeli ministers to sound like Ted Cruz or Rush Limbaugh, especially when the U.S. remains, by all accounts, Israel’s biggest and perhaps only international ally.
Israel used to complain about the disingenuousness of Arab leaders who “speak to their own people in one language and to international audiences in another.” Now they are finding out that it’s not always such a great idea to speak to your friends abroad with the diatribe usually reserved for your enemies and rivals at home.
Small wonder that the Administration would like nothing better than to revert to the diplomatic niceties of yesteryear, with Washington old-timers fondly recalling the days when the only face of Israel on the international stage belonged to a sophisticated and urbane foreign minister named Abba Eban.
Personal attacks in Israel directed at Sec Kerry totally unfounded and unacceptable.— Susan Rice (@AmbassadorRice) February 4, 2014