Senior GOP senators decry White House for insulting Netanyahu

Episode harms America’s national security interests, say John McCain and Lindsey Graham

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Senator Lindsey Graham, right, accompanied by Senator John McCain, speaks with reporters outside the White House in Washington, DC, in September 2013. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Senator Lindsey Graham, right, accompanied by Senator John McCain, speaks with reporters outside the White House in Washington, DC, in September 2013. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Republican US senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham lambasted the Obama administration over comments from an anonymous US official calling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “chickenshit.”

“We know that relations between allies can be strained at times,” the senators said in a statement released Wednesday. “But there is no excuse for Obama administration officials to insult the prime minister of Israel, our closest ally in the Middle East, the way they did this week.”

“Apparently the Obama administration does not believe it has enough problems on its hands dealing with America’s enemies in the Middle East – it also wants to insult and alienate our allies. That does nothing but harm to America’s national security interests, and President Obama must put an end to it immediately.”

Meanwhile, Democrats and administration officials rushed to distance themselves from the anti-Netanyahu remarks attributed to a senior administration official one day earlier  – and argued against the conclusion that US-Israel relations were in an unprecedented crisis.

“Certainly, that’s not the administration’s view, and we think such comments are inappropriate and counterproductive,” said National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey, according to The Hill. “Prime Minister Netanyahu and the president have a forged an effective partnership, and consult closely and frequently, including earlier this month when the president hosted the prime minister in the Oval Office.”

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that Secretary of State John Kerry would personally make it clear to Netanyahu that the comments do not reflect the view of the administration.

The comments were published in a story by Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic that portrayed the rift between the United States and Israel as a “full-blown crisis.”

The report quoted one Obama administration official calling Netanyahu a “chickenshit,” and others saying they increasingly see the Israeli leader as acting out of a “near-pathological desire for career-preservation” and not much more.

Netanyahu said Wednesday in response to the report that he would not be deterred from “defending Israel” by personal attacks, and charged that the official who made the remarks doesn’t hold Jerusalem’s unity and security as a top priority.

“I was personally attacked purely because I defend Israel, and despite all the attacks against me, I will continue to defend our country; I will continue to defend the citizens of Israel,” Netanyahu told the Knesset.

The prime minister added that he remained confident that the current disagreements between the US and Israel would not affect the two countries’ “deep connection.”

“I respect and appreciate the deep ties with the United States we’ve had since the establishment of the state,” he said. “We’ve had arguments before, and we’ll have them again, but this will not come at the expense of the deep connection between our peoples and our countries.”

Earlier in the day, Netanyahu’s fellow Likud party-members came to his defense.

“The unrestrained criticism against Israel and its leader quoted today from ‘officials’ in the White House crossed all lines,” Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein said in his opening remarks to the parliament Wednesday. “You can have disagreements, but in diplomatic relations — certainly among close allies — it is appropriate to maintain a respectful dialogue.”

International Relations Minister Yuval Steinitz charged that insulting the prime minister was tantamount to insulting the Israeli people.

“The prime minister of Israel is not a private [citizen] and he represents the position of the democratic and sovereign State of Israel and its constant fear for its existence and security,” Steinitz said in a statement. “Therefore offensive comments toward him are insults against the State of Israel and its citizens.”

Spencer Ho and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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