Hamas refusal to extend ceasefire is ‘extortion,’ Liberman says

Hamas refusal to extend ceasefire is ‘extortion,’ Liberman says

Foreign minister thanks John Kerry for unreserved support at UN General Assembly meeting

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks during the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee meeting at the Knesset discussing Operation Protective Edge on August 4, 2014. (photo credit: Flash 90)
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks during the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee meeting at the Knesset discussing Operation Protective Edge on August 4, 2014. (photo credit: Flash 90)

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman thanked US Secretary of State John Kerry in a Wednesday night phone call for the unreserved support the US gave Israel during a discussion on the Gaza conflict at the UN General Assembly.

Liberman also characterized an announcement by Hamas in Cairo that the group would not commit to continuing the ceasefire as extortion.

The conversation came during what some analysts have described as a nadir in relations between Jerusalem and Washington, and particularly with John Kerry, in the wake of US efforts to seek a ceasefire via Turkey and Qatar that sparked an Israeli backlash.

Israel has indicated that it is willing to extend a 72-hour ceasefire beyond its Friday morning deadline during talks in Cairo, but Hamas rejected the offer Wednesday night, according to officials on both sides.

Indirect negotiations between Israeli representatives and a number of Palestinian factions were still underway on Thursday although without reports of any significant developments.

“Liberman told Secretary Kerry that the Palestinian statement in Cairo that they are not committed to the continuation of the ceasefire is coercive. Israel will take this into account and is prepared for any eventuality,” a statement from the Israeli Foreign Ministry read.

On Wednesday the United Nations General Assembly met, at the request of Arab nations, to review the conflict in Gaza. UN General-Secretary Ban Ki-moon had harsh words for Israel over incidents in which UN facilities sheltering Gazans from the fighting were caught in the cross-fire and saw dozens of people allegedly killed by Israeli artillery. Israel has said that in each case it was firing back at Hamas fighters who were positioned close to the UN compounds and that in some cases it was not Israeli fire that caused the casualties.

But US envoy Rosemary DiCarlo blamed Hamas for starting the 29-day conflict, and said Israel had a right to defend itself.

“Let us remember how this conflict started. Hamas launched repeated rocket attacks at Israel. Hamas deliberately, willfully targets civilians. No nation can accept such attacks, and Israel has the same right to self-defense as every other nation,” she said. “We need to help the parties reach an accord where the rockets stop, tunnels are permanently dismantled, and Israel is not attacked again in the near or long term.”

Liberman also addressed Israel’s ties with Turkey, which were nearing detente before the conflict started but have more recently been damaged by statements from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan comparing Israel’s actions to “Hitler-like fascism.”

Liberman said he expected the rhetoric to cool after a presidential election next week in which Erdogan is expected to cruise to victory, but said if the verbal assault doesn’t end soon Israel will respond.

He added that Jerusalem was not interested in escalating tensions with Ankara.

The Liberman-Kerry chat came after reports earlier in the week that a phone call between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kerry was cut off in the middle, giving rise to media speculation on the strained state of diplomatic ties between Jerusalem and Washington

“Their phone call was cut off,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said at a briefing Tuesday, citing a “communications issue.”

Reports Wednesday, however, claimed Netanyahu told Kerry he had to speak to bereaved parents before their son’s funeral, the secretary readily understood, and that the two leaders spoke again later.

Tensions between Israel and the US have run high recently over American efforts to reach a ceasefire in Gaza, with Israeli officials aiming sharp criticism at the secretary for his handling of the negotiations.

Under particular attack was his choice of Qatar and Turkey as mediators, ostensibly undermining the Egyptian ceasefire proposal which Israel accepted three weeks ago and Hamas accepted this week.

A ceasefire offer Kerry negotiated after talks with representatives from Qatar and Turkey, which he offered to Israel last Friday, was unanimously rejected by the Israeli security cabinet and panned as one that answered most of Hamas’s demands while giving Israel nothing in return. The State Department later said it was only a draft.

Obama administration officials fumed over the criticism, warning that personal attacks on Kerry in the Israeli media crossed a line and could put the relationship between the US and Israel in jeopardy.

Since then several tense conversations have been reported between Israeli and American officials, and on Sunday the State Department issued an unusually strong condemnation of Israel, calling its actions appalling and “disgraceful” after a tank shell hit near a UN school in Gaza, leaving 10 people dead.

Israeli officials, meanwhile, have downplayed the reports of a growing rift with Washington, and Netanyahu on Saturday called the American support throughout the operation “terrific.” He expressed similar sentiments in a press conference on Wednesday.

Itamar Sharon contributed to this report.

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