Netanyahu aide attacks `anti-Zionist' columnist

Remark shows Prime Minister's camp sees enemies everywhere, writes Patrick Cockburn

Jerusalem - Any doubts that the inner circle of Benjamin Netanyahu sees criticism of the Prime Minister as hostility to Israel itself, have been put to rest by the labelling of a leading American columnist by a senior aide as "anti-Zionist."

The row started when David Bar-Illan, head of political planning and public relations in the Prime Minister's office, was asked by a Jewish newspaper in the United States about an invitation to Tom Friedman, foreign policy columnist on the New York Times, to address the Jewish Anti-Defamation League in Los Angeles. Mr Friedman is a critic of the Netanyahu government.

"Friedman's whole history is that of an anti-Zionist," said Mr Bar-Illan, in words that he may have come to regret but not to withdraw. "Any organisation which purports to be Zionist would not give him a platform."

Later, Mr Bar-Illan said his views were private and not those of the government, but his outburst confirmed suspicions that the men closest to Mr Netanyahu, like Richard Nixon's advisers, see themselves as surrounded by enemies.

Not that Mr Bar-Illan's denunciation of the studiously moderate Mr Friedman caused much surprise in Israel. A former concert pianist of pronounced right-wing views, he moved to Israel after 30 years in the US. As editor of the Jerusalem Post, the English- language daily, he wrote a weekly column which unmasked enemies of Israel in publications across the world. He showed particular detestation for the BBC.

A sign that Mr Netanyahu's approach to the world is equally ideological was his appointment of Mr Bar-Illan to be his spokesman and senior aide in the new government. A root-and-branch opponent of the Oslo accords it is difficult to see them implemented while he remains at the Prime Minister's elbow.

Abraham Foxman, the director of the Anti-Defamation League, who is not used to being accused of sympathy for anti-Zionists, refusing to withdraw the invitation to Mr Friedman, asked if, like Nixon, Mr Bar-Illan was ready to be "issue an enemy's list".

Mr Netanyahu may privately share his adviser's views, but he also made his name as a diplomat in the US in 1980s by cultivating American columnists. On Thursday, Mr Bar-Illan phoned Mr Friedman and said: "Half an hour ago, the Prime Minister returned from Europe. He asked me to inform you that he has no connection with the affair."

Mr Netanyahu then offered Mr Friedman an interview. Refusing to be bought off so cheaply Mr Friedman asked for a public rather than a private disclaimer. Mr Bar-Illan sent one, saying the views expressed were his own, but without apologising.

All this has attracted derision in the Israeli press. Nahum Barnea, columnist for the daily Yediot Aaharanot, revealed that on the aircraft taking Mr Netanyahu to Washington a few months ago the passports of government officials and accompanying journalists got mixed up.

"At the bottom of the stack there was an American passport," says Mr Barnea. "When members of the Prime Minister's office discovered to whom it belonged, they quickly hid it. This was the passport of the Head of Political Planning and Public Relations, the well-known patron of Zionism, David Bar-Illan."

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