JERUSALEM — Just a few days before he heads to Washington to try to mend fences with the White House and secure billions of dollars in U.S. military aid, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed a new chief of public diplomacy who called President Obama a modern-day anti-Semite and wrote that Secretary of State John F. Kerry has the intellectual acuity of a 12-year-old.
Netanyahu’s choice of Ran Baratz was pounced upon by Israeli news media and the political opposition, which quickly combed through his social media posts and past articles to find a string of provocative opinions that were anything but diplomatic.
Israelis joked that Baratz apparently did not heed the advice given to all college graduates to scrub their Facebook pages before sending out résumés.
Unless he is fired before he is officially hired, which Netanyahu hinted is a distinct possibility, Baratz will serve as the prime minister’s media adviser and director of public diplomacy, a position far more central and intimate than mere spokesman: The person is tasked with shaping and selling Netanyahu’s policies at home and abroad.
Netanyahu is to meet with Obama on Monday. During his visit to Washington, he will discuss the outlines of a new 10-year package of U.S. military aid, worth billions of dollars.
Baratz, 42, is known as a tart-tongued pro-Israel brawler who started a conservative online magazine called MIDA. He earned a PhD in philosophy from Hebrew University, did his military duty in air force intelligence and lives in the Jewish settlement of Kfar Adumim in the West Bank.
As chief of public diplomacy — known in Hebrew as “hasbara,” or “explanation” — Baratz will join Israel’s top diplomats, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely and Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon, as the face of Israel on the world stage.
Hotovely and Danon are hard-liners who oppose the creation of a Palestinian state; last week, Hotovely said she dreamed of raising an Israeli flag over the esplanade on which al-Aqsa Mosque stands in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Baratz’s targets also have included Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, a conservative Likud party member and grandfatherly figure who serves in the largely ceremonial post. Baratz mocked Rivlin for flying economy class on a state trip home from Prague and was upset that the president had walked through the aircraft cabin shaking hands.
“It shows that he is a marginal figure because there is no concern for his safety,” the new chief of public diplomacy wrote in a posting on social media.
Using an acronym for the Islamic State, he added, “I think he could be sent in a paraglider to the Syrian Golan controlled by ISIS. They’ll return him the next day with a request to negotiate their return to Iraq, if only we take him back.”
Rivlin’s office was not amused. Some context: Rivlin has been the target of a torrent of hate speech and death threats by right-wing Israelis who are upset with the president’s remarks endorsing coexistence between Israel’s Jewish and Muslim citizens.
“We view this gravely and demand an explanation of whether the words written by Baratz were known to the Prime Minister when he made his decision to appoint Baratz to this job,” Rivlin’s office wrote to the prime minister’s office.
The Baratz post about Obama came after the president criticized Netanyahu’s appearance in Congress, where he spoke in opposition to the Iran nuclear pact.
“Looks like a modern anti-
Semitism disguised as Western liberalism,” Baratz said. “It comes of course with lots of tolerance and understanding of Islamic anti-Semitism; so much tolerance and understanding that they are willing to give them the atom.”
The news cycle went from day to night in Israel, Baratz apologized for “hurtful remarks” about the president of the United States and the secretary of state, and explained that the “postings were written hastily and sometimes humorously, in a manner appropriate for a private person writing on the Internet.”
Netanyahu said he had only now read the Baratz posts, which he called “totally unacceptable.” He left the fate of his chief of public diplomacy unclear.
“Dr. Baratz asked to meet me to clarify the matter following my return to Israel,” he said.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the Obama administration welcomed Baratz’s apology and added, “It is readily apparent that that apology was warranted.”
Ruth Eglash contributed to this report.
Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world