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3 theories for why an Obama official called Israel's Prime Minister "chickenshit"

"What do you mean, chickenshit?"
"What do you mean, chickenshit?"
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

"The thing about [Israeli Prime Minister] Bibi [Netanyahu]," a senior US government official told the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, "is he's a chickenshit." It's an astonishing quote: why would an American official give such an unusually inflammatory statement to a reporter, which has evoked predictable and significant outrage from the Israeli government? There are few theories that help shed light on this, but first you have to understand just how badly relations between the two governments have been deteriorating during the Obama administration.

The tension was there almost from the day Obama took office, as Israel had just ended a controversial offensive in Gaza, and one of Obama's first priorities was to drag Israel, kicking and screaming, into freezing settlement construction in the West Bank. In early 2011, for example, Netanyahu publicly slammed Obama — a big deal — for saying that Israel's 1967 borders should be the starting point for peace negotiations. In November of that year, Obama was caught on a hot mic telling French President Nicholas Sarkozy, "You are fed up with [Netanyahu], but I have to deal with him even more often than you."

It got to the point that, by the 2012 election, Netanyahu was expressing such public warmth and support for Mitt Romney that he appeared to be actively campaigning against Obama. It's only gotten worse since then, with the administrations feuding publicly over settlements, the Gaza war, and blame for the collapse of peace negotiations. Reports of personal rancor between the two leaders are frequent and, increasingly, self-evident.

Still, even with all the friction, a quote like this is rarely an accident. So what was the point of calling Netanyahu chickenshit? Here are three possible reasons; while we can never know for sure what the administration official (and possibly the administration as a whole) was thinking with the comment, this might shed some light on what it means.

Iran's nuclear program

Obama Rouhani phone call

Obama on the phone with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. (Pete Souza/White House/Getty Images)

Here's a somewhat baroque theory: the administration was calling Netanyahu's bluff on his threats to use force against Iran, as a way to assure Iran that the US is committed to the ongoing nuclear negotiations. In other words, maybe the administration was signaling to Iran as well as to Israel.

One of the things that makes Netanyahu "a chickenshit," according to the senior American official, is that "he's scared to launch wars." Another official said, in Goldberg's paraphrase, that "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."

Maybe the inflammatory part of the statement — chickenshit — is designed to draw a lot of public attention to that assessment that Israel is not going to bomb Iran over its nuclear program, and thus to give Iran greater faith in its negotiations with the US and Europe to end its nuclear program.

"These observations are partly intended to tell Netanyahu that this gambit [threatening to strike Iran] won't constrain U.S. negotiators," Dan Drezner, a professor at Tufts University's Fletcher School, theorizes. "They might also serve to tell Iran that any fears they have of an Israeli strike are exaggerated. And if that has been holding the Iranians back, it would potentially eliminate this as a roadblock to further negotiations."

It's just a theory, to be clear, and one that is pretty generous to the Obama administration, but it would make some sense given Obama's clear desire to see the nuclear negotiations succeed.


Obama netanyahu (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

"Your turn." (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

There's another possible explanation: the administration is sick and tired of getting publicly attacked by Israeli officials, and wants to hit back to try to punish Israeli officials for undermining the Obama administration.

Just this January, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon described Secretary of State John Kerry as "obsessive and messianic." He apologized, but then bashed the administration's approach to Iran in March. The White House is still mad — it later denied Ya'alon permission to meet with not only Kerry, but also National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Vice President Joe Biden.

What one anonymous official told CNN about Ya'alon, however, is the most interesting part. According to CNN, the administration is furious with the Israeli government over these sorts of public attacks, but isn't quite sure how to go about expressing it. "We are in the process of re-evaluating exactly that question," an official told CNN.

So it's possible that returning Israeli vitriolic public criticism with American vitriolic public criticism, a la chickenshit, is one of the strategies they're testing. Embarrass Netanyahu in public as a way of reminding him that he's not the only one that can make his ally look bad.

Jeremy Pressman, a professor at the University of Connecticut who studies the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, called this explanation "plausible." Pressman said he "can see the administration testing the waters with tweaking them, using a little political leverage."

They screwed up

Barack Obama sad (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Shit. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

When I asked Pressman if he saw potential strategic rationales for the move, he said he was doubtful. "In a highly speculative manner, one could entertain notions about how this plays to Iran," he said. "Until I see more evidence, count me as very skeptical."

Instead, Pressman said, he ultimately favors a simpler explanation. "It's possible that someone didn't know that they were being quoted, or that someone let their emotion get the best of them in what has been a very frustrating US-Israeli relationship," he said.

Basically, Pressman suggested, the anonymous Obama official may have simply screwed up. The colorful language will get a lot of media attention but, in this theory, wasn't planned and wasn't strategic. With the US severely lacking in good avenues for pressuring Israel, someone just snapped.

"The diplomatic veil, briefly, was lifted, and true feelings came out," Pressman said. "The particular word is exceptional, but I don't think it tells us anything new."

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