Chickenshit-Gate Revisited: The Obama Administration’s Open Frustration with Netanyahu’s Risk-Averse Policies

Chickenshit-Gate Revisited: The Obama Administration’s Open Frustration with Netanyahu’s Risk-Averse Policies


After decades of a special relationship between the United States and Israel, maintained primarily by stable foreign aid and political support, the White House has begun to voice frustration over Israel’s lack of cooperation and action. In October of last year, the White House’s passive-aggressive attitude towards a recalcitrant Netanyahu came to light in a controversial off-the-record quote. “The thing about Bibi is, he’s a chickenshit,” commented one senior Obama administration official, addressing Netanyahu’s lack of decisiveness and political courage in pursuing most policies at home and abroad. Netanyahu’s tendency to avoid risks and please his constituency have steadily undermined White House efforts to achieve peace during the Obama administration, and Israel’s shirking behavior regarding the Iran nuclear threat has brought the United States’ previously veiled frustration into the open. While the White House has since distanced itself from the accusation, the comment nevertheless signals a rapidly deteriorating relationship between the US and Israel, even while US aid to Israel and Israel’s role as a security buffer in the Middle East render the two nations codependent. The US-Iran relationship deterioration compromises the interests of both nations and stunts the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The “chickenshit” accusation, while lacking in diplomatic and political correctness, is not without grounds. With the exception of last summer’s ground invasion of Gaza, Netanyahu has a record of shying away from significant military action and rigidly adhering to the status quo, which undermines White House efforts to increase stability in the region. The attempt to finally weaken Hamas via the Gaza invasion lacked real momentum and ultimately ended in failure. Additionally, Netanyahu has consistently refrained from addressing what remains a long-standing issue in the region: military occupation of the West Bank. The immediate trigger of White House frustration, however, was Israel’s lack of response to Iran’s nuclear program. President Obama’s conciliatory approach to Iran fits into his larger goal of departing from Bush’s unilateral [approach to foreign affairs], and instead reaching out to rogue adversaries. The president’s efforts to reach a breakthrough in the nuclear negotiations before November 24 fell short, however, resulting  in a seven-month extension. Without bold moves from either side, the negotiations have effectively fallen into a stalemate.

In dealing with what some consider the chief threat to its existence, Israel has thus far refrained from launching a preemptive strike on Iran in order to thwart its nuclear program. Israel has repeatedly threatened to attack Iran in the past and vehemently rejected Iran’s nuclear ambitions, with Netanyahu stating on November 7 that “Israel won’t support any agreement that allows Iran to become a threshold nuclear state.”Despite this, the long-standing question of whether or not Netanyahu would actually take any military action has always yielded a negative answer. Logistically, Israel has the military capacity to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. This was first confirmed in March by Israeli Defense Force (IDF) Chief of Staff Benny Gatz, who stated that “Israel’s security forces have the capability to carry out military operations in virtually every part of the globe, including Iran.” While the IDF may have the capacity to strike Iran, the distance between the two countries – almost 3792 km –  makes it a risky military action. Netanyahu, displaying shortsightedness, has continually shown he is unwilling to take this risk.

Aside from a nuclear Iran, Netanyahu’s cabinet has adopted a rejectionist policy regarding the most longstanding foreign policy dispute between Israel and the White House – the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this case, the White House’s calls for negotiations with Palestine are rejected more often than not by Israel. Asymmetry between the efforts of both parties therefore characterizes the prolonged peace process: while the United States remains committed to moving the peace process forward,  all Netanyahu has brought to the table is a refusal to compromise and a series of moves that have actually hindered progress. The US did help bring about some milestones in the process—the 1973 Camp David Accords under Carter laid the basis for “land-for-peace” deals between Israel and Palestine, while the 1993 Oslo Accords included Yasser Arafat’s official recognition of Israel’s right to exist and Israel’s withdrawal of forces from parts of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank—the peace process is now gridlocked.

Despite the Obama administration’s strong opposition towards settlements, Israeli settlements reaching Jerusalem continue to expand, and remain a major source of conflict between the US and Israel. Early in his first term, Obama attempted and failed to initiate a settlement freeze, culminating in Israel’s announcement that it would create 1,600 new housing units for Jews in East Jerusalem, and Vice President Joe Biden’s 2010 outcry that not only was Israel’s behavior a violation of the 4th Geneva Convention, but it was also severely undermining American trust. Last spring, Secretary of State John Kerry launched another phase in the peace process, an initiative heavily dependent on Netanyahu’s willingness to make concessions that would risk the support of his core constituency, including his right-wing Likud Party. Negotiations broke down by early summer.

A history of unconditional US support over the years has perpetuated Israel’s hard-line approach. The US, as Israel’s largest benefactor, is fully committed to Israeli security—in addition to $3 billion in annual foreign aid, the Obama administration added $205 million to support Israel’s Iron Dome defense system, whose construction was primarily financed by the US. Yet aside from economic support, the US has also refrained from any official condemnations of Israel’s uncooperative actions. America’s  The US’ unwavering political support for Israel is due, in large part, to the presence of powerful pressure groups within the US. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is an example of one such group that effectively secures political support for the Israeli cause. In recent months, however, the United States’ hobby of backing Israel unconditionally on the global stage has gradually been changing. The last time that the Obama administration made such public criticisms of Israel was a mere five months ago. In August, six UN-operated schools serving as civilian shelters in Rafah, Gaza were hit seven times by Israel during a Gaza offensive, drawing international outrage. Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama, deemed the attack “indefensible,” while a statement released by the US State Department described it as “disgraceful.” These public comments mark a change from the United States’ unequivocal backing of Israel internationally, which dates back to Israel’s founding in 1948.

While the Obama administration is far from pleased with Netanyahu, the “chickenshit incident” and subsequent fallout has translated into a public relations victory for Bibi at home. Netanyahu’s main defense, that he was being attacked by the US for defending Israeli security, a claim that won him popular support in Israel. But the Netanyahu cabinet’s passivity in foreign policy and the ensuing breakdown of the US-Israel relationship are far from beneficial for the national security of either country. In addition to enabling Iranian threats to its existence as a state, Israel also risks alienating an ally that has provided the resources essential to its survival. As for the US, it is slowly distancing itself from a vital strategic asset that could protect US interests in the face of security threats from rogue actors such as Syria, Hezbollah, and Iran, while serving as a buffer against the spread of Iranian influence in the region. The failure of both sides to repair relations would thwart any prospects of putting the already troubled peace process back on track.