Anatomy of failure: How Gaza cease-fire never happened

Story highlights

  • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says progress made on cease-fire
  • Israel, Palestinians to agree on one thing: Washington botched the process.
  • United States comes out looking bad, bloodshed continues

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry looked weary and despondent at his much-delayed Cairo news conference Friday evening. Five days of shuttling through the region and endless phone calls to multiple parties had come to nothing. Having begun the year with a vision for a lasting Middle East peace, Kerry had been unable to push through a weeklong cease-fire in Gaza.

Progress had been made, he insisted; a concept was in place. But the terminology, and especially the sequence of any steps toward a lasting cease-fire, were not there.

Kerry did at least get Israel and the Palestinians to agree on one thing: that Washington had botched the process.

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Smoke rises from Gaza Strip after Israeli shelling moment before the 24-hour ceasefire on July 27, 2014 on the Israeli-Gaza border.

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The Palestinians were furious they were not even invited to follow-up talks in Paris on Saturday. No talks could "bypass the PLO as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people," the Palestinian Authority declared. Israeli officials were angry that various drafts of the cease-fire ageeement were short on guarantees for Israel's security. Even as Kerry made last-gasp efforts in Cairo, Israel's Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz was on CNN dismissing the plan, and saying, "Hamas and Qatar want a cease-fire that legitimizes terrorism."

Qatar? The wealthy Gulf emirate has thrust itself (and partner Turkey) into an ever muddier process by becoming the intermediary with Hamas. This annoys the Egyptians and the Palestinians as much as it does the Israelis, and speaks to a deeper rift in the Arab world.

Qatar is important because its checkbook keeps Hamas afloat, paying the salaries of government workers and investing in Gaza's rehabilitation. But it has little presence on the ground in Gaza and is deeply distrusted by both Egypt and Israel for its promotion of the Muslim Brotherhood. Its involvement in the process further deters Israel from signing on.

Hospital hit; Israel, Hamas trade blame

The United States recognizes that Qatar's involvement alienates other parties, but reluctantly accepted Qatari mediation as the only way to restrain Hamas. It saw Hamas and Israel hurtling toward an ever more dangerous conflict. Qatar helped put the brakes on Hamas; it's providing some $20 million to the Hamas treasury to pay salaries every month. "As a result of that they have some influence," said a senior U.S. official.

As Kerry headed home Saturday, State Department officials went into damage limitation mode. "There was no Kerry plan," said one. "There was a concept based on Egypt cease-fire plans that Israel had signed off on."

That's not how it was seen in Jerusalem. Relations between the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the administration of President Barack Obama have rarely been cordial. Three years ago, Obama was overheard talking about the Netanyahu with then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

"You're tired of him; what about me? I have to deal with him every day," Obama said.

If the commentary in the Israeli media and the shift in language out of the White House are any guide, relations between the two allies are very strained. From left and right in Israel, a tirade of abuse has been aimed at Kerry.

"If this failed diplomatic attempt leads Israel to escalate its operation in Gaza, the American secretary of state will be one of those responsible for every additional drop of blood that is spilled," wrote Barak Ravid in the left-leaning Haaretz.

And in the Times of Israel, under a headline "John Kerry: The Betrayal," David Horowitz complained essentially that the Obama administration had abandoned an ally. "Here was the top U.S. diplomat appearing to accommodate a vicious terrorist organization bent on Israel's destruction, with a formula that would leave Hamas better equipped to achieve that goal," he wrote.

In a conference call on Sunday, a senior U.S. official berated Israeli journalists for "extremely offensive" criticism of Kerry, according to one participant. A terse statement from the White House later in the day said that in a call with Netanyahu, "the President made clear the strategic imperative of instituting an immediate, unconditional humanitarian cease-fire that ends hostilities now and leads to a permanent cessation of hostilities."

Intelligence Minister Steinitz tried to smooth ruffled feathers Monday, describing the United States as "our best friend and ally" with whom a close dialogue would continue.

But Israeli officials tell CNN that there is "no international mechanism" for reviving talks on a durable cease-fire. Instead Israel is building on a relationship with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt and involving the Palestinian Authority. One Israeli official said his government and Egypt were moving in the same direction, at the same pace to the same destination. Neither seems ready to offer Hamas any hope that border crossings will be reopened - its chief demand - as part of an initial truce.

To the Israelis that's fine: They say they need more time to eliminate Hamas' tunnel network. Steinitz said Monday that some 30 "attack" tunnels had been discovered, and half had been destroyed. But he acknowledged that "maybe we will discover some more." Hours later, another attempted infiltration by Hamas fighters near the kibbutz of Nahal Oz showed that Israeli border communities remain vulnerable.

Nor is there much domestic pressure on Netanyahu to call it a day. In a poll for Israel Channel 10 on Sunday, 87% of Jewish Israelis supported current military operations and 69% the destruction of Hamas, despite the deaths of nearly 50 Israeli soldiers in Operation Protective Edge.

For a while Monday there was an undeclared lull in Gaza. Rocket fire was reduced (just 12 as of late afternoon), fewer sirens sounded across southern Israel, and Israeli officials spoke of an unlimited cease-fire, saying there would be only limited action against specific targets identified as the source of fire. It didn't last long. As rocket fire persisted, the Israeli air force launched wider strikes against Hamas targets, and Netanyahu told the Israeli people that they must "be prepared for a lengthy campaign."

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His statement came just 48 hours after a senior State Department official asserted optimistically: "You have a way now to staunch the bleeding."

Kerry returned to the theme Monday in Washington, insisting that "the momentum generated by a humanitarian cease-fire is the best way to begin to negotiate and find out if you can put in place a sustainable cease-fire."

In the space of a few hours Monday, that momentum was halted, both sides returned to the battlefield and the bleeding continued.

Opinion: How do we get a cease-fire to end the bloodshed in Gaza?