Stay Home, Bibi
The news that an unnamed Obama administration official called Benjamin Netanyahu "chickenshit" has put U.S.-Israeli relations on a hot boil. While the anonymous remark was neither helpful nor diplomatic, it was richly deserved. After all, from the moment Barack Obama entered the White House, Bib has treated Israel's last, best friend on earth and its leader with condescension and disrespect.
But largely overlooked in this week's furor over Jeffrey Goldberg's explosive story in The Atlantic is the revelation that Prime Minister Netanyahu is once again planning to insert himself in American politics. Two years after serving as Republican Mitt Romney's de facto running mate, Bibi intends to come to the U.S. to blow up any deal with Iran over its nuclear program. As Goldberg summed it up:
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. [Emphasis mine.]
Think about that. With Washington and Tehran reporting progress towards meeting the P5+1 November 24 deadline for an agreement to limit Iran's nuclear capacity, a foreign leader expects to address Congress and demand the Iranian program be dismantled completely. The result would be to help ensure American military action against Iran's nuclear infrastructure, strikes Bibi and his Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon want the United States to carry out on Israel's behalf. More galling still, Netanyahu wants to undermine an American deal with Iran even as his government is pleading with the United States to protect Israel from a war crimes investigation and recognition of a Palestinian state by the United Nations.
Making matters worse, the Israeli Prime Minister wants to interfere in American domestic politics after announcing yet another 1,000 new housing units in Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem. Earlier this month, Bibi had the chutzpah to label the Obama administration's criticism of Israeli settlement expansion--a policy shared by the Clinton and Bush administrations--as "against American values." When the White House protested the appalling civilian casualties during Israel's Gaza war this summer, Netanyahu told President Obama "not to ever second guess me again." Adding insult to injury, just after that episode, almost half of Israeli respondents to an online poll said they would like to send an envelope containing the Ebola virus to Obama for his 53rd birthday. And still, Benjamin Netanyahu insists:
"Israel has no better friend than the U.S. and the U.S. has no better friend than Israel."
Bibi has given the American people plenty of reason to doubt the second half of his declaration. That starts with his government's disgraceful treatment of their Secretary of State, John Kerry.
For starters, the Israeli government eavesdropped on his phone calls. When Kerry was pushing a peace process not unlike that the Bush administration sought with Netanyahu's Kadima predecessor, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon accused him of "acting out of misplaced obsession and messianic fervor." (This from a coalition government whose members largely believe God gave all of the land of Israel to the Jewish people.) Kerry was savaged for saying in private what Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert previously said in public: without a two-state agreement with the Palestinians, Israel risks becoming an "apartheid state." While conservative Knesset members call Kerry anti-Semitic, the government-funded Yesha Council of settlements produced a video mocking the Secretary for, among other things, telling Israelis to wipe their asses with a porcupine.
Kerry hasn't been the only target for Netanyahu. On the very day of Vice President Joe Biden's arrival in Israel in March 2010, Bibi announced another major expansion of settlements in the West Bank, a policy opposed by the last three American administrations. Politico described the the stark warning Vice President Biden delivered to the Israelis after their public humiliation of him:
People who heard what Biden said were stunned. "This is starting to get dangerous for us," Biden castigated his interlocutors. "What you're doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us and it endangers regional peace."
The vice president told his Israeli hosts that since many people in the Muslim world perceived a connection between Israel's actions and US policy, any decision about construction that undermines Palestinian rights in East Jerusalem could have an impact on the personal safety of American troops fighting against Islamic terrorism.
America's best friend may think a perpetual occupation of the West Bank may be vital to its national security interests, but Biden wasn't alone in making the case that U.S. interests require a different policy. As Foreign Policy detailed at the time, then-CENTCOM commander and conservative idol General David Petraeus made stressed that very point to the U.S. Joint Chiefs. Chairman Michael Mullen was apparently stunned by what he heard:
The 33-slide, 45-minute PowerPoint briefing stunned Mullen. The briefers reported that there was a growing perception among Arab leaders that the U.S. was incapable of standing up to Israel, that CENTCOM's mostly Arab constituency was losing faith in American promises, [and] that Israeli intransigence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was jeopardizing U.S. standing in the region.
That's not all. Petraeus requested, though was later denied, the addition of the West Bank and Gaza into his theater of command. As FP reported, "Petraeus's reason was straightforward: with U.S. troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military had to be perceived by Arab leaders as engaged in the region's most troublesome conflict."
Benjamin Netanyahu delivered his insults on U.S. soil as well. Two months after that dust-up, Bibi lectured the President of the United States in front of cameras at the White House. At the United Nations and ever since, Netanyahu has demanded a "red line" ruling out an Iranian nuclear capability and has worked tireless to undermine the six-party negotiations still ongoing. While most experts believe a unilateral Israeli strike against Tehran's nuclear facilities would trigger a regional conflict almost certain to spread to American targets, the Netanyahu government has signaled it may not notify Washington in advance. And while Bibi's allies in Congress like Illinois Senator Mark Kirk stand ready to blow up the delicate nuclear talks with Iran, others like Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) have offered a resolution requiring the U.S. to come to Israel's defense if it chooses to begin blowing up Iranians.
To be sure, the United States and Israel are close friends and allies. The cultural and social bonds between the American and Israeli people are, as President Obama likes to say, unbreakable. The U.S. has benefitted from the booming Israeli economy and its innovative tech sector now tightly integrated with Silicon Valley. And even when the countries have not seen eye-to-eye (as with Suez in 1956 and Secretary of State James Baker's "f**k the Jews" comment over Israeli settlements and loan guarantees), America has been with Israel in its moment of need. In June 1967, President Lyndon Johnson gave his OK to Israel's preemptive strike against Egypt and Syria, telling Foreign Minister Abba Eban, "You will whip hell out of them." And when Israel's catastrophic losses in the 1973 Yom Kippur War raised the specter of nuclear war, a massive American resupply airlift (and Defcon 3 worldwide military alert) helped stave off disaster for the Jewish State. Today, the two nations collaborate on the Iron Dome anti-missile system, close intelligence sharing and, as we recently learned, Israeli participation in the NSA's signal gathering programs throughout the Middle East.
But increasingly, Americans are asking what benefits the United States gets by being Israel's BFF. While the U.S. provides $3 billion in aid each year (aid some conservatives in both countries would like to end), Israel is near the top of the list of cyber espionage threats faced by America, as a Bush administration National Intelligence Estimate warned. Nevertheless, Netanyahu's is just the latest Israeli government to press for the release of its American spy, Jonathan Pollard, even as a condition of concessions to the Palestinians. (There's even a play about Pollard in New York right now.) And while its military assistance makes the United States complicit in Israeli policies that often run counter to American interests in the region, unlike Australia, Canada or the United Kingdom Israel's power can never be brought to bear in support of the United States. As the experience of the First Gulf War showed to the chagrin of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, justifiable Israeli retaliation against Iraqi Scud missile strikes would have shattered the allied coalition that ejected Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.
Still, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu scolded the Obama administration again, telling Secretary Kerry and U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro "not to ever second guess me again" on how to deal with Hamas. That's no way to talk to your best friend. It might be time for the United States to respond using the kind of language that Tom Friedman suggested after Netanyahu's disgraceful treatment of Biden back in 2010:
"Message from America to the Israeli government: Friends don't let friends drive drunk. And right now, you're driving drunk. You think you can embarrass your only true ally in the world, to satisfy some domestic political need, with no consequences? You have lost total contact with reality. Call us when you're serious."
(If that sounds familiar, it should. Back in the early 1990's, President George H.W. Bush's Secretary of State James Baker publicly recited the White House switchboard's phone number and declared to Israel, "When you are serious about peace, call us!")
As it turns out, Obama's unnamed official is not the first to call Benjamin Netanyahu "chickenshit." After Bibi went back on a commitment he had made during the 1990's, Haaretz reported, President Bill Clinton did the honors himself:
"'This is just chicken shit. I'm not going to put up with this kind of bullshit.'"
Aaron David Miller, who was Ross' deputy, also documented the days of Bibi and Bill. In his book "The Much Too Promised Land," Miller relates that during their first meeting in the summer of 1996, Bibi lectured the president about the Arab-Israeli issue, prompting Clinton to expostulate when it was over, "Who the fuck does he think he is? Who's the fucking superpower here?"
Clinton could be forgiven his anger. After all, Netanyahu undermined Clinton's peace-making efforts in 1998 by first visiting a Christians United for Israel (CUFI) before going to the White House. As Jerry Falwell explained, "It was all planned by Netanyahu as an affront to Clinton."
All of which is why Benjamin Netanyahu needs to keep out of the decisions the American people and their government will make about war or peace with Iran. The GOP may now be an extension of the Likud Party and its hard-right coalition partners, but the United States of America is not. To put it another way, just stay home, Bibi.