KUWAIT (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Wednesday he would not let criticism of his Middle East peace efforts attributed to Israel’s defense minister deter him from trying to achieve a framework Israeli-Palestinian deal.
“We just can’t let one set of comments undermine that effort, and I don’t intend to,” Kerry told a news conference in Kuwait, where he was attending a donors’ conference for Syria.
Israel’s hawkish defense chief, Moshe Yaalon, was quoted by an Israeli newspaper on Tuesday as calling Kerry’s efforts “messianic,” and dismissing a U.S.-proposed security plan for the occupied West Bank.
That drew a sharp rebuke from the White House and State Department. Yaalon later said in a statement that he “apologizes if the secretary was offended” by the reported remarks, stopping short of denying that he made them.
“Secretary of State John Kerry - who has come to us determined and is acting out of an incomprehensible obsession and a messianic feeling - cannot teach me a single thing about the conflict with the Palestinians,” Israel’s biggest-selling newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, had quoted Yaalon as saying.
“The only thing that can save us is if Kerry wins the Nobel prize and leaves us alone,” he said, according to the report.
Kerry has been on a diplomatic blitz in recent weeks to persuade Israel and the Palestinians, who resumed statehood talks in July after a three-year deadlock, to agree on an outline proposal addressing the core issues of their conflict.
There has been scant sign of progress, however.
One of the sticking points in peacemaking has been Israel’s demand to keep a military presence under any future peace deal in the Jordan Valley, which forms the boundary between the West Bank and Jordan.
Kerry has presented the sides with ideas for security arrangements in the Jordan Valley. Neither the Israeli nor Palestinian side has publicly endorsed the proposals, and according to Yedioth, Yaalon said: “The American security plan is not worth the paper it is written on.”
The State Department challenged Yaalon on the issue and said that questioning Kerry’s motives was “not something we would expect from the defense minister of a close ally”.
Yaalon was initially silent about the Yedioth report, which apparently stemmed from an off-the-record briefing he gave Israeli reporters. But he acted to calm the furor with Washington after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu implicitly rebuked him in a speech.
An Israeli official said on Tuesday that Netanyahu had spoken by phone to a senior U.S. official in a bid to smooth over the controversy.
Yaalon is a member of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, and has been a strong supporter of Jewish settlement-building on occupied land that Palestinians seek for a state.
As Israel’s military chief, he was replaced in that post before its 2005 pullout of soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip, a move he opposed.
Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; editing by Mark Heinrich