HAIFA, Israel – Israeli officials went into damage control mode after the defense minister trashed Secretary of State John Kerry and the peace deal he is trying to broker between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in off-the-record comments nonetheless published by the nation's leading daily newspaper.
“In reality, there have been no negotiations between us and the Palestinians for all these months – but rather between us and the Americans,” Moshe Ya’alon said in comments published in the pages of Yediot Aharonot. “The only thing that can 'save us' is for John Kerry to win a Nobel Prize and leave us in peace.”
Ya’alon added that Kerry, the latest U.S. diplomat to try to get the two sides to agree on a peace framework, is “acting out of misplaced obsession and messianic fervor,” and that the rumored draft document as “not worth the paper it is written on.”
Hours later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Israel’s parliament that any disagreement with the U.S. must be about policy, not personalities.
“Even when we have disagreements with the United States, they are always on the heart of the matter, not on the merits of an individual,” Netanyahu said.
And although Ya’alon himself released a subsequent statement calling the U.S. Israel's "greatest friend and most important ally," it appeared that diplomatic damage had been done.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Ya'alon's initial comments were "offensive and inappropriate."
"To question Secretary Kerry's motives and distort his proposals is not something we'd expect from the defense minister of a close ally," Carney said.
The State Department also reacted swiftly to the purported remarks, directly rebuking Ya'alon.
"The remarks of the Defense Minister (Moshe Ya'alon) if accurate are offensive and inappropriate especially given all that the United States is doing to support Israel's security needs," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told Reuters in a brief statement.
In another comment that could inflame talks, Ya’alon added that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas “lives and dies by our sword.”
While there has been no official comment from the Israeli government on Ya’alon’s damning critique of Kerry, others outside have reacted with mixed views to the defense minister’s assessment.
“[President] Abbas was elected by the Palestinian people who support his political program, which stands firm in support of our people’s rights,” Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman for President Abba, told the Ramallah-based WAFA news agency. “Israel’s incitement against Abbas is proof that Israel is not interested in reaching a just and genuine peace.”
On Monday, the Ha’aretz newspaper reported that a senior official close to Vice President Joe Biden -- who was in Israel attending the funeral of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- reported that Biden had passed on to Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu a message from President Obama endorsing Kerry’s efforts.
“The United States places extremely high value on reaching an agreement that produces two states living side-by-side in peace and security, but also just underscoring how important Israel’s security requirements are for us,” Biden reportedly said.
Israel’s Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who heads Israel’s team negotiating with Kerry and the Palestinians on the peace process, lashed out at Ya’alon, her cabinet colleague, via Facebook after the comments were published.
“You can oppose negotiations professionally and responsibly without tongue-lashing and destroying relations with Israel's top ally,” Livni said.
Gidi Grinstein, president of the Tel Aviv-based Reut Institute, told FoxNews.com that he believes Ya’alon’s comments were a deliberate tactical ploy.
“The dynamics of the negotiations now and in the past have been that whenever there has been the anticipation of an American paper, the parties have been polarizing their positions in order to try and gravitate the American position in their direction. It is almost an inevitable dynamic of negotiations that the Americans have driven themselves into.”
Grinstein, an advocate for the establishment of a Palestinian state under provisional borders in the West Bank, said Kerry should be applauded for devoting so much time to the vexed issue of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, but urged Kerry to “please rethink your strategy.”
Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist who can be followed on twitter @paul_alster and at www.paulalster.com