With the US insisting on an apology, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon apologized late on Tuesday evening for the disparaging comments that he made about US Secretary of State John Kerry and his diplomatic efforts.
"The defense minister had no intention to cause any offense to the secretary, and he apologizes if the secretary was offended by words attributed to the minister," the Defense Ministry statement read.
"Israel and the United States share a common goal to advance the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians led by Secretary Kerry. We appreciate Secretary Kerry's many efforts towards that's end," the ministry added.
Washington reacted angrily on Tuesday to disparaging comments that Ya’alon reportedly made saying the US expects more from “a close ally.”
The US, one senior American official said, expects Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to issue a statement distancing himself from the remarks.
A report in Yediot Aharonot triggered the diplomatic incident, quoting Ya’alon as saying in private meetings that Kerry’s diplomatic efforts stemmed from an “incomprehensible obsession” and “a messianic feeling.”
Ya’alon said Kerry should “take his Nobel Prize and leave us alone,” according to the paper.
The defense minister, referring to the US security plan that retired US Marine Gen. John Allen put together, reportedly said it was “not worth the paper it was written on.”
The report quoted him as saying that only a continued Israeli presence in Judea and Samaria and along the Jordan River would ensure that Netanya and Ben-Gurion Airport did 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 said 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. To question his motives and distort his proposals is not something we would expect from the defense minister of a close ally,” the official said, 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 statement read. “The US is our greatest friend and most important ally, and when there are divisions, we work them out behind closed doors, including with Secretary of State Kerry, with whom I hold many talks about the future of Israel.”
The statement did not deny that Ya’alon had made the remarks.
According to the report in Yediot, a paper sharply critical of the Netanyahu government, the defense minister 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.
Netanyahu attempted damage control during his speech on Monday in the Knesset in honor of the parliament’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,” the prime minister 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.”
True peace depended on recognition of Israel as the Jewish state, along with security arrangements that would ensure that “the land in the Palestinians’ hands will not turn into terrorist launching pads,” he said.
He continued, however, that 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,” the prime minister said.
But this apparently did not satisfy Washington, which wants Netanyahu to issue a statement distancing himself from the criticism of both Kerry and the diplomatic process.
President Shimon Peres, also in an obvious effort to control 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 had a “special connection.” He added that the US was Israel’s strongest ally – something it had 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 (Hatnua), who leads the country’s team negotiating with the PLO, 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 agreed with him.
Opposition leader and Labor chief Isaac Herzog, meanwhile, 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 [Yesh Atid chairman Yair] 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 the content. But with all our disagreements, we need to follow one rule: We must refrain from personal insults.”
Michael Wilner and Yaakov Lappin contributed to this report.