WASHINGTON -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suspended his appointment of Ran Baratz as his new spokesman Thursday after reports emerged that Baratz had accused President Barack Obama of discrimination against Jewish people.
The announcement comes less than a week before Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with Obama at the White House. The trip to Washington will be his first since the March 3 speech to Congress. Obama refused to meet with him during that visit.
When Netanyahu traveled to Washington in March to urge Congress to block the emerging Iran nuclear accord, Baratz posted on Facebook that Obama’s outspoken opposition to the speech “is what modern anti-Semitism looks like in Western liberal countries.” It comes from, continued Baratz, “a lot of tolerance and understanding of Islamic anti-Semitism; so much tolerance and understanding that they are willing to give [Iran] a nuke."
Although the prime minister's office announced the appointment Thursday, Netanyahu has distanced himself from Baratz's controversial statements following a slew of negative media reports. Some in his own party have called on him to rescind the appointment, but he is expected to make a final determination after returning from Washington.
Baratz, who was slated to be the incoming chief of public diplomacy, was previously the editor of a conservative news site in Israel, where he leveled similarly harsh criticism at Secretary of State John Kerry. Last year, he wrote in a column that Kerry’s “mental age doesn’t exceed 12,” referring to his suggestion that the rise of violence in the Middle East could be linked to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The New York Times reported that Baratz resides in a settlement in the occupied West Bank and, in 2004, wrote of his desire to build the third temple at the Temple Mount, a contested site that is a source of the current wave of violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
Netanyahu said on Thursday that he was not previously aware of Baratz’s comments about Obama and Kerry and said that they do not represent his views. Baratz pledged on Wednesday he would keep his future Facebook posts less political if he were part of the government and posted an apology on Thursday for his past comments. Nonetheless, the episode is bound to complicate Netanyahu's upcoming trip to Washington.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said it was "readily apparent" that the apology from Baratz was warranted, but that it's up to Netanyahu to decide who should represent his government.
“To appoint as your chief speaker a person who called Obama anti-semitic, days before a crucial meeting at the White House, doesn’t look like a very smart move,” Israeli reporter Amir Tibon told The Huffington Post. Tibon noted that Baratz is a stark contrast to his predecessor, Liran Dan, who he described as “a professional journalist, a senior editor at Israel’s largest TV station, not a politically affiliated writer."
Next week’s trip is billed as an opportunity for Netanyahu to begin to mend relations with Obama and members of the Democratic party, many of whom he alienated with his aggressive campaign to unwind the Iran nuclear deal, the biggest foreign policy item on the president’s agenda.
While in Washington, Netanyahu will speak at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank that is closely aligned with the Democratic party. The decision to host Netanyahu sparked controversy among progressives, who argued that the invitation gave bipartisan legitimization to a politician who invoked race-baiting and opposition to Palestinian statehood during this year's Israeli elections.
The U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation has urged CAP employees to boycott Tuesday’s event and is organizing a picket line in front of the building. But others have suggested that the event at CAP offers the opportunity to ask Netanyahu probing questions and hold him accountable for his spotty record on advancing a two-state solution.
Netanyahu’s political rivals were quick to suggest that tapping Baratz for spokesman is in line with the prime minister’s policies. “Why are people surprised that the person speaking for Israel holds the same views as Netanyahu?” said Tzipi Livni, a member of the Knesset, as reported by the Times of Israel. “The problem is with the real policy of the person who appointed him, and its implications for Israel, not with the person explaining it."
The Baratz incident follows a string of controversial selections by the prime minister for some of Israel’s top posts. Ayelet Shaked, appointed Justice Minister in May, posted on Facebook last year an excerpt from an unpublished article that said “the entire Palestinian people is the enemy.” The post has since been deleted.
Tzipi Hotovely, the country’s top diplomat, is pushing for global acceptance of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, which are considered illegal under international law. “This land is ours. All of it is ours. We did not come here to apologize for that,” she said in her inaugural speech.
Silvan Shalom, tasked with overseeing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, has openly opposed a Palestinian state.
And Danny Danon, Israel’s new envoy to the U.N., told an Israeli newspaper last year that he regretted Israel’s failure to annex significant chunks of the West Bank after the 1967 war. “But it’s not too late,” he said.
Translation assistance provided by Daniel Marans.
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