Netanyahu Distances Himself From Tapped Spokesman's anti-Obama Remarks

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Knesset ceremony marking 20th anniversary of Rabin's assassination. October 26, 2015Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday downplayed comments by his designated spokesman, in the face of demands by ministers from his own party to reconsider his appointment.

Ran Baratz, the incoming head of the National Public Diplomacy Directorate, had accused U.S. President Barack Obama of anti-Semitism and called Israeli President Reuven Rivlin a "marginal figure" in Facebook posts.

"The things he said are inappropriate and do not reflect my position nor government policy," Netanyahu stated on Thursday in the second announcement he issued on the matter in the less than a day.

Baratz apologized on Facebook Thursday for things he had posted against President Obama and President Rivlin, as well as about U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other government ministers on the social network.

"I apologize for the hurtful things I posted," wrote Baratz. "I am sorry I did not update the prime minster for these things in advance. The things I posted were written recklessly, and sometimes in jest, in a language that befits the social networks and a private individual. It is very clear to me that in my official role I have to behave and express myself differently. I asked the prime minister for an opportunity to clarify things in the coming days."

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

Netanyahu remarked in his announcement that he had read on Thursday for the first time what Baratz had published on his Facebook page. He added that he had talked with Baratz, who apologized for what he wrote, and confirmed that Baratz sought to clarify his statements in a personal meeting.

"We agreed to meet upon my return from the United States," Netanyahu announced. The message implied that Baratz's appointment will not be put to a vote on Sunday, and that he will not be accompanying Netanyahu to the United States.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said during a daily briefing with reporters on Thursday that Baratz's apology "was warranted." He added that Prime Minister Netanyahu is the one who needs to decide who will work for him.

Baratz's posted his comments about Obama a few hours after the Israeli prime minister spoke to the U.S. Congress.

"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]."

Baratz's harsh comments came to light days before Netanyahu's scheduled meeting 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.

Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel on Thursday called on Netanyahu to reconsider the appointment in the wake of the revelation of Baratz's comments.

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.

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