In a rare Israeli condemnation of the new US administration, Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz slammed as “severe and outrageous” Wednesday statements made by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer that Adolf Hitler never used chemical weapons, but also accepted the spokesman’s apology.
Writing on Twitter hours after Spicer said Syrian President Bashar Assad was worse than Hitler because he “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” Katz said that the floundering press secretary must apologize or be forced to step down.
“Sean Spicer’s statement that Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons is severe and outrageous. We have a moral obligation that supersedes policy considerations. We must demand that he apologize, or resign,” wrote Katz, a Likud minister who sits on the powerful security cabinet and is seen as close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Spicer stunned the Washington press corps Tuesday by incorrectly telling reporters that Hitler did not use chemical weapons during World War II. “We didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II. “You know, you had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons,” Spicer said, in an attempt to amplify the magnitude of assessments that Syrian strongman Bashar Assad used sarin gas in an assault last week in Syria’s Idlib province.
Prompted to explain his initial comments, Spicer then issued a number of clarifications, saying he knew millions of Jews and other victims of the Nazis were killed in “Holocaust centers” in Nazi-occupied Europe, many in gas chambers, but that “when it comes to sarin gas, [Hitler] was not using the gas on his people the same way that Ashad [sic] is doing.”
Following sharp responses from Democratic lawmakers and American Jewish community groups, and after Katz’s initial tweet, Spicer did issue an apology, telling CNN that he had “mistakenly used an inappropriate, insensitive reference to the Holocaust — for which, frankly, there is no comparison.”
“For that, I apologize. It was a mistake to do that,” he added.
Speaking on Army Radio Wednesday morning, Katz welcomed the apology, saying that the original comments were “simply lies.” Stressing that he did not intend to intervene in what he called an “internal political debate,” Katz said he felt Israel had an obligation to make a “clear statement” on the comments.
“As a minister in the government of Israel I felt that in this case, despite the close relationship and the aid that the United States gives Israel, there are moral matters that go above the diplomatic considerations,” he said. “We have an obligation that we can’t ignore something like this.”
While the comments drew few other reactions in Israel, with most government offices closed for the Passover holiday, Zionist Union MK Erel Margalit called on the government to “break its silence” and officially condemn the comments.
“I am worried about the problematic influence of certain players that have recently entered the White House, specifically Holocaust deniers,” Margalit said in a statement.
A spokesman for the prime minster declined Wednesday to comment on Spicer’s latest statements. Mark Zell, an attorney who heads the GOP’s branch in Israel, told Army Radio the outcry was “exaggerated.”
In the US, Spicer’s comments were swiftly condemned as a downplaying of the Holocaust, with Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and others calling for the press secretary to be fired.
US President Donald Trump has been criticized in the past for failing to distance himself from far-right or neo-Nazi groups that have rallied behind him. His pick of Steve Bannon as chief strategist irked many in the US Jewish community due to Bannon’s embrace of the racist-infused “alt-right” movement while at the helm of the Breitbart news website.
The controversy over Spicer’s statements is not the first time the Trump administration has been criticized for comments related to the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. The White House released a statement on international Holocaust Remembrance Day earlier this year that did not make any reference to Jews, and some have taken issue with the slowness with which Trump has condemned anti-Semitic attacks, including threats against Jewish community centers.
Responding to the Holocaust Remembrance Day statement in January, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said the omission of Jews was likely a “mishap or a misunderstanding,” even though the Trump administration has insisted it was intentional.
“I don’t think there is room here for a diplomatic demarche,” Liberman said, adding that he “hopes” next year’s statement is worded differently and highlights Jewish suffering, but “we aren’t looking for a fight, not with the White House nor with anyone else.”
Speaking after his first official meeting with Trump in February, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the controversial statement, arguing that the American-Jewish community’s complaints over the matter were “misplaced.”
During a briefing for reporters Netanyahu hailed Trump as a staunch ally of Israel and the best friend the Jewish people could wish for. “There is no doubt that the president and his team understand very well the significance of the Holocaust as an attempt to annihilate the Jewish people, and that they fully appreciate the centrality of the Holocaust in Jewish life,” he told reporters at the White House.
Eric Cortellessa and AP contributed to this report.