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Name-calling flap is latest sign of tension between Israel and U.S.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the opening of the winter session of the Knesset, or parliament, in Jerusalem.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the opening of the winter session of the Knesset, or parliament, in Jerusalem.
(Abir Sultan / European Pressphoto Agency)

A flap over an American official’s reported use of a barnyard epithet to describe Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu illustrates a more serious debate over whether the country’s ties with the United States have been irretrievably damaged by a string of unusually public confrontations.

In a much-discussed magazine article, Jeffrey Goldberg, an influential writer on Mideastern affairs, posited a “momentous shift” in the Obama administration’s view of Netanyahu. The article included an attention-getting characterization from an anonymous administration official who referred to the prime minister with a pungent term that incorporates the word “chicken.”

Relations between Netanyahu and President Obama have long been chilly, but recent months have been marked by sharp disputes over the accelerated building plans for Jewish settlements, heavy Palestinian casualties during the summer war in the Gaza Strip and a prospective nuclear pact with Iran.

The article, which appeared in the Atlantic, was headlined: “The Crisis in U.S.-Israel Relations Is Officially Here.” The subject dominated the normally freewheeling Israeli news cycle for 36 hours, pushed aside only by an outburst of some of the worst violence in years in Jerusalem after the attempted assassination by a Palestinian of a well-known right-wing Jewish activist.

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In a tersely worded statement, Netanyahu’s office did not directly address the term used in the article. The prime minister’s bureau said instead that the Israeli leader would “continue to insist on Israel’s interests and the historic rights of the Jewish people.”

“The attack on me comes only because I am defending the state of Israel,” Netanyahu said later.

In a rare show of unity in fractious Israel, even the prime minister’s political foes rose to his defense. Finance Minister Yair Lapid, who this week angered the prime minister by withholding money for paved roads to isolated West Bank settlements, said “there is no one in Israel who enjoys hearing comments of that sort about the prime minister.”

Right-wing Cabinet minister Naftali Bennett demanded an apology for the “harsh curses” leveled at the Israeli leader.

“Instead of attacking Israel and forcing it into living under suicide conditions, it should be strengthened,” said Bennett, a leading proponent of settlement activity in the West Bank and traditionally Arab East Jerusalem, which has been a major point of contention with Washington.

Other observers, though, suggested that combative behavior on Netanyahu’s part – including public rebukes of the U.S. president – had eroded a crucial partnership.

“We have no other defensive wall in the world aside from America,” columnist Ben Caspit wrote in the Maariv newspaper Thursday. “Even if you have disagreements with America, it is up to you to vigilantly safeguard the good relationship with it.” He advised Netanyahu “not to spit into the well from which you drink.”

Still others saw a personality clash rather than a full-blown crisis, arguing at the same time that the U.S.-Israeli relationship was in need of rehabilitation.

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“This criticism [of Netanyahu] is more personal than it is substantive,” Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul in the United States, told reporters Wednesday. “But this is a problem.” Taken together, he said, the quarrels between Netanyahu and Obama show “an accumulation of a critical mass of toxins, bad taste and mistrust.”

Pinkas rejected far-right expressions of indignation that the United States was running roughshod over Israel, the largest recipient of American aid. He cited American funding of crucial defenses, including the Iron Dome antimissile system that intercepted hundreds of rockets and missiles fired during the 50-day war in July and August between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza.

The brouhaha comes on the heels of another hard bump in U.S.-Israeli relations, and one that received wide attention in Israel: the high-profile snubbing of Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon during his visit to Washington last week, when he was denied meetings with Vice President Joe Biden, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Secretary of State John F. Kerry.

Israeli news reports called that payback for Yaalon, who in January, employing some trenchant language of his own, reportedly called Kerry “obsessive” and “messianic” in his bid to revive the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

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Although the issues involved are weighty, the commentary on the latest incident took something of a comic term in dissecting how the profanity directed at Netanyahu should be translated into Hebrew. Most news outlets settled on “coward,” or in the case of the left-leaning Haaretz daily, “lowly coward.”

“Modern Hebrew is rich with phrases alluding to the Bible and rabbinic literature,” the Times of Israel said, mock-solemnly recounting editors’ linguistic struggle. “Swear words – not so much.”

The widely used translation “coward,” it noted, “is what you’d call someone before a duel,” whereas the insult applied to Netanyahu “is what you’d call someone before a bar fight.”

Netanyahu is well aware that Obama is moving into his last two years in office, and the Israelis believe that potential Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton or any Republican would be friendlier toward Israel than Obama has been. But Israel cannot afford even a temporary lapse in unwavering U.S. support; it needs, for example, an American veto of a looming Security Council resolution calling for a two-year countdown to Palestinian statehood.

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For some, the incident served as evidence of what they described as a dangerous drift.

“I said only a few days ago that there is a real crisis in relations, and needs to be dealt with responsibly,” said Lapid, the finance minister. “Senior officials at the White House and in our government need to tackle the crisis behind the scenes.”

However grudgingly, Netanyahu eventually appeared to be trying to smoothe things over.

“I respect and appreciate our deep ties with the U.S.,” he said, speaking Wednesday at an annual memorial service for a right-wing Cabinet minister who was killed by Palestinian assailants in 2001. “Since the foundation of our state, we have had disagreements with the U.S., and we will have more. But this is not at the expense of the deep ties between our peoples and countries.”

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Special correspondent Sobelman reported from Jerusalem and Times staff writer King from Cairo.

Twitter: @laurakingLAT


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