Just minutes before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was due to hold a press conference with his Indian counterpart, he pulled her aside for an apology.
During their three-hour “strategic dialogue” talks yesterday in New Delhi, Kerry kept slipping out of the room to make phone calls. So along with the apology to External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, he provided an explanation. Sharing what was then a secret, he said he was closing in on a cease-fire deal between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, according to a State Department official who asked not to be identified discussing the diplomacy.
The cease-fire came together shortly after 2 a.m. in New Delhi, began some eight hours later in Gaza and unraveled almost immediately, although not from any lack of effort on Kerry’s part.
He toggled all day yesterday between global priorities, seeking to lay a foundation for expanding U.S.-India ties while advancing the push for a three-day humanitarian cease-fire in Gaza with more than 100 phone calls in a week.
At each break in the India meetings, and at times during the sessions, he had stepped aside to talk by phone with one or more of the participants in the cease-fire negotiations.
A joint statement with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon finally was completed and, at about 2:40 a.m., reporters traveling with Kerry, most asleep at that hour, received calls from a State Department staff member who said a Kerry statement was planned for 3 a.m.
A few minutes late, delayed by yet another phone call, Kerry stepped in front of seven reporters and one TV camera.
“Good morning, I’m sorry to get you all up at this hour,” he said, before continuing to announce the cease-fire deal that he had been seeking against long odds for two weeks.
Starting at 8 a.m. local time in Gaza, he said, “the parties are expected to cease all offensive military activities, and neither side will advance beyond its current locations.”
In Gaza, Kerry got the news that fighting had erupted soon after the cease-fire began, with each side blaming the others for truce violations. The fact that the breakdown included the abduction of an Israeli soldier came from his deputy chief of staff, Jon Finer, who saw an Associated Press report as they were flying home to the U.S. today from India.
Kerry quickly ordered up a new round of phone calls to U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, UN Mideast envoy Robert Serry, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, and the foreign ministers of Qatar and Turkey, two nations that have influence with Hamas, according to State Department officials.
The priority now is to gain the release of the Israeli soldier, with the fate of a cease-fire secondary for the moment, said the officials, who briefed reporters on condition they not be identified.
In his early morning statement, Kerry had said he hoped that a cease-fire would provide a “respite” from the fighting that has left more than 1,400 Palestinians and almost 60 Israelis dead since it escalated July 8.
Instead, the intensified fighting quickly quashed what Kerry had described as a “moment of opportunity,” a chance for Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to meet in Cairo for talks aimed at achieving a longer break in the hostilities. Those talks are now on hold.
Still, Netanyahu’s support for the short-lived accord was something of a vindication for Kerry. He had returned home from the Middle East days ago without a deal, taking a beating in the Israeli press for actions that some of that country’s politicians and analysts characterized as damaging to Israel and to the prospects of stopping the Gaza conflict.
For his part, Kerry bemoaned the “mischievous” reports from some quarters in Israel. Before leaving for India, he said his actions were being mis-characterized and that he would make no apologies for his peacemaking initiatives.
In Kerry’s comments early today, he made a point of thanking Netanyahu before mentioning others, such as Ban and the UN’s Mideast envoy Serry, who were deeply involved over the last two weeks.
“I want to thank Prime Minister Netanyahu, who I know wants to see the people of Israel live in security, free from rockets, free from attacks from tunnels,” Kerry said. “And I know he has worked hard at this. We’ve had many phone calls, sometimes in the middle of the night, and I’m pleased that he thought this moment was an appropriate one to embrace this effort, this cease-fire.”
Less optimistic U.S. officials, who asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations, said this week that they remain doubtful that either the Israeli government or Hamas has achieved its goals and feels compelled to stop fighting.
Continued warfare short of an all-out Israel invasion helps unify political support for both Netanyahu’s government and Hamas, these officials said, while Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and other Arab leaders are content to see Israel continue to pound away at the militant Islamic offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Across Time Zones
Despite the pessimism, shared by some in his own camp, Kerry worked around the clock making phone calls, given various time zones, to push toward a deal. President Barack Obama also weighed in with calls to Netanyahu and others, Kerry said.
The efforts proceeded in fits and starts, breaking down and then starting up again, said one of the State Department officials.
Ideas were floated, and each variation required a new round of talks with all the participants. The 72-hour truce was hit upon as a compromise, the official said, as a 24-hour cease-fire was deemed too short of a window to get substantive talks going, while a longer break appeared politically untenable, he said.
While the agreement permitted Israel to continue destroying tunnels that militants have used to carry out attacks on it, the cease-fire offered a break to the Palestinian civilians in Gaza who have suffered.
“The Palestinians will be able to receive food, medicine, and additional humanitarian assistance, as well as to be able to tend to their wounded, bury their dead, be able to in safe areas travel to their homes, and take advantage of the absence -– hopefully, hopefully -– of violence for these 72 hours,” Kerry said.
With the violence persisting, though, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns delayed his plans to travel to Cairo today for negotiations, one of the State Department officials said.
Plans called for officials to shuttle between Israelis and a Palestinian delegation made up of representatives of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Neither Israel nor the U.S. deals directly with Hamas, which they consider a terrorist organization for its attacks on Israelis and its charter calling for Israel’s destruction.
To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Walcott at email@example.com Larry Liebert