The personal tension between Obama, Netanyahu

Top U.S. official slams Netanyahu
Top U.S. official slams Netanyahu

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Top U.S. official slams Netanyahu 01:34

Story highlights

  • The relationship between the U.S. and Israel is hitting new lows
  • An Obama administration official was quoted as calling Israeli PM "chickens--t"
Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu haven't liked each other for years -- they just aren't bothering to hide it anymore.
Long time observers of the U.S.-Israeli relationship struggle to remember when the personal chemistry between the leaders of the two countries was so bad. Even the Israeli prime minister has compared their relationship to that of a bickering "old couple."
The latest example of their dysfunctional marriage emerged Tuesday when a senior Obama administration official was quoted calling the Israeli leader a "chickens**t" who doesn't match war talk with action. The unnamed official, speaking to Atlantic journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, was only saying in public what key Obama aides have been muttering privately for years.
"You have a dysfunctional relationship between Netanyahu and Obama," said Aaron David Miller, a former US Middle East peace negotiator.
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Harsh words strain U.S.-Israel relations
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Harsh words strain U.S.-Israel relations 01:41
A senior official with a prominent pro-Israel policy organization in Washington said : "These guys don't like each other, they don't pretend to like each other."
Netanyahu offered a pointed response to the Goldberg article, saying he's "not prepared to make concessions that endanger our state."
The relationship is troubled on multiple fronts. Goldberg also reported that the Israeli leader had "written off" the White House, an insult to an administration that still has two years in office. And tensions flared last week when the White House denied Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon meetings with Vice President Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry.
The administration tried to contain the fallout from Goldberg's story on Wednesday. Alistair Baskey, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, said Obama and Netanyahu have "forged an effective partnership, and consult closely and frequently."
Still, irritants have long tested the alliance between Washington and the Jewish state — over peace talks, wars in Lebanon and Gaza, settlements and Israeli military action in places like Iraq and Syria.
But the dislike between Netanyahu and Obama is particularly acute -- and personal. Goldberg lists a stunning string of insults he has heard officials fire off at Netanyahu over the years, including "recalcitrant, myopic, reactionary, obtuse, blustering, pompous and 'Aspergery.'"
The Netanyahu-Obama relationship has played out in a series of awkward photo-ops, anonymous quotes in US and Israeli media and tense body language. White House officials were apoplectic in 2011 when Netanyahu lectured Obama in the Oval Office about the history of peace talks and warned him not to fall prey to "illusions."
The same year, Obama was caught on an open mic, telling then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy: "You're fed up with him? I have to deal with him every day."
The White House, for all its official praise for the "unshakeable bonds" between the U.S. and Israel, blames what it sees as Netanyahu's intransigence over Jewish settlement policy and his playing to a domestic political gallery for the collapse of John Kerry's peace drive with the Palestinians.
Key officials fumed at Netanyahu's open backing for Republican Mitt Romney during Obama's re-election campaign and over what they see as interference in American politics through his strong ties to hawks in Congress.
But the roots of the animosity lie deeper — in sharply differing perceptions of the threat posed by Iran — an issue coming to a head with a deadline looming for a deal between Tehran and world powers next month.
For Obama, the Iranian nuclear challenge is another crisis to be managed, and a test case of his doctrine that the United States should be prepared to talk to its enemies. But people familiar with Netanyahu's worldview say he believes history has handed him the role of delivering the Jewish state from an existential threat posed by Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
Israel worries that the agreement that emerges will leave Iran as a nuclear "threshold state" with the materials and expertise to quickly break out and build a nuclear weapon.
"I fervently hope that under your leadership that will not happen," Netanyahu told Obama in a White House photo-op this month.
The Obama administration says the kind of 'perfect' deal envisioned by Israel, which would strip Iran of centrifuges and nuclear infrastructure is not realistic, and says its goal is to ensure that Tehran does not have a nuclear bomb.
The disagreement is likely to provoke a new political showdown over Iran in Congress, where a bipartisan coalition is mulling a number of steps including further sanctions which the White House warns could scupper a deal and lead to war.
While the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu deteriorates, it does not so far appear to be harming the fundamental relationship between their two nations.
That has not always been the case in the past.
In 1981, the Reagan administration instructed U.N. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick to back a resolution criticizing Israel for an air attack on an Iraqi nuclear reactor.
Relations became so frayed between President George H.W. Bush and the administration of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir that his secretary of state, James Baker, told lawmakers that if Israel wanted to talk peace, it should call the White House switchboard.
Personal relations may be fraught now with Netanyahu, but Obama has never suggested watering down or delaying mostly military U.S. aid to Israel which amounts to $3 billion a year.
Indeed, the Obama administration asked Congress for hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for the Iron Dome anti-missile system which shielded Israel from Hamas rockets during the latest Gaza war this summer. Senior officials from both sides also say privately that the security relationship between the allies has never been better.
Miller said that Obama's spats with Netanyahu will cause hurt feelings.
"But what do they amount to? It is confined and contained to a soap opera-like exchange that never leads to anything of consequence," he said.
What this latest soap opera may amount to for the White House is an unwelcome new political row with Congress over its Israel policy — just as it is gearing up for a fight over Iran.
"When the president discusses Israel and Iran, it is sometimes hard to tell who he thinks is America's friend and who he thinks is America's enemy," House Speaker John Boehner said Wednesday.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said it was a bit rich to get a lecture by Boehner on "salty language." He insisted that the remarks by the official about Netanyahu did not represent the view of the administration but pledged to continue to air differences with Israel on "illegitimate" building.
That will all but ensure another bitter spat with Netanyahu soon.