The other day I was talking to a senior Obama administration official about the foreign leader who seems to frustrate the White House and the State Department the most. “The thing about Bibi is, he’s a chickenshit,” this official said, referring to the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, by his nickname.
This comment is representative of the gloves-off manner in which American and Israeli officials now talk about each other behind closed doors, and is yet another sign that relations between the Obama and Netanyahu governments have moved toward a full-blown crisis. The relationship between these two administrations— dual guarantors of the putatively “unbreakable” bond between the U.S. and Israel—is now the worst it's ever been, and it stands to get significantly worse after the November midterm elections. By next year, the Obama administration may actually withdraw diplomatic cover for Israel at the United Nations, but even before that, both sides are expecting a showdown over Iran, should an agreement be reached about the future of its nuclear program.
The fault for this breakdown in relations can be assigned in good part to the junior partner in the relationship, Netanyahu, and in particular, to the behavior of his cabinet. Netanyahu has told several people I’ve spoken to in recent days that he has “written off” the Obama administration, and plans to speak directly to Congress and to the American people should an Iran nuclear deal be reached. For their part, Obama administration officials express, in the words of one official, a “red-hot anger” at Netanyahu for pursuing settlement policies on the West Bank, and building policies in Jerusalem, that they believe have fatally undermined Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace process.
Over the years, Obama administration officials have described Netanyahu to me as recalcitrant, myopic, reactionary, obtuse, blustering, pompous, and “Aspergery.” (These are verbatim descriptions; I keep a running list.) But I had not previously heard Netanyahu described as a “chickenshit.” I thought I appreciated the implication of this description, but it turns out I didn’t have a full understanding. From time to time, current and former administration officials have described Netanyahu as a national leader who acts as though he is mayor of Jerusalem, which is to say, a no-vision small-timer who worries mainly about pleasing the hardest core of his political constituency. (President Obama, in interviews with me, has alluded to Netanyahu’s lack of political courage.)
“The good thing about Netanyahu is that he’s scared to launch wars,” the official said, expanding the definition of what a chickenshit Israeli prime minister looks like. “The bad thing about him is that he won’t do anything to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians or with the Sunni Arab states. The only thing he’s interested in is protecting himself from political defeat. He’s not [Yitzhak] Rabin, he’s not [Ariel] Sharon, he’s certainly no [Menachem] Begin. He’s got no guts.”
I ran this notion by another senior official who deals with the Israel file regularly. This official agreed that Netanyahu is a “chickenshit” on matters related to the comatose peace process, but added that he’s also a “coward” on the issue of Iran’s nuclear threat. The official said the Obama administration no longer believes that Netanyahu would launch a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities in order to keep the regime in Tehran from building an atomic arsenal. “It’s too late for him to do anything. Two, three years ago, this was a possibility. But ultimately he couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. It was a combination of our pressure and his own unwillingness to do anything dramatic. Now it’s too late.”
This assessment represents a momentous shift in the way the Obama administration sees Netanyahu. In 2010, and again in 2012, administration officials were convinced that Netanyahu and his then-defense minister, the cowboyish ex-commando Ehud Barak, were readying a strike on Iran. To be sure, the Obama administration used the threat of an Israeli strike in a calculated way to convince its allies (and some of its adversaries) to line up behind what turned out to be an effective sanctions regime. But the fear inside the White House of a preemptive attack (or preventative attack, to put it more accurately) was real and palpable—as was the fear of dissenters inside Netanyahu’s Cabinet, and at Israel Defense Forces headquarters. At U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, analysts kept careful track of weather patterns and of the waxing and waning moon over Iran, trying to predict the exact night of the coming Israeli attack.
Today, there are few such fears. “The feeling now is that Bibi’s bluffing,” this second official said. “He’s not Begin at Osirak,” the official added, referring to the successful 1981 Israeli Air Force raid ordered by the ex-prime minister on Iraq’s nuclear reactor.
The belief that Netanyahu’s threat to strike is now an empty one has given U.S. officials room to breathe in their ongoing negotiations with Iran. You might think that this new understanding of Netanyahu as a hyper-cautious leader would make the administration somewhat grateful. Sober-minded Middle East leaders are not so easy to come by these days, after all. But on a number of other issues, Netanyahu does not seem sufficiently sober-minded.
Another manifestation of his chicken-shittedness, in the view of Obama administration officials, is his near-pathological desire for career-preservation. Netanyahu’s government has in recent days gone out of its way to a) let the world know that it will quicken the pace of apartment-building in disputed areas of East Jerusalem; and b) let everyone know of its contempt for the Obama administration and its understanding of the Middle East. Settlement expansion, and the insertion of right-wing Jewish settlers into Arab areas of East Jerusalem, are clear signals by Netanyahu to his political base, in advance of possible elections next year, that he is still with them, despite his rhetorical commitment to a two-state solution. The public criticism of Obama policies is simultaneously heartfelt, and also designed to mobilize the base.
Just yesterday, Netanyahu criticized those who condemn Israeli expansion plans in East Jerusalem as “disconnected from reality.” This statement was clearly directed at the State Department, whose spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, had earlier said that, “if Israel wants to live in a peaceful society, they need to take steps that will reduce tensions. Moving forward with this sort of action would be incompatible with the pursuit of peace.”
It is the Netanyahu government that appears to be disconnected from reality. Jerusalem is on the verge of exploding into a third Palestinian uprising. It is true that Jews have a moral right to live anywhere they want in Jerusalem, their holiest city. It is also true that a mature government understands that not all rights have to be exercised simultaneously. Palestinians believe, not without reason, that the goal of planting Jewish residents in all-Arab neighborhoods is not integration, but domination—to make it as difficult as possible for a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem to ever emerge.
Unlike the U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry, I don’t have any hope for the immediate creation of a Palestinian state (it could be dangerous, at this chaotic moment in Middle East history, when the Arab-state system is in partial collapse, to create an Arab state on the West Bank that could easily succumb to extremism), but I would also like to see Israel foster conditions on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem that would allow for the eventual birth of such a state. This is what the Obama administration wants (and also what Europe wants, and also, by the way, what many Israelis and American Jews want), and this issue sits at the core of the disagreement between Washington and Jerusalem.
Israel and the U.S., like all close allies, have disagreed from time to time on important issues. But I don’t remember such a period of sustained and mutual contempt. Much of the anger felt by Obama administration officials is rooted in the Netanyahu government’s periodic explosions of anti-American condescension. The Israeli defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, in particular, has publicly castigated the Obama administration as naive, or worse, on matters related to U.S. policy in the Middle East. Last week, senior officials including Kerry (who was labeled as “obsessive” and “messianic” by Ya’alon) and Susan Rice, the national security advisor, refused to meet with Ya’alon on his trip to Washington, and it’s hard to blame them. (Kerry, the U.S. official most often targeted for criticism by right-wing Israeli politicians, is the only remaining figure of importance in the Obama administration who still believes that Netanyahu is capable of making bold compromises, which might explain why he’s been targeted.)
One of the more notable aspects of the current tension between Israel and the U.S. is the unease felt by mainstream American Jewish leaders about recent Israeli government behavior. “The Israelis do not show sufficient appreciation for America’s role in backing Israel, economically, militarily and politically,” Abraham Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, told me. (UPDATE: Foxman just e-mailed me this statement: "The quote is accurate, but the context is wrong. I was referring to what troubles this administration about Israel, not what troubles leaders in the American Jewish community.")
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.
Next year, the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, will quite possibly seek full UN recognition for Palestine. I imagine that the U.S. will still try to block such a move in the Security Council, but it might do so by helping to craft a stridently anti-settlement resolution in its place. Such a resolution would isolate Israel from the international community.
It would also be unsurprising, post-November, to see the Obama administration take a step Netanyahu is loath to see it take: a public, full lay-down of the administration’s vision for a two-state solution, including maps delineating Israel’s borders. These borders, to Netanyahu's horror, would be based on 1967 lines, with significant West Bank settlement blocs attached to Israel in exchange for swapped land elsewhere. Such a lay-down would make explicit to Israel what the U.S. expects of it.
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.