Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon issued an apology late Tuesday to US Secretary of State John Kerry over private comments which were published earlier in the day, in which the minister blasted the top American diplomat for his “inexplicably obsessive” and “messianic” efforts to produce an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
In a statement published in English and Hebrew, the defense minister’s bureau said Israel greatly appreciates Kerry’s efforts and that Ya’alon “did not intend to insult the secretary and he apologizes if the secretary was hurt by the remarks attributed to the defense minister.”
The apology was issued after a reportedly long meeting between Ya’alon and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem.
The Obama administration had taken Ya’alon to task on Tuesday evening, in a rare public rebuke of a senior Israeli official.
The American administration has also demanded that Netanyahu explicitly disavow Ya’alon’s comments and affirm his commitment to the peace talks, according to several Israeli media outlets.
“To question Secretary Kerry’s motives and distort his proposals is not something we would expect from the defense minister of a close ally,” White House Spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday, echoing comments earlier in the day from State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki.
“The remarks of the defense minister [Ya’alon], if accurate, are offensive and inappropriate, especially given all that the United States is doing to support Israel’s security needs, and will continue to do,” Psaki said in a brief statement in Rome.
“Secretary Kerry and his team, including General [John] 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,” she added. “To question his motives and distort his proposals is not something we would expect from the defense minister of a close ally.”
The American rebukes came several hours after a gentler reprimand of Ya’alon from Netanyahu, in a speech before the Knesset marking the Israeli parliament’s 65th birthday.
“Even when we have disagreements with the United States, they are always substantive and not ad hominem,” Netanyahu said.
“We are working to advance regional security and defend our interests. True peace is founded on recognition of the nation-state of the Jewish people and on security arrangements guaranteeing that territories in Palestinian hands do not turn into launching pads for terrorists,” Netanyahu said, adding, “but all that [must be achieved] while respecting our important ties to the United States. We continue to defend our national interests, one of which is the continued fostering of our relations with our ally, the United States.”
Senior Obama administration officials were not satisfied with Netanyahu’s comments, and reportedly asked the prime minister to explicitly affirm his government’s commitment to the US-led peace talks with the Palestinian, and distance himself from Ya’alon’s comments.
According to reports in Hebrew media Tuesday night, Netanyahu called a senior American official to try to assuage American anger over the comments, and Ya’alon spoke earlier Tuesday with US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro in an attempt to do the same.
Ya’alon had lashed out at Kerry and savaged Washington-led peace talks in private conversations, according to a report Tuesday in the Yedioth Ahronoth daily. The paper recounted the defense minister lambasting the proposed security arrangements drawn up by Kerry as part of his peace proposal, saying the security proposal was “not worth the paper it is printed on” and would not provide security for Israel.
The report also quoted Ya’alon calling Kerry “inexplicably obsessive” and “messianic” in his efforts to coax the two sides into a peace agreement. The defense minister reportedly said Kerry has “nothing to teach me about the conflict with the Palestinians. All that can ‘save us’ is for John Kerry to win a Nobel Prize and leave us in peace.”
Although he didn’t deny the substance of the report, Ya’alon presented a softer tone Tuesday afternoon, while continuing to warn of the dangers of an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.
“Relations between the United State and Israel are intimate and important to us. The United States is our greatest friend and most important ally, and when there are disagreements we air them inside the [discussion] room, including with Secretary of State Kerry, with whom I have held many discussions about the future of Israel,” Ya’alon said in a statement to the media.
“I will continue to defend the security of Israel’s citizens with determination, responsibility and good judgment,” he added.
Earlier Tuesday, he told high school students in Ofakim, “even if there are disagreements between us and the Americans in our discussions, they shouldn’t overshadow our shared goals and interests.”
In that talk, Ya’alon rejected the idea that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the source of instability in the region and suggested that the very fact that the conflict had continued through all previous peace attempts suggested that “maybe the understanding of those who think they know how to solve the problem is wrong. We don’t need to solve the conflict, but to learn to manage it,” he added.
He also rejected the idea that “time isn’t on our side. Some things can be solved immediately, and others take time. The truth is that Israel’s security situation is better today than in previous decades.”
And he warned of the dangers of an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bsnk. “With 2,000 determined soldiers, Hamas would defeat the Palestinian Authority, creating a new entity we call ‘Hamastan,’ with whom we will not be able to talk or do business.”
Ya’alon was assailed for his reported comments by President Shimon Peres and several senior cabinet colleagues, including from the right.
In his own speech before the Knesset Tuesday, Peres praised Kerry and US President Barack Obama’s efforts to achieve peace with the Palestinians.
“We are grateful to the president of the United States, Barack Obama, for his unreserved responsiveness to [Israel’s] security and intelligence needs. There is no doubt he wants to see a Middle East at peace. The deep friendship with the United States is a central element of Israel’s security and a catalyst for peace in the Middle East. Secretary of State John Kerry’s determined efforts to achieve peace are evidence of this American stance,” Peres said.
In a statement from Geneva, where he is meeting with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman chastised the “loud, public argument” with the US that Ya’alon had sparked.
“Minister Liberman said that Israel and the US have a special relationship, and the US is Israel’s most steadfast ally over the years, which it has proven many times,” Liberman’s spokesman Tzahi Moshe said in a statement. “Therefore, it is inappropriate and unhelpful to both sides to conduct a loud, public argument, and there is no call for personal attacks, even if there are, at times, disagreements.”
Liberman’s comments followed on the heels of criticism from centrist and left-leaning officials.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is managing the peace talks with the Palestinians, spoke out in defense of Kerry and the diplomatic process, saying they were being pushed by Washington “out of a profound understanding that this is in Israel’s interests.”
“The negotiations are held in such a way that Israel’s interests are safeguarded, primarily its security. It is possible to oppose the negotiations in a practical and responsible way rather than lash out and destroy our relations with our closest friend [the United States],” she said in a statement posted to Facebook.
Opposition head Isaac Herzog (Labor) said that Ya’alon’s comments were emblematic of a wider cynicism within the Likud party.
“The defense minister’s insulting and hurtful tongue-lashing toward Secretary of State Kerry reveals the Likud’s true colors,” he said in a statement also posted to Facebook. “It’s not a security issue, because that can be discussed. It’s an organized ideology that does not believe in any kind of solution or separation from the Palestinians. Ya’alon is preparing the ground for a binational state. This is the end of the Zionist vision and of a democratic state with secure borders.”
Herzog also called for the Yesh Atid and Hatnua parties, the latter of which is helmed by Livni, to demand answers from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or pull out of the coalition in the wake of the report.
“Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid can continue to recite messages about peace. They, like me, believe the time is ripe for an agreement, but they know they don’t have partners in a government that does not have the vision for peace,” he said.
Ya’alon, considered a defense hawk, has publicly expressed skepticism over plans for Israel to pull out of the West Bank, and firmly opposed an Israeli withdrawal from the Jordan Valley.
Ya’alon has been a strident critic of the American-brokered peace talks, which began in July and stipulated a nine-month window, until April, to reach a final status agreement.
Kerry has made 10 visits to the region this year, shuttling between Israeli and Palestinian leaders to mediate talks. Recently, he has been pushing a framework agreement as part of his efforts to nudge Abbas and Netanyahu closer to a full treaty that would establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel. But the two sides have reportedly been at odds over almost every aspect of the core issues involved in a two-state accord.
Yoel Goldman contributed to this report.