US, Israel relations hit new low

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The testy relationship between the leaders of U.S. and Israel appeared to hit new lows on Wednesday after a senior Obama administration official was quoted calling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “chickenshit.”

The swipe was the latest in a series of slights and insults between the Israeli and U.S. governments, and raised fresh questions about the standing of an alliance that both sides describe as essential.

{mosads}The White House spent much of the day dealing with the fallout, insisting that the description of Netanyahu by the anonymous official did not reflect how the president perceives him.

“Comments like that do not reflect the administration’s view, and we do believe that they are counterproductive,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.

But the administration stopped short of a formal apology and did not indicate that President Obama planned to reach out directly to Netanyahu. The White House also didn’t shy away from criticizing Israel’s decision to authorize new settlements in disputed territory.

“The Israeli approach to expanding settlements is damaging to efforts to reach a two-state solution,” Earnest said.

The incident was the latest chapter in what Wilson Center scholar Aaron Miller called “the most dysfunctional relationship ever between a U.S. president and as Israeli prime minister.”

In recent weeks, Netanyahu has been critical of U.S. efforts to secure a nuclear deal with Iran, and intimated in an interview with CBS News that the Obama administration’s opposition to the construction of 1,000 new homes in an Israeli-annexed section of East Jerusalem was un-American.

Earlier this month, the Obama administration rejected a request by Israeli Defense minister Moshe Ya’alon to meet with Vice President Biden, national security adviser Susan Rice and Secretary of State John Kerry in what some perceived as a snub. Earlier this year, Ya’alon reportedly called Kerry “messianic” in his pursuit of a Mideast peace plan.

The Obama administration upset Israel earlier this year when it condemned the bombing of a United Nations school in Gaza and temporarily blocked flights into Israel’s main airport during the latest eruption of fighting between the Israelis and Palestinians. 

In August, The Wall Street Journal reported that the White House had halted the shipment of Hellfire missiles to Israel when it discovered the Netanyahu government had requested the weapons directly from the Pentagon without White House of State Department approval.

“You’ve had some very salty exchanges over the past several weeks,” Miller said.

Still, the administration sought to portray the relationship with Israel as untarnished, with officials noting that the president had spoken more frequently with Netanyahu than any other world leader. Rice insisted Wednesday that the relationship between the U.S. and Israel was “not in crisis.”

“The relationship is actually fundamentally stronger in many respects than it’s ever been,” she said at The Atlantic’s Washington Ideas Forum. “We have the greatest and strongest security cooperation between the United States and Israel that has ever occurred, and Prime Minister Netanyahu has heralded that on many occasions.”

She noted that she was spending her evening dining with her Israeli counterpart ahead of a biannual meeting between intelligence and diplomatic officials from both governments.

But foreign policy experts said the “chickenshit” comments revealed a very real tension between Obama and Netanyahu.

“It reflects genuine, deep disagreement and that the relationship may be irreparable between the two leaders,” said Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy. 

Prominent leaders on Capitol Hill from both sides of the aisle warned the remark could do permanent damage to the relationship between the countries.

“When the president discusses Israel and Iran, it is sometimes hard to tell who he thinks is America’s friend and who he thinks is America’s enemy,” Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said.

Rep. Eliot Engel (N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was “shocked” by the insult of Netanyahu.

“I realize that two allies … are not going to agree on everything, but I think it is counterproductive and unprofessional for administration officials to air their dirty laundry in such a public way,” Engel said.

While some observers have speculated that the quip against Israel could have been a deliberate attempt to win over Iran, Sachs says that level of calculation is unlikely.

“If there was a careful vetting process, I think they would have used language more befitting of the White House,” he said.

Moreover, the challenge in the Iran negotiations appears more convincing Tehran to make concessions, rather than signaling the seriousness of the other world powers about reaching a deal.

But work on the nuclear deal — with negotiations expected to conclude by Nov. 24 — could provide the clearest picture of how much the U.S.-Israel alliance has fractured.

If diplomats are able to strike a deal, Netanyahu is expected to register his disapproval. But if the Israeli leader actively lobbies Congress or the American people to submarine the deal, it would reveal a real deterioration in relations.

“It’s likely the Israelis would object to the terms,” Sachs said. “The question is how they do it.”

Still, Miller said critics have been sounding the alarm of a crisis in relations “for six or seven years.”

“The U.S.-Israeli relationship is too big to fail,” he said.

Tags Boehner Israel John Boehner John Kerry

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