WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Obama administration officials rallied to the defense of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday after withering criticism in Israel of Kerry’s failed attempt to secure a ceasefire between Israelis and Palestinians.
The critiques of Kerry centered around ideas that U.S. officials say were sent to Israeli officials, based on an Egyptian draft ceasefire proposal, that would provide for an immediate end to hostilities and talks 48 hours later between Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian officials in Cairo.
The confidential draft was leaked to the Israeli news media, which interpreted the proposal as akin to a U.S. effort to get Israel to halt a military campaign aimed at destroying Hamas tunnels in Gaza that militants have used to launch attacks against Israeli soldiers.
“John Kerry: The Betrayal,” was the headline of an opinion piece in the Times of Israel about Kerry’s attempt to secure a ceasefire. “Astoundingly, the secretary’s intervention in the Hamas war empowers the Gaza terrorist government bent on destroying Israel,” it said.
“I must tell you: we’ve been dismayed by some press reports in Israel mischaracterizing his efforts last week to achieve a ceasefire,” Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, told a conference of national Jewish leaders. “The reality is that John Kerry on behalf of the United States has been working every step of the way with Israel.”
The Israeli government has been suspicious of Kerry’s motives, particularly after he was caught on a Fox News open mic earlier this month sarcastically describing Israel’s offensive in Gaza as a “hell of a pinpoint operation.”
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki rejected the criticism, saying Kerry’s reason for engaging in the ceasefire effort is to end the rocket attacks against Israel from Hamas.
She said she would not assign motivations behind the leaks, but added that “those who want to support a ceasefire should focus on efforts to put it in place and not on efforts to criticize or attack one of the very people who are playing a prominent role in getting it done.”
At the White House, Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken said the proposal that was criticized was not a U.S. proposal, but a draft to elicit comment from the Israelis based on an original Egyptian initiative.
“Virtually every element that unidentified sources complained about was in the initial Egyptian proposal and agreed to by Israel 10 days before,” he said.
The criticism from Israel has strained U.S. relations with the Jewish state at a crucial time as the death toll from Israeli-Palestinian violence in Gaza has climbed past 1,000, most of them civilians in Gaza.
The United States is Israel’s strongest military and financial backer, and successive U.S. presidents who have sought to mediate in the Middle East are always careful to avoid criticism of Israeli leaders.
But in the current fighting, Washington has tried to straddle a line between reassuring Israel it has a right to defend itself while also trying to persuade the Israelis to adjust military tactics that are leading to the high death toll.
Statements from the White House and the State Department reflect growing concern from U.S. officials about the scale of civilian casualties in Gaza, a death toll that White House national security adviser Susan Rice told MSNBC is of “grave and deepening concern.”
U.S. President Barack Obama held the latest in a series of phone conversations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday. The White House statement from that conversation said that ultimately any lasting solution to the conflict must end “the disarmament of terrorist groups and the demilitarization of Gaza.”
Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by David Storey, G Crosse and Howard Goller