Interior Minister Arye Dery demanded on Sunday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologize for supporting American plans to build a wall on the Mexican border, but Netanyahu refused.
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Their argument took place during a meeting of the heads of all coalition parties which followed the weekly cabinet meeting, according to a source who was present at the coalition leaders’ meeting, but asked to remain anonymous.
Netanyahu’s support for U.S. President Donald Trump’s wall-building plan has caused a crisis in Israel’s relations with Mexico.
The coalition leaders got onto the subject of Trump’s wall because Dery wanted to discuss an issue relating to his own ministry’s efforts to prevent illegal immigration. That prompted Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, who was also present at the meeting, to praise Netanyahu for having built a fence along the Israeli-Egyptian border.
“The wall you built stopped the flood of infiltrators,” Levin told Netanyahu, according to the source. Netanyahu, visibly pleased by the praise, responded, “Yariv, say that again.”
Dery, who was stunned by this exchange, then said that if the ministers were already discussing walls and fences, he wanted to speak about the crisis in relations with Mexico that erupted after Netanyahu tweeted his support for Trump’s wall on Saturday night. Dery said he had received very worried messages from leaders of Mexico’s Jewish community.
“What you did created a mess, both with the Mexican government and with the Jewish community there,” Dery told Netanyahu. “Jews in Mexico even violated Shabbat to draft petitions against you.”
The argument escalated from there, the source said.
Netanyahu tried to defend himself. “I didn’t interfere,” he insisted. “Mexico doesn’t have a problem with the wall, but with Trump’s demand that they pay for it. And I didn’t intervene on the issue of the payment.”
But Dery wasn’t persuaded. “You have to apologize,” he said. “Find a way to apologize. Maybe you can tweet your apology and be done with it.”
Netanyahu wouldn’t agree to this, the source said. At the end of the meeting, Dery once again urged him to apologize.
Netanyahu then suggested that instead, Dery himself could issue a statement clarifying Netanyahu’s stance on the matter. Dery agreed to do so, issuing a statement on his Twitter account in both Hebrew and Spanish.
“I’ve just spoken with Prime Minister Netanyahu about the need to continue the warm relationship between Israel and Mexico,” he wrote. “The prime minister told me that Israel hasn’t intervened in the dispute between the U.S. and Mexico over paying for the fence. We’ll continue to strengthen our relationship with Mexico, where many members of the Jewish people live with dignity.”
But Dery’s tweets fell far short of assuaging the great anger both in Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto’s office and in the Mexican Jewish community. Senior Israeli Foreign Ministry officials said the crisis is still ongoing.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu is still unwilling to apologize. On the contrary, he told the Foreign Ministry to tell journalists that even though Mexico regularly votes against Israel in UN institutions, Jerusalem has chosen to exercise restraint and not spark a crisis over these votes.
On Saturday night, the Mexican Foreign Ministry published an official statement expressing “dismay and disappointment” over Netanyahu’s tweet.
"The Mexican Foreign Ministry told the Israeli government, through its ambassador to Mexico, its deepest dismay, rejection and disappointment over Prime Minister Netanyahu's Twitter message regarding the construction of a border wall,” the statement said. “Mexico is a friend of Israel, and must be treated as such by its prime minister."
The statement added that Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray Caso had visited the Israeli embassy only a day earlier, on Friday, to express solidarity and friendship with Israel on the occasion of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
"Mexico and Israel share the historic rejection of racism and xenophobia, and Mexico will continue to work closely with Israel to combat any form of discrimination in the world," it said.
The leaders of Mexico’s Jewish community also issued a statement condemning Netanyahu's tweet.
"The Jewish community of Mexico disapproves of the announcement by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about a wall on the border,” the statement said. “We don’t agree with his approach and strongly oppose his position.
"As Mexicans and Jews, we support the steps taken by our government, headed by President Enrique Pena Nieto, in negotiations with the U.S. We identify with our citizens who live, work and contribute to the U.S., who must receive fair treatment and protection of human rights at any time."