In the midst of a bitter dispute between the Israeli and American governments, White House spokesman Josh Earnest endured an embarrassing slip on Friday, mishearing an awkwardly worded question and inadvertently answering in a way that suggested the Obama administration wants to see the back of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He quickly realized the error and corrected himself.
The slip-up was promptly broadcast on Israel’s top-rated Channel 2 news, in an item highlighting a deepening row between the leaderships of the two allied countries over an imminent visit to Washington by Netanyahu, during which President Barack Obama will not meet with him, and over the issue of how to stop Iran’s nuclear drive.
The question Earnest was asked at the White House briefing ran as follows: “You said that the president wants the Israeli prime minister to share his view on Iran. Is that safe to say that you would welcome a change of Israelis’ prime minister?”
The spokesman, evidently not registering the second part of the question, responded: “In fact we would. And that’s a case that we’ve made to him on many occasions. And a case has been made at a variety of levels. But ultimately it’s the responsibility of the Israeli prime minister to pursue a national security strategy that he believes is in the interests of his country. The president happens to have a difference of opinion, which is: he believes that it is worth pursuing this diplomatic option with the Iranians. And he believes that doing so is not just in the national security interests of the United States, but it’s in the national security interests of our closest ally in the region, which is Israel.”
Once Earnest had completed this answer, the follow-up question was: “So you’d welcome a new person in the prime minister’s job in Israel after March 17?”
Dismayed, Earnest spluttered a little.
A voice called out: “The question was whether you’d welcome a new Israeli prime minister.”
Said Earnest, realizing his error: “I’m sorry, I thought you said ‘welcome a new position taken by the Israeli prime minister.’ But you said ‘do we want a new Israeli prime minister’. That is obviously a…”
Earnest tailed off and then went on to explain that President Barack Obama will not be meeting Netanyahu when the prime minister visits the US to speak to Congress in early March, two weeks before Israel’s elections, precisely because the administration does not want to even appear to be interfering in the outcome of the elections. “The decision about who should be the leader of Israel is the responsibility of the voters of Israel and I’m not going to weigh in one way or another,” he said.
Earnest was not quite out of the woods. The next follow-up was: “But you said a moment ago that you’d welcome, that the president would welcome, someone who shared his views. So you’d welcome…”
Earnest interrupted: “That’s not what I… I misunderstood your question. I thought, what I had thought that you asked me was whether or not we’d welcome the prime minister taking a new position [on Iran]…”