WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry’s allies on Monday mounted a vigorous defense of his efforts to achieve a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, responding to withering and increasingly personal attacks from the Israeli political and media establishment.
Following a flurry of unsuccessful negotiations in the Middle East over the weekend, Kerry was roundly criticized in Israel for misreading the situation, giving too much weight to demands from Hamas, and not doing enough to defend Israel.
The language has been unusually charged from a traditionally strong ally of the United States, marking another low point in an often-tense relationship with Israel’s current leadership, and it spurred Obama administration officials to publicly defend its chief diplomat from what they consider unfair attacks.
“The reality is that John Kerry, on behalf of the United States, has been working every step of the way with Israel in support of our shared interests,” said National Security Adviser Susan Rice.
The conflict threatens to hamper the relationship between the United States and Israel in the long term, and it could compromise Kerry’s effectiveness in the ongoing roiling crisis. The criticism of Kerry has come mostly from Israeli commentators who have cited anonymous Israeli government officials in what some US officials on Monday called a “misinformation campaign.”
US officials said they were upset that Israeli officials had apparently leaked details of what Kerry viewed as a draft proposal for a cease-fire and mischaracterized its contents.
“It’s simply not the way partners and allies treat each other,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
‘I will and we will make no apologies for our engagement.’
At the White House, Tony Blinken, the deputy national security adviser, told reporters on Monday, “What you see, I think, unfortunately on a regular basis, are people leaking things that are either misinformed or attempting to misinform.”
Kerry’s failed nine-month effort to broker a lasting solution in the Middle East and create a Palestinian state ended when talks broke off in April. Critics of Kerry at home and abroad said the result was predictable, and that he had risked America’s credibility and had stuck his own neck out too far.
Kerry’s defenders said he deserved credit for his untiring efforts to forge peace and for his optimism that the two sides could be brought together. But Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza that started July 17 has turned long-term diplomatic hopes into a focus on a short-term cease-fire, and Obama dispatched Kerry to the Middle East last week.
On Monday, Kerry said in Washington that, with escalating violence in the region, “I will and we will make no apologies for our engagement.’’
The secretary of state had floated a document outlining a possible framework for a cease-fire over the weekend. The document called for a seven-day halt to fighting, followed by talks on a more comprehensive solution. It did not spell out that Israel could continue destroying tunnels Hamas had built for smuggling and terror attacks in Israel.
But Kerry’s failure over the cease-fire caused his opponents in the region to cast him as ineffective — and worse. He was labeled “nebbish,” a Yiddish word for a pitifully ineffectual person, in the pages of Ha’aretz, a leading liberal newspaper.
David Horovitz, the editor of the Times of Israel, wrote on Sunday that Kerry’s cease-fire proposal marked “a betrayal.”
“Over the weekend, US Secretary of State John Kerry ruined everything,” columnist Ari Shavit wrote in Ha’aretz. “Very senior officials in Jerusalem described the proposal that Kerry put on the table as a ‘strategic terrorist attack.’ ”
Shavit continued, “The man of peace from Massachusetts intercepted with his own hands the reasonable cease-fire that was within reach and pushed both the Palestinians and Israelis toward an escalation that most of them did not want.”
Barak Ravid, the diplomatic correspondent for Ha’aretz, wrote that Kerry’s plan might as well have been written by the head of Hamas.
“Kerry isn’t anti-Israeli; on the contrary, he’s a true friend to Israel,” he wrote. “But his conduct in recent days over the Gaza cease-fire raises serious doubts over his judgment and perception of regional events. It’s as if he isn’t the foreign minister of the world’s most powerful nation, but an alien, who just disembarked his spaceship in the Mideast.”
The spat over Kerry’s role — and the cease-fire proposal he had been pushing for days — comes during mounting frustration over the growing violence. The Obama administration has had limited ability to influence events, and there are few signs of any breakthroughs.
Administration officials have continued to call for “an immediate, unconditional humanitarian cease-fire” so that more long-term negotiations can begin. But the region remained violent on Monday and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said, “We need to be ready for a prolonged campaign.”
Although most of the criticism has come from commentators — rather than government officials — most government officials have done little to defend Kerry. Official statements in his defense were muted.
Ron Dermer, Israeli ambassador to the United States, said during a conference in Washington on Monday that “criticism of Secretary Kerry for his good faith efforts to advance a sustainable cease-fire is unwarranted.” He said he was speaking on behalf of Netanyahu.
Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, also defended Kerry on Monday after hearing from two Kerry aides how “hurt and angry” the secretary was over the attacks.
“It’s unwarranted and inappropriate to criticize him for an effort to bring peace closer or bring about a cease-fire,” he said in an interview. “It’s not fair.”
Kerry has expressed his frustrations with Israel. Last week he was caught on a microphone making a frustrated and sarcastic remark about a new wave of Israeli airstrikes on a Gaza neighborhood. “It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation,” Kerry said, talking with an aide.
Kerry also drew ire from Israeli commentators for traveling to Paris to meet with leaders from Qatar and Turkey, two countries that have supported Hamas. Kerry was meeting with those leaders in part because the United States does not negotiate with Hamas.
“He meets with Qatar. The guys who are funding Hamas!” Mitchell Barak, a Jerusalem-based political consultant, said in an interview. “How does that look to an Israeli? It doesn’t look great that they understand what is going on or what Israelis are going through.”
After Kerry presented the document calling for a seven-day cease-fire on Friday, US officials insisted he was not presenting a formal proposal but circulating a draft that was based on an earlier Egyptian proposal. The proposal was leaked to the media in Israel, presumably by Israeli officials.
“The proposal that was criticized was not a US proposal,” Blinken said. “It was a draft to elicit comments from the Israelis. It was basically a discussion paper based on the original Egyptian proposal.”
It’s not the first time Kerry has been in a war of words with Israeli officials. In January, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon of Israel criticized his efforts to broker a long-term peace agreement. “American Secretary of State John Kerry, who turned up here determined and acting out of misplaced obsession and messianic fervor, cannot teach me anything about the conflict with the Palestinians,” Ya’alon said at the time.
After US officials reacted angrily, Ya’alon issued an apology. Those peace talks also collapsed, and three months later the latest violence began.