Israeli Cabinet ministers on Sunday criticized Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton over remarks attributed to her in which she expressed concerns over Israel's democracy.
Clinton made the comments at a closed-door session over the weekend at the Saban Forum, a Mideast policy seminar sponsored by the Brookings Institution think tank.
A senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because Clinton's remarks were considered off the record, confirmed that she expressed concerns about developments in Israel, including the NGO law and recent comments from ultraconservative politicians. The State Department will not release a transcript of Clinton's remarks.
The Israeli press reported that Clinton criticized a recent wave of legislation in Israel that critics say are aimed at stifling dissent. Israeli media did not provide quotes or a detailed summary.
Recent bills include one that restricts foreign funding for left-wing non-governmental organizations and a draft bill that would make it easier for journalists to be sued.
Israeli critics of the legislation say the bills are an attempt to stifle dissent among dovish groups in the country and muzzle the left-wing against the hawkish government. Supporters say the bills would stop foreign interference and demand accountability in the media.
Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said Clinton's remarks were "absolutely exaggerated."
Speaking after a Cabinet meeting Sunday, Steinitz said "Israeli democracy is alive, breathing, kicking and liberal."
According to the Israeli media, Clinton was also shocked by the segregation of women on some buses that serve the Ultra Orthodox Jewish community on routes to religious neighborhoods in Israel.
Steinitz agreed that "some things need to be fixed and that the separation of women and attempts to prevent them from participating is unacceptable and must be stopped."
Environment Minister Gilad Erdan said Clinton should focus on issues at home, but also echoed Clinton's alleged concern about women's rights. "There is no room for discrimination against women, not on public transport or elsewhere, this phenomena needs to vanish from Israel," he said.
AP National Security Writer Anne Gearan in Bonn, Germany, contributed to this report.