Secretary of State John Kerry has made a significant mistake in how he’s pursuing a Gaza cease-fire — and it’s not surprising that he has upset both the Israelis and some moderate Palestinians.
Kerry’s error has been to put so much emphasis on achieving a quick halt to the bloodshed that he has solidified the role of Hamas, the intractable, unpopular Islamist group that leads Gaza, along with the two hard-line Islamist nations that are its key supporters, Qatar and Turkey. In the process, he has undercut not simply the Israelis but also the Egyptians and the Fatah movement that runs the Palestinian Authority, all of which want to see an end to Hamas rule in Gaza.
A wiser course, which Kerry rejected in his hunt for a quick diplomatic solution, would have been to negotiate the cease-fire through the Palestinian Authority, as part of its future role as the government of Gaza. Hamas agreed last April to bring the authority back to Gaza as part of a unity agreement with Fatah that was brokered by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Kerry has been motivated by two understandable short-term needs: First, he wants to stop the horrific slaughter in Gaza, with its heavy loss of life among Palestinian civilians, including children. Second, he seeks to fulfill the instructions of President Obama, who wants an immediate cease-fire and has become skeptical about solving the knotted Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Kerry’s approach has ignited a firestorm in Israel, with commentators left and right accusing him of taking Hamas’s side and betraying Israel. That criticism is unfair, and it prompted a complaint Sunday from Obama in a phone call to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Kerry’s mistake isn’t any bias against Israel but rather a bias in favor of an executable, short-term deal.
A case can be made for this “kick the can down the road” approach, as I did last week in discussing Kerry’s recent diplomatic negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program and with rival political leaders in Afghanistan. But Gaza has suffered from a generation of brutal expediency. Any deal that reinforces Hamas’s stranglehold — rather than building a path toward change of government, elections and eventual disarmament — is misconceived. In the name of stopping bloodshed this week, it all but guarantees it in the future. That’s why public opinion polls show a strong majority of Gazans back the idea of returning to Palestinian Authority control — because they want an end to the cycle of intermittent warfare.
Israel has undermined its own cause with statements that appear to be insensitive to Palestinian loss of life. One example is the claim of Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, that “the Israeli Defense Forces should be given the Nobel Peace Prize” for showing “unimaginable restraint,” at a time when photos and videos provide wrenching evidence of civilian casualties in the densely packed cities of Gaza.
Kerry’s initial plan was to support Egypt’s demand that Hamas accept a cease-fire. When Hamas balked at surrender and it was clear that Egypt lacked the clout to make the deal stick, Kerry turned to Turkey and Qatar, which as friends and financial backers of Hamas had more leverage. That put the deal first and a stable solution to Gaza’s problems second. The deal blew up anyway, victim of Israeli and Palestinian inability to get to yes.
By turning to Turkey and Qatar, Kerry also enhanced their position in the regional power game. That’s contrary to the interests and desires of the United States’ traditional allies, such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the moderate Palestinian camp headed by Abbas.
If Kerry has been shortsighted about seeking a path toward a more stable Gaza, so has Netanyahu’s government. The Israeli prime minister denounced the Palestinian unity agreement forged by Abbas last spring, even though it opened the way for an alternative non-Hamas government. More important, Netanyahu consistently has failed to give Palestinian moderates the concessions that might enhance their power in both the West Bank and Gaza. When Palestinians heard Netanyahu say recently that Israel must maintain military control of the West Bank for decades, they ask: What’s the point of negotiating a two-state solution?
Does Netanyahu really want a months-long, house-to-house military campaign in Gaza that could push Israeli casualties above a thousand and effectively mean re-occupation of the territory? If not, he had better figure out a way to empower Palestinian moderates who, with international help, can build something different in Gaza.
Whether Kerry gets a permanent cease-fire or not, the same basic issue will haunt Gaza going forward, which is how to establish the Palestinian Authority as a responsible government that actually controls the territory. Israelis fear that the authority might operate on the Lebanese model — with Hamas maintaining a deadly militia, just as Hezbollah does in Beirut.
That’s the right long-term question to be negotiating — and it’s where Kerry should be spending U.S. diplomatic capital, rather than in another pursuit of the interim deal.