28 October 2015, NYT: Netanyahu Quiets Deputy Who Said She Dreamed of Israeli Flag Over Jerusalem Holy Site
NOV. 5, 2015
Filling a Top Post, Netanyahu Reconsiders Nominee Who Insulted Obama
By JODI RUDOREN
JERUSALEM -- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel indicated Thursday night that he was reconsidering his choice for public diplomacy chief after a furor over the nominee's critiques of public officials, including a suggestion that President Obama was anti-Semitic and Secretary of State John Kerry had the intellect of a preteenager.
Mr. Netanyahu's nominee, Ran Baratz, is a conservative academic who lives in a settlement in the occupied West Bank. Just last week, he insulted Israel's president, Reuven Rivlin, in a Facebook post, and a decade ago he expressed his wish to see the building of a third Jewish temple on a contested Old City compound that has been a focal point of the recent wave  of Palestinian attacks against Israeli Jews.
The prime minister's office announced the selection of Mr. Baratz on Wednesday evening. Less than 24 hours later -- after a barrage of public criticism from commentators and politicians, including two ministers from the prime minister's own Likud party -- Mr. Netanyahu indicated that he had belatedly discovered Mr. Baratz's online postings and issued a statement saying they were "totally unacceptable and in no way reflect my positions or the policies of the government of Israel."
The statement stopped short of rescinding the appointment, which must be voted on by Mr. Netanyahu's cabinet. It noted that Mr. Baratz had apologized and requested a meeting with Mr. Netanyahu next week after the prime minister returns from a much-anticipated trip to Washington to meet with Mr. Obama.
Mr. Baratz, in a Facebook post Thursday night, apologized for "the hurtful remarks" and for not informing the prime minister of them. He said the posts "were written frivolously and sometimes humorously, in a tone suited to the social networks and a private individual." He added, "It is very clear to me that in an official post one has to behave and express oneself differently."
In an email to The New York Times, Mr. Baratz said that "what I most regret is using the word anti-Semitism in relation to President Obama."
"Even in the context of a heated debate in which there were strong passions over the nuclear deal with Iran, such language should have never been used to describe President Obama," he wrote. "It's not true and I deeply regret having done so."
The embarrassing episode unfolded at an inauspicious moment for Mr. Netanyahu, who is scheduled to meet with Mr. Obama on Monday for the first time in more than a year. The meeting is intended to reset their rocky relationship after it plunged to new depths.
Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, seemed to try to tamp down the Baratz tempest on Thursday, saying that it was "readily apparent that the apology was warranted," but declining to comment further because, as he put it, Mr. Netanyahu's staff appointments were "decisions that he will rightfully make on his own."
A State Department spokesman described Mr. Baratz's statements as "troublesome and hurtful" and said Mr. Kerry had spoken to Mr. Netanyahu about the matter.
Some Israeli analysts said Mr. Netanyahu's selection of such an outspoken ideologue to shape his diplomatic message and serve as a major spokesman to the world reflected the prime minister's blindness to Israel's increasing isolation. If Mr. Baratz were confirmed, he would join a growing list of recent right-wing appointees -- including a United Nations ambassador and deputy foreign minister who oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state -- that have raised eyebrows in Washington and other Western capitals.
"He's giving a very strong negative message to the world, which is, 'I don't care about public diplomacy, I have a right-wing government, I have a right-wing policy, and I'm going to send people who are offensive,'" said Mitchell Barak, a political consultant in Jerusalem. "Every time, people say, 'Oh, he must have made a mistake, we can't take it seriously,' but frankly, he seems to be sending a very clear message, which is, 'I'm going to appoint the hard-core ideologues, I'm not going to even pay lip service to any diplomatic solution, I'm going to entrench myself more.'"
Mr. Netanyahu also has been struggling of late with message discipline. Last week, he reprimanded the deputy foreign minister,  Tzipi Hotovely, after she told an interviewer that she dreamed of raising the Israeli flag atop the Temple Mount, the Old City site known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.
He also retracted his own statement  that it was a Palestinian cleric, not Hitler, who came up with the idea to annihilate Europe's Jews.
On Thursday, Israeli journalists had a field day parsing the Facebook profile  and other public writings of Mr. Baratz, 42, who has a Ph.D. in philosophy and founded Mida, a right-wing website. Channel 2 news reported that even Mr. Baratz's boss-to-be was not spared: "Netanyahu," the nominee wrote in March, after the prime minister's contentious speech in Congress against the nuclear deal with Iran, "perhaps by chance is beginning faintly to reflect the pale shadow of something that vaguely recalls Netanyahu of 1996."
Writing on Facebook about President Obama's reaction to that speech, Mr. Baratz said, "This is how modern anti-Semitism looks like in the modern world." A few months later, he acknowledged that the American president "helps us with tactical issues," such as military aid to respond to security threats. But he posted that, in pushing the nuclear deal, "Obama has certainly thrown us under the wheels of the bus, even if he did this with a winning smile, while he supplied us with plenty of Band-Aids."
Last year, after Mr. Kerry's remarks at a White House celebration of a Muslim holiday, Mr. Baratz wrote that it was time "to count down the days with the hope that someone over there at the State Department will wake up and begin to see the world through the eyes of a person whose mental age exceeds 12."
Regarding the Temple Mount, Mr. Baratz, who is not religious, wrote in a 2004 essay that "the desire to build the third temple is worthy, Jewish and Zionist of the highest level," adding that he hoped it would happen. Such ideas are often cited by Palestinians as evidence of Israel's intention to change the situation at the site, something Mr. Netanyahu insists he will not do.
What upset many Israelis most was the way Mr. Baratz lashed out at President Rivlin, calling him "a marginal figure" unworthy of assassination, and suggesting that he "could be sent in a paraglider" into Syria, where the Islamic State would retreat if only Israel would take him back.
Haim Katz, Israel's welfare minister and a member of Mr. Netanyahu's Likud party, said Thursday afternoon that he would vote against the nomination in the cabinet because "you can find people that apparently think twice before they speak."
Gila Gamliel, another Likud minister, said the nomination should be reconsidered.
"Expressions against the country's president and elements of the American administration harm symbols of our government and our great friend, and could be interpreted as an official position," Ms. Gamliel said.
Anshel Pfeffer, a columnist for the left-leaning newspaper Haaretz, described Mr. Baratz as a neoconservative, libertarian, "academic version of Bibi," using Mr. Netanyahu's nickname, or "Bibi without diplomacy."
"It reflects what Bibi thinks," he added. "Somebody who says Obama is modern anti-Semitism, and Kerry is like a 12-year-old, somebody who is openly hostile to Rivlin -- it's certainly what Bibi believes."
Rafi Mann, an Israeli professor of communication, said on Israel Radio, "Anyone who is about to be appointed head of national P.R. has to know there is no such thing as a private page."
But Yinon Magal, a lawmaker from the conservative Jewish Home party, said that if every nominee had his old Facebook posts scrutinized, "There would be no one who could be appointed to the post."
Michael D. Shear contributed reporting from Washington. Irit Pazner Garshowitz and Myra Noveck contributed research.