Israel, Israel, Israel, Israel – can we ever escape the endless kvetching of its partisans? In the media, in both houses of Congress, on the campuses and in the streets, Israel’s fifth column in America is everywhere, making its presence felt. From Chuck Hagel’s confirmation battle to the public relations campaign accompanying their latest Gaza massacre, the Jewish state’s on-the-ground army of American flacks, publicists, and fanatic rank-and-filers mobilizes the moment someone looks cross-eyed at Bibi Netanyahu – and the Chickenshit scandal has them screaming to high heaven.
The scandal was created, unsurprisingly, by Israel’s semi-official flack-in-chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, a former Israeli prison guard turned journalist, whose pronouncements carry the authority of someone with impeccable connections in both Tel Aviv and Washington. Writing in The Atlantic, he reports:
"The other day I was talking to a senior Obama administration official about the foreign leader who seems to frustrate the White House and the State Department the most. ‘The thing about Bibi is, he’s a chickenshit’ this official said …
Goldberg has a carefully cultivated image as a moderate-to-liberal Obama sympathizer, and he goes into his familiar riff about how the rapidly fraying US-Israeli relationship is largely a function of Bibi’s truculence. Yet it’s clear Goldberg – who surely knew what the response to his reporting would be, even inside the President’s own party – is appalled by this display of candor:
"’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. 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 Lebanese and Gazans might quibble with the notion that Bibi’s "scared to launch wars," but then again those weren’t wars, they were massacres. And why should Bibi fight anyone who can possibly fight back when he has the United States to do his dirty work for him?
Goldberg’s assessment of the rupture is that "The fault for this breakdown in relations can be assigned in good part to the junior partner in the relationship, Netanyahu" – but perhaps Bibi doesn’t recognize his junior status because that isn’t the way it worked during most of the Bush years.
Obama is apparently much less willing than his predecessor to sacrifice American lives while Bibi directs the action from behind the scenes. The President’s initial reluctance to get more deeply involved in Syria, not to mention his eagerness to get the heck out of Iraq ASAP, had Tel Aviv – and its American amen corner – fuming. On the other side of the equation, the dramatic escalation of Israel’s "settlement"-building campaign has at least some in the Obama administration infused with a "red-hot anger," as Goldberg reports the phrase used by one Obama administration official, possibly the same one cited here:
"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. ‘It’s too late for him to do anything. Two, three years ago, this was a possibility. But ultimately he couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. It was a combination of our pressure and his own unwillingness to do anything dramatic. Now it’s too late.’"
The reality is that there was never any possibility of an Israeli strike, as I pointed out in 2011, when speculation was at an all-time high:
"The problem with this alleged plan is that Israel doesn’t have the military capacity to do the job and do it well: Iran’s nuclear facilities are enclosed within hardened sites, and are spread out to such a degree that Israeli war planes would have trouble reaching them. While the Israelis have recently tested a long-range missile that has the capacity to hit Iranian targets, the idea that they could take out all the intended targets in one fell swoop is simply a fantasy. Therefore, this alleged “debate” taking place within the Israeli leadership, complete with a phony “investigation” by Netanyahu into who leaked the nonexistent Israeli attack ‘plan,’ is a non-event. The whole thing, in short, is a bluff.
"But who is being bluffed here? Not the Iranians, who are surely aware of Israel’s incapacity. The volume of the war hysteria is being turned up with one purpose in mind: the Israelis want the US to do their dirty work for them. This is a threat aimed not only – or even primarily – at Iran, but at us."
The Obama administration is well-aware of Israel’s technical incapacity, as is Goldberg’s source: so what, exactly, is the purpose of this manufactured controversy?
The Israelis are hoping a propaganda campaign in the US will subvert the administration’s plans to reach a deal with Iran. As Goldberg reports;
"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."
Goldberg’s contribution to this whiny narrative – "Israel has been thrown under the bus!" – is pretty clear, but then again none of this is surprising. After all, what is Goldberg doing in America aside from acting as a kind of semiofficial (albeit ostensibly self-critical) Voice of Israel in the US media?
What’s surprising is how Netanyahu, in a speech to the Knesset, took the opportunity to answer his critics in the Obama administration: "Netanyahu angrily insisted he was ‘under attack simply for defending Israel,’ adding that he ‘cherished’ Israel’s relationship with the US."
The famously combative Israeli Prime Minister went on to say:
"When there are pressures on Israel to concede its security, the easiest thing to do is to concede. You get a round of applause, ceremonies on grassy knolls, and then come the missiles and the tunnels."
Bibi, who spent many years in the United States, is surely cognizant of what his "grassy knoll" reference connotes. You can argue it was just an infelicitous phrase, or that Bibi was referring to himself, not Obama. Maybe so. But what if, say, an Iranian official, even a low-ranking one, had said such a thing? The uproar would be deafening. And so the question must be asked: was Bibi threatening the President of the United States?
If we take seriously Goldberg’s depiction of the poisoned relationship between Bibi and Obama, the possibility can’t be completely dismissed.
The Chickenshit Lobby, otherwise known as Israel’s amen corner in the US, is mad as hell – but just how mad are they? I don’t know the answer to that question, but as the prospect of a peace agreement with Iran looms larger, those whose job it is to protect the President need to take this potential threat seriously. As we’ve seen recently, the White House isn’t exactly an impregnable fortress. In the meantime, it’s time to start reevaluating the "special relationship" in light of an Israeli leader who talks about the "grassy knoll" while denouncing an American president.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.