US: Israeli attacks on Kerry ‘show the heat is on’

US: Israeli attacks on Kerry ‘show the heat is on’

State Department slams right-wing's distorted vitriol, but says Kerry has 'tough skin' and is only concerned for peace process

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

US Secretary of State John Kerry talks about Syria, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014, at the State Department in Washington. (photo credit: AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
US Secretary of State John Kerry talks about Syria, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014, at the State Department in Washington. (photo credit: AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

WASHINGTON — Recent right-wing attacks in Israel on US Secretary of State John Kerry were intended to distract from any substantive debate on the peace process, the US State Department said Wednesday.

“Any rhetoric that is inaccurate and critical as this is is unhelpful,” State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters Wednesday afternoon. “These kind of attacks are unacceptable. They not only distort his record but they distract from the key issues at hand.”

Psaki was responding to harsh criticism of Kerry from right-wing Israeli leaders, including cabinet ministers, in the wake of a speech the American diplomat made Saturday at the Munich Security Conference, where he warned that Israel faces an “increasing delegitimization campaign that has been building up. People are very sensitive to it. There are talk of boycotts and other kinds of things.” He also said Israel’s current prosperity and security were “illusionary.”

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, Housing Minister Uri Ariel, Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan and other right-wing leaders leveled a series of accusations against Kerry, including that he was anti-Israel and that his warnings of boycotts effectively empowered the boycott campaign. Others, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni insisted Kerry had defended Israel and that any disagreement with him must be substantive rather than personal, although Netanyahu also declared he would not be swayed by boycott threats.

“You must not know the Jewish nation; the Jewish nation is stronger than these threats. We will not collapse in the face of intimidation,” Bennett said on Monday.

“It’s difficult to accept Kerry’s explanation that he was describing the situation as an onlooker,” Erdan said at a convention in Jerusalem, also Monday. “He appears more like someone trying to fan the flames of threats against Israel’s economy.”

But Kerry was unfazed by the criticism, Psaki said. “He has a tough skin and he has seen worse than having personal verbal attacks against him.”

Kerry, she said, was “not going to spend a lot of time worrying about words people are using against him. his greatest concern is the result they could have on the process. The words aren’t an attack on him but rather on the peace process.”

Psaki suggested that the right-wing critiques of the secretary were out of step with popular opinions in Israel, arguing that “peace isn’t a favor we’re doing for the Israelis and Palestinians, it’s something that the Israeli people and the Palestinian people want.”

The expression of vitriol, she said, “is a sign that the heat is on and we’re getting to the difficult issues.”

The accusations against Kerry have included claims he was driven by anti-Semitism. During an interview last week on Israel Radio, MK Moti Yogev (Jewish Home) said that “the prime minister is maneuvering under the obsessive and unprofessional pressures that might also bear an undertone of anti-Semitism on Kerry’s part.”

Yogev argued that “he has an anti-Israel foundation in that he does not come to compromise, but instead comes with unequivocal answers about shrinking the Land of Israel and establishing a Palestinian state,” adding that “the members of my faction also think that he is not a fair broker and he is not fit to mediate here because his positions are predetermined.”

Yogev later wrote to Dan Shapiro, US ambassador to Israel, saying he was retracting the charge of anti-Semitism, but maintained his opposition to Kerry as a fair broker.

Psaki emphasized that even as the comments were being made, Kerry was meeting with Israel’s top negotiators – Livni and Yitzhak Molho.

In addition to directly referencing Yogev’s comments and more recent comments made by a group of far-right Israeli rabbis known as The Committee to Save the Land and People of Israel, Psaki included last month’s political satire produced by settler activists as “rhetoric” that “we find unacceptable.” Psaki acknowledged that the United States supported free speech, but argued that mischaracterizations of Kerry’s positions and role were unfair.

Psaki said that although both she and the secretary were familiar with the viral video, which mocks Kerry for unrealistic solutions and lack of knowledge about the Middle East, neither had seen it.

The spokeswoman was not the first official to slam recent attacks on Kerry. On Monday, National Security Adviser Susan Rice fired off a series of tweets in defense of the secretary, saying that “personal attacks in Israel directed at Sec Kerry totally [are] unfounded and unacceptable.” She wrote that “John Kerry’s record of support for Israel’s security and prosperity [is] rock solid.” She also said the US government “has been clear and consistent that we reject efforts to boycott or delegitimize Israel.”

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