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Volokh Conspiracy

Some background to the "Chickenshit" controversy


Jeffrey Goldberg has quoted an anonymous Obama Administration official as calling Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu a "chickenshit" because Bibi refuses to make bold moves for peace that might endanger his electoral prospects. Putting aside the incorrect use of the word chickenshit (which is not synonymous with "a chicken"), and the fact that it's foolish to base a diplomatic strategy on assuming politicians won't act like politicians, I think the underlying dynamic here reflects not just the general antipathy the Obama and Netanyahu administrations have for each other, but the continuing fallout from the Obama Administration's initial gross misreading of the Israeli political scene.

Very succinctly, the Obama Administration came in to office thinking it could either force Netanyahu to make concessions, or force his government to fall. Both the Shamir and the first Netanyahu governments made concessions and ultimately got tossed out by the voters after tensions rose with the U.S., so this was not a completely unreasonable assumption.

However, Obama and his advisors missed several contrary factors. The Israeli public never liked Obama, never trusted him due to his well-known associations with various anti-Israel leftists such as Rashid Khalidi. Israelis' impressions were solidified by major blunders made by the Obama Administration, which did not get much attention in the U.S., but did in Israel. First, the Obama Administration informed the Israeli government that written assurances given to it by the Bush Administration about U.S. policy, given in response to prior Israeli concessions, were null and void. One of those assurances was that Israel would keep major settlement blocs in any peace deal, an assurance that ran counter to Obama's first major initiative, a total settlement freeze. Undermining the promises of a president who was very popular in Israel, and making it clear that assurances from American governments have a very short expiration date, was not a way to win over Israeli public opinion.

Second, Obama went to Cairo in 2009, and not only didn't visit Israel during his trip, but presented a narrative that Obama thought was sympathetic to Israel in that it invoked the Holocaust as showing the need for a Jewish state, but hit Israeli ears as adopting the Arab narrative that Jews are not indigenous to the area, but were only given a state in the Middle East to compensate for European Christian crimes.

The very popular (in Israel) Bill Clinton confronting an only mildly popular Netanyahu in 1998 played very differently in Israel than a very unpopular Obama confronting a popular Netanyahu over the last several years. And unlike in the Bush I and Clinton years, many in Congress vocally favored Netanyahu's position, giving the president even less leverage.

I think the Obama Administration assumed Israelis that even if Israelis didn't swoon over Obama as much of the rest of the world did back in 2009, given Obama's close ties to and huge support within the American Jewish community Israelis would presume good will, and that Obama therefore did not need to schmooze the Israeli public. These assumptions proved wildly incorrect.

The Obama Administration also seemed to be caught off-guard by the fact that since the late 1990s, with one Intifada, one war in Lebanon, and one war in Gaza under their belts, all following previous Israeli withdrawals, Israeli public opinion had hardened against unilateral concessions, even when backed by the United States. (Note also that Netanyahu ultimately did agree to temporary settlement freeze, but Abbas then refused to negotiate until the last minute, and yet the Administration wasn't nearly as critical of Abbas as of Netanyahu. Israelis noticed.)

Finally, there have been comments from Administration officials showing that suggest a very shallow understanding of Israeli politics. The most telling such comment is when an Obama Administration official in 2012 made the nonsensical assertion that Netanyahu is "essentially a Republican." Charitably, this means that at least some in the Administration think about Netanyahu as a political enemy, which, moreover, is consistent with a remark made by Obama to Jewish leaders in 2008, to the effect that being pro-Israel doesn't mean being pro-Likud, which happens to be Netanyahu's party. Uncharitably, it means that the nuances of Israeli politics, even the fact that you absolutely can't coherently map Israeli politics onto American political divisions, are completely lost on them.

One could write an equally long post on the way the Israeli government has misjudged and misplayed its hand with regard to the Obama Administration. But from the administration's side, they expected Netanyahu either to concede to American wishes (i.e., "make bold moves for peace"), or be voted out by the Israeli electorate. Instead, Netanyahu has managed to stay his own course, and still is in no danger of losing his parliamentary majority. Hence administration frustration and "chickenshit."

UPDATE: FWIW, I don't think any concessions by Netanyahu would have made a difference, because I don't think the Palestinians are willing to concede the "right of return", and therefore there can be no deal. Nevertheless, to the extent the Obama Administration was banking on Netanyahu making "heroic" concessions a la Begin and the Sinai, what was their backup plan?