It took U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry five days in the Middle East to negotiate a 12-hour pause in the bloody fighting between Hamas and Israel.
Prospects for extending that humanitarian halt in the Gaza war had evaporated by the time Kerry landed in Washington shortly after midnight yesterday following a sleep-deprived week in which he served as a round-the-clock, Cairo-based diplomatic call center for Israel, Egypt and intermediaries to Hamas.
While Kerry said his effort was vital “for the sake of thousands of innocent families whose lives have been shaken and destroyed by this conflict,” trying to broker an end to the fighting may have been a long shot from the start.
Neither Israel nor Hamas showed readiness to take the diplomatic off-ramp Kerry sought to build -- a deal entailing a seven-day cease-fire to allow time for negotiations on the underlying issues. At the same time, Kerry created no exit for himself to avoid reinforcing an image in the region of diminishing U.S. power.
“This was a test that Kerry couldn’t possibly pass,” said Aaron David Miller, vice president for new initiatives and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
Adding the latest efforts to the nine months Kerry spent unsuccessfully seeking a broader peace between Israel and the Palestinians, “that certainly isn’t going to add to the sense of confidence and trust that the U.S. has influence and real power,” Miller, a former Mideast negotiator, said in an interview.
After Kerry’s departure, Hamas, the militant Palestinian group, reasserted its demands and hours later resumed firing its rockets. Israeli officials, vowing to continue destroying Hamas’s tunnel network, leaked scathing, if anonymous, comments on Kerry’s performance to the local media.
President Barack Obama endorsed Kerry’s approach in a phone call yesterday to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to a White House statement. While supporting Israel’s self-defense rights, Obama expressed “serious and growing concern” about the number of civilian deaths.
“Building on Secretary Kerry’s efforts, the president made clear the strategic imperative of instituting an immediate, unconditional humanitarian cease-fire” that leads to a permanent cessation of hostilities, according to the statement.
Kerry said today that he is continuing to press for an unconditional humanitarian cease-fire that could enable negotiations on all the “long-term concerns.”
“Our discussions over there succeeded in putting a 12-hour humanitarian cease-fire in place,” he said at the State Department. After that, “regrettably, there were misunderstandings about 12 hours versus 24, four hours versus 24. And so we’re trying to work hard to see if these issues can be clarified” in a way that allows the parties to “silence the weapons long enough to be able to begin to negotiate.”
Kerry’s determination to go to the region, and his characteristic optimism that he could make a difference, defied warnings from some White House officials and even some of his own staff, according to U.S. officials familiar with the private conversations.
They told Kerry that trying and failing would be worse than not going because it would underscore America’s lack of influence on all sides, including with Israel, according to the officials, who asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter.
Robert Danin, a senior fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, cautioned against a rush to judgment, citing Kerry’s tireless efforts to lay the groundwork for an eventual solution.
“Let’s see how this ends, and whether Kerry is part of the settlement when this ends or not,” he said in an interview. “Then we can draw some conclusions.”
Acknowledging there was still “terminology in the context of the framework to work through,” Kerry said in Cairo on July 25, “We are confident we have a fundamental framework that can and will ultimately work. And what we need to do is continue to work for that, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”
This week, Kerry will be handling further talks long-distance because he is due in New Delhi for a U.S.-India conference on July 31.
Last week, Kerry had decided to go to Egypt and engage with regional players person-to-person out of a sense of urgency over the rising toll of civilian casualties, said a State Department official who asked not to be identified citing departmental policy. The conflict, nearing the end of its third week, has claimed the lives of more than 1,050 Palestinians, 45 Israelis and a Thai worker in Israel.
While Kerry had been speaking to counterparts by phone from Washington, personal diplomacy is indispensable, said the official.
Yet most of the past week in Cairo was spent on the telephone from the luxury Fairmont Heliopolis Hotel in northwest Cairo. There were political reasons for choosing Cairo over Qatar, whose leaders have greater influence with Hamas.
While Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi’s government lacks the influence over Hamas that his Muslim Brotherhood predecessor Mohammed Mursi held, Kerry sought to use his presence in the country to secure Egypt’s cooperation in any easing of border access to the Gaza Strip, which has been one of Hamas’s demands.
The U.S. doesn’t talk directly with Hamas, which both the U.S. and Israel have designated a terrorist group, forcing Kerry to rely on his Qatari and Turkish counterparts for that. It would have been awkward for Kerry to go to Doha, Qatar’s capital, because Khaled Mashaal, Hamas’s exiled leader, lives there.
To overcome the inability to wage his favorite method of diplomacy -- one-on-one discussions spanning many hours -- Kerry transformed himself into a one-man call center in Cairo. He made dozens of phone calls every night last week to as many as 11 foreign ministers, as well as frequent calls to Netanyahu.
The phone marathons intensified at about 11 p.m. after Iftar dinners, when Arab counterparts were less burdened by daylong fasting for Ramadan. The conversations carried on until well past 3 or 4 a.m., according to Kerry’s aides.
Kerry even sat in the hotel’s service hallways for updates from Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohamed al-Attiyah or Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, as he shuttled in and out of conference rooms after back-to-back meetings with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and Arab League chief Nabil el-Arabi.
Davutoglu’s surprise trip to Doha on July 25 to help midwife a cease-fire agreement raised hopes that a deal may be near, especially after Kerry made a trip to Israel a day earlier to meet Netanyahu.
Expectations were crushed minutes before Kerry appeared for a press conference on the outcome of his five days in Cairo, as a flurry of media reports said Israel’s security cabinet had reached a unanimous decision to reject a U.S. cease-fire proposal.
Kerry denied there was any official U.S. plan on the table to be voted on, and a UN official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Kerry had been grasping at straws in an effort to nail down a deal.
Now, Netanyahu has broad support in Israel, while among Palestinians, Hamas is out-polling Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who governs the West Bank.
A poll commissioned by Israel’s Channel 10 television showed 87 percent support among Israelis for the military offensive and 69 percent saying it should continue until Hamas is toppled. Only 7 percent favored a cease-fire. The television report didn’t include the size of the polling sample or margin of error.
The conflict is the third major military showdown between the sides in less than six years. Previous truce deals have failed to resolve underlying issues including the proliferation of arms in Gaza and Hamas’s demand to end Israel’s economic blockade of the Palestinian territory, initiated in 2006 and joined by Egypt.
“We have to demilitarize it from the weapons that Hamas has put in there -- missiles, rockets, terror tunnels,” Netanyahu said yesterday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program, as the Israeli press carried reports citing officials critical of Kerry for proposals they said failed to provide adequately for Israel’s security.
Mashaal, in a taped interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” said it is “high time to lift the siege on Gaza,” a reference to the blockade.
Paul Pillar, who was the U.S. national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005, said it is important to recognize Kerry’s constraints: He can’t deal directly with Hamas and he has limited leverage with Israel, which is confident of U.S. support.
“I admire him for his energy and initiative, and this is indeed a very important matter for U.S. interests,” Pillar said in an interview. “But I regret to observe that he will still be handicapped so long as those underlying fundamental relationships are not changed.”
To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Walcott at firstname.lastname@example.org Larry Liebert