In Israel, 'Chickenshit' Comments Makes Netanyahu Stronger

Netanyahu
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the opening of the winter session of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem October 27, 2014. Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

When was the last time the United States called the leader of another nation "chickenshit?" While I cannot be sure, my guess is never. That was the slur Israelis woke up to this morning—unnamed sources in the White House were calling Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu "chickenshit." Of course, Israeli media could not use the phrase "chickenshit," since an equivalent does not exist in the Hebrew. So they chose the term "scared coward," not nearly as colorful (but it got its point across).

Prime Minister Netanyahu used the attack to his political advantage. He declared that he was being attacked "for defending the security of Israel." Netanyahu went on to say that he risked his life a number of times for Israel, but that he will never risk the security of Israelis just because others think he should take risks that are not in Israel's interest.

By this afternoon, the White House was walking back the remarks, saying that the statement was unhelpful and did not reflect the opinion of the administration. One thing was clear: Israeli officials decried the insulting words, asking when were such strong words used against "model world citizens" such as Assad of Syria.

Many Israelis agree with the characterization of Prime Minister Netanyahu, if not the words. There can be no question that Netanyahu is one of the most risk-averse Israeli prime ministers. He is one of the few prime ministers not to launch any significant military action. This summer's war in Gaza was without question not launched by Netanyahu. He did all he could to avoid it—every step of the way, merely responding to actions by Hamas. At the same time, Netanyahu is also risk-averse when it comes to achieving peace. He truly will not take any risks—not in war, and not in peace. But what Israel's critics, both in the U.S. administration and elsewhere fail to understand is that Netanyahu's unwillingness to take risks reflects the views of the Israeli public, a public that has been stung by a series of concessions (perceived by many as risks for peace), which has resulted in anything but peace.

When the average Israeli looks around the Middle East today and hears the U.S. administration declaring that Israel should be "taking more risks for peace," they just shake their heads in disbelief. That comment was made by the administration that allowed nearly 200,000 Syrians to die without even imposing a no fly zone? The same administration that does not seem to be able to stop ISIS from expanding its control in Iraq and Syria? Is that the administration that wants Israel to take further risks for peace?

Israelis never had a great deal of faith in President Obama's foreign policy. From the time of his first speech in Cairo before the beginning of the Arab Spring, Israelis felt the president didn't understand the Middle East. That belief has only been strengthened by events across the Middle East this past two years, and America's failure to act. Still, Israelis have never referred to President Obama as "chickenshit." If there was one word that Israelis have probably have used to describe President Obama it is probably naive. However, tonight, though Israelis both on the right and left may agree with part of the criticism of Netanyahu, most Israelis would likely want to tell the White House that "people who live in glass houses should not throw stones."

If the goal of that unnamed White House source of sources who spoke to Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic and called Netanyahu "chickenshit" was to weaken Prime Minister Netanyahu, the view tonight from Tel Aviv is that their actions backfired, and their verbal attack just strengthened him instead.

Political historian Marc Schulman is the editor of historycentral.com. An archive of his recent daily reports from Tel-Aviv can be found here. He is also a columnist for the Times of Israel. You can follow him on Twitter at @Multied.