The 'Chickenshit' Relationship Between Obama and Netanyahu

The prime minister sparked unprecedented White House fury not for his defense of Israel, as he claims, but for wagging his finger, thumbing his nose and spitting in Obama’s eye.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Obama and Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House, September 30, 2013.
Obama and Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House, September 30, 2013.Credit: Bloomberg
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Tens of thousands of words have been written in recent years about the rotten relations between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama, but none have had the impact of the vintage vulgarity “chickenshit.” The coarse insult to Netanyahu by a senior U.S. official, delivered through Jeffrey Goldberg’s article in the Atlantic, encapsulated the disturbing depth of the mutual distaste and petty resentment that characterize the ties between the two leaders.

The chickenshit, if you’ll pardon the expression, has hit the fan.

The administration took its time to let the unprecedented diatribe against the Israeli prime minister sink in before dissociating itself on Wednesday from its “inappropriate and counterproductive comments.” With Democratic prospects as bad as they seem to be a week before Congressional elections, one can only imagine the frantic phone calls from party activists, Jewish and otherwise, urging the White House to cap the scandal and engage in damage control. Potential Jewish and Democratic voters who may object to Netanyahu’s policies and support Obama’s were nonetheless likely to be taken aback by the unprecedented personal assault against the Israeli prime minister.

But Netanyahu, for his part, was being brazenly disingenuous when he told the Knesset on Wednesday that “the only reason I’m being attacked is that I’m defending Israel.” True, Netanyahu’s adamant positions on Iran’s nuclear program as well as his persistence in approving new building in the territories would have irritated the Obama Administration in any case, but they would not have engendered the kind of frustration and fury captured by Goldberg, nor the harsh tone frequently used by Obama confidantes in relation to Netanyahu, notwithstanding White House denials.

Netanyahu earned the White House’s ire not for “standing up for Israel’s interests” behind closed doors, as he claims, but for wagging his finger, thumbing his nose and spitting in Obama’s eye while doing so, for the entire world to see. Despite the steady stream of righteous indignation emanating from Netanyahu and his defenders in both Israel and the the past 24 hours, there are very few red lines that the prime minister has not crossed in recent years in his contentious relationship with the American president.

Goldberg writes that the Israeli prime minister has “written off” the administration and that he plans to rely on support in Congress and public opinion, which is bad enough, but the White House has heard accounts of crasser words that Netanyahu has reserved for Obama, compared to which, sources claim, even “chickenshit” pales.

But Goldberg’s article contained far more damaging content to Israel’s national security than the personal insults that captured the media’s attention and quickly earned the Twitter hashtag #Chickenshitgate. Saying that Netanyahu is too much of a coward to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities and that an Israeli military operation is now off the table harms Israeli deterrence and removes a potential American bargaining lever against Tehran. It flies in the face of those who have claimed that the enmity at the top has no influence on the professional diplomatic and military ties underneath that are nowhere “as strong as ever”, as the White House noted yesterday.

Some of the other “compliments” attributed to the U.S. officials were not as surprising: neither the creative list of aspersions on Netanyahu that preceded “chickenshit” nor the perception that he has no real interest in advancing the peace process, nor his “near-pathological desire for career-preservation” – which is a common trait for most politicians anyway - nor the threat of a far tougher administration policy “after the elections,” an evergreen theme in relations between Washington and Jerusalem that never seems to materialize.

And while Goldberg rightly ascribes to Netanyahu the greater part of responsibility for the breakdown of ties – not only because he is the junior partner, as Goldberg notes – both he and Obama have failed to maintain the kind of adult relationship that one would expect between leaders of such ostensibly close allies.

Instead, they have engaged in chickenshit, as defined by Stephen Ambrose in his famous book Band of Brothers: “Chickenshit is so called – instead of horse, or bull, or elephant shit – because it is small-minded and ignoble and takes the trivial seriously.” Netanyahu has gleefully dissed Obama and his policies, on and off the record, often sounding no different than any rank and file member of the Republican caucus in Congress and regularly flaunting his intimate ties with their mutual benefactor and Obama nemesis, Sheldon Adelson.

Obama, for his part, was deterred by Netanyahu and quickly withdrew from efforts to sway Israel from what he rightly considers to be its very wrong way on the peace process; he preferred to remain aloof and disengaged in much the same way that he has with Republican lawmakers and American public opinion, which seems set to repay him in kind next Tuesday. Both leaders allowed their egos and their vanities to inflate their considerable ideological differences, digging themselves into an ever-deepening hole which, after Goldberg’s article, seems more like a cesspool.

But in in politics and diplomacy, one should never say never, as Charles Dickens wrote in a different context. The late U.S. President Lyndon Johnson, for example, was once asked how he could hug and praise Republican Richard Nixon after repeatedly describing him as a chickenshit to several listeners, including reporters. “In politics,” he replied,” you've got to learn that chicken shit can turn overnight to chicken salad.”

Whether such an alchemic antidote can still repair the venomous ties between Obama and Netanyahu remains, of course, to be seen.

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