Beneath the ‘chickenshit,’ political and diplomatic uncertainty fuel U.S.-Israel divide


WASHINGTON (JTA) – What lies beneath “chickenshit”?

The coarseness of the epithet for cowardice used by an anonymous Obama administration official to describe Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has seized the attention of Jerusalem and Washington. The snipe, reported by The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, is seen by analysts as emblematic of deteriorating Obama-Netanyahu relations at a time of great political and diplomatic uncertainty.

Top officials in the Israeli and U.S. governments are bracing themselves for possible radical changes within the next months in how the world relates to Iran and how the Palestinians pursue their quest for independence, as well as for increased turbulence in Jerusalem and the prospect of political change in Washington.

“The rhetoric from both sides, and this has been going on for some months, is a reflection of frustration, of ‘the other side doesn’t understand us the way we want to be understood, the other side is not sensitive enough to our interests,’ ” said Tamara Coffman Wittes, the director of the Brookings Institution Center for Middle East Policy.

Coffman Wittes helped shape Middle East policy at the State Department in President Obama’s first term.

The latest scuffle comes as U.S. officials are expressing greater optimism about the likelihood of a nuclear deal with Iran and Israelis fret that the parameters of the deal could leave Iran on the verge of becoming a nuclear power.

“The bottom line is that Benjamin Netanyahu sees the potential for even a modified, defanged nuclear program as an existential threat to Israel,” said Jonathan Schanzer, the vice president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank that consults closely with Congress on Iran policy. “President Obama views a deal with Iran as perhaps one of the only remaining opportunities for a foreign policy legacy.”

Schanzer added, “To analyze this flap without understanding the centrality of Iran ignores the majority of what is fueling this conflict.”

As negotiations appear to be entering their final stages ahead of a Nov. 24 deadline, it remains to be seen how much each side will give and take, and the factor of the unknown is fueling Israeli anxieties. The U.S. national security advisor, Susan Rice, last week pledged to continue “unprecedented coordination” with Israel on Iran policy after meeting with her Israeli counterpart, Yossi Cohen.

Another unknown inciting angst on both sides are Tuesday’s midterm elections. A Republican-led Senate, by some estimations, could yield a Congress more sympathetic to Netanyahu’s appeals to obstruct what he believes would be a bad Iran agreement.

Pollsters are predicting a GOP victory in both houses of Congress, although a number of races may go to runoffs and it may take weeks to determine which party controls the next Senate.

Once there is resolution in both arenas — Congress and the Iran talks — the clarity could serve to somewhat calm U.S.-Israel tensions, said Aaron David Miller, the vice president of the Wilson Center, a foreign affairs think tank.

“The time to deal with this is after the midterm elections, after we see where Iran-nuclear is going,” said Miller, for decades a U.S. Middle East peace negotiator. “We’ll have a better idea of what the factors are.”

Complicating matters is lack of clarity over factors that so far have been beyond the control of the United States or Israel, among them increased tensions in Jerusalem between Jews and Arabs. The strains came to a head last week with the assassination attempt on a leader of the movement to establish a Jewish presence on the Temple Mount and the killing of his purported attacker during a raid by Israeli forces.

“You could end up with a major crisis in Jerusalem,” Miller said.

In recent weeks, Obama administration officials have intensified their calls on Netanyahu to roll back planned building in the eastern part of the city, citing the potential for an outbreak of violence. On Monday, however, a Jerusalem planning committee approved the construction of hundreds of apartments in a Jewish neighborhood of eastern Jerusalem.

Another factor contributing to the uncertainty is the Palestinians’ revival of their bid to achieve statehood recognition through the United Nations Security Council. The American obstruction of a similar attempt in 2012 may not be replicated this time around, Goldberg said in his article.

Two years ago, Americans kept the proposal from acquiring the nine out of 15 votes needed for consideration by heralding the revival of the peace process. But the process is now in tatters following the collapse in April of talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and the war in Gaza over the summer.

Additionally, said Matt Duss, who directs the Foundation for Middle East Peace, a think tank that has been critical of Netanyahu’s policies, the Obama administration may no longer have the appetite for such an intervention.

“The security relationship will continue, but the United States will not be willing to spend as much diplomatic energy defending Israel from the consequences of its bad decisions, particularly regarding settlements,” he said.

Israel fears statehood recognition not simply because it robs it of leverage in peace talks, but also because it would grant the Palestinians status to seek war crimes charges against Israeli officials in the international court system.

There’s no formal statehood recognition bid yet, but a Jordanian resolution condemning Israel’s settlement policies is now circulating. In 2011, the U.S. vetoed a similar resolution.

But, Duss said, “The United States is much less likely to veto it this time around.”

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