Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon was forced to apologize for having seemingly slighted US Secretary of State John Kerry when he referred to his continual shuttles to Israel and the Palestinian Authority as “messianic” and “obsessive.” State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki described Ya’alon’s words as “offensive and inappropriate.”
That wasn’t all. Ya’alon’s criticism was blown up into a major diplomatic confrontation when an unnamed ”senior US official” demanded that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu “put this right by publicly expressing his disagreement with the statements against Secretary Kerry, the negotiations with the Palestinians and Kerry’s commitment to Israel’s security.”
This virtual ultimatum turned the entire incident quite overtly into a round of arm-wrestling in which Washington appeared determined to push Jerusalem’s arm down decisively.
But is any of this really about the emotional pain which Ya’alon purportedly inflicted on Kerry?
The notion that breaches of courtesy are insufferable in international relations is disingenuous in the very least. Otherwise, why would the current US administration adopt so lenient an attitude toward Iran, where America is daily denigrated as “the Big Satan?” The PA’s own higher-ups have themselves not shied away from verbal onslaughts on the US. Nevertheless, there were no reactions similar to that which greeted Ya’alon’s comment.
Moreover, the topmost American movers and shakers haven’t been excessively gracious toward their Israeli counterparts.
Memorably, a couple of years ago US President Barack Obama chitchatted chummily with French president Nicolas Sarkozy during the G20 summit in Cannes, both unaware that the microphone before them hadn’t been switched off. “I can’t stand him. He’s a liar,” a chagrined Sarkozy blurted in reference to Netanyahu. Sarkozy’s feathers were just then reportedly ruffled because Netanyahu didn’t credit him with Gilad Schalit’s release.
Pointedly, Obama not only failed to defend Netanyahu but he actually expressed unreserved agreement with his French interlocutor. “You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you,” Obama complained.
The trouble was that this frank articulation of unambiguous aversion towards Israel’s democratically elected head of government – a staunch ally of America – was inadvertently broadcast to journalists covering the event.
No hint of an apology ever came from either Washington or Paris. Of course, it may be argued that what Obama and Sarkozy said was uttered in a private conversation that was not intended to be made public and hence their private comments don’t count.
However, that also happens to be how Ya’alon came to say what he did. He was engaged in an entirely private conversation, not intended for the public’s ear. The one difference is that Obama’s opinion was revealed by an open mic whereas Ya’alon’s was by a tabloid reporter who leaked an off-the-record remark.
To be sure, it is always desirable for diplomacy to be conducted without verbal fisticuffs, in an air of polite exchanges, not inflamed by unnecessary distractions. But sadly in the real world what is desirable isn’t always likely.
No one – not in Washington nor in Jerusalem – is made of plastic and can be twisted into a mold. It’s the nature of antipathies that they eventually rise to the surface. More often than not, they are prudently glossed over – as Netanyahu chose to do in reaction to the badmouthing at Cannes.
However, when a great fuss is kicked up over private pronouncements, we must ask ourselves why. Diplomacy isn’t about sensibilities but about interests.
It is the distinct duty of Israeli leaders to make sure that the most vital existential interests of this country, as they perceive them to be, are not compromised. Israelis too are entitled to hold views and to express them.
Their counterparts abroad have no right to impose silence upon them. Indeed, politicians/statesmen/diplomats should not pretend to be offended. When they do, this inevitably becomes a facet of the power games they play and pressures they exert.
All headliners say things in confidence and all know full well what the other side thinks. They should conduct their affairs as politely as possible. But flying off the handle and taking public umbrage for private banter isn’t only self-indulgent but also imperious.