JERUSALEM – 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.
The report quoted Yaalon as telling Kerry that technology was no substitute for ground troops when confronting militants.
"What are you talking about?" the defense minister was quoted as saying. "You presented us with a plan that is based on sophisticated technology, on satellites, sensors, war rooms with television screens – without a presence of our troops on the ground. And I ask you – how will technology respond when a Salafist or Islamic Jihad cell tries to commit a terror attack against Israeli targets? ... Which satellites will handle the rocket industry developing today ... that will be fired at Tel Aviv and central Israel?"
"Relations between the United States and Israel are intimate and important to us. The United States is our greatest friend and most important ally, and when there are disagreements we air them inside the [discussion] room, including with Secretary of State Kerry, with whom I have held many discussions about the future of Israel," Yaalon said in a statement to the media.
In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Yaalon's comments, if accurate, were "offensive and inappropriate," given everything the U.S. is doing to support Mideast peace efforts. He said Kerry and his team have been working nonstop because the U.S. is deeply concerned about and committed to Israel's future.
"To question Secretary Kerry's motives and distort his proposals is not something we would expect from the defense minister of a close ally," Carney said.
It was the latest twist in what has frequently been a strained relationship between Netanyahu and the Obama White House. The two leaders have appeared uncomfortable together and often disagreed over issues like Israeli settlement construction on lands claimed by the Palestinians and American positions on the peace talks with the Palestinians. During one recent visit, Kerry said settlement construction raises questions about Israel's commitment to peace in comments broadcast on national TV.
Netanyahu has also been an outspoken critic of the U.S.-led efforts to curb Iran's nuclear program, saying they don't go far enough.
In a speech at parliament marking the body's 65th anniversary Monday, Netanyahu appeared to distance himself from his defense minister. "The United States is our great ally," he said. "Even when we have disagreements there are always related to an issue, not a person."
President Shimon Peres also devoted his comments at the ceremony to the strong bond with the U.S. "The unusual determination of Secretary of State Kerry to reach peace reflects and serves Israel's deep desire for peace and a chance to mutual understanding," he said.
But dovish leaders took harsh aim at Yaalon, saying he had caused damage to the country's most important relationship. Isaac Herzog invoked the name of Yitzhak Rabin, the former prime minister who was assassinated in 1995 by an ultranationalist Jew opposed to his peace efforts with the Palestinians.
"We will always remember the strong bond with the United States that Yitzhak Rabin believed in. He knew to give respect to our friends and supporters overseas and never call them messianic, strange and obsessive or any other offensive names," he said.
Associated Press writers Josh Lederman and Deb Riechmann in Washington and Lara Jakes in Rome contributed to this report.