US officials warn Kerry criticism could jeopardize Israel ties

Washington fuming over negative Israeli response to ceasefire proposal drafted with Qatar and Turkey

John Kerry with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, left, and Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiyah in Paris, France, on July 26, 2014. (US State Department)
John Kerry with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, left, and Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiyah in Paris, France, on July 26, 2014. (US State Department)

WASHINGTON — Obama administration officials were fuming Monday over a torrent of Israeli criticism of Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest bid to secure a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

In unusually harsh language, officials said the criticism of Kerry could put the relationship between the US and Israel in jeopardy. They also said the personal attacks on Kerry crossed a line and were particularly disappointing at a time of active conflict.

Israeli media commentators have leveled almost nonstop criticism at Kerry in recent days over his attempts to bring Qatar and Turkey — two countries seen as strong Hamas supporters — into the ceasefire negotiations. Kerry was also being accused of abandoning some of Israel’s key demands during the negotiations.

In trying to implement the ceasefire over the weekend, “US Secretary of State John Kerry ruined everything,” wrote columnist Ari Shavit in Monday’s Haaretz, Israel’s leading liberal newspaper. “Very senior officials in Jerusalem described the proposal that Kerry put on the table as a ‘strategic terrorist attack.'”

Kerry made no direct mention of the criticism during brief remarks Monday. However, he did seek to debunk the notion that the US had backed away from its support for the demilitarization of Gaza, which has been a top priority for Israel.

“Any process to resolve the crisis in Gaza in a lasting and meaningful way must lead to the disarmament of Hamas and all terrorist groups,” Kerry said.

A senior US official Sunday night 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.

The official complained that many reports in the Israel media about the American initiative were either inaccurate, contained “overheated assertions” or mischaracterized Kerry’s strategy and motivations. 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.

Kerry returned to Washington Sunday after a week of shuttle diplomacy in the region failed to secure the week-long ceasefire he’d sought.

US frustration with Israel seeped into the White House’s readout of a phone call Sunday between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The White House said Obama told Netanyahu that the US had “serious and growing concern” about the worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza. He also called for an “immediate, unconditional humanitarian ceasefire,” according to the White House.

White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice was expected to address the situation in the Middle East later Monday. The US officials who described the administration’s view of the Israeli criticism insisted on anonymity, because they were not authorized to discuss the matter on the record by name.

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