Caution, Netanyahu Team: President Obama Knows Key Hebrew Negotiating Terms

Top aide says Obama used Israeli slang word 'freier' (sucker) to describe frustration at fraught ties with Netanyahu.

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U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv. March 20, 2013.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv. March 20, 2013.Credit: AP

Who knew that President Barack Obama has mastered Hebrew slang?

According to a former administration official, the U.S. president knows and uses the Israeli slang word “freier” - which essentially means “sucker” - and invoked the word when referring to tense interactions with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict.

The revelation came from Laura Blumenfeld, one of three Jewish former aides intensely involved in Secretary of State John Kerry’s failed peace negotiations who spoke on a panel called ‘Hitting Rock Bottom: Where now for Israel and Palestine’ at the Jewish Federation of North America’s General Assembly, which kicked off on Sunday.

Blumenfeld who served as Senior Policy Advisor on Secretary of State Kerry's Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations team from October 2013-February 2015 was asked by the panel’s moderator, JTA’s Ron Kampeas about the bickering and name-calling that has flown between the White House and Prime Minister Netanyahu in recent years, which culminated in the infamous “chickenshit” episode and continues today in the form of the Ran Baratz affair.

“Obviously we’ve been seeing a breakdown in message discipline on all sides,” she responded. “ I think it’s symptomatic of a kind of resentment and tension in the relationship.”

The two low points when it came to restraint were the 2014 Gaza War, and then the tense and difficult dialogue surrounding the Iran deal.

“There were a lot of days we spent bickering with the Israelis over what they were saying about us and what they were doing to them. I think it is part of a larger phenomenon and ties into the Jewish community,” Blumenfeld theorized. “As Jews acquire more and more political power, it became almost like a housing bubble or a real estate bubble. There’s almost been a Jewish bubble and I think we saw it pop over the summer. “

Blumenfeld traced the behavior to the Gaza war last summer when, she said “the administration really felt like they were really humiliated and undercut by the Israelis during the war ... And you heard people say out loud, fight loudly in the stairwell in the State Department, saying “We are the United States of America - we will not be ruled whether it’s by domestic constituencies or Israelis!”

“And Obama was saying things to his advisers like ‘well, maybe I ought to accept this but I don’t want to be a ‘freier.’”

The president’s use of the term was a sign of how fraught things were she said: “When you have Obama going all Middle East like that - worried that he’s going to be a sucker with Netanyahu, you know you’ve reached a certain point.”

As Blumenfeld told the story, a member of the panel, David Makovsky, who put in ten-months as a senior advisor on Secretary of State John Kerry's peace team looked startled and slightly disapproving. Then he laughed.

“That was one of our best-kept secrets,” Makovsky said.

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