Biden says ‘no tolerance’ for comments from PM’s media czar pick

Speaking to US Reform Jews, vice president highest level official to take aim at Ran Baratz, but also stresses support for Israel and against incitement

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

File:  Joe Biden speaks in Washington, DC, on October 30, 2015. (Larry French/Getty Images for ANOC/AFP)
File: Joe Biden speaks in Washington, DC, on October 30, 2015. (Larry French/Getty Images for ANOC/AFP)

WASHINGTON — While defending the strength of US-Israel ties as a relationship that can overcome policy disagreements, Vice President Joe Biden lashed out Saturday night against what he called “terrible comments” made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s media czar appointee Ran Baratz.

Addressing the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial conference, Biden told the audience during his keynote speech that “there is no excuse, there should be no tolerance for any member or employee of the Israeli administration referring to the president of the United States in derogatory terms. Period. Period. Period. There is no justification for an official Israeli voice degrading the secretary of state, who has worked so hard, so long for the security of Israel.”

His statement was greeted by applause from the thousands-strong audience, as he continued to condemn similar insulting statements directed toward Secretary of State John Kerry.

Although Biden did not mention Baratz by name, the recent Netanyahu appointee was the unquestionable target of the vice president’s ire. Baratz’s appointment earlier this week made international headlines when it was revealed that he had made derogatory comments on social media about President Reuven Rivlin and Kerry, and accused Obama of anti-Semitism.

Three government ministers have already called publicly for Baratz’s nomination as head of media for the Prime Minister’s Office to be rescinded, but on Friday, Netanyahu denied reports that he was reconsidering the appointment of Baratz, who runs a right-leaning news site.

With Netanyahu’s meeting with Obama only two days away, Biden has become the highest-ranking US official to respond to Baratz’s comments.

Earlier statements were confined to official spokespeople.

On Thursday, State Department Spokesman John Kirby called the comments “troubling and offensive”

“We obviously expect government officials from any country, especially our closest allies, to speak respectfully and truthfully about senior US government official,” he said. “It’s a rule you learn in kindergarten about name-calling and it’s simply not a polite thing to do.”

In recent weeks, US and Israeli officials had sought to calm already fraught waters in advance of Netanyahu’s visit to Washington, where he is expected to advocate for increased defense support from the US.

During his Saturday evening speech, Biden largely seemed to adhere to the positive relations message. “Notwithstanding even those terrible comments, no one can undermine our relationship or our commitment to the security and future of the Jewish and democratic State of Israel,” he said.

Biden acknowledged repeatedly during his speech that Israeli and American leaders had maintained working relations despite substantive disagreements.

“I’ve [had] my share of differences with Israeli leaders,” Biden recounted. “I’ve never thought, from [former prime minister] Menachem Begin on, that the settlement policy made any sense,” he said.

‘Despicable incitement’

Describing America’s commitment to Israel’s security as “rock-solid and unshakeable,” Biden also expressed concern at the continuing violence plaguing Israel and the West Bank.

“We have strongly condemned Palestinian acts of terror against Israel,” he said, highlighting what he described as “inflammatory rhetoric” that spurs on “random acts of violence.”

Such incitement, Biden said, “is despicable and dangerous for the entire region.” At the same time, however, Biden emphasized that “both sides need to demonstrate restraint and avoid incitement.”

“We don’t want another intifada or to risk violence escalating any further,” he added. “These sad events are a reminder that we need to work toward a lasting peace between the Israeli and Palestinian people.”

Insisting on the viability and necessity of the two-state solution, Biden also singled out for criticism those who would “delegitimize Israel.”

“The efforts to delegitimize Israel are anti-Semitism, plain and simple, and we will not hesitate to call it out,” Biden insisted.

Addressing the controversial nuclear deal with Iran, Biden said he and Obama were committed to stopping Iran from getting a bomb, and thanked the audience for “not bowing to the pressure to condemn [the deal] right out of the gate.”

The vice president thanked the “many…who had the courage to step out and support it” but also said that he “respected” those who chose not to support it after reviewing the facts.

“The core of our alliance is as solid as steel. No one president or prime minister can alter that no matter what they do,” Biden stressed earlier in the speech, emphasizing what he described as “our unwavering commitment to be the guarantor of Israel’s security.”

“No one has done more for Israel’s security than the Obama-Biden administration,” he continued. “We have had our disagreements, but we have taken our security cooperation to use Bibi’s – Mr. Netanyahu’s – words, unprecedented levels.”

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