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Israel's Yaalon risks isolation after Kerry slur

Jan. 16, 2014 10:16 A.M. (Updated: Jan. 19, 2014 12:20 P.M.)
JERUSALEM (AFP) -- Israel's defense minister may have apologized for his offensive comments about US Secretary of State John Kerry but his outburst could see him marginalized by Washington, commentators warned on Wednesday.

A furious diplomatic row erupted between Israel and its closest ally on Tuesday when Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon was quoted as saying Kerry had an "obsession" about the peace process and was working out of a "sense of messianism."

Washington immediately lashed out at the "offensive" remarks, demanding an apology, which was eventually published by Yaalon's office late on Tuesday, although it stopped short of denying the comments.

"The defense minister had no intention to cause any offense to the secretary, and he apologizes if the secretary was offended by words attributed to the minister," it said, expressing appreciation for Kerry's efforts to advance the ongoing peace talks.

His remarks also sparked a welter of criticism inside Israel, with several cabinet ministers and the opposition saying many officials saying his personal attack on Kerry was inappropriate.

Although the statement appeared to head off the crisis, commentators said Yaalon's dismissive comments could cost him dearly.

"The Americans have long marked Yaalon as a possible obstacle to reaching a peace agreement," wrote Nadav Eyal in Maariv newspaper.

"The problem isn't what Yaalon said about the peace talks. The problem is Yaalon's personal attack" on Kerry, he wrote, saying the minister had made a "beginner's error" which could cost him a seat at the table with the Americans.

"His opposition to the negotiations -- whether in principle or tactical -- may position him politically, but could also, if mishandled, make him irrelevant," Eyal concluded.

The left-leaning Haaretz newspaper took a similar line.

"It is still difficult to assess the damage caused by Defense Minister Yaalon's disgraceful, mocking and arrogant comments," diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid wrote.

Yaalon, he said, appeared to have abandoned his role as a "responsible adult" in the previous government for one formerly played by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman: "that of the volatile minister who is boycotted in Washington."

Lieberman, a normally outspoken hardliner who has taken a more moderate stance since returning to office in November after being acquitted of corruption allegations, on Tuesday issued a rebuke directed at Yaalon, saying there was "no place for lashing out personally."

"Lieberman has learned his lesson. He understood that his crude style toward the Americans hurt him... so he made an effort to build good relations with Kerry despite their disagreements," Ravid wrote.

"Even after his apology, Yaalon still has to find a way to rehabilitate his relations with Washington. Otherwise he will see the inside of the White House and Pentagon only in photographs."

Since being appointed secretary of state in February 2013, Kerry has visited the region 10 times in a bid to push forward the peace process, recently outlining a detailed plan for security in a final deal - which was utterly dismissed by Yaalon.

But a senior official in the ruling right-wing Likud said the defense minister had merely vocalized what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was thinking.

"Boogie said out loud what Netanyahu would like to say," he told Yediot, using the defense minister's nickname.

"You hear his aides in the bureau and you understand the spirit of things. Kerry is a burden."

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog said the incident showed Netanyahu's ruling party had no interest in pursuing peace.

"The defense minister's insulting and offensive lashing out at Secretary of State Kerry exposes Likud's true face," he said late on Tuesday, accusing the government of having "no vision for peace."

But Shimon Shiffer, the Yediot correspondent who first reported Yaalon's remarks, said the problem lay predominantly in the way the US-led negotiations were being conducted, which had forced Israel into an impossible corner.

"The negotiations ... are being pursued at present with an insulting lack of transparency," he wrote.

"The parameters of the agreement that they are proposing could end in a security catastrophe for Israel, but if we insist on our vital security interests they will lay responsibility for the failure of the talks on us.

"And if that is the situation, it is no wonder that the defense minister is furious," he wrote, saying Yaalon's remarks were aimed at his own government.

"Essentially, Yaalon was urging Netanyahu and (chief negotiator Tzipi) Livni to stop being so terrified, to stop playing make-believe and to start sharing with the Israeli public the things that are happening behind the scenes in the negotiations," he said.
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