JERUSALEM — Israel's hawkish defense minister drew rare American condemnation on Tuesday over reports he had denounced Secretary of State John Kerry's quest for Israeli-Palestinian peace as messianic and obsessive.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, already at odds with Washington over settlement-building on occupied land Palestinians want for a state, scrambled to avoid a damaging crisis with his country's closest ally over Moshe Yaalon's remarks.
"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," the biggest-selling daily Yedioth Ahronoth quoted Yaalon as saying behind closed doors.
"The only thing that can save us is if Kerry wins the Nobel prize and leaves us alone."
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.
In a strong rebuke to Yaalon, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that if accurate, his remarks were "offensive and inappropriate, especially given all that the United States is doing to support Israel's security needs."
White House spokesman Jay Carney made a similar statement condemning Yaalon's reported comments.
Responding in writing to the Yedioth story, Yaalon – who stopped short of denying he had made the personal attack on Kerry in private conversations – described the United States as an ally of utmost importance.
"When there are disagreements, we work through them inside the room – including with Secretary of State Kerry, with whom I hold many conversations about Israel's future," he said.
The acrimony comes at a delicate time in peace negotiations that have shown little sign of progress. Kerry, who made his 10th visit to Jerusalem last week in less than a year, has been pushing both sides to agree to at least a preliminary deal.
Netanyahu spoke by phone to a senior US official in a bid to smooth over the controversy, an Israeli official said on condition of anonymity, adding that Yaalon also discussed the matter with US Ambassador Dan Shapiro.
Addressing parliament, Netanyahu appeared to take Yaalon, a member of his right-wing Likud party, to task, extolling Israel's shared interests with "our great ally" in Washington.
"Even when we have disagreements with the United States, they always pertain to the matter at hand, and are not personal," Netanyahu said in his speech.
Yaalon has often cast doubt on prospects for a deal with the Palestinians. He has been a strong supporter of settlement building. As Israel's military chief, he was replaced in that post before its 2005 Gaza pullout, a move he opposed.
Gaza is now ruled by Hamas Islamists opposed to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's engagement with the Jewish state. Abbas holds sway in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
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, between Jordan and the West Bank.
Kerry has presented the sides with ideas for security arrangements in the Jordan Valley. Neither has publicly endorsed them. 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.
"Secretary Kerry and his team ... have been working day and night to try to promote a secure peace for Israel because of the secretary's deep concern for Israel's future," Psaki said.
"To question his motives and distort his proposals is not something we would expect from the defense minister of a close ally."
The dispute erupted a day after US media published excerpts from a memoir by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates in which he said he had tried to get Netanyahu barred from the White House, accusing him of being arrogant and ungrateful.
(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell and Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Arshad Mohammed in Rome and Steve Holland in Washington; editing by Andrew Roche)