After a “senior Obama administration official” calls the Israeli prime minister a “chickenshit”, Goldblog wonders whether the strained relationship between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations is finally reaching a breaking point:
What does all this unhappiness mean for the near future? For one thing, it means that Netanyahu—who has preemptively “written off” the Obama administration—will almost certainly have a harder time than usual making his case against a potentially weak Iran nuclear deal, once he realizes that writing off the administration was an unwise thing to do. This also means that the post-November White House will be much less interested in defending Israel from hostile resolutions at the United Nations, where Israel is regularly scapegoated. The Obama administration may be looking to make Israel pay direct costs for its settlement policies. …
Netanyahu, and the even more hawkish ministers around him, seem to have decided that their short-term political futures rest on a platform that can be boiled down to this formula: “The whole world is against us. Only we can protect Israel from what’s coming.” For an Israeli public traumatized by Hamas violence and anti-Semitism, and by fear that the chaos and brutality of the Arab world will one day sweep over them, this formula has its charms. But for Israel’s future as an ally of the United States, this formula is a disaster.
The “chickenshit” comment referred in part to the Obama administration’s realization that, for all his bluster, Bibi will never follow through on his repeated threats to start a war with Iran over its alleged nuclear weapons program. Larison considers that a reasonable assessment, reiterating that a US- or Israel-led war with Iran would likely be a disaster:
Two years ago, Daniel Levy made the case that Netanyahu was too risk-averse as a politician to do anything as hazardous and potentially disastrous as starting a war with Iran. That seemed very plausible at the time, and I still find it persuasive. It has never made much sense that the Israeli government would launch an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Even if Netanyahu were inclined to do this, which he reportedly isn’t, starting a preventive war against Iran wouldn’t prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. On the contrary, a foreign attack would probably make the acquisition of such weapons a priority for the Iranian government.
Walter Russell Mead mulls what it means if the administration’s “chickenshit” assessment of Netanyahu is correct:
If this is in fact the conclusion U.S. senior officials have reached, their Middle East policy becomes clearer: The Israelis and the Sunnis are whiners who complain about U.S. policy toward Iran but are unable to do anything about it or come up with an alternative. If the threat of Israeli military action is really off the table (and we should remember that this wouldn’t be the first time a U.S. administration misjudged Israeli intentions), then it’s very unlikely that a strong international coalition in favor of tough sanctions against Iran can long survive. Many of the European countries that have supported sanctions on Iran have been trying to deter Israeli military action as much as to influence Iran’s behavior. If Israel has missed its chance for military action, or is perceived to lack the will to take it, then as that perception spreads we will have to expect significant changes in the politics of the region and in the attitudes of the Europeans.
Allahpundit, on the other hand, finds the insult outrageous:
Let me understand this. Netanyahu considered attacking Iran, we pressured him not to do it, and now we’re mocking him as a “chickensh*t” for taking our advice?
John Allen Gay is mystified at what purpose this sniping serves. He believes it could damage the chances of a nuclear deal with Iran:
The Iran negotiations come to a head on November 24. If there’s a deal, the administration will come under immense pressure at home, particularly from Israel’s strongest defenders in Congress. A better relationship with Israel would mitigate that pressure. And if there’s not a deal, the administration may wish to extend the interim deal with Iran—another political friction point in which pro-Israel factions will be at odds with the administration. Yet the White House has opened fire early, and rather than attacking Netanyahu’s Iran approach, it’s engaging in playground name-calling. It’s hard to see what good this will do, and the damage could be serious. There has been a growing feeling in Washington that Israel would not have been willing to push Congress to confront the president on Iran, that it would prefer to live with a tolerable deal than to have an open battle with its closest ally. If Congress is already attacking Obama on Israel and if Israel and America are already fighting each other, these incentives change.
Larison is less concerned about that:
That’s possible, but the administration may assume that it is going to bypass Congress on the nuclear deal anyway so that this doesn’t matter as much. More to the point, Netanyahu already made his opposition to the interim deal very clear, so it’s doubtful that Israeli opposition to a final deal would be kept in check by keeping these criticisms under wraps. The administration may also assume that the Iran hawks in Congress intent on sabotaging the deal will be committed to doing so no matter what the state of the U.S.-Israel relationship is, so there is nothing to be lost by broadcasting that the relationship is in very bad shape. That’s the trouble with being implacable foes of diplomacy–no one has any incentive to treat you as anything more than an obstacle to be overcome. That appears to be how the administration sees Netanyahu as well, and they are treating him and the rest of his government accordingly.
Ilan Ben Zion rounds up the reaction in the Israeli press, which had some difficulty translating the key term:
Israel Hayom writes that the vulgarity expressed by American officials in the Atlantic article brings relations between the two countries to an all-time low. It explains to its readers that chickenshit is “a derogatory slang term whose meaning is ‘coward.’” Haaretz simply translates the insult that put the two allies’ relations on tenterhooks as “pathetic coward.” Yedioth Ahronoth uses the same translation, and also includes the litany of terms American officials used to berate Netanyahu that Goldberg listed.
Update from a reader:
I find it surprising that all of the pundits (and the Hebrew translators) are assuming chickenshit = coward and seem totally unaware of the meaning that the word has long had in the US military. While it is possible that the unnamed “senior Obama administration official” did indeed intend to call Netanyahu a coward, I think it’s just as likely, if not more so, that he meant this:
“Chickenshit refers to behavior that makes military life worse than it need be: petty harassment of the weak by the strong; open scrimmage for power and authority and prestige; sadism thinly disguised as necessary discipline; a constant ‘paying off of old scores’; and insistence on the letter rather than the spirit of ordinances.”
― Paul Fussell, Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War