Row deepens over new appointee as Netanyahu prepares for trip to DC

PM denies he’ll review appointment of media chief who called Obama anti-Semitic

State Department, which branded Ran Baratz’s sneering critiques of president and secretary ‘offensive,’ said Netanyahu told Kerry he’d reconsider choice

Despite clear American anger, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday that he did not tell US Secretary of State John Kerry that he is going to reconsider his appointment of a controversial new media chief who has called President Barack Obama anti-Semitic and has mocked Kerry.

The prime minister wrote in Hebrew on his official Twitter feed that he didn’t say he would reconsider Ran Baratz’s appointment, “rather that I would deal with the matter upon my return to Israel.” Netanyahu is set to fly to the US to meet Obama on Monday.

Earlier unnamed Netanyahu aides, quoted by two Israeli radio stations on Friday morning, also contradicted remarks by the State Department Spokesman John Kirby, who said Thursday that the prime minister told the secretary that he would review the appointment of Baratz, which has yet to be fully ratified. Netanyahu merely told Kerry, in a phone call earlier Thursday, that he would deal with the issue later next week, after he returns from talks with Obama in Washington, Army Radio and Israel Radio reported.

The storm over the appointment of Baratz has soured preparations for Netanyahu’s meeting with Obama at the White House on Monday.

Baratz’s comments about the president and the secretary are deemed “troubling and offensive,” said Kirby. “We understand the prime minister will be reviewing this appointment when he returns from his visit to the United States,” Kirby said.

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

Earlier, a White House spokesman said dryly that Baratz’s apology Thursday for his incendiary comments was “warranted.”

US State Department Spokesman John Kirby. (AP/Susan Walsh)
US State Department Spokesman John Kirby (AP/Susan Walsh)

Spokesman Josh Earnest said White House officials “have seen the reports about this individual’s previous comments about US officials, and have also seen the reports about his apology. In this case, it is readily apparent that that apology was warranted.”

He added that “obviously the decisions that Prime Minister Netanyahu has to make about who will serve his government and represent him and his country are decisions that he rightfully will make on his own.”

Later in the same press briefing Thursday, Earnest said the incident would not harm US-Israel relations. “The personal relationship between the two men is both respectful and professional, but also, almost completely immaterial to the importance of the relationship between our two countries,” he said. “That is far more important than any sort of interpersonal dynamics.”

Ran Baratz delivers a lecture at The Jewish Statesmanship Center. (screen capture: YouTube/mmedinaut)
Ran Baratz delivers a lecture at The Jewish Statesmanship Center. (screen capture: YouTube/mmedinaut)

Former university lecturer Baratz, 42, was tapped Wednesday by Netanyahu as his new National Information Directorate chief. But a slew of his controversial comments then quickly came to light. These included Facebook posts in which he said Obama’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Iran and Israel amounted to “modern anti-Semitism,” and mocked numerous other leading figures including Kerry — who, he suggested, had the mental age of a child — Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest speaking to reporters, October 7, 2015. (Screen capture/White House video)
White House Spokesman Josh Earnest speaking to reporters, October 7, 2015. (screen capture/White House video)

Netanyahu, who said he was unaware of Baratz’s comments when he made the appointment, distanced himself from his incoming adviser earlier Thursday, calling the remarks “inappropriate,” and insisting they “do not reflect my positions or the policy of this government.”

“I have just read Dr. Ran Baratz’s posts on the Internet, including those relating to the president of the State of Israel, the president of the United States and other public figures in Israel and the United States,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “Those posts are totally unacceptable and in no way reflect my positions or the policies of the government of Israel. Dr. Baratz has apologized and has asked to meet me to clarify the matter following my return to Israel.”

That statement indicated that Netanyahu would not take Baratz with him to the US this weekend, as he had reportedly been planning to do, and appeared to leave him room to cancel the appointment if necessary. Opposition leaders and some of his own Likud party ministers have advised him to do so.

Netanyahu is set to meet Obama in Washington on Monday for the first time in a year, in what is intended to be a meeting aimed at healing relations after the bruising public row between the prime minister and the president over the world powers’ nuclear deal with Iran.

Baratz apologized for his comments Thursday, saying he regretted posting “the hurtful things that I published online in relation to the president, the US president and other public officials.”

“I’m sorry that I didn’t inform the prime minister in advance about them. These postings were written hastily and sometimes humorously, in a manner appropriate for a private person writing on the Internet,” he stated. He said it was “clear” he would have to behave differently in his official role, and that he would try to clarify things with Netanyahu.

Baratz also sent an email to The New York Times, saying that “what I most regret is using the word anti-Semitism in relation to President Obama.

“Even in the context of a heated debate in which there were strong passions over the nuclear deal with Iran, such language should have never been used to describe President Obama,” Baratz wrote. “It’s not true and I deeply regret having done so.”

In March, hours after Netanyahu addressed the US Congress regarding the dangers of signing a nuclear deal with Iran, Baratz took to Facebook to criticize Obama’s policies.

“Allow me to diverge from my usual moderate ways and be a bit blunt,” Baratz wrote on March 3. “Obama’s response to Netanyahu’s speech — this is what modern anti-Semitism looks like in Western liberal countries. And it is of course accompanied by a lot of tolerance and understanding for Islamic anti-Semitism; so much tolerance and understanding that they’ll even give them [an atomic bomb].”

Baratz had taken aim at Kerry on October 18, 2014, after Kerry linked the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the rise of the Islamic State terror group, portraying a speech by the secretary as comical.

“I went to see Kerry’s speech, where he linked Israel and the Islamic State, and it was pretty hilarious, so I summed it up for you: After his term as secretary of state, Kerry can look forward to a flourishing career in one of the comedy clubs in Kansas City [where a gunman shot and killed three people at Jewish sites in April 2014], Mosul or the Holot detention facility,” where Israel confines many of the African migrants who have entered the country in recent years, Baratz wrote.

“This is the time, then,” Baratz also wrote, “to wish the secretary of state success and count down two years on the calendar with the hope that someone in the State Department will then wake up and begin to see the world through the eyes of a man with a mental age above 12.”

Last week, Baratz mocked Rivlin for flying back to Israel from the Czech Republic in economy class. “I think it says a lot that the president flies in economy class, goes around the plane and shakes hands with everyone,” Baratz wrote. “In particular it says that he’s such a marginal figure that there’s no concern for his life.”

He went on to suggest sending Rivlin over the Syrian border on a paraglider, a journey made by an Israeli Arab recently in a quest to join the Islamic State group.

Baratz has also posted comments deriding Defense Minister Ya’alon as uninspired and monotonous.

Baratz’s appointment still has to be approved by the cabinet.

Israel's UN envoy, Danny Danon, poses with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon during a meeting on Monday, November 2, 2015 (Shahar Azran)
Israel’s UN envoy, Danny Danon, poses with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon during a meeting on November 2, 2015. (Shahar Azran)

Netanyahu in August appointed another Obama critic, Likud colleague Danny Danon, as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. Danon is an avid supporter of Israel’s West Bank settlements and an equally fervent opponent of the establishment of a Palestinian state. In 2012 he said Obama has “not been a friend of Israel,” and his policies have been “catastrophic.” He has also slammed the Obama administration for trying to force Israeli “capitulation” on the Palestinian issue.

AP contributed to this report.

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