US President Barack Obama urged an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza without preconditions, with the goal of a permanent deal to end hostilities, in a call to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu late Sunday.
Affirming Israel’s right to defend itself, the president also called for Gazan terror groups to be disarmed and the Gaza Strip demilitarized as part of a lasting peace deal.
“The President made clear the strategic imperative of instituting an immediate, unconditional humanitarian ceasefire that ends hostilities now and leads to a permanent cessation of hostilities based on the November 2012 ceasefire agreement,” a White House statement said. “The President reaffirmed the United States’ support for Egypt’s initiative, as well as regional and international coordination to end hostilities.”
The call came a day after Israeli officials and public opinion turned against American efforts to reach a ceasefire, following reports that a proposal pushed by US Secretary of State John Kerry hewed closely to demands put forward by mediators Qatar and Turkey, which are seen as negotiating on behalf of Hamas. The Israeli security cabinet was said to unanimously reject the Kerry proposal on Friday night.
Without officially recognizing a ceasefire, Israeli officials indicated late Sunday that the military would hold back from attacking Gaza targets over the three-day Eid al-Fitr holiday starting Monday, except to foil terror attacks or as a response to ongoing rocket fire.
In his call to Netanyahu, Obama spoke of the need to enact “a sustainable ceasefire that both allows Palestinians in Gaza to lead normal lives and addresses Gaza’s long-term development and economic needs, while strengthening the Palestinian Authority.” He said that, ultimately, “any lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must ensure the disarmament of terrorist groups and the demilitarization of Gaza.”
Obama also reiterated Washington’s “strong condemnation” of Hamas’s rocket and tunnel attacks against Israel and reaffirmed Israel’s “right to defend itself.” At the same time, the president also reiterated the administration’s “serious and growing concern” about the rising number of Palestinian civilian casualties and the loss of Israeli lives, “as well as the worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza,” according to the White House statement.
Obama’s call for an immediate unconditional ceasefire prompted Deputy Foreign Minister Tzachi Hanegbi to say that the US had given Israel 20 days to pursue Operation Protective Edge, and stress that, despite the criticism of the Kerry proposal, America “is one of the good guys.” He also said, however, that “with all due respect to President Obama,” if Hamas did not halt its fire, Israel would not be able to do so, either. Hanegbi said Obama’s call for a demilitarized Gaza could be helpful to Israel in the coming negotiations.
Likud MK Danny Danon, who was fired from his post as deputy defense minister earlier this month, said if Israel needed some respite it was from attacks coming out of Washington. “We need a ceasefire from Obama and the American administration. Just like the US is fighting the Taliban with determination, we must continue fighting Hamas and destroying its tunnel infrastructure,” Danon said, adding that Israel must ignore the pressure inflicted on it and look out for its own interests.
US proposal was just meant ‘for comment and input’
Meanwhile, a senior US official said Sunday night that the ceasefire proposal ostensibly issued by Kerry, which the Israeli cabinet rejected unanimously, was just a confidential draft to be used for deliberations and did not give in to Hamas’s demands. Kerry spoke to Hamas supporters Qatar and Turkey to exert greater influence over the terrorist organization, he said.
The official also harshly attacked Israeli reports that criticized the secretary of state for championing a proposal they reported as being too generous to Hamas while all but ignoring Israel’s security needs. Several radio, TV and internet outlets on Friday night quoted Israeli official sources accusing Kerry of having capitulated to Hamas in his ceasefire effort, with a source telling Channel 2 the secretary had “dug a tunnel under the Egyptian ceasefire proposal” — which Israel accepted and Hamas rejected.
On Sunday, a number of Israeli media outlets also ran articles slamming Kerry also for powwowing in Paris Saturday with the foreign ministers of Turkey and Qatar, in the absence of representatives from Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt.
“The draft that was forwarded was not the Kerry proposal but the latest draft in a series that emerged from discussions between a number of parties, which was provided for comment and input, not for rejection or acceptance,” the senior official said.
Earlier on Sunday, Haaretz published a “confidential draft” of what it said was the American ceasefire proposal. This text echoed the key elements of the proposal as detailed by Arab sources to The Times of Israel Friday.
Describing what he said was the Kerry “draft,” the US official said: “That document was fully consistent with the Egyptian proposal and went further than the [ceasefire agreement that followed Operation Pillar of Defense in] November 2012, which made no mention of security issues.” He added: “Moreover, this document was not a US proposal. It reflects a position that both the demilitarization and the reconstruction of Gaza are important agenda items that will follow the negotiations that will follow a ceasefire.”
Kerry met in Paris with the foreign ministers of Qatar and Turkey not to exclude other parties from the discussions but rather for practical reasons, the senior official said.
“We also believe that to get a ceasefire that is accepted by both sides it’s critically important to talk to countries with the greatest degree of influence over and the best lines of communications with Hamas. That also has the benefit of investing Hamas key supporters in the efforts to achieve a ceasefire on terms Israel and the US can accept.”
Kerry visited Cairo, Jerusalem and Ramallah, the senior official said, arguing that the secretary of state remained in “near-constant contact with Israeli, Palestinian Authority and Egyptian officials to keep them up to date and gain their input on all the discussions.”
The draft of the ceasefire proposal “had nothing to do with satisfying Hamas demands and indeed no new preconditions for a ceasefire were added to the original Egyptian initiative,” the senior official did. “Rather it was about establishing the ability to convey a clear message and to receive a response.”
Many reports in the Israel media about the American initiative were either inaccurate, contained “overheated assertions” or mischaracterized Kerry’s strategy and motivations, the plainly bitter official lamented. Some articles about the secretary included “ad hominem and gratuitous attacks on him, even going as far as to accuse him of betrayal of our ally Israel, which is a charge I think is extremely offensive,” he said.
“Throughout this conflict, President Obama and Secretary Kerry have vigorously and unambiguously defended Israel’s right to self-defense, including taking action to prevent and respond to rocket attacks and to deal with the threat posed by tunnels,” the official said. “They have held Hamas responsible for this conflict and placed blame on Hamas for rejecting ceasefire proposals that Israel had accepted. “