The White House’s outrage over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to speak before Congress in March — a move he failed to coordinate with the administration — began to seep through the diplomatic cracks today, with officials telling far left Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, that the Israeli leader had “spat” in Obama’s face.
Times of Israel We thought we’ve seen everything,” the newspaper quoted an unnamed senior US official as saying. “But Bibi managed to surprise even us. “There are things you simply don’t do. He spat in our face publicly and that’s no way to behave. Netanyahu ought to remember that President Obama has a year and a half left to his presidency, and that there will be a price,” he said.
Officials in Washington said that the “chickenshit” epithet — with which an anonymous administration official branded Netanyahu several months ago — was mild compared to the language used in the White House when news of Netanyahu’s planned speech came in.
In his address the Israeli leader is expected to speak about stalled US-led nuclear negotiations with Iran, and to urge lawmakers to slap Tehran with a new round of tougher sanctions in order to force it to comply with international demands. The Mossad intelligence service on Thursday went to the rare length of issuing a press statement to deny claims, cited by Kerry, that its chief Tamir Pardo had told visiting US politicians that he opposed further sanctions.
Haaretz reported that Obama had personally demanded that Netanyahu tone down his pro-sanctions rhetoric in a phone call between the two last week. The president has said a sanctions bill would cripple negotiations with Iranian leaders at a critical stage, and has threatened to veto such a bill should it come through.
The Washington Post reported that Netanyahu’s apparent disrespect for the US leadership was particularly offensive to Secretary of State John Kerry, who over the past month had made frenzied efforts on Israel’s behalf on the world stage — making dozens of calls to world leaders to convince them to oppose a UN Security Council resolution which would have set a timeframe for the establishment of a Palestinian state.
“The secretary’s patience is not infinite,” a source close to Kerry told the Post. “The bilateral relationship is unshakable. But playing politics with that relationship could blunt Secretary Kerry’s enthusiasm for being Israel’s primary defender.”
The White House said Thursday that Obama would not meet with Netanyahu when he travels to Washington. Kerry will also not meet with Netanyahu. Netanyahu will be in Washington in part for a March 3 address to a joint session of Congress. House Speaker John Boehner invited Netanyahu to speak to Congress without consulting the Obama administration.
The White House initially reacted icily to Netanyahu’s plans to address Congress, an appearance apparently meant to bolster opposition to a nuclear deal with Iran as it is currently shaping up, as well as opposition to new sanctions against Tehran.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest suggested Wednesday that Netanyahu and Boehner had broken with protocol in not informing Obama of the prime minister’s travel plans. “We haven’t heard from the Israelis directly about the trip at all,” he said, adding the White House would “reserve judgment” about any possible face-to-face meeting until explanations are made.
“The typical protocol would suggest that the leader of a country would contact the leader of another country when he is traveling there. That is certainly how President Obama’s trips are planned,” explained Earnest.
Speaking several hours after Earnest, top US diplomat Kerry said Netanyahu was welcome to give a speech at “any time” in the United States. But Kerry agreed it had been a “little unusual” to hear about the Israeli leader’s speech to US Congress next month from the office of Boehner and not via the usual diplomatic channels.
Israel and the United States are close allies, but personal relations between Obama and Netanyahu have reportedly deteriorated over the years. The pair have publicly clashed over Israeli settlement building in Israel in the West Bank and about how to tackle Iran’s disputed nuclear program.
In November the already faltering ties between the leaders were served a new blow when an anonymous US official was quoted calling Netanyahu a “chickenshit” in an article published by journalist Jeffrey Goldberg in the American magazine The Atlantic. The article portrayed the rift between the United States and Israel as a “full-blown crisis.”