|Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said Clinton's criticisms were "a big stretch". [GALLO/GETTY]
Israeli ministers have hit back at US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after the top American diplomat was quoted expressing concern over the future of Israel's democracy and the rights of women.
Clinton's remarks on 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 what she called "anti-democratic" bills proposed by right-wing members of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's government.
She also described shock at hearing that some buses in Jerusalem were gender-segregated and that some religious Israeli soldiers refused to attend events where women would sing, the newspaper reported.
Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz called Clinton's reported remarks "totally exaggerated."
"Israel is a living, breathing liberal democracy," he was quoted as saying by Israeli media.
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".
Anti-occupation NGOs targeted
Israeli legislators, particularly right-wing members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, 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.
Asked about the Israeli reports, a senior State Department official confirmed that Clinton was "concerned about the NGO law" and Israeli "conservative comments on women." The official spoke on condition of anonymity.
The comments sparked a quick backlash in Jerusalem, where Israeli ministers holding a weekly cabinet meeting accused Clinton of hyperbole.
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 NGO bill has already attracted international criticism, and Israeli daily Haaretz reported 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.