WASHINGTON – The Obama administration pushed back strongly Monday at a torrent of Israeli criticism over Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest bid to secure a cease-fire with Hamas, accusing some in Israel of launching a “misinformation campaign” against the top American diplomat.
“It’s simply not the way partners and allies treat each other,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Her comments were echoed by the White House, where National Security Adviser Susan Rice said the U.S. was “dismayed” by mischaracterizations of Kerry’s efforts. Israeli media reports have cast Kerry as seeking a cease-fire that is more favorable to Hamas and being dismissive of key Israeli concerns.
Kerry himself, in a speech to the Center for American Progress, noted the criticism but did not give ground.
“Make no mistake, when the people of Israel are rushing to bomb shelters, when innocent Israeli and Palestinian teenagers are abducted and murdered, when hundreds of innocent civilians have lost their lives, I will and we will make no apologies for our engagement,” he said.
The coordinated pushback in Washington came amid growing U.S. frustration with Israel as Palestinian civilian casualties mount amid a sustained Israeli air and ground war in the Gaza Strip. In recent days, U.S. officials have been using subtle yet noticeably tougher language in pressing Israel to accept an immediate and unconditional humanitarian cease-fire.
The U.S. has made little progress in achieving that objective. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a televised speech Monday that his country must be ready for “a prolonged campaign” against Hamas in Gaza.
As Kerry returned from the region over the weekend, Israeli media commentators leveled almost nonstop criticism of his attempts to bring Qatar and Turkey – two countries viewed by Israel as strong Hamas supporters – into the cease-fire negotiations. Kerry was also accused of abandoning some of Israel’s key demands during the negotiations, including demilitarizing Gaza.
In trying to implement the cease-fire over the weekend, “U.S. Secretary of State of State John Kerry ruined everything,” wrote columnist Ari Shavit in Monday’s Haaretz, Israel’s leading liberal newspaper. “Very senior officials in Jerusalem described the proposal that Kerry put on the table as a ‘strategic terrorist attack.’”
Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer sought to distance his government from that view, saying, “The criticism of Secretary Kerry for his good faith efforts to advance a sustainable cease-fire is unwarranted.”
“There is broad understanding between Israel and the United States about the principles for a sustainable cease-fire, and we look forward to continuing to work closely with the United States to advance that goal and a durable solution to the problems in Gaza,” Dermer said Monday.
U.S. officials disputed the notion that Kerry had formally presented Israel a cease-fire proposal and cast the document in question as a draft given to the Israelis as part of an effort to gain their input in seeking a weeklong cessation of hostilities. Officials said the draft was based on an earlier Egyptian cease-fire proposal that Israel had accepted but Hamas had rejected.
Psaki said the U.S. was “surprised and obviously disappointed” to see the draft proposal made public. She also argued that there was a difference between the characterization of Kerry’s handling of the negotiations by Israeli media and what government officials were telling the U.S. privately.
“No one is calling to complain about the secretary’s handling of the situation,” Psaki said.
Earlier, Kerry had sought to debunk the notion that the U.S. had backed away from its support for the demilitarization of Gaza, which has been a top priority for Israel.
“Any process to resolve the crisis in Gaza in a lasting and meaningful way must lead to the disarmament of Hamas and all terrorist groups,” Kerry said.
While the Obama administration maintains that it supports Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas, officials are increasingly worried about the civilian casualties in Gaza. The White House has also taken a shaper tone in its characterization of President Barack Obama’s calls with Netanyahu, noting in the readout of a conversation on Sunday that the U.S. has a “serious and growing concern” about the worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza.
Israel also appears to be becoming increasingly isolated on the world stage as the war in Gaza stretches on. After Obama’s phone call with four European leaders Monday, the White House released a statement listing issues on which the U.S. and its allies agreed. In referencing the Middle East conflict, the White House readout said only that Obama raised Israel’s right to take action to defend itself, with no mention of the views of the European nations.
More than 1,000 Palestinians have been killed over the past three weeks, Palestinian health officials say. According to the United Nations, about three-fourths of them were civilians. Israel has lost 43 soldiers and two civilians, as well as a Thai worker.
On Monday, a strike on a Gaza park killed 10 people, nine of them children. Israeli and Palestinian authorities traded blame over the attack as fighting in the Gaza war raged on despite a major Muslim holiday.
Associated Press writers Matthew Pennington in Washington and Peter Enav in Jerusalem contributed to this report.