American diplomacy in the Middle East in recent days may have failed to reach a ceasefire in Gaza, but it has managed to reposition the United States on an unfamiliar side of the region’s complex web of alliances.
Israelis believe US Secretary of State John Kerry’s week-long ceasefire negotiations has firmly placed the US in the camp of Qatar and Turkey, both of which back the militant government of Hamas, while it has sidelined its traditional allies: Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia -- as well as offended the Palestinian Authority, Hamas’s rival for the leadership of the Palestinians.
In the course of an eventful 24 hours, in the early hours of Monday morning, the United Nations Security Council, including the US, unanimously issued a statement that, although drafted by Jordan, the Arab council member, was based largely on a White House precis of a tense phone conversation between President Barack Obama and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the previous day in which the president called for an immediate ceasefire the prime minister refused to agree to.
Later on Monday, the violence in Gaza continued, with a group of Hamas militants infiltrating Israel from a tunnel in Gaza. The infiltrators were killed, as were several Israeli soldiers. In an unrelated incident, five Israeli soldiers were killed by a mortar fired from Gaza.
In the Strip, reports emerged of a hit on a hospital, which killed at least eight children. Israel said the tragedy was the result of a Hamas rocket attack on Israel that went awry. More than 1,000 have died in Gaza in the last three weeks, while Israel has lost 48 soldiers and a handful of civilians.
Netanyahu announced that the Israeli military operations in Gaza will not cease until “the tunnels are neutralized.” He added that if the international community wished to see an end to the violence, “disarming Gaza must be part of the [long-term] solution.”
Israeli officials noted that while the Security Council statement, as well as the White House release, concentrated on the need to rebuild Gaza after the Israeli onslaught has ceased and to abandon the blockade of Gaza and open it up for trade, it failed to mention Hamas or the Palestinian Islamic jihad by name, let alone identify their caches of rockets and newly discovered attack tunnels as the “root cause” of the current war.
Stung by scathing criticism of his diplomatic efforts in the Israeli press, Kerry on Monday belatedly repeated the Israeli demand that Hamas forces in Gaza should be disarmed. By that time, however, he had been largely portrayed in Israel as siding with Hamas and its parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, while ignoring the hopes and wishes of some of America’s staunchest allies in the region.
Officials from Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, to name a few interested parties, watched with astonishment over the weekend as Kerry engaged in Paris with Khalid al-Attiyah and Ahmet Davutoglu, the foreign ministers of Qatar and Turkey. Some European foreign ministers also attended the Paris summit, but the guest list noticeably didn't include any other Middle Eastern representatives.
A framework for a ceasefire, influenced by the views of Qatar and Turkey, was presented by Kerry to Israel on Friday. In response, Netanyahu convened his security cabinet for a meeting that lasted until after sunset, when traditional Jews are meant to stop working as the Sabbath begins. The cabinet unanimously rejected Kerry's proposal.
According to reports, the rejection of the ceasefire has united the Israeli security cabinet’s doves -- Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid -- and its hawks -- Minister of Economy Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman. Netanyahu and his Defense Minister, Moshe Yaalon, who are emerging as centrist, pragmatic forces in the cabinet, were said to be angry at Kerry’s proposal.
The Israeli media has heaped scorn on Kerry. Fierce Netanyahu critics from Haaretz and Yediot Ahronot, two publications that usually praise Obama’s Middle East policies, described Kerry as either a fool who doesn’t understand the complex dynamics of the region or as “an ally of Hamas and other radical forces in the Middle East.”
"We were surprised that the draft was leaked to the press,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said Monday, denouncing the Israeli press criticism of Kerry as “simply not the way allies and partners treat each other." Later, the Israeli ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, praised the alliance between the two countries and Kerry's dedication to finding a ceasefire, but tempers were frayed in both capitals.
The Palestinian Authority also expressed its anger at Kerry’s ceasefire move. As the Jerusalem Post’s Khaled Abu Toameh reported, officials from the Palestinian Authority fumed that no one from their faction had been invited to Paris. Fatah, the dominant party in the West Bank, sent an unsubtle message to its rival Hamas, declaring in a statement, “Those who want Qatar or Turkey to represent them should leave and go live there.”
Egypt was reportedly so angry that Qatar and Turkey had been invited to the Paris talks that it declined to send its foreign minister, Sameh Shukri. The Egyptian dismay was accompanied by military action. Over the weekend, and even after the start of Eid el Fitr, the three-day holiday that ends the month of the Muslim holiday Ramadan, Egypt renewed its fierce fighting against Islamists in the eastern part of the Sinai, just west of Gaza. The government of Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al Sisi has opposed the Muslim Brotherhood ever since it overthrew the elected government led by the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi last July.
Although the UN security council’s statement and Kerry’s public appearances referred to Egypt’s role as the leading mediator in the international efforts to reach a Gaza ceasefire, it appears the US came to believe that the bad blood between Cairo and Hamas was unhelpful to brokering a ceasefire deal and that other mediators were urgently needed to reach even a temporary settlement.
“Our communication with Hamas has been [an] indirect one, through the help of Qatar and the Turkish Government,” the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who worked in close coordination with Kerry, told reporters on Monday.
While Egypt called at first for an unconditional ceasefire, Hamas insisted that for a lull in the fighting to hold it needed to show Gazans some tangible results from the three weeks of bloodshed and Israeli invasion. Toward that end, Hamas demanded the opening of border crossings, the resumption of the transfer of funds to pay party officials, the opening of a sea port and an airport and an international commitment to give large sums for the post-war restoration of Gaza’s devastated infrastructure.
Israeli officials insist that Hamas was almost on the ropes last week, and before long it would have had to agree to Egypt’s demands for an unconditional ceasefire. But then, as Kerry and Ban continued consulting with the Qataris and Turks, and as Hamas’s demands were incorporated in the ceasefire deal struck in Paris, Hamas became emboldened and resumed the firing of missiles into Israel, despite Israel’s agreement to short pauses in the fighting for humanitarian aid to reach victims of the violence.
Hamas has managed to survive Israel’s attack for 21 days and its top military leadership in Gaza, well protected from the violence, has largely emerged unscathed from the Israeli bombardment. Despite the devastation in the Strip, and the long-term disabling of some of Hamas’s most effective instruments of war, the organization has presented its continued ability to fight as a military victory over the mighty Israeli army.
Israel, however, has been careful to claim only modest goals for its ground invasion of Gaza, known as “Operation Protective Edge.” From early on, Netanyahu was careful not to demand as a condition of peace the end of Hamas’s rule over the territory, nor the punitive destruction of Gaza as its war aims.
Instead, the Israeli prime minister has maintained the line that the operation will end as soon as the threat Gaza presents to Israel has been removed. Over the last few days, many in Israel have come to the conclusion that America, its perennial and staunchest ally, has set back that goal.
Follow Benny Avni on Twitter: @bennyavni