Senior American officials said Tuesday that the United States was not satisfied with the Israeli government's response to remarks by Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, in which he called U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry "obsessive and messianic."
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"We expect the Prime Minister [Benjamin Netanyahu] to put this right by publicly expressing his disagreement with the statements against Secretary Kerry, the negotiations with the Palestinians and Kerry's commitment to Israel's security," said a senior U.S. official.
Ya'alon's statements have sparked serious tension between the two countries. State Department Spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki told Haaretz on Tuesday evening that Ya'alon's remarks, if accurate, were "offensive and inappropriate, especially given all that the U.S. is doing to support Israel's security needs."
"Secretary Kerry and his team, including General John Allen, 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 defense minister of a close ally," Psaki said.
Ya'alon has recently made several strong statements, both on- and off-the-record, against the background of Kerry's attempts to advance a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
The Israeli daily Yedioth Aharonoth on Tuesday quoted Ya'alon's derisive "obsessive and messianic" remarks against the U.S. secretary of state, as well as a remark that he hoped Kerry would "get a Nobel Prize and leaves us alone."
Identical statements appeared in Israel Today newspaper last week, though circles close to the defense minister denied that he had made the remarks.
While reaffirming his commitment to working closely with Kerry on Tuesday, Ya'alon did not deny making the remarks. Circles close to him said that Shimon Shiffer, the Yediot Aharnot journalist who quoted the defense minister, had broken the rules of a background briefing.
The defense minister later continued his attack in an address to high school students in Ofakim: "They say time is working against us. We should not be alarmed by all kinds of fear mongering," he said. "We shouldn't get confused, get stressed or give up."
Netanyahu on Tuesday distanced himself from Ya'alon's remarks, but stopped short of condemning them.
"The U.S. 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 cooperation with Vice-President Biden and Secretary of State Kerry to advanced peace and security in the region. We stand firm regarding our own interests, while promoting the important connection between our two countries."
The U.S. administration has been following the statements emanating from Israel for several weeks. The assumption in Washington is that certain elements in the Israeli government believe that Kerry is promoting the Israel-Palestine peace agreement as a personal project, without the support of President Barack Obama.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden passed a message from President Barack Obama to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, reiterating that the president fully supports Kerry's diplomatic initiative to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
A senior U.S. official told Haaretz that Biden communicated Obama's position and “made it clear that 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.”
Kerry himself was reportedly furious when he read Ya'alon's remarks.
Several Israeli government ministers, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who is on a visit to Geneva, slammed Ya'alon's statements as an "unhelpful" attack on Israel's closest friend.
In a meeting with the city's Jewish community, Lieberman said that "it isn't right and is not helpful for Israel and the U.S. to have a loud and public argument. The U.S. is Israel's bravest ally and has proven it many times over the years. So, there is no place for personal attacks, even if there are occasional differences. "
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Kadima) responded to the statements by saying Israel's relations with the U.S. are its biggest strategic asset and are essential to its survival."
"The U.S. secretary of state is working to end the conflict between the Palestinians and us with a deep understanding that this is in Israel's interest, and [guided by] a commitment to Israel's security," Livni said.
"The negotiations are being conducted while safeguarding Israel's interests – namely its security," she added. "One can oppose the talks responsibly without lashing out and destroying relations with our good friend."
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Labor) also weighed in Defense Minister Ya'alon's remarks, saying they exposed Likud's true colors.
Ya'alon issued a statement of clarification on Tuesday evening saying "Relations between the U.S. and Israel are intimate and of great importance to Israel. The U.S. is our greatest friend and our most important ally. When there are disagreements we deal with them directly, including with Secretary Kerry, with whom I hold many conversations concerning Israel's future.