Likud Ministers Urge PM to Reconsider Spokesman Who Accused Obama of anti-Semitism

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Ran Baratz, right, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi and Lior Mizrahi

Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel on Thursday called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reconsider the appointment of his new spokesman, Dr. Ran Baratz, after it emerged he made harsh comments about Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and U.S. President Barack Obama.

Baratz, the incoming head of the National Public Diplomacy Directorate, had accused Obama of anti-Semitism and called Rivlin a "marginal figure" in Facebook posts.

Gamliel said that Baratz's comments against Rivlin and Obama "undermine the symbols of our government and those of our greatest ally, and may be misconstrued as an official stance." She asserted that she trusts Netanyahu's judgement completely, but added that she is "certain he will reconsider the question of Baratz's appointment for the position."

Minutes after Gamliel's statement, Minister of Welfare Haim Katz said that he would oppose Baratz's appointment if the government is called to vote on the decision. "The way Baratz expresses himself indicates that he isn't suitable for the position," he said in an interview with Israel Radio. "Even he wrote those remarks for fun, it doesn't detract from their severity."  Earlier, opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog called for Baratz's immediate dismissal.

Baratz posted the remarks about Obama on Facebook a few hours after  Netanyahu addressed the U.S. Congress on March 3. The harsh comments come to light days before Netanyahu is slated to meet with Obama at the White House. The two will convene on Monday for the first time in over a year, in the aftermath of the showdown between the White House and the prime minister's bureau over the nuclear deal with Iran. Netanyahu seeks to reach an agreement with Obama over a defense aid package worth tens of billions of dollars that the U.S. would transfer to Israel over the course of the next decade.   

"Allow me to be harsh, contrary to my moderate habits," Baratz wrote in the March 3 post. "Obama's reference to Netanyahu's speech – this is what modern anti-Semitism looks like in Western and liberal countries. And it comes, of course, alongside much tolerance and understanding toward Islamic anti-Semitism. So much tolerance and understanding that they are willing to give [Iran] an atom[ic bomb]."

A slew of controversial comments made by Baratz in the past have emerged over the past 24 hours, some addressing hot button issues vis-à-vis politics and security. In 2004, Baratz published an opinion piece on the NRG news site calling for the construction of the third temple on the Temple Mount, and to allow Muslims to pray there only if they recognize the mount as a Jewish holy site.  

Only last week, Netanyahu had to release a series of statements in Hebrew and English, as part of the understandings reached with Jordan and the U.S., with regard to maintaining the status quo on Temple Mount. The prime minister even reprimanded Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely over a far more moderate remark, in which she said seeing the Israel flag on Temple Mount is her dream.

Baratz's appointment as the head of the public diplomacy agency caused tension between the prime minister's bureau and the President's Residence on Wednesday, after it emerged that he said President Reuven Rivlin is "such a marginal figure that there is no concern" that he would be the target of an assassination. Baratz made the comment in a Facebook post less than two weeks ago, while in talks over the appointment. 

Rivlin’s bureau sent a request to the Netanyahu's bureau asking for explanations regarding remarks. Netanyahu's aides released a statement early on Thursday, saying that the prime minister "wasn't aware of the remarks Ran Baratz wrote against Rivlin, and views them as inappropriate." It further said that Baratz has assured Netanyahu that he understands that his public position requires him to act in an official manner and with restraint, a requirement that didn't apply to him as a private citizen. 

Opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog said on Thursday the decision to appoint Baratz for an official position stemmed from "faulty judgement."

"The head of the National Public Diplomacy Directorate is not the prime minister's private parrot," he said at a conference of kibbutz leaders. "This is an important official position at Israel's inner sanctum, the prime minister's bureau.

"A person who lashed out at President Obama, slandered Secretary of State Kerry and worst of all, humiliated the beloved president of our state, has to go home immediately," he added.