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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting with President Obama at the White House in May of 2011. (Photo: Avi Ohayun/Israeli govt/cc/flickr)

"Chickenshit": Public Feud Erupts Between Named (and Unnamed) US-Israeli Officials

Jon Queally

Reporting by The Atlantic's Jeffery Goldberg published late Tuesday, in which he offers anonymity to a "senior Obama administration official" who called Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "a chickenshit," has set off a public relations firestorm in both Tel Aviv and Washington, DC.

Goldberg reports that U.S.-Israel relations are in tatters and uses the anonymous quote to illustrate the "red-hot" anger felt by White House officials over the Israeli government's continued expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank. The comment, writes Goldberg, "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."

Critics of the reporting, however, were quick to point out the troubling decision to allow such an intentionally provocative statement to be published without identifying the source. No stranger to covering U.S.-Israeli relations in the wider context of the Middle East, prior to becoming a journalist focusing on the region Goldberg himself served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) while living in the country more than two decades ago.

Dan Murphy, a journalist with the Christian Science Monitor, responded to the reporting by tweeting:

The National Interest's Jacob Heilbrunn characterized the impact of Goldberg's reporting by writing, "If there wasn’t a crisis in U.S.-Israel relations before the appearance of Jeffrey Goldberg’s explosive new article in the Atlantic, then there is one now."

And independent journalist and commenter Marcy Wheeler wondered publicly if the timing of Goldberg's scoop wasn't suspiciously timed:

Other reactions on Twitter:

Despite these various interpretations, what did these unnamed U.S. officials even mean when they call the Israel PM a "chickenshit"? According to Goldberg (h/t MotherJones) :

Over the years, Obama administration officials have described Netanyahu to me as recalcitrant, myopic, reactionary, obtuse, blustering, pompous, and “Aspergery.”....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.

[...] “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.”

[...] 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.

[...] 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.

In Israel on Wednesday, in response to the story, Netanyahu forcefully defended Israel's policies. As the Guardian reports:

 Speaking to the Israeli parliament – the Knesset – a few hours after the comments were revealed, Netanyahu angrily insisted he was “under attack simply for defending Israel”, adding that he “cherished” Israel’s relationship with the US.

 “When there are pressures on Israel to concede its security, the easiest thing to do is to concede,” he said. “You get a round of applause, ceremonies on grassy knolls, and then come the missiles and the tunnels.”

The Obama officials’ comments underline the dismal state of relations between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu after a series of damaging announcements by Israel – including again this week – regarding its determination to push ahead with settlement building in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

However, following Goldberg's report, U.S. National Security Spokesperson Alistair Baskey downplayed the level of acrymony between the two U.S. and Israeli governments. "We do not believe there is a crisis in the relationship," Baskey said. "The relationship remains as strong as ever and the ties between our nations are unshakable."

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