Netanyahu’s Not Chickenshit, the White House Is

The administration is a coward for not saying what it really thinks about the special relationship with Israel.

Getty Images/Photo Illustration by FP
Getty Images/Photo Illustration by FP

I’ve been reluctant to say much about this week’s tempest in a teapot — i.e., the U.S.-Israeli flap over "chickenshit-gate" — because the flap itself is of little strategic importance.

Back in 2006 and 2007, John Mearsheimer and I argued that Israel and the United States would both be better off if they had a normal relationship rather than a "special" one (that is, one where the United States backs Israel no matter what it does). Nothing has happened since we published our book to undermine that conclusion, which is why more and more people have begun to voice their own concerns about the Israel lobby and its harmful influence on U.S. policy. I have little to add to our earlier analysis, which is why I haven’t been writing much about the topic of late.

Nonetheless, this latest brouhaha is interesting for what it reveals about the foreign-policy establishments in both countries. We are not talking about a substantial shift in policy or anything like that; instead, the triggering event is an Atlantic article quoting some U.S. officials saying unflattering things about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The opening paragraph includes an anonymous characterization of Netanyahu as "chickenshit," meaning he is too risk-averse and cowardly to undertake military action against Iran. That’s really all there is to it. 

Unfortunately, this minor flap suggests we are dealing not with a mature great power and a grateful client state, but rather with a bunch of immature children who could use some adult supervision. Or even a timeout.

To begin with, if this is a "crisis" in U.S.-Israeli relations — as the Atlantic’s headline blares — it is surely an odd one. Normally, the term crisis refers to a clash of interests that involves real dangers, as in the July Crisis that led to World War I, or the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. But there’s little of substance in this little flare-up: The United States is still giving a wealthy and powerful Israel several billion dollars of military and economic aid each year; it is still selling Israel some of the most advanced weapons in the U.S. arsenal; and U.S. officials continue to provide diplomatic cover in the United Nations and other international forums. The United States even took Israel’s side when it pummeled Gaza again a few months back, despite official concerns about the wisdom and morality of Israel’s actions. And White House officials are now doing damage control by reaffirming the "effective partnership" between the two countries and their leaders. 

Instead of a real crisis, all we have here is evidence that some U.S. officials don’t think much of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and at least one of them used some salty language to explain his or her disregard. News flash: Plenty of U.S. politicians — including Bill Clinton — have disliked Netanyahu intensely, and for pretty obvious reasons. He’s smug, pretentious, bombastic, and plays fast and loose with facts (which hardly makes him unique among world leaders), and he sometimes treats U.S. officials with contempt. If you’re Obama, Kerry, or one of their aides, and you’ve been working overtime trying to get a peace deal and save Israel from its suicidal settlements policy, and you get precisely zero help from Netanyahu and his lieutenants, a degree of irritation is to be expected. And all the more so when top Israeli officials respond to your efforts with insulting comments of their own. As former CIA intelligence analyst Paul Pillar astutely observes: "Harsh comments are far harder to justify when they are directed by an ungrateful beneficiary to its patron rather than the other way around."

But even if U.S. irritation is fully justified, what could possibly have possessed a senior (or even mid-level) U.S. official to utter those remarks to a journalist, let alone one with as spotty a track record as Jeffrey Goldberg? What did the anonymous speaker hope to accomplish? Was he or she trying to goad Netanyahu into actually doing something to Iran? Of course not. Did they hope to galvanize more opposition to an Iran deal among Israel’s many lackeys in the U.S. Senate? Perish the thought. Or maybe they wanted to provoke Netanyahu into demonstrating his manhood by killing a few more Palestinians? Not a chance. The most likely explanation? This was just a childish display of pique, made slightly more newsworthy through the use of a barnyard vulgarity. 

But step back for a second and consider what this means. Is this any way for the senior officials of a mature great power to behave? Loose lips sink ships, and loose talk derails effective diplomacy. If there was a purpose behind this statement, then it was lame-brained. And if it was just a petulant bit of verbal payback by a frustrated official, then it’s a sign of professional incompetence. Top-level officials are appointed to advance the national interest, and that means keeping their personal irritations to themselves until it is time to write their memoirs. Or, as a more accomplished diplomat might have said, "It was worse than a crime; it was a blunder."

Moreover, the idea that Netanyahu is a coward who lacks the guts to pull the trigger against Iran assumes Israel had a genuine military option vis-à-vis Iran in the first place. In fact, Netanyahu’s saber rattling towards Iran has always been a bluff, because Israel lacked the military capacity to conduct a strategically significant strike on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Sure, the Israeli air force could do some damage to Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, but it doesn’t have enough aircraft or the bunker-busting capacity to destroy all of its enrichment capacity. This situation with Iran isn’t remotely like Israel’s 1981 Osirak raid against Iraq, or even its 2007 attack on a reactor site in Syria, which involved bombing a single vulnerable location. An Israeli attack might delay Iran’s far more advanced program by a few months or maybe a year, but it would also encourage Iran’s leaders to start an all-out sprint for an actual bomb. And that is why prominent members of Israel’s national security establishment went public with their own concerns about Netanyahu’s hollow threats. A few Israeli Strangeloves might have believed an attack would draw the United States in to finish the job, but the risks were enormous and both Bush and Obama made it clear this gambit wasn’t going to fly.

In short, Netanyahu’s decision not to attack Iran wasn’t a show of cowardice (or being a "chickenshit"); it was a sensible strategic choice. The war talk from Israel was intended to distract attention from the settlements issue, keep Iran in the crosshairs as Public Enemy No. 1, and convince the United States to impose stiffer sanctions in the hopes of securing a better deal from Tehran over its nuclear program. But an actual attack was never a serious possibility. Bibi’s bluster might have fooled journalists like Goldberg — who has raised bogus alarms about an imminent Israeli attack on more than one occasion — but sensible observers should not have been taken in by all this folderol.

In the end, this minor incident mostly confirms the unhealthy effects of the "special relationship" itself. The sad truth is that top U.S. officials still can’t say openly what they really think about Israel’s behavior, or what they really think about the relationship itself. The mildest criticism invites automatic abuse from the lobby, and of course, anyone aspiring to a top foreign-policy position still has to mouth embarrassing platitudes and repudiate any previous criticisms in order to get appointed and confirmed. Just ask Samantha Power and Chuck Hagel how this process works. Ironically, it is U.S. leaders who mostly lack courage on these issues, not Netanyahu.

This incident reminds us that no two states have identical interests, no matter what U.S. politicians may say in their pandering speeches at AIPAC’s annual conference. The United States wants a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a meaningful détente with Iran, the Netanyahu government opposes both, and this gap is likely to become increasingly apparent over time.

This episode also shows how much top U.S. officials would like to put pressure on Israel to alter its behavior. A mature great power that aspired to global leadership would do exactly that, but U.S. officials are prevented from taking this obvious step by the lingering political clout of AIPAC and other groups in the lobby. When they speak in public or on the record, they have to pretend that the "special relationship" is hunky-dory, even when it is obvious to even casual observers that it is not. But when well-meaning U.S. officials are stymied, insulted, and forced to engage in repeated acts of self-censorship, frustration is bound to build and eventually spill out in public. It’s unprofessional and unhelpful, but also entirely human.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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