Washington reacted angrily Tuesday to the disparaging comments of US Secretary of State John Kerry and his diplomatic efforts attributed to Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, saying the US expects more from "a close ally."
The US, one senior US official said, expected Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to issue a statement distancing himself from the remarks.
Yediot Ahronot triggered the diplomatic incident between Israel and the US, quoting Ya'alon as saying in private meetings that Kerry's diplomatic efforts stemmed from an "incomprehensible obsession" and "a messianic feeling."
According to the report, Ya'alon said that Kerry should "take his Nobel Prize and leave us alone.”
Ya'alon, referring to the US security plan put together by retired US Marine General John Allen, said that it was "not worth the paper it was written on." According to the report, Ya'alon said that only a continued Israeli presence in Judea and Samaria and along the Jordan River would ensure that Netanya and Ben-Gurion Airport do not come under constant rocket attack. Kerry, he reportedly said, "cannot teach me anything about the conflict with the Palestinians."
A US State Department official responded by saying that the remarks, if accurate, "are offensive and inappropriate, especially given all that the United States is doing to support Israel's security needs."
"Kerry and his team, including General Allen, 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," the official said. "To question his motives and distort his proposals is not something we would expect from the Defense Minister of a close ally.'
Ya'alon, who came under a barrage of criticism from various corners for his comments, including a jab from Netanyahu from the Knesset podium, issued a statement pledging to smooth over divisions with the US.
Relations between the US and Israel are "intimate and of great significance for us. The US is our greatest friend and most important ally, and when there are divisions we work them over behind closed doors, including with Secretary of State Kerry, with whom I hold many talks about the future of Israel," the statement said.
The statement did not deny that Ya'alon made the remarks.
According to the report in Yediot, a paper fiercely critical of the Netanyahu government, Ya'alon said that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas “lives and dies by our sword. Once we leave Judea and Samaria, he is finished. In effect, during these past months, there haven’t been negotiations with the Palestinians, but with the Americans.”
A report with similar comments appeared last week in the pro-Netanyahu daily
Israel Hayom, but those quotes were attributed only to "senior Israeli diplomatic" officials. "The conduct of the US Secretary of State is obsessive," one quote read. Yediot Ahronot and Israel Hayom are engaged in a fierce newspaper battle.
Netanyahu attempted damage control during his speech Monday in the Knesset in honor of the Knesset's 65th birthday. "Even when we have disagreements with the US, they are always on the heart of the matter, not on the merits of an individual," Netanyahu said.
"The US is our greatest ally. We are partners in goals and joint interests: regional stability, the war on terror, growth, security and peace. We are making efforts to bring security to the region and stand up for our interests."
The prime minister said that true peace depended on recognition of Israel as the Jewish state along with security arrangements that will ensure that "the land in the Palestinians' hands will not turn into terrorist launching pads."
However, he said, those aims must be reached "while respecting our important connection with the US."
"We stand up for our national interests and one of those is continuing to cultivate our connection with our ally, the US," Netanyahu added.
He also spoke by phone to a senior US official in a bid to smooth over the controversy, an Israeli official told Reuters on condition of anonymity, adding that Ya'alon also discussed the matter with US Ambassador Dan Shapiro.
But this apparently did not satisfy Washington, which wants Netanyahu to issue a statement distancing himself from both the criticism of Kerry, as well as the driticism of the diplomatic process itself.
President Shimon Peres, also in an obvious effort at controlling the fallout from the incident, thanked US President Barack Obama in the Knesset "for his full responsiveness to our security and intelligence needs," and Kerry for his "determined efforts to make peace."
"There is no doubt [Obama] wants to see a peaceful Middle East," Peres said. "Our deep friendship with the US is a central component of Israel's security and an impetus for peace in the Middle East."
Even Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, known in the past for making undiplomatic comments, chided Ya'alon. In a statement from Geneva, where Liberman is holding talks, he said Israel and the US have a "special connection," adding that the US is Israel's strongest ally, something it has proven innumerable times over the years.
Therefore, he said, "it is not right and does not contribute anything to either side to conduct a vocal and public debate, and there is no place for personal recriminations, even if there are sometimes disagreements."
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who leads Israel's negotiating team, wrote on Facebook: "You can oppose negotiations professionally and responsibly without tongue-lashing and destroying relations with Israel's top ally."
Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz (Hatnua) called on Netanyahu to fire Ya’alon and ministers who agree with him. Opposition leader and Labor chief Isaac Herzog said that Hatnua and Yesh Atid should leave the coalition over Ya’alon’s statements and instead form a large center-left bloc that would work to topple the government.
“I think Ya’alon is revealing the true face of Netanyahu’s government,” Herzog told Army Radio. “Now Netanyahu has to choose between the outlook of Ya’alon and that of Livni. Livni should stop her fruitless negotiations and she and Lapid should check with Netanyahu whether he is really seeking a deal at all.”
Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz (Likud) said of Ya'alon's purported statements, "I agree with content. But with all our disagreements we need to follow one rule: We must refrain from personal insults."
Michael Wilner and Yaakov Lapin contributed to this report
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