US disavows sharp criticism of Israeli PM

Jo Biddle
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New housing units are seen under construction in the Jewish settlement of Neve Yaakov, near Israel's controversial separation wall in the northern area of east Jerusalem

New housing units are seen under construction in the Jewish settlement of Neve Yaakov, near Israel's controversial separation wall in the northern area of east Jerusalem (AFP Photo/Ahmad Gharabli)

Washington (AFP) - Already turbulent US-Israel ties hit new lows Wednesday as Washington scrambled to distance itself from scathing criticism of the Israeli prime minister as a coward out to save his political skin.

Despite acknowledging some US differences with Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama administration officials lined up to take issue with a reported anonymous comment from within their ranks that described the Israeli leader as a "chickenshit."

There are issues "where we express concern, and there's disagreement," conceded State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, but she insisted the US relationship with Israel "remains strong."

"Our security bonds have never been greater and the ties between our nations are unshakeable," Psaki told reporters.

Her remarks came after an explosive online report in The Atlantic magazine quoted an unnamed Obama administration official saying: "The thing about Bibi is, he's a chickenshit," using the Israeli leader's nickname.

"The good thing about Netanyahu is that he's scared to launch wars," the official said.

"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 got no guts," the official said.

As senior American politicians called for an apology and an investigation into who had made the comments, US officials said the remarks did not reflect the thoughts of President Barack Obama or his cabinet.

"Certainly that's not the administration's view, and we think such comments are inappropriate and counter-productive," national security spokesman Alistair Baskey hit back.

Much has been made of the alleged frosty ties between the wily Netanyahu and Obama, but Baskey insisted the two men had "forged an effective partnership" and consult each other regularly.

White House spokesman John Earnest was also at pains to stress that the anonymous comment did "not reflect the personal views of the president of the United States."

- Apology? -

The comments were just the latest in a war of words, which has seen Israeli officials unleash a series of insults against the US administration and in particular Secretary of State John Kerry.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon was forced to apologize in January when he said Kerry seemed to have "incomprehensible obsession" with forging a peace deal.

Kerry's relentless quest to reach an Israeli-Palestinian accord collapsed in April, in part after Israel unveiled more settlement plans barely hours after he met Netanyahu in Jerusalem.

While Washington insists it remains focused on trying to reach a peace treaty, observers say there is little appetite on either side to get back on such a treacherous and emotional roller-coaster ride.

Netanyahu reacted angrily to The Atlantic article, vowing: "I won't make concessions that will endanger our country."

"Our ultimate interests, first and foremost security and the unity of Jerusalem, are not the top priority for those anonymous sources who attack us and me personally."

Seeking to smooth ruffled feathers with one of its most important allies, US National Security Advisor Susan Rice also waded in, saying: "The relationship is not in crisis."

"The relationship is actually fundamentally stronger in many respects than it's ever been," she told a Washington forum.

Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham said even if relations were strained "there is no excuse for Obama administration officials to insult the prime minister of Israel."

"That does nothing but harm to America's national security interests, and President Obama must put an end to it immediately."

Psaki said however no official apology for The Atlantic article would be coming, though Kerry would speak with Netanyahu.

This week US officials sharply criticized Israeli plans to build 1,000 new settlements in Arab east Jerusalem, calling such moves "incompatible" with Israel's stated goal of pursuing peace talks.

The Atlantic reported US frustration has boiled over to the point that it may consider withdrawing "diplomatic cover for Israel" at the United Nations.

Psaki would not be drawn on what may happen in future UN discussions.

But she highlighted that Israel has repeatedly said "they'd like to see a two-state solution."

"Obviously actions... like the announcement of new settlements, are counterproductive to that -- or contradictory, I should say."