A U.S. State Department spokeswoman expressed outrage Tuesday over a news report in which Israel’s defense minister was said to have dismissed Secretary of State John Kerry’s Middle East peace push as naive and messianic.
“The remarks of the defense minister, if accurate, are offensive and inappropriate, especially given all that the United States is doing to support Israel’s security needs,” the spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said in an email message as Kerry prepared to leave for Kuwait after meetings at the Vatican.
Kerry and his negotiating 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,” she said. “To question his motives and distort his proposals is not something we would expect from the defense minister of a close ally.”
The Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot said in a lengthy article published Tuesday that the minister, Moshe Yaalon, had “voiced deep skepticism” and “spared no harsh words” about Kerry and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority in “private conversations” with Americans and Israelis. Yaalon, a senior member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party who has long taken a hard-line stance on the Palestinian question, was not quoted directly in the article; his comments were attributed to unnamed sources.
“The American plan for security arrangements that was shown to us isn’t worth the paper it was written on,” Yaalon, a former chief of Israel’s military, was described as having said. “It provides neither security nor peace.” The article said Yaalon had said 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 was quoted as saying. “We’ve given enough and have received nothing. In a free translation from English, we will tell our American friends, enough is enough.”
If the report is accurate, it would be the most public and personal rift between a high-ranking Israeli official and the United States over the peace process since the U.S.-brokered talks started last summer. The relationship has also been under strain because of deep disagreements regarding the diplomatic deal in the works on Iran’s nuclear program.
This new spat comes as Kerry is trying to persuade Abbas and Netanyahu to agree to a framework that would set out core principles of a peace deal and provide guidelines for continuing to discuss the details.
Senior Israeli and Palestinian officials have in recent days splashed cold water on the effort, suggesting that the two sides have irreconcilable differences on borders, refugees, security, the status of Jerusalem and the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. A senior member of Netanyahu’s coalition said in an interview published last week that not one settlement in the occupied West Bank would be evacuated. Abbas said over the weekend that he would never agree to Israel’s recognition demand, and that East Jerusalem must be the Palestinian capital – something senior Israeli ministers have said in recent days is impossible.
Yaalon’s spokesman did not respond to requests for comment about the Yediot article or Psaki’s response. But the Israeli news website Ynet quoted the defense minister as saying later Tuesday that the United States was “our strongest friend and most important ally.”
“Relations between the United States and Israel are intimate and very meaningful for us,” Yaalon said, according to Ynet, the online sister of Yediot. “When there are disagreements, we settle them in private rooms, including with Secretary of State Kerry.”
Other Israeli politicians rushed to repair the damage. Although Netanyahu did not address the Yaalon comments directly, he said during a speech in Parliament on Tuesday that the United States was “our greatest ally” and that Israel was “working in cooperation” with the U.S. president, vice president and secretary of state.
“We maintain our interests, while cultivating this important tie between the two nations,” he said. “We strive to reach a true peace accord.”
President Shimon Peres also expressed his support for what he called Kerry’s “extraordinary commitment.” In a Parliamentary speech, he said, “Our deep friendship with the USA is a central component of Israel’s security and a force for the advancement of peace in the region.”
On Facebook, Tzipi Livni, Israel’s justice minister and one of its two lead negotiators, criticized the tone of Yaalon’s reported comments, saying, “We can oppose negotiations in a responsible and measured way, without compromising relations with our best friend,” meaning the United States.
Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s strategic affairs minister and another senior Likud leader, said on Israel Radio on Tuesday morning that he agreed with the content of Yaalon’s critique of the Kerry initiative, but not the character. “With all the disagreements that we sometimes have,” Steinitz said, “we have to keep one ironclad rule: without personal insults.”
And Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s foreign minister, told Jewish leaders in Geneva that “it isn’t right and is not helpful to Israel to have a loud and public argument,” according to the Israeli daily Haaretz.
“The U.S. is Israel’s bravest ally and has proven it many times over the years,” Lieberman was quoted as saying. “So there is no place for personal attacks, even if there are occasional differences.”
The focus of Yaalon’s complaint, according to the Yediot article, concerns the security arrangements for the Jordan Valley. Israel has insisted on a long-term presence of its soldiers on what would be the future border with a Palestinian state, something the Palestinians say would compromise their sovereignty. The U.S. position on how many soldiers should stay for how long is unclear, but part of the plan is to use high-tech tools to ensure security, something Yaalon derided, according to the article.
Kerry, who spent four days in Jerusalem and the West Bank in serial meetings with Abbas and Netanyahu just after the New Year holiday, had been considering a return this week, depending on progress in the talks. A senior U.S. official said Tuesday that the decision not to return right away did not indicate a slackening in the effort, and that he was likely to be back in the region within weeks.
The Globe and Mail
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