In the first open criticism by an Israeli cabinet minister of Secretary of State John Kerry’s ceasefire tactics, the Likud’s Communications Minister Gilad Erdan gave vent Saturday night to Israeli dismay over the contacts on ending the Israel-Hamas conflict that Kerry has been holding in recent days, including in Paris.
Noting that the US secretary chose to hold Saturday’s talks without representatives of Israel, the Palestinian Authority or Egypt, Erdan said this showed “we’re a long way from a political solution.”
Privately, Israeli leaders have signaled deep dismay that Kerry engaged in talks in Paris with representatives of Turkey, whose leadership is openly hostile to Israel, and Qatar, whose leadership is seen by Israel to be representing Hamas’s interests, and not to include Israel, the PA or Egypt.
Israeli government sources also privately contradicted Kerry’s assertion Friday that his ceasefire proposal was “built on” an Egyptian proposal from last Tuesday, which Israel accepted and Hamas rejected. Far from resembling the Egyptian proposal, which urges an immediate ceasefire followed by negotiation, the Kerry proposal leans heavily toward Hamas, the sources said, in tying Hamas preconditions to a cessation of hostilities.
Israel’s decision-making security cabinet on Friday unanimously rejected Kerry’s ceasefire offer. Ministers were horrified, government sources said, that the Kerry proposal did not provide for Israel to continue demolishing the Hamas network of “terror tunnels” dug under the Israeli border within the framework of the ceasefire. The cabinet did not formally announce on Friday night that it was unanimously rejecting the Kerry terms, because ministers did not want to openly demonstrate their horror at the secretary’s offer, Channel 2 reported on Saturday night. Instead, word of the decision was allowed to leak out.
Said Erdan, in a Saturday evening interview on Channel 2: “We will not end this operation and leave Gaza until the tunnels are dealt with.” Israel is also intent on drastically degrading Hamas’s terrorist infrastructure, he said. “The international community needs to understand that we are very open to the economic rehabilitation of Gaza” once the conflict is over, but that if Hamas remained in control of Gaza, and continued to build rockets and tunnels, Israel “won’t be able to tolerate that.”
Saturday’s “humanitarian truce” in Gaza, in contrast to the Kerry ceasefire terms, was regarded as meeting Israel’s interests, government sources said. Israel was able to continue work on demolishing the tunnels, they noted.
On Friday afternoon, The Times of Israel published what Arab sources said were the key terms of the Kerry offer, which indeed made no provision for Israel to be able to continue tracing and demolishing the cross-border tunnels.
An Army Radio report on Friday night highlighted that the US on Monday signed an $11 billion arms deal with Qatar, and noted that Qatar is championing Hamas’s demands in the ceasefire negotiations, and is also alleged by Israel to be financing Hamas’s rocket production, tunnel digging infrastructure, and other elements of its military infrastructure. The radio report also claimed that Ban Ki-moon “is flying around the region on a Qatari plane.”
Channel 2’s respected Middle East analyst Ehud Ya’ari said Saturday that Turkey and Qatar are “Hamas’s lawyers,” and that it was “very worrying” to see how Kerry was handling the ceasefire process.
Six Israeli soldiers have been killed by Hamas gunmen emerging from the Hamas tunnels in five incidents in the past 18 days, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that Hamas was planning massive terrorist attacks via the tunnels on Israeli kibbutzim that would have had “catastrophic consequences.”
Israel’s relations with Kerry, strained for a long time, were not helped when he was caught on a hot-mic earlier this week apparently sneering at Israel’s insistence that it is trying to tackle Hamas terror targets in Gaza with “pinpoint” accuracy. Comments made by the secretary in the same incident also indicated that Israel had not invited him to embark on this ceasefire mission, presumably because Israel wanted more time to tackle the Hamas tunnels.
The Israeli army’s southern commander, who is overseeing Israel’s ground offensive in Gaza, confirmed earlier Friday that he felt the army needed more time, although it had located what it believes are most of the tunnels.
Netanyahu has said Operation Protective Edge will continue and expand as necessary until sustained calm has been achieved for the people of Israel and Hamas’s terrorist infrastructure has been significantly weakened. Israeli officials have spoken of the need to have Gaza demilitarized, and the EU earlier this week demanded the disarming of Hamas and other Gaza terror groups. Hamas has fired over 2,000 rockets at Israel over the past 18 days. The IDF launched a ground offensive last Thursday that has focused on finding and demolishing the network of Hamas tunnels.
Avi Issacharoff contributed to this report.