JERUSALEM (Reuters) – An anonymous US official’s reported description of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a “chickens**t”, or worthless coward, drew a sharp response on Wednesday from the Israeli leader – no stranger to acrimony with the Obama administration.
American broadside, in an interview in The Atlantic magazine, followed a month of heated exchanges between the Netanyahu government and Washington over settlement-building in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, which Palestinians seek as the capital of a future state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“The thing about Bibi is, he’s a chickens**t,” the unidentified official was quoted as saying, using Netanyahu’s nickname and a slang insult certain to redden the ears of the US-educated former commando.
“The good thing about Netanyahu is that he’s scared to launch wars,” the official said, alluding to past hints of possible Israeli military action against Iran’s nuclear programme. “The bad thing about him is that he won’t do anything to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians or with the Sunni Arab states.”
Netanyahu, the official was reported to have said, is interested only in “protecting himself from political defeat … He’s got no guts.”
Israeli leaders usually do not respond to comments by unidentified officials. But Netanyahu addressed those remarks directly in opening a memorial ceremony in parliament for an Israeli cabinet minister assassinated by a Palestinian in 2001.
“Our supreme interests, chiefly the security and unity of Jerusalem, are not the main concern of those anonymous officials who attack us and me personally, as the assault on me comes only because I defend the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said.
“Despite all of the attacks I suffer, I will continue to defend our country. I will continue to defend the citizens of Israel,” he said.
Such pledges by Netanyahu have resonated among Israeli voters, even amid fears his strained relations with US President Barack Obama could ultimately weaken support from Israel’s main diplomatic ally and arms provider.
After Netanyahu’s speech, Alistair Baskey, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, dismissed the purported slur, denying that it reflected how the Obama administration felt about the Israeli leader.
“Certainly that’s not the administration’s view, and we think such comments are inappropriate and counter-productive,” he said.
Asked though whether the administration would try to uncover and punish the official who made the comment, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters, “I don’t know of any effort like that under way right now.”
Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham condemned the remarks, saying they did “nothing but harm to America’s national security interests.”
“We know that relations can be strained at times. But there is no excuse for Obama Administration officials to insult the Prime Minister of Israel, our closest ally in the Middle East,” the senators said in a joint statement.
Some Israeli pundits predict an Israeli election in 2015, two years early, speculation seemingly supported by increasingly vocal challenges to his policies from senior ministers to the left and right of him within the coalition government.
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, whose ultranationalist Jewish Home party belongs to the coalition but who has had testy relations with Netanyahu, defended him on Wednesday.
“The prime minister of Israel is not a private person. He is the leader of the Jewish state and the entire Jewish people. Cursing the prime minister and calling him names is an insult not just to him but to the millions of Israeli citizens and Jews across the globe,” he wrote on Faceboook.