ROME — The State Department responded with unusual sharpness Tuesday to remarks by Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who characterized Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s efforts to shepherd Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations as “misplaced obsession and messianic fervor.”
In remarks that Yaalon’s office later said he believed were off the record, he reportedly told the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot that Kerry “cannot teach me anything about the conflict with the Palestinians.” A security plan for Israel drawn up by retired U.S. Gen. John Allen as part of Kerry’s peace proposals “is not worth the paper it’s written on,” the paper quoted Yaalon as saying.
“The only thing that can ‘save us,’ ” Yaalon said, “is for John Kerry to win a Nobel Prize and leave us in peace.”
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, traveling with Kerry on a visit to the Vatican, said the remarks, “if accurate, are offensive and inappropriate, especially given all that the United States is doing to support Israel’s security needs.” Adding that Kerry, Allen and others “have been working day and night to try to promote a secure peace for Israel,” Psaki said that for Yaalon “to question [Kerry’s] motives and distort his proposals is not something we would expect from the defense minister of a close ally.”
Among Israeli politicians who reacted to Yaalon’s statements was Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is also the lead negotiator for Israel in the peace talks. Livni wrote on her Facebook page: “One can oppose the talks responsibly without lashing out and destroying relations with our good friend.”
Late Tuesday, Yaalon issued an apology, saying he had “no intention to cause any offense to the secretary.”
But he was not the only Israeli cabinet minister to get into hot water with the State Department. Housing Minister Uri Ariel suggested on Israel radio Monday night that Israel’s announcements of new construction of Jewish settlements on the West Bank are done in coordination with Kerry.
A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid further inflaming the situation, said the Obama administration’s position on settlements — that they are illegitimate and unhelpful — has not changed.
“We have also not coordinated or agreed to any settlement announcements,” the official said. “In addition, Secretary Kerry has never met or spoken to Uri Ariel, so nothing has been coordinated or agreed with him, and he is not in a position to describe the secretary’s conversations with Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu.”
Ariel’s spokesman told The Washinton Post that Ariel only meant to say that Israel keeps U.S. officials informed about impending announcements and that Israel would continue construction during Kerry’s nine-month period for negotiations.
Initial reports of Israeli remarks came as Kerry was meeting with Pietro Parolin, his Vatican counterpart, to discuss the Middle East peace process and various international conflicts.
In a speech to Vatican diplomats Monday, Pope Francis called the Israeli-Palestinian talks “a positive sign” and expressed hope that “both parties will resolve, with the support of the international community, to take courageous decisions aimed at finding a just and lasting solution to a conflict which urgently needs to end.”
Kerry said after the meeting that Parolin had asked him to continue to brief the Holy See in preparation for the pope’s trip in May to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan.
Speaking to reporters, Kerry noted that Francis also had expressed hope about upcoming peace talks on Syria and concern about a range of other issues, including upheaval in Africa and the dangers of climate change. Kerry said they also had spoken about Alan Gross, the U.S. aid contractor who is serving a 15-year prison sentence in Cuba.
U.S. officials have been encouraged by Francis’s outspoken concern about poverty around the world and engagement on a host of international issues. His appointment last fall of Parolin, a career Vatican diplomat who had been demoted by Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, was seen as a positive sign.
Kerry did not meet with Francis but said he had not expected to. As a head of state, he said, the pope’s first U.S. meeting should be with President Obama, who he said was looking forward to visiting the Vatican.
The first Catholic secretary of state since Edmund Muskie, in the Carter administration, Kerry said that “as an alter boy as a young kid, I would never imagine that I would have been crossing the threshold of the Vatican to meet, as secretary of state, the secretary of state of the Holy See.”
Booth reported from Jerusalem. Ruth Eglash contributed to this report from Jerusalem.