White House Distances Itself From Netanyahu ‘Chickenshit’ Comment

White House Distances Itself From Netanyahu ‘Chickenshit’ Comment

This post has been updated.

The White House is in damage control after an anonymous Obama administration official was quoted in the Atlantic calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a "chickenshit," while a second told the magazine that the Israeli leader was a "coward" when it came to Iran.

"Certainly the comments in the article do not represent the administration’s view, and we think such comments are inappropriate and counter-productive," Alistair Baskey, a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council, said in a statement.

According to congressional sources, White House officials are reaching out to key lawmakers who deal with the U.S-Israel relationship to deny that the bruising quote came from the White House — leaving the explicit suggestion that a State Department official was responsible for the remark. White House officials told lawmakers that press secretary Josh Earnest would denounce the quote at today’s daily briefing.

"They’re reaching out to us and letting us know that they’re outraged," a House aide told Foreign Policy. Another congressional aide said officials attempted to "make clear that the quote didn’t come from the White House and that White House officials weren’t happy about it." 

Denying involvement, a State Department official said, "That quote did not come from any senior State Department official, period." 

The flap began after the Atlantic magazine’s Jeffrey Goldberg quoted an anonymous U.S. official saying Netanyahu is a "chickenshit" prime minister, whose only concern is his political survival.

"The good thing about Netanyahu is that he’s scared to launch wars," the official said. "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." The other official told Goldberg that the Obama administration doesn’t take Netanyahu’s threat of a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities seriously.

The remarks reflect the latest turbulence in the U.S.-Israel relationship following the high-profile snubbing of Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon last week — a move prompted by the minister’s blistering public criticisms of the Obama administration’s efforts to forge peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Baskey added that despite the "extremely close" relationship between the U.S. and Israel, the two sides do not agree on every issue. "For instance, we have repeatedly made clear the United States’ longstanding view that settlement activity is illegitimate and complicates efforts to achieve a two-state solution," Baskey said.

Goldberg’s article prompted a defiant response from the Israeli prime minister’s office on Wednesday. "Netanyahu will continue to uphold the security interests of Israel and the historical rights of the Jewish people in Jerusalem, and no amount of pressure will change that," the office said.

In a sign of how urgently the administration has sought to put out this fire, congressional aides said White House officials didn’t even wait for a response from the Hill before trying to do pre-emptive damage control. "Sometimes there are conflicts and we have to reach out to them. They’re reaching out to us on this to totally disown it," said the aide. "They’re trying to control the narrative."

Passing blame for the quote onto officials at the State Department could be difficult given the White House’s tight rapport with Goldberg, who has been granted broad access to the Oval Office and multiple exclusive interviews with the president.

On Wednesday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki denounced the remarks. "We think such comments are inappropriate and counterproductive. I spoke with [Secretary of State John Kerry] about this this morning and he certainly feels strongly that a war of words is not productive from either side."

Coming just days before the midterm elections, Republicans seized on the comments. "He either condones the profanity and disrespect used by the most senior members of his administration, or he does not," said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). "It is time for him to get his house in order and tell the people that can’t muster professionalism that it is time to move on." 

Meanwhile, the dovish pro-Israel group J Street defended the spirit of the anonymous official’s remarks. "Sometimes when a friend sees a friend go off on the wrong path, there is a duty to sound a warning," said Alan Elsner, vice president of communications for the group. "Netanyahu, for narrow political reasons, has thrown in his lot with the settler movement and is leading the country in a disastrous direction which alienates Israel from its friends and supporters across the world, puts more and more obstacles in the path to a two-state solution, and will ultimately threaten Israel’s democracy."