Netanyahu aide calls US ambassador 'little Jew boy' in escalating controversy
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in Washington DC, on March 2, 2015 (AFP)

US State Department backs Daniel Shapiro after his comments drew criticism from Israeli ministers

The US State Department has moved to back America’s ambassador to Israel in a febrile and escalating row over his remarks on Monday that Israel applied law in the occupied West Bank differently to Palestinians and Israelis.

Ambassador Daniel Shapiro’s unusually critical comments drew harsh criticism from ministers in Israel’s rightwing government – including from Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

Shapiro was also publicly lambasted on Israeli television on Tuesday by a former aide to Netanyahu who used the deeply offensive Hebrew word yehudon – which translates as “little Jew boy” – to disparage the ambassador. The term is used by rightwing Israelis against other Jews – particularly against those in the diaspora – whom they regard as not being Jewish or pro-Israel enough.

Netanyahu has described Shapiro’s comments as unacceptable and wrong, while justice minister Ayelet Shaked has suggested that they were inappropriate and that Shapiro should recant them.

“We are being subjected to a terrorist onslaught that is simply unfamiliar to the United States, and to pass judgment on us in such a one-sided manner is wrong,” Shaked told Army Radio. “It would be appropriate if he corrected himself, and I hope he does that.”

As the row continued into a third day, US State Department spokesman John Kirby insisted the ambassador was reiterating US policy on Israeli settlement construction. Kirby was speaking after a private meeting between Shapiro and Netanyahu to attempt to paper over the differences.

“Our long-standing position on settlements is clear. We view Israeli settlements activity as illegitimate and counterproductive to the cause of peace. We remain deeply concerned about Israel’s current policy on settlements including construction, planning, and retroactive legalisations,” he said.

The latest row comes against a backdrop of escalating tensions between Israel and various countries and international political groupings.

Last year Netanyahu’s government reduced diplomatic contacts with EU officials following a decision to recommend that member states label products produced in illegal Israeli settlements.

Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallstrom has effectively been declared a persona no grata in Israel after calling for an investigation into whether some recent shootings by Israeli security forces of Palestinians amounted to extra judicial executions. Israeli officials said her comments were “delirious”. Netanyahu said they were “outrageous”.

Israel also strongly condemned the decision this week by the EU foreign council to take up a new resolution strongly critical of continued Israeli settlement.

Israel finds itself facing renewed criticism from the European Union for the continued expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, a complaint that Shapiro echoed.

In remarks at a security conference on Monday – regarded as a showcase event for Israeli politicians and senior security officials – Shapiro said: “Too many attacks on Palestinians lack a vigorous investigation or response by Israeli authorities, too much vigilantism goes unchecked, and at times there seem to be two standards of adherence to the rule of law: one for Israelis and another for Palestinians.”

Kirby explicitly rejected Israeli claims that EU labelling of settlement products amounted to a boycott of Israel. “We do not view labelling the origin of products as being from the settlements a boycott of Israel. We also do not believe that labelling the origin of products is equivalent to a boycott.”

Aviv Bushinsky, former aide to Netanyahu turned media pundit on Israeli television, described Shapiro, who is Jewish, as “a little Jew boy” - using the disparaging Hebrew word “yehudon”. Bushinsky, who served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff when he was finance minister in Ariel Sharon’s government, made the remarks on an Israeli political show.

“Nobody was standing there with a hammer forcing him to say it,” said Bushinsky on the programme.

“I see a Jew, Dan Shapiro, saying this. I see it as a pattern – it was the same thing with [former US Middle East envoy] Dennis Ross and now with [former US ambassador to Israel] Martin Indyk saying his nonsense. It’s the behaviour of Jews who are trying to show that they are extra leftwing, more liberal and more balanced.”

Some Israeli commentators saw it as no coincidence that Shapiro’s remarks were made so soon after the lifting of sanctions against Iran and at such a high profile forum.

Writing in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth , Shimon Shiffer said: “Shapiro’s comments … are significant in that they suggest the Obama administration will no longer tolerate human rights violations by our decision-makers against Palestinians in the West Bank. From the perspective of the White House, ‘enough is enough’.” © Guardian News and Media 2016