American efforts to broker a peace deal in the Middle East were engulfed in a diplomatic row on Tuesday when the US state department lambasted a senior Israeli minister for “offensive and inappropriate” comments describing John Kerry as obsessive and messianic.
Defence minister Moshe Ya’alon, an ally of Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, dismissed Kerry’s efforts to pursue a peace deal in private conversations with US and Israeli officials which were reported in an Israeli newspaper.
“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,” Ya’alon was quoted as saying in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s biggest-selling paper.
He added: “The only thing that might save us is if John Kerry wins the Nobel Prize and leaves us be.”
In a sharp rebuke to Israel, state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said: “The remarks of the defence minister, if accurate, are offensive and inappropriate, especially given all that the US is doing to support Israel’s security needs.”
She added: “Secretary Kerry and his team … have been working day and night to try and promote a secure peace for Israel because of the secretary’s deep concern for Israel’s future. To question secretary Kerry’s motives and distort his proposal is not something we would expect from the defence minister of a close ally.”
Other senior Israeli figures, including the prime minister, sought to repair the diplomatic damage. “The US is our largest partner and the partnership is founded on shared values and interests,” Netanyahu said. “Even when there are disagreements between us, they are always substantive and not personal. We work in full co-operation with vice-president [Joe] Biden and secretary of state Kerry to advance peace and security in the region. We stand firm regarding our own interests, while promoting the important connection between our two countries.”
Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, also sought to smooth over the ruckus. “Our deep friendship with the USA is a central component of Israel’s security and a force for the advancement of peace in the region.” he told parliament. “The extraordinary commitment of secretary of state Kerry to the cause of peace reflects Israel’s deep and serious commitment to peace and is creating the opportunity for an agreement and mutual understanding.”
The Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, and justice minister, Tzipi Livni, also swiftly distanced themselves from Ya’alon’s remark.
Ya’alon did not deny the remarks attributed to him. But in a later conciliatory statement, he said relations between Israel and the US were “intimate and very significant for us.The US is our greatest friend and our most important ally; I will keep safeguarding the security of the citizens of Israel resolutely, responsibly and with discretion.”
Kerry is soon expected to make his 11th visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories as part of a determined drive to secure a peace deal to end the decades-old conflict. He has devoted hours to one-on-one meetings with Netanyahu and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and has won widespread respect for his dogged commitment to his mission.