JERUSALEM - Israel's prime minister is headed to Washington on a trip that has been clouded in controversy following a new setback in his rocky relationship with President Barack Obama.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Cabinet Sunday that his White House meeting would include discussions on the Palestinian issue and "the strengthening of Israel's security."
But the trip has been overshadowed by Netanyahu's appointment of a chief spokesman who has suggested that Obama is anti-Semitic and Secretary of State John Kerry should not be taken seriously.
Top U.S. officials have criticized the comments, which were posted by media adviser Ron Baratz before his appointment. Netanyahu made no mention of Baratz before departing Sunday.
Baratz issued an apology for the comments through Netanyahu's office. Netanyahu and Obama have had a chilly relationship over the years, and the meeting is meant in part to repair ties after repeated clashes over the U.S.-led nuclear deal with Iran. In Washington, the State Department called Baratz's comments "troubling and offensive," and claimed the prime minister had promised to "review" the appointment.
Netanyahu announced Baratz's appointment as his chief spokesman late Wednesday, and soon after, old Facebook posts had emerged in which Baratz suggested that Obama is anti-Semitic and Kerry cannot be taken seriously. He also derided Israel's popular president as "marginal."
Baratz's appointment still needs Cabinet approval. A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue, said a vote had not yet been scheduled, and that Baratz would not be joining Netanyahu on the trip to Washington.
"I have just read Dr. Ran Baratz's posts on the Internet, including those relating to the president of the state of Israel, the president of the United States and other public figures in Israel and the United States," Netanyahu said in a statement. "Those posts are totally unacceptable and in no way reflect my positions or the policies of the government of Israel. Dr. Baratz has apologized and has asked to meet me to clarify the matter following my return to Israel."
Baratz is the latest in a series of controversial Netanyahu appointees. His ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, is a former Republican operative in the U.S. and spearheaded Netanyahu's speech to Congress in March arguing against the nuclear deal with Iran. The speech, arranged with Republican leaders in Congress, angered the White House.
Israel's new ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, is a strong supporter of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and an equally fervent opponent of the establishment of a Palestinian state, putting him at odds with the international community.
Baratz, himself a West Bank settler, is a former academic and founding editor of a conservative website. Baratz recently said on his Facebook page that Obama's response to the Netanyahu speech to Congress this year was an example of "modern anti-Semitism in liberal Western states."
Baratz, 42, has also taken jabs at Kerry, saying he should seek out a job as a stand-up comedian, insinuating his speeches are laughable.
In a 2004 column, Baratz voiced support for extremists pushing for a greater Jewish presence at a Jerusalem holy site. Israel is currently wracked by a wave of violence fueled by Palestinian allegations that Israel is plotting to take over the holy site. Israel denies the allegations.
Baratz's comments also generated anger at home for a Facebook post about Israel's largely ceremonial but much-admired president, Reuven Rivlin. He poked fun at Rivlin's penchant for flying coach on official trips, saying he is able to do so from a security standpoint because he is a "marginal figure." Rivlin's office said it asked the prime minister's office for clarifications.
In a new Facebook post, Baratz apologized for the "hurtful remarks" he had posted.
"I'm sorry that I didn't inform the Prime Minister in advance about them. These postings were written hastily and sometimes humorously, in a manner appropriate for a private person writing on the Internet," he said. He said he would behave differently in his official role and would try to clarify things with Netanyahu.
In Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby said Baratz's comments about Obama and Kerry were "troubling and offensive."
"We obviously expect government officials from any country, especially our closest allies, to speak respectfully and truthfully about senior U.S. government officials," he said, adding that Kerry had spoken with Netanyahu earlier in the day.
"We understand the prime minister will be reviewing this appointment when he returns from his visit to the United States," he said. "Obviously name-calling and insults certainly aimed at individuals doesn't do anything to help advance and deepen the relationship. ... It's a rule you learn in kindergarten about name-calling, and it's simply not a polite thing to do."
The appointment was derided by commentators and questioned even by Netanyahu's allies. Two Cabinet ministers urged him to reconsider.
"This is the man the prime minister chose to be my mouthpiece, all of our mouthpieces, to talk to the world in our names. This man, with his words dripping with poison, his mouth is our mouth now," wrote satirist Mika Almog in the Yediot Ahronot daily.
If the Cabinet approves the nomination, Baratz will be Netanyahu's communications chief and become a close adviser. Another Netanyahu spokesman deals with the foreign press.