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Netanyahu's Not Chickenshit, the White House Is

The administration is a coward for not saying what it really thinks


about the special relationship with Israel.
BY STEPHEN M. WALT-OCTOBE !"# $%"&
I 'e been reluctant to say much about this week(s tempest
in a teapot -- i.e.# the ).*.-Israeli +ap o'er ,chickenshit-gate, -- because the
+ap itself is of little strategic importance.
Back in $%%- and $%%.# /ohn 0earsheimer and I argued that Israel and the
)nited *tates would both be better o1 if they had a normalrelationship
rather than a ,special, one 2that is# one where the )nited *tates backs
Israel no matter what it does3. 4othing has happened since we published
our book to undermine that conclusion# which is why more and more people
ha'e begun to 'oice their own concerns about the Israel lobby and its
harmful in+uence on ).*. policy. I ha'e little to add to our earlier analysis#
which is why I ha'en(t been writing much about the topic of late.
4onetheless# this latest brouhaha is interesting for what it re'eals about the
foreign-policy establishments in both countries. 5e are not talking about a
substantial shift in policy or anything like that6 instead# the triggering e'ent
is an Atlantic article 7uoting some ).*. o8cials saying un+attering things
about Israeli 9rime 0inister Ben:amin 4etanyahu. The opening paragraph
includes an anonymous characteri;ation of 4etanyahu as ,chickenshit#,
meaning he is too risk-a'erse and cowardly to undertake military action
against Iran. That(s really all there is to it.
)nfortunately# this minor +ap suggests we are dealing not with a mature
great power and a grateful client state# but rather with a bunch of immature
children who could use some adult super'ision. Or e'en a timeout.
To begin with# if this is a ,crisis, in ).*.-Israeli relations -- as
the Atlantic'sheadline blares -- it is surely an odd one. 4ormally# the term
crisis refers to a clash of interests that in'ol'es real dangers# as in the /uly
Crisis that led to 5orld 5ar I# or the Cuban 0issile Crisis in "<-$. But there(s
little of substance in this little +are-up= The )nited *tates is still gi'ing a
wealthy and powerful Israel se'eral billion dollars of military and economic
aid each year6 it is still selling Israel some of the most ad'anced weapons in
the ).*. arsenal6 and ).*. o8cials continue to pro'ide diplomatic co'er in
the )nited 4ations and other international forums. The )nited *tates e'en
took Israel(s side when it pummeled >a;a again a few months back#
despite o8cial concerns about the wisdom and morality of Israel(s actions.
?nd 5hite @ouse o8cials are now doing damage control by rea8rming
the ,e1ecti'e partnership, between the two countries and their leaders.
Instead of a real crisis# all we ha'e here is e'idence that some ).*. o8cials
don(t think much of Israel(s 9rime 0inister Ben:amin 4etanyahu# and at
least one of them used some salty language to eAplain his or her
disregard.4ews +ash= 9lenty of ).*. politicians -- including Bill Clinton --
ha'e disliked 4etanyahu intensely# and for pretty ob'ious reasons. @e(s
smug# pretentious# bombastic# and plays fast and loose with facts 2which
hardly makes him uni7ue among world leaders3# and he sometimes treats
).*. o8cials with contempt. If you(re Obama# Berry# or one of their aides#
and you('e been working o'ertime trying to get a peace deal and sa'e
Israel from its suicidal settlements policy# and you get precisely ;ero help
from 4etanyahu and his lieutenants# a degree of irritation is to be eApected.
?nd all the more so when top Israeli o8cials respond to your e1orts
with insulting comments of their own. ?s former CI? intelligence analyst
9aul 9illar astutely obser'es=,@arsh comments are far harder to :ustify when
they are directed by an ungrateful beneCciary to its patron rather than the
other way around.,
But e'en if ).*. irritation is fully :ustiCed# what could possibly ha'e
possessed a senior 2or e'en mid-le'el3 ).*. o8cial to utter those remarks to
a :ournalist# let alone one with as spotty a track record as /e1rey >oldbergD
5hat did the anonymous speaker hope to accomplishD 5as he or she trying
to goad 4etanyahu into actually doing something to IranD Of course not. Eid
they hope to gal'ani;e more opposition to an Iran deal among Israel(s many
lackeys in the ).*. *enateD 9erish the thought. Or maybe they wanted to
pro'oke 4etanyahu into demonstrating his manhood by killing a few more
9alestiniansD 4ot a chance. The most likely eAplanationD This was :ust a
childish display of pi7ue# made slightly more newsworthy through the use of
a barnyard 'ulgarity.
But step back for a second and consider what this means. Is this any way
for the senior o8cials of a mature great power to beha'eD Foose lips sink
ships# and loose talk derails e1ecti'e diplomacy. If there was a purpose
behind this statement# then it was lame-brained. ?nd if it was :ust a
petulant bit of 'erbal payback by a frustrated o8cial# then it(s a sign of
professional incompetence. Top-le'el o8cials are appointed to ad'ance the
national interest# and that means keeping their personal irritations to
themsel'es until it is time to write their memoirs. Or# as a more
accomplished diplomat might ha'e said# ,It was worse than a crime6 it was
a blunder.,
0oreo'er# the idea that 4etanyahu is a coward who lacks the guts to pull
the trigger against Iran assumes Israel had a genuine military option 'is-G-
'is Iran in the Crst place. In fact# 4etanyahu(s saber rattling towards Iran
has always been a blu1# because Israel lacked the military capacity to
conduct a strategically signifcant strike on Iran(s nuclear infrastructure.
*ure# the Israeli air force could do some damage to Iran(s nuclear
infrastructure# but it doesn(t ha'e enough aircraft or the bunker-busting
capacity to destroy all of its enrichment capacity. This situation with Iran
isn(t remotely like Israel(s "<H" Osirak raid against Ira7# or e'en its $%%.
attack on a reactor site in *yria# which in'ol'ed bombing a single
'ulnerable location. ?n Israeli attack might delay Iran(s far more ad'anced
program by a few months or maybe a year# but it would also encourage
Iran(s leaders to start an all-out sprint for an actual bomb. ?nd that is why
prominent members of Israel(s national security establishment went public
with their own concerns about 4etanyahu(s hollow threats. ? few Israeli
*trangelo'es might ha'e belie'ed an attack would draw the )nited *tates
in to Cnish the :ob# but the risks were enormous and both Bush and Obama
made it clear this gambit wasn(t going to +y.
In short# 4etanyahu(s decision not to attack Iran wasn(t a show of cowardice
2or being a ,chickenshit,36 it was a sensible strategic choice. The war talk
from Israel was intended to distract attention from the settlements issue#
keep Iran in the crosshairs as 9ublic Enemy 4o. "# and con'ince the )nited
*tates to impose sti1er sanctions in the hopes of securing a better deal
from Tehran o'er its nuclear program. But an actual attack was ne'er a
serious possibility. Bibi(s bluster might ha'e fooled :ournalists like >oldberg
-- who has raised bogus alarms about an imminent Israeli attack on more
than oneoccasion -- but sensible obser'ers should not ha'e been taken in
by all this folderol.
In the end# this minor incident mostly conCrms the unhealthy e1ects of the
,special relationship, itself. The sad truth is that top ).*. o8cials still can(t
say openly what they really think about Israel(s beha'ior# or what they
really think about the relationship itself. The mildest criticism in'ites
automatic abuse from the lobby# and of course# anyone aspiring to a top
foreign-policy position still has to mouth embarrassing platitudes and
repudiate any pre'ious criticisms in order to get appointed and conCrmed.
/ust ask *amantha 9ower and Chuck @agel how this process works.
Ironically# it is ).*. leaders who mostly lack courage on these issues# not
4etanyahu.
This incident reminds us that no two states ha'e identical interests# no
matter what ).*. politicians may say in their pandering speeches at ?I9?C(s
annual conference. The )nited *tates wants a two-state solution to the
Israeli-9alestinian con+ict and a meaningful dItente with Iran# the
4etanyahu go'ernment opposes both# and this gap is likely to become
increasingly apparent o'er time.
This episode also shows how much top ).*. o8cials would like to put
pressure on Israel to alter its beha'ior. ? mature great power that aspired to
global leadership would do eAactly that# but ).*. o8cials are pre'ented
from taking this ob'ious step by the lingering political clout of ?I9?C and
other groups in the lobby. 5hen they speak in public or on the record# they
ha'e to pretend that the ,special relationship, is hunky-dory# e'en when it
is ob'ious to e'en casual obser'ers that it is not. But when well-meaning
).*. o8cials are stymied# insulted# and forced to engage in repeated acts of
self-censorship# frustration is bound to build and e'entually spill out in
public. It(s unprofessional and unhelpful# but also entirely human.