WASHINGTON — The White House on Tuesday condemned as “offensive” the reported comment of Israel’s defense minister that U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s campaign for Mideast peace grows from his “messianism.”
In an incident that may deepen strains between the two governments, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon was quoted in the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot as saying that Kerry is “inexplicably obsessive” and “messianic.” He added that “the only thing that may save us is if Kerry wins the Nobel Prize and leave us,” the article said.
Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said the comments, “if accurate, are offensive and inappropriate, especially in light of everything the United States is doing to support Israel’s security needs.”
“To question Secretary Kerry’s motives and distort his proposals is not something we would expect from the defense minister of a close ally,” he said.
Ties between the governments have been strained by Kerry’s high-pressure effort to seal an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal as well as by the U.S.-backed international negotiations aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear program. The clash may be the most vivid sign yet of the personal strains between top U.S. and Israeli officials.
Mideast experts said the episode is in some ways an isolated case, noting that Yaalon is unusually outspoken. A former military chief and senior member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, Yaalon has always been skeptical about the prospects for a peace deal with the Palestinians.
“Yaalon is a special case,” said Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. peace negotiator. “He’s always been a maverick.”
At the same time, experts said the outburst demonstrates that Kerry’s effort, though still considered a long shot, has built pressure on Israel that is making many conservatives uncomfortable. That in turn suggests negotiations may be making progress toward the tough final decisions.
Kerry has visited Israel 10 times since taking office nearly a year ago and says he still hopes, despite setbacks, to seal a peace deal this spring.
Yaalon was quoted as saying that in the negotiations “we have given enough and have received nothing.” He said that an American plan to ensure Israel would be safe after creation of a Palestinian state “provides neither security nor peace.”
On Tuesday night, Yaalon issued a statement saying that “I did not intend to offend the secretary of State and I apologize if he was offended by comments attributed to the minister. ... We appreciate Kerry’s many efforts to advance the negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Kerry is trying to persuade the Israelis and Palestinians to agree to a framework that would set out principles for a final peace deal. Officials on both sides have been resisting the effort, arguing that differences are too deep on the key issues.
Other Israeli officials have sought to smooth over the incident.
Israeli President Shimon Peres, in a speech to parliament, hailed Kerry’s “extraordinary commitment.”
Netanyahu called the United States “our greatest ally” and emphasized strong cooperation between officials of the two governments. Although there are “differences of opinion, they are always substantive, not personal,” he said.
(Staff writer Richter reported from Washington and news assistant Sobelman from Jerusalem.)