At one point during John Kerry’s Thursday interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program, the camera suddenly turned to his interviewer, Mika Brzezinski, who was caught unguarded, frantically waving her hands in an effort to cut short the U.S. Secretary of State’s rather long-winded response. In Jerusalem, of course, but in Washington as well, there are those who would gladly second Brzezinski’s motion, not so much for the length of Kerry’s statements but more for their tone.
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The harshness of some of Kerry’s public utterances, including his warning of a “third intifada” that would strike Israel if peace talks with the Palestinians fail, elicited no small measure of unease among White House officials who shared their sentiments with trusted interlocutors. Obama is backing Kerry’s positions on both the peace process and the Iranian nuclear deal, of course, but the president could do without the outrage and resentment that some of Kerry’s statements have elicited both in Israel and among American Jewish leaders. Obama has enough problems, to put it wildly mildly, dealing with the almost universal onslaught against his stumbling health care law.
But the disapproval of Kerry sayings is nonetheless minor compared to the dismay created by the harshness and audacity of some of Israel’s reactions in recent days. The daily remonstrations and rebukes emanating from Jerusalem evoked memories of President Clinton’s by now notorious reaction following a 1996 meeting with then newly-elected Prime Minister Netanyahu in 1996: “Who the f*&%$# does he think he is? Who’s the f%^&** superpower here?”
It started with Netanyahu’s on camera melodrama following what is acknowledged to be his very tough meeting with Kerry last week; it goes on to the all-out unbridled personal onslaught against Obama and Kerry carried out by Israeli pundits, politicians and “sources close to the prime minister”; then it moves to Netanyahu’s unabashed call on American Jews to oppose their government, which was way too unequivocal and public even for Jewish leaders who completely agree with him; and it reached its zenith, in the meantime, with the unexpected announcement that Israel was planning to build 24,000 new housing units in the territories, just as Israel’s diplomatic offensive against the proposed Iran deal was shifting into high gear.
That spectacular, self-inflicted sabotage of Netanyahu’s case against Iran, a coup de grace to what was still being viewed as Jerusalem’s levelheaded reaction to the Geneva talks, was ascribed by the generously inclined to coalition chaos,, but to out and out nuttiness by those less favorably disposed.
Obama wants to offer the Iranians an honorable exit from their nuclear program, some Americans say, but Netanyahu’s my-way-or-the-highway approach insists on humiliating them first. Netanyahu mocked sanctions not long ago and insisted they could not work, but now he touts them as an ultimate silver bullet to stop Tehran in its tracks. Netanyahu once implicitly acquiesced to then Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s explicit agreement for low grade Iranian uranium enrichment to continue, but now he says it’s a make or break proposition.
Israel and its supporters in Congress demand that Obama’s every third sentence should mention the military option that is still on the table, one insider says, and then they turn around and tell anyone who cares to listen that Obama is weak, irresolute and would never dare attack, under any circumstances. No one has undermined the credibility of Obama’s military threat on Iran, a source close to the White House told me, more than the Israelis themselves.
When unnamed U.S. sources confirm an Israeli attack on Syria or when Thomas Friedman writes a critical column in the New York Times, Israelis are convinced that these are all part of a coordinated Administration conspiracy. But when a concerted campaign of defamation and deligitimization is conducted in Israel against both Obama and Kerry, when they are accused on a daily basis of betraying Israel, sticking a knife in its back, kowtowing to Islamic jihadists or openly backing terrorists – that’s accepted, that’s OK, because, you know, Israelis are entitled.
It’s perfectly fine to obsessively compare Obama and Kerry to the appeasing Neville Chamberlain, the 20th century’s most scorned statesman, the man who kowtowed to Hitler and the Nazis, because everyone seems to be doing it, from the prime minister on down. But Israelis? They still haven’t forgotten or forgiven Time Magazine for comparing Menachem Begin to Charles Dickens’ Fagin 35 years ago. “You’re excellent at dishing it out, but pretty weak in taking it yourselves,” as one bitter U.S. insider told me.
Israel, the U.S. claims, was not surprised at all by the details of the negotiations in Geneva, but on the contrary, was kept informed of every minute development. The French are your new heroes? Go ahead, you can have them. Go ask them for billions dollars in aid, the most sophisticated weapon systems on earth and total diplomatic defense in international forums. Go persuade them that it’s OK for France to lose its voting rights in UNESCO, cause, hey, it’s for a worthy cause. Oh, and don’t forget to ask them to take over the unprecedented international coalition that Obama built, the one that that has imposed on Iran the kind of tough sanctions that have allowed us to negotiate with Iran, rather than fueling the bombers in advance of a military attack that, Israeli presumptuousness notwithstanding, is a far riskier and much more dangerous road to take.
This mutual outburst of resentment, which both sides understand needs to be quickly restrained, nonetheless exposes the thin veneer over the volatile relationship between Obama and Netanyahu, the ideological and psychological gaps between the two leaders and the precariousness of the artificial honeymoon that followed their reelections and Obama’s visit to Israel. Obama’s capitulation on Iran confirmed all of Netanyahu’s apprehensions, sources in Jerusalem told the Israeli press, but the same is true in reverse: Netanyahu’s undisciplined reaction, his clarion call to American Jews and his open lobbying on Capitol Hill against Administration policy is also viewed by some in the White House as a vindication of their own long held suspicions.
The problem isn’t so much with Netanyahu’s objections, with which many of us agree, not even with the way he goes about expressing them, one concerned Jewish leader told me. We have grown used to Israeli brashness and even lack of appreciation for the Administration’s efforts on its behalf, but sometimes one suspects that Jerusalem has lost control of their brakes completely.
Which suddenly reminded me, for some reason, of Spanish director Pedro Almodovar’s 1988 hit film “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” which, it turns out, should have been translated as “Women on the Verge of an Attack of Nerves” The said attack (Ataque de Nervios) is a so-called “culture-bound” psychological syndrome mainly prevalent among Hispanics, especially in the Caribbean. According to the Encyclopedia of Multicultural Psychology, its symptoms include “uncontrollable shouting, crying, trembling, pain in the head and in the chest, aggression and breaking things.”
Breaking things? Hmmmm. So while Iran appears to be nearing the threshold of nuclear capability, Israel – even though it’s not exactly Caribbean or Hispanic - may already be on the verge of its own Ataque de Nervios. The only question is which of the two countries will be first to go over the edge.