Hold Your Fire

07.29.14

Inside the Kerry-Israel Meltdown

The Secretary of State has been furiously working on a Mideast ceasefire, but his ad hoc efforts were dealt another blow Monday when Israel rejected his latest peacemaking plan.

On Monday, Secretary of State Kerry took to the podium at the State Department to say that he was working with Israel and Hamas to negotiate an extension of their temporary ceasefire.

“Today, we are continuing to work toward establishing an unconditional humanitarian ceasefire, one that…will stop the fighting, allow desperately needed food and medicine and other supplies into Gaza, and enable Israel to address…the threat posed by tunnel attacks—and to be able to do so without having to resort to combat,” Kerry said.

An hour later, the Israeli military sent a text message to all Palestinians to stay in their homes and resumed strikes inside Gaza.

The resumption of violence was the latest example of just how disconnected Kerry’s whirlwind diplomatic efforts have been from the combatants he’s trying to get to stop fighting. The Israeli government has been particularly vocal in its criticism of Kerry’s peacemaker attempts. But in the Palestinian camps, there has been public discontent, too.

Ever since Kerry left the region Friday for Paris, he has been scrambling to patch together a series of short-term humanitarian ceasefires: first 12 hours, then another 4 hours. He was working on an extension Monday when the two parties decided to move on and resume their fighting. Kerry seemed unaware—or unwilling to admit—that his latest plan for a ceasefire extension was about to be rejected.

“We believe the momentum generated by a humanitarian ceasefire is the best way to be able to begin to negotiate and find out if you can put in place a sustainable ceasefire, one that addresses all of the concerns—the long-term concerns as well,” he said.

That was only the latest time the Israelis and Palestinians showed clearly that they were not interested in following Kerry’s lead. Twice in the past three weeks, for example, Kerry was forced to delay a deal-making trip to the region because of resistance from one side or the other. First, the Egyptians released their ceasefire proposal as Kerry was preparing to board the plane from Vienna to Cairo. Hamas rejected it immediately and Kerry stood down.

“He went with the hope that he could help bring about a ceasefire, probably himself without very high expectations. At this point, neither Hamas nor the Israelis are ready to stop.”

Days later, Kerry was again preparing to leave for Egypt when Israel began its ground offensive in Gaza, without giving significant warning to the U.S. When Kerry finally traveled to Egypt early last week, the Israelis made clear he wasn’t invited.

After being caught on a hot mic July 20 saying, “It’s crazy to just be sitting around,” Kerry finally departed for Egypt. He spent most of the week in his hotel in Cairo, holding meetings and making dozens of phone calls, traveling to Israel and the West Bank for a few hours only July 23.

When Kerry sent the Israel government his draft ceasefire proposal July 25, the Israeli cabinet rejected it unanimously and senior Israeli officials leaked several angry and nasty criticisms of Kerry to the Israeli press. Kerry’s meeting with the Turkish and Qatari foreign ministers in Paris on July 26 evoked another round of leaked quotes about Israel’s frustration with Kerry’s effort.

Of course, the Benjamin Netanyahu government in Israel was wary of Kerry's efforts. Israel has been resisting Kerry’s criticism that their operations should focus more on avoiding civilian casualties and has groused that Kerry's proposal would reward Hamas for launching barrages of rockets into Israel. Israeli officials have also disparaged Kerry in public and private ever since Kerry’s last Middle East peace push collapsed in April.

But anonymous Israeli officials were not the only ones grousing about Kerry’s diplomacy. Asharq al-Aswat, an Arab newspaper based in London, quoted a senior Palestinian Authority official over the weekend saying Kerry’s plan was an attempt to destroy the Egyptian ceasefire proposal. 

State Department officials have claimed all week that an immediate ceasefire leading to a negotiation for a more permanent agreement between Israel and Hamas was the only way forward. Meanwhile, the death toll mounts on both sides, with the Palestinians bearing the brunt of the tragedy; 48 IDF soldiers and over 1,000 Palestinians have now been killed. The Israelis have effectively cut off nearly 40% of the Gaza Strip. Some of Gaza’s most densely populated neighborhoods have been flattened in what many say amounts to collective punishment of the Palestinians by the Israeli government.

But the Israeli government has made clear publicly and privately it would not agree to a ceasefire until its ongoing mission to destroy Hamas’s network of tunnels was complete.

“We need to be prepared for a protracted campaign in Gaza,” Netanyahu said Monday.

Top Obama administration officials Monday were still pressing for a ceasefire based on Kerry’s draft proposal, revealed first by the Israeli newspaper Ha’Aretz and then by The New York Times Monday. The Israeli cabinet rejected it unanimously last week. Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken told CNN on Monday that because the Israelis had “significantly further degraded” Hamas’ tunnels, the Kerry plan was still the best way forward.

Blinken also insisted that Kerry’s plan contained many of the “same elements” as an Egyptian proposal, released July 15 and immediately rejected by Hamas. Cairo’s plan called for an immediate halt to violence on both sides and would have provided for the opening of border crossings and the end of rocket fire into Israel.

But the two plans also had key differences. Multiple Israeli officials, lawmakers, and experts told The Daily Beast that Kerry’s proposal altered the Egyptian ceasefire in many important ways, and in one case altered longstanding U.S. policy toward the funding of Hamas.

Two Israeli government officials told The Daily Beast that Israel could not agree to the Kerry draft proposal because it felt it would constrain the Israeli Defense Forces from finishing their mission to destroy the tunnels in Gaza. Yet Kerry’s proposal explicitly did not include a call for the IDF to withdraw from Gaza during the ceasefire. What’s more, U.S. officials told the Israeli government that tunnel work would be able to continue during the ceasefire, as it had during the previous short-term pauses in the fighting.

The Israeli government was not confident the IDF would be able to continue tunnel destruction inside Gaza during the ceasefire. The officials in Jerusalem were not willing to commit to any timeline for completing the tunnel mission because they were still discovering the extent of the tunnel network and thought the mission could take as long as three weeks to complete.

“The Israelis felt their security concerns weren’t addressed by Kerry’s proposal,” said Dennis Ross, a former White House senior official and longtime Mideast envoy. “The ceasefire was going to put the Israelis in a position where the tunnels were still there. A ceasefire that doesn’t address that is not one that the Israelis could accept.”

The Kerry proposal also stated a commitment would be made to “transfer funds to Gaza for the payment of salaries of public employees.” Israeli and U.S. officials said the understanding was that money would be given to Hamas by the government of Qatar. A senior U.S. official said that the American government doesn’t like Qatar providing money to Hamas, which is still officially designated as a terrorist organization by the State Department. But Kerry was trying to reach Hamas and he believes this was the best way to influence them.

“The fact is, [the Qataris] are [funding Hamas] and as a result of that they have some influence,” the senior U.S. official said.

Hamas leaders have long been furious that the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank would not make funds available to Hamas for the salaries as part of the unity agreement they agreed to this spring. Qatar has funded Hamas in Gaza since 2006, but the United States has nonetheless asked the Qataris to reverse their policy.

Through the years, however, Qatar continued to support Hamas. In December 2012, Qatar’s emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani visited Gaza and pledged $400 million for the small strip of land.

Rep. Brad Sherman, a California Democrat who is the third-ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said a peace deal that acknowledged and certified Qatar’s funding of Hamas “would be significant.”

“Qatar styles itself as an ally of the United States and then sends money to Hamas. It’s a very peculiar ally of the United States and it’s something we’ve asked it not to do for years,” he said. “I am not going to say it’s a concession we would never make.”

Matthew Levitt, a former senior Treasury Department official in the George W. Bush administration and a senior scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said, “The bottom line is you will have some people say if the cost of disarming Hamas is allowing payments to their civil servants from Qatar, so be it. But we’ve had a long-standing policy of proactively combatting the financing of Hamas and the U.S. government has done a lot in this regard.”

The potential of Qatar sending more money to Hamas, which was also not part of the Egyptian ceasefire proposal, contributed to an eruption of anger and retaliation against Kerry that spilled over into the press.

“The draft Kerry passed to Israel on Friday shocked the cabinet ministers not only because it was the opposite of what Kerry told them less than 24 hours earlier, but mostly because it might as well have been penned by Khaled Meshal. It was everything Hamas could have hoped for,” wrote Ha’aretz reporter Barak Ravid in an op-ed. “The document placed Israel and Hamas on the same level.”

The article sparked another firestorm in American and Israeli circles, with dueling accusations of betrayal and stabs-in-the-back. But by Monday, both the Israeli government and the Obama administration tried to tamp down the perception that there was any rift in the U.S.-Israel alliance.

National Security Adviser Susan Rice told a gathering of pro-Israel supporters Monday that “misleading reports” about Kerry’s peace proposal “raise concerns here in America.” 

“The reality is that John Kerry on behalf of the United States has been working every step of the way with Israel on our shared interests,” she said.

Israeli Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer also appeared to walk back the fit of pique expressed anonymously by Israeli officials. Saying he spoke for Prime Minister Netanyahu, Dermer said “criticism of Kerry for his good-faith efforts to advance a sustainable cease fire is unwarranted.”

But despite the effort to make up in public, Kerry’s diplomatic drive is still at odds with the two warring camps.

“He went with the hope that he could help bring about a ceasefire, probably himself without very high expectations,” said Ross. “At this point, neither Hamas nor the Israelis are ready to stop.”