US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, (Photo: Reuters).
Israeli ministers reacted angrily on Sunday after local media quoted US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as saying she feared for the future of Israel's democracy and the rights of women in the Jewish state.
Clinton's remarks, reportedly made Saturday behind closed doors at the Saban Forum in Washington, made headlines in most Israeli newspapers, which reported them without explaining how they obtained the comments.
Top-selling Yediot Aharonot said Clinton had expressed concern about a slew of "anti-democratic" bills proposed by right-wing members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government.
And the newspaper said Clinton had described shock at hearing that some buses in Jerusalem were gender segregated and some religious Israeli soldiers refused to attend events where women would sing.
The comments sparked a quick backlash in Jerusalem, where Israeli ministers holding a weekly cabinet meeting accused Clinton of hyperbole.
Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz called Clinton's remarks "totally exaggerated," Israeli media reported.
"Israel is a living, breathing liberal democracy," he said.
Steinitz reportedly acknowledged that gender segregation was a problem in Israel, "but to claim there is a threat on Israeli democracy is a big stretch."
Environment Minister Gilad Erdan also acknowledged some concerns about growing calls for gender segregation by Israel's ultra-Orthodox community, but suggested Clinton direct her attention elsewhere.
"Elected officials all over the world should first worry about their problems at home," he said.
And Interior Minister Eli Yishai of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, defended the Jewish state, saying it remained the "only democracy in the Middle East."
"I assume that whatever will be done here will be within the measure of the law," local media quoted him as saying.
The US State Department on Sunday declined to confirm Clinton's reported remarks or to comment on the Israeli reaction to them. "The speech was off the record and it's going to stay off the record," spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told AFP.
Israeli lawmakers have in recent months championed a series of bills criticised by local rights groups as an attempt to rein in left-leaning NGOs and journalists.
Among the most controversial of the proposed laws is one that would limit foreign funding for certain NGOs -- legislation that leftist activists say targets groups opposed to Israeli occupation that report on violations of Palestinian human rights.
That bill has already attracted international criticism, and Israeli daily Haaretz reported on Sunday that the US ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, had relayed Washington's concerns about the legislation to Netanyahu's staff.
A similar message was relayed by Germany's ambassador several weeks earlier, the newspaper said.