Senior Americans officials have launched an abusive attack on Benjamin Netanyahu, dismissing him as a “chicken s***” in terms suggesting that the rift between the Israeli prime minister and the Obama administration has become unbridgeable.
The withering assessment, voiced by unnamed sources to The Atlantic magazine, follows a spate of disagreements between Israel and the US, its most important ally, that have previously prompted warnings that relations between the two countries are in “crisis”.
While President Barack Obama’s disenchantment with Mr Netanyahu has been well-documented, the contemptuous tone of the latest criticism – suggesting that the Israeli prime minister lacked courage and was focused only on political survival – is unprecedented.
“The thing about Bibi [Mr Netanyahu’s childhood nickname] is, he’s a chicken s***,” one official told The Atlantic’s Jeffery Goldberg, a journalist renowned for having close ties to both Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu.
“The good thing about Netanyahu is that he’s scared to launch wars. 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. The only thing he’s interested in is protecting himself from political defeat. He’s not [Yitzhak] Rabin, he’s not [Ariel] Sharon, he’s certainly no [Menachem] Begin [previous Israeli prime ministers]. He’s got no guts.”
Another official dismissed the possibility of Mr Netanyahu ordering military strikes against Iran’s nuclear installations, something the Israeli leader has threatened if the international powers conclude a “bad deal” with Tehran over its uranium enrichment programme, which Israel sees as a threat to its existence.
“It’s too late for him to do anything,” the official said. “Two, three years ago, this was a possibility. But ultimately he couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. It was a combination of our pressure and his own unwillingness to do anything dramatic.”
“The feeling now is that Bibi’s bluffing….he’s not Begin at Osirak [the Iraqi nuclear reactor bombed by Israel in 1981].”
The attacks were condemned by several Israeli cabinet members before Mr Netanyahu – who this week dismissed US and European criticism of plans to expand Jewish settlements in occupied East Jerusalem as “disconnected from reality” – leaped to his own defence.
“Our national interests, topped by security and the unity of Jerusalem, are not what top the interests of those anonymous forces attacking us, and me personally,” he told the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. “I am under attack simply because I am defending the State of Israel. If I didn’t stand firm on our national interests, I would not be under attack.”
The latest spat comes after several top-ranking US officials pointedly snubbed Moshe Ya’alon, the Israeli defence minister and Mr Netanyahu’s close ally, when he visited Washington last week – apparently in revenge for his vocal criticisms of the Obama administration’s policies.
Mr Obama has expressed his frustration with Mr Netanyahu in a previous interview with Mr Goldberg – telling the journalist last year that the Israeli leader was a “political coward” who did not know what was in his country’s best interests.
The personal disagreements between the pair have raised concerns among some Israeli politicians about potential long-term damage to the country’s intimate security relationship with the US.
“The state of Israel has three binding principles,” Reuvin Rivlin, the Israeli president, said on a visit to Poland on Wednesday. “The first is the relationship with the United States. The second is the relationship with the United States. And the third thing, which is last but not least, is the relationship with the United States.”