Tel Aviv, Israel – The three-week-old Israeli offensive in Gaza has been turned into a full-fledged campaign to demilitarise the Strip, a war that for many Israelis involves not just Hamas but also John Kerry. The US secretary of state has become the target of unprecedented hostility over the past few days, since his failed attempt to broker a ceasefire and end a war that has killed more than 1,300 Palestinians, and 58 Israelis, most of them soldiers.
Kerry was publicly humiliated last week by the Israeli cabinet, which rejected his proposal hours before he was due to introduce it. Journalists picked up the campaign from there, dubbing him a “betrayer”, even an “alien”. The top diplomat of Israel’s main ally suddenly found himself labelled a friend of Palestinian faction Hamas.
“I’m not sure that we can trust Kerry in these negotiations,” said Nir Shaul, sitting in a cafe off Rabin Square in central Tel Aviv, where there were few signs of the war raging an hour to the south. “Maybe it’s not him personally. Obama wants the war to end, he thinks Israel can reach an agreement with Hamas. It’s not realistic.”
The US-Israeli relationship has been frosty for years: Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu have never been close. But the relationship has deteriorated sharply since Kerry took office last year and initiated nine months of talks between Israel and the Palestinian leadership.
Moshe Yaalon, the Israeli defence minister, called Kerry’s diplomatic efforts “obsessive” and “messianic”, comments for which he later made an apology. Talks stalled in April after Israel refused to honour the final round of a Palestinian prisoner release. Washington then endorsed a “national consensus” government agreed to between Hamas and Fatah, further angering Netanyahu, who had worked frantically to scupper the deal.
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Kerry distanced himself from the region, and did not return until last week, when he shuttled between Cairo, Tel Aviv, and Ramallah for meetings about the war.
“What Israel was doing to Kerry … basically was ‘Swift Boating’ him,” said Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul-general in New York, referring to a now-discredited attempt to smear Kerry’s army record when he ran for president in 2004.
“There was bad blood going back to the peace process … and the right wing has now used the draft [ceasefire] proposal to lash out at him,” Pinkas told Al Jazeera.
On Friday night, Kerry called a press conference in Cairo to unveil that proposal. A few hours beforehand, though, an unnamed Israeli official leaked word that the cabinet had rejected it; CNN later identified the source as Yuval Steinitz, the country’s intelligence minister and a Netanyahu confidante.
Ministers denounced the Kerry plan as too sympathetic to Hamas, saying it would ease the siege of Gaza without giving “security guarantees” to Israel, while Israeli journalists joined the condemnation. “It’s as if [Kerry] is … an alien, who just disembarked his spaceship in the Mideast,” wrote Barak Ravid, the diplomatic correspondent for Israeli daily Haaretz. Ari Shavit, a columnist who is considered to be close to Netanyahu, said that “very senior officials” in Jerusalem viewed Kerry’s proposal as a “strategic terrorist attack”.
Kerry’s draft for a ceasefire was not significantly different from an Egyptian plan that Netanyahu eagerly accepted earlier this month. The only real difference was added detail on how Israel and Egypt would lift the siege, an attempt to bridge the gaps between the Egyptian proposal and Hamas’ demands.
“It’s simply not the way that partners and allies treat each other,” Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, said of the whispering campaign.
If the substance was similar, though, the process was very different, because Kerry talked with Qatar and Turkey, the main international supporters of Hamas. The role of Israel’s preferred mediator, Egypt, was reduced to one of several foreign countries responsible for guaranteeing the truce.
“From the Israeli perspective, it’s one thing if Egypt is mediating between Israel and Hamas. That’s natural,” said Nathan Thrall, an analyst in Jerusalem with the International Crisis Group. “But when the US is the author, it’s seen as elevating Hamas’ status.”
Netanyahu has succeeded in one thing: to instill in Israeli public opinion that Obama is hostile to Israel. People think this is an unfriendly administration.
Steinitz walked back his criticism on Monday. “I think the US is our best friend and ally, and this includes the people of the US, the Congress, and the administration,” he told reporters in Jerusalem.
The relationship took another hit on Tuesday night, when Israeli television broadcast the alleged transcript of a call between Obama and Netanyahu. As Channel 1 recounted it, Obama demanded that Israel end its offensive immediately and accept Turkey and Qatar as mediators for a permanent ceasefire.
“Qatar and Turkey are the biggest supporters of Hamas. It’s not possible to trust them,” Netanyahu protested. “I trust Qatar and Turkey,” Obama replied sharply. “Israel is not in a position where it can choose its mediators.”
But the conversation was an unconvincing fake, promptly denied in identical statements released by both leaders. “Neither the reports nor the alleged transcript bear any resemblance to reality,” the statements read. “It’s shocking and disappointing that someone would sink to misrepresenting a private conversation … in fabrications to the Israeli press.”
For decades, the US has indeed been Israel’s most important ally, the source of billions of dollars in annual military aid and unquestioning diplomatic cover at the United Nations.
Indeed, police warned the US embassy on Tuesday about a planned protest by a group demanding “full US government support” for the military operation. “Netanyahu has succeeded in one thing: to instill in Israeli public opinion that Obama is hostile to Israel,” Pinkas said. “People think this is an unfriendly administration. So I don’t think relations with the US are going to play against him.”
Follow Gregg Carlstrom on Twitter: @glcarlstrom