An embarrassing diplomatic incident threatened to create a crisis between Israel and Italy on the eve of the arrival of Italy's President Sergio Mattarella to Jerusalem for an official visit.
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The reason for the incident were comments made by the Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Ayoub Kara, who during a visit to the Vatican Wednesday claimed that last week's earthquake in central Italy happened because of the latest UNESCO resolution on Jerusalem.
Following sharp criticism from the Italian government, the foreign ministry issued an apology Saturday morning which stated that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will summon Kara for a clarification. A senior official in Jerusalem said there was growing anger at Kara for causing the diplomatic incident.
The matter started on Wednesday, when Kara was visiting the Vatican several hours after a powerful quake hit two towns northeast of Rome. Tremors were also felt in the capital. At the conclusion of the visit, Kara put out a statement: "I am certain that the quake occurred due to the UNESCO decision that the pope very much disliked, and even publicly expressed that the Holy Land belongs to the Jewish people."
Italy's news agency and Italian media, having read Kara's statement in the Israeli news, were quick to follow up on the article, quoting his statement in subsequent reports. The Italian accounts soon reached the office of President Mattarella, who is expected to arrive in Israel Saturday evening. They also astounded staff at the Italian Foreign Ministry and Prime Minister's Office.
A senior Israeli official noted that the Italians, seeing that Kara is a deputy minister in the Prime Minister's Office who reports directly to Netanyahu, understood his statement as criticism of Italy for not voting against the UNESCO resolution, opting instead only to abstain from the vote. The Italian anger was even greater due to the fact that last week, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi called an earlier UNESCO resolution "shocking" and said that Italy would not support such resolutions going forward.
A senior official in Jerusalem said that officials from the Foreign Ministry in Rome and the Italian prime minister's office contacted Israel's Ambassador Ofer Zaks on Friday and demanded he clarify Kara's remarks. Meanwhile, Rome's ambassador to Israel, Francesco M. Talò, contacted officials from Israel's foreign ministry, prime minister's office and the President's Residence, requesting Israel issue an apology for the comments before the Italian president arrives in Israel.
After a series of consultation between the Prime Minister's Office and the Foreign Ministry, in a rare move, a statement was issued Saturday afternoon apologizing for Kara's comments and disavowing them.
"We condemn the comments made by Deputy Minister Kara," said Emanuel Nahshon, the spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry. "The comments were improper and would have been better left unsaid."
In the statement, the spokesman said that Kara apologizes and that the Foreign Ministry joins his apology. "His comments failed to reflect the strength of the ties between Israel and Italy, the two peoples and their governments as one," Nahshon said. "The prime minister will hold a clarification talk with Deputy Minister Kara as soon as possible."
This is not the first time Kara's comments have created international crisis or embarrassing diplomatic incidents for Israel. In the past, Kara tried to forge ties with religious officials in Turkey, in contradiction of government policy; Kara and his bureau chief, Mandi Safadi, also caused an incident with Bulgaria when they decided to hold independent talks with opposition forces in Syria on Bulgarian soil. Kara also met a few years ago in Vienna with Heinz-Christian Strache, the head of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), considered the leader of the Austrian far right. Their meeting prompted the Jewish community in Austria to send a letter of complaint to Netanyahu in wake of the meeting.