Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has become the latest senior U.S. official to raise eyebrows for her criticism of Israel.
During a closed-door address Saturday to a think-tank conference on the Middle East, Clinton said she was concerned about the state of democracy in Israel, citing draft legislation that opponents say would place controls on the media and inhibit political opposition, according to Israeli media reports.
Israel’s Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz rejected Clinton’s characterization and called her remarks “absolutely exaggerated,” according to the Associated Press.
The State Department declined to confirm Clinton’s comments because they were meant to be off the record, but did tell reporters that the United States does have concerns about the proposed laws.
“We just feel that any type of legislation that might hinder, you know, any civil society would raise concern,” deputy spokesman Mark Toner said. “But, again, we’re confident that Israel has a vibrant democracy, has the types of institutions that can address these concerns.”
At the same conference a day earlier, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta offered a blunt criticism of Israel’s role in the stalled Mideast peace process. “Just get to the damn table, just get to the table,” he said when asked about what Israel should to restart negotiations.
“The problem right now is we can’t get them to the same table, to at least sit down and begin to discuss their differences,” he added.
The U.S. ambassador to Belgium, Howard Gutman, last week also irked Israel supporters when, during a conference in Brussels, he distinguished between traditional anti-Semitism and that which comes from Muslims who, he said, only hate Israel because there is no peace deal with the Palestinians.
The State Department today distanced itself from Gutman’s comments, but said it did believe criticism of Israel was not inherently anti-Semitic.
“The ambassador was expressing his views on an issue,” Toner said, adding that there were no plans to recall the ambassador from his post.
Gutman, a top fundraiser for President Obama’s 2008 campaign who is also Jewish, issued a statement this weekend apologizing.
“I strongly condemn anti-Semitism in all its forms,” he said. “I deeply regret if my comments were taken the wrong way. My own personal history and that of my family is testimony to the salience of this issue and my continued commitment to combating anti-Semitism.”