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Israeli defense chief comments spark spat with US

Tuesday - 1/14/2014, 11:50pm  ET

JOSEF FEDERMAN
Associated Press

JERUSALEM (AP) -- An Israeli newspaper quoted the defense minister Tuesday as deriding U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's Mideast peace efforts as naive and foolhardy, triggering an angry response from Washington and rekindling simmering tensions with Israel's closest and most important ally.

The quotes appeared ahead of another visit by Kerry, who is expected in the region in the coming weeks to deliver his ideas on a framework for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Kerry has already submitted to Israel a series of proposals for ensuring Israel's security as part of a future peace deal.

In the comments published by the Yediot Ahronot daily, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon called Kerry "obsessive" and "messianic" and dismissed Kerry's security plan as worthless.

"The only thing that might save us is if John Kerry wins the Nobel Prize and leaves us be," Yaalon was quoted as saying.

Yaalon is a former military chief of staff and close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Since becoming defense minister last year, a position of great influence in Israel, he has been a vocal skeptic of Kerry's peace efforts. In his public statements, he has said Israel has "no partner" for peace and questioned the Palestinian commitment to resolving years of conflict.

Asked about the report, Yaalon issued a statement saying that relations with the U.S. are "intimate and meaningful" for Israel.

"The United States is our greatest friend and our strongest ally and when there are differences they are resolved behind closed doors, including with Secretary Kerry with whom I have many conversations about the future of Israel. I will continue to determinedly, responsibly and thoughtfully protect the security of the people of Israel," Yaalon said. His office would neither confirm nor deny the comments in Yediot, and repeated requests for additional comment were not answered.

Late Tuesday, Yaalon's office issued a second statement in which the defense minister expressed appreciation for Kerry' peace efforts.

"The defense minister had no intention to cause any offense to the secretary, and he apologizes if the secretary was offended by words attributed to the minister," the statement read.

Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders scrambled to distance themselves from Yaalon, while the U.S. condemned the reported comments as "offensive and inappropriate."

The U.S. Embassy in Israel has complained about the reported comments to the Israeli government, said a senior State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to discuss the matter on the record.

Under heavy American pressure, Israel and the Palestinians resumed substantive peace talks last July for the first time in nearly five years. So far, there have been no signs of progress, and the talks have been marred by finger pointing by both sides.

With an April target date for an agreement approaching, Kerry has said he will soon return with bridging proposals for a framework deal. In recent weeks, both sides appear to have hardened their positions. During a visit to Israel this week, Vice President Joe Biden said both sides have "difficult decisions" to make.

The Palestinians seek the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, territories captured by Israel in 1967, for an independent state. Netanyahu wants to keep parts of the West Bank and says he will not share control of east Jerusalem, home to sensitive Muslim, Jewish and Christian religious sites. He has also insisted that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland, a condition they say would undermine the rights of Palestinian refugees and Israel's own Arab minority.

In Tuesday's report, Yaalon said there have not been any direct talks with the Palestinians in months, and that the only communications have been through American mediators. He also expressed deep skepticism about Palestinian intentions, saying peace could only be reached if the Palestinians accept Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people.

But his harshest comments were on Kerry's security proposals for the West Bank, which were drawn up by his security adviser, former Gen. John Allen, and dozens of other experts.

"The American plan for security arrangements that was shown to us isn't worth the paper it was written on," Yaalon is quoted as saying. "Secretary of State John Kerry -- who arrived here determined, and who operates from an incomprehensible obsession and a sense of messianism -- can't teach me anything about the conflict with the Palestinians."

The U.S. plan includes a limited Israeli presence in the West Bank, but relies heavily on sensors, satellites and drones, according to Palestinian officials. Israel has demanded it be allowed to retain an on-the-ground presence along the eastern border with Jordan to prevent weapons smuggling or potential invasion by Arab armies.

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