The diplomatic dance between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, two leaders with a famously testy relationship, continued amid the one of the fastest-growing crises of both of their administrations.
Call for a ceasefire
In a phone call between the two men on Sunday, President Obama stressed several points, which could be divined in slightly contradictory lights (emphasis mine):
The President underscored the United States’ strong condemnation of Hamas’ rocket and tunnel attacks against Israel and reaffirmed Israel’s right to defend itself. The President also reiterated the United States’ serious and growing concern about the rising number of Palestinian civilian deaths and the loss of Israeli lives, as well as the worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza.
Building on Secretary Kerry’s efforts, 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. The President reaffirmed the United States’ support for Egypt’s initiative, as well as regional and international coordination to end hostilities.
And then the kicker: "The President stressed the U.S. view that, ultimately, any lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must ensure the disarmament of terrorist groups and the demilitarization of Gaza."
Most media picked up the president's call for an immediate ceasefire as the lede and evidence of an urgent American effort to press Israel into a ceasefire. However, mixed with the language about the Israeli right to self-defense and the long-term solution involving the disarmament of Hamas and other groups, there is more to pick at here.
Obama demands from Bibi an "immediate, unconditional" ceasefire, but also calls for "demilitarization of Gaza” | http://t.co/nQPwTnQ2rj— Mike Doran (@Doranimated) July 27, 2014
Disarming Hamas is something Israel is considering should its operation expand, which will be considerably tougher given the conversation Obama just had with Netanyahu. But Israeli self-defense, manifested in the operations against Hamas rockets and tunnels, is tougher to reconcile with an immediate ceasefire.
Kerry's plan or the Egyptian plan?
The president's mentioning of the 2012 ceasefire and the Egyptian initiative comes curiously just after Israel rejected a different ceasefire plan proffered by Kerry (see below) that was drafted in consultation with Hamas' only regional allies (Turkey and Qatar).
That new document was crafted without Israel, Egypt, or the Palestinian Authority, none of whom were very fond of the parameters. Meanwhile, the 2012 ceasefire and the Egyptian initiative is the one Israel accepted and Hamas rejected over a week ago.
Palestinian Authority official slams Kerry for seeking to 'sabotage' Egyptian cease-fire plan and 'appease' Qatar and Turkey.— Khaled Abu Toameh (@KhaledAbuToameh) July 27, 2014
The Kerry ceasefire plan was received with shock in Israel in no large part because it fulfilled most of Hamas' demands, including the easing of the blockade.
From the Israeli view, if your country is being fired upon by long-range rockets smuggled in from elsewhere and tunnels are being dug with imported concrete ostensibly meant for construction projects and the building of a Palestinian economy, the idea of easing restrictions won't win many hearts.
The result was some unprecedentedly strong anti-Kerry sentiments in Israel. As Jeffrey Goldberg explained:
Kerry's recent efforts to negotiate a ceasefire have come to nothing in part because his proposals treat Hamas as a legitimate organization with legitimate security needs, as opposed to a group listed by Kerry's State Department as a terror organization devoted to the physical elimination of one of America's closest allies.
While the president and Netanyahu were on the phone, the fury against Kerry was being met with pushback by an American official. As Barak Ravid explained:
Speaking in a conference call with Israeli journalists, the official said that "some of the reports contained overheated assertions that mischaracterized Kerry's work and motivations. The criticism was extremely offensive. Mainly the charges that he betrayed our closest ally in the region – Israel."