WASHINGTON -- The United States has never been spared insults from other world leaders. We thought the Russians might get nicer once their mythology of communism was destroyed, but word doesn't seem to have reached Vladimir Putin. The Chinese have been reasonably polite recently, but every time I see a new picture of Mao Zedong, I begin to tremble.
The Iraqis under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki could not keep a civil tongue in their mouths, as my mother used to say, when talking about the Americans who saved their lives, until they suddenly realized recently that they needed us. And few leaders have had a bigger and nastier mouth than Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai.
As for the West, it is not known for its creative insults directed toward its "friends" abroad, except for the British colonialists, for instance, who had unpleasant names for their subservient peoples. If anything, Western nations tended to want to believe too much good about their Eastern colleagues.
British diplomats, for instance, have told me that things started going wrong with the Russians when Churchill, FDR and Stalin met during and after World War II, and the Westerners kept calling Stalin affectionately "Uncle Joe." They simply did not understand who he really was, but the Russians did.
Does it really matter whether nations, rather like human beings, insult one another? Shouldn't one simply think of the bigger picture and leave hurt feelings -- so unimportant, so childish, really -- aside?
Well, no. Insults poison the little-enough sense that can be made of diplomacy. Insults cause most people to want to return words in kind.
Which brings us, sadly, to Israel and its relationship with the United States. Think for just a moment of what the Israeli defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, said about the American Secretary of State John Kerry, who has spent weeks working on an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
In a lengthy article in the respected Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, Yaalon's comments in private and in public were revealed by unnamed sources. "The American plan for security arrangements that was shown to us isn't worth the paper it was written on," he was quoted as saying. "It provides neither security nor peace."
Kerry "operates from an incomprehensible obsession and sense of messianism" and "can't teach me anything about the conflict with the Palestinians."
"The only thing that might save us is if John Kerry wins the Nobel Prize and leaves us be," Yaalon said. "We've given enough and have received nothing. In a free translation from English, we will tell our American friends, enough is enough."
Yaalon, a senior member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party, is known for his unequivocating hard line on the Palestinian question. He has long said that Jews must be able to settle anywhere in what is now the Palestinian-occupied West Bank; he was against the withdrawal of settlements from the Gaza Strip; and he has spoken out on the Iranian nuclear controversy, saying that Israel should assassinate former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Yaalon effectively acknowledged the statement on the Israeli news website Ynet, the online sister of Yediot, and offered a half-hearted apology, but it was left to respected Israeli President Shimon Peres to praise Kerry's "extraordinary commitment." In a parliament speech, he averred, "Our deep friendship with the U.S.A. is a central component of Israel's security and a force for the advancement of peace in the region."
Meanwhile, something relatively new had happened on this end of the relationship. The State Department has in the past often ignored the Israeli right's, shall we say, lack of finesse in responding to the billions in aid the United States gives Israel every year. But this time, the response was swift and strong.
"The remarks of the defense minister ... are offensive and inappropriate, especially given all that the United States is doing to support Israel's security needs," department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a formal statement. "Secretary Kerry and his team ... have been working day and night to try to promote a secure peace for Israel because of the secretary's deep concern for Israel's future. To question his motives and distort his proposals is not something we would expect from the defense minister of a close ally."
These insults and responses are, sad to say, all too typical of relations between the two countries these days. The U.S. is pushing hard for a Palestinian peace treaty, and Kerry's is hardly a weak hand. The Obama administration has, from the beginning, been less willing to give in to anything the Israelis want than previous administrations. Well-organized Jewish lobbies donate so freely to members of Congress that they are assured of those men and women's votes on the Middle East, but there is no longer any enthusiasm among the American people for the Jewish state.
Actually, the U.S. is doing Israel a favor by pushing it into a peace treaty it badly needs, both for its own sake and for its own position in the world, which should be among the most advanced economic, social and moral nations. This is a chance that may not come again.
- Politics & Government
- Foreign Policy
- John Kerry
- United States
- Vladimir Putin