Administration Again Defends Kerry’s Mideast Peace Efforts, Criticized by Israel and Arabs

July 29, 2014 - 4:03 AM

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Secretary of State John Kerry and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu confer in Paris, France on Saturday, July 26, 2014. (Photo: State Department)

(CNSNews.com) – Administration officials on Monday painted Israeli criticism of Secretary of State John Kerry’s handling of Gaza ceasefire negotiations as misinformed and unfair, but had little to say on reports that Kerry’s efforts also drew criticism from key Arab players.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki opened her daily briefing with an unusually long statement defending Kerry against claims of siding with Hamas and its allies Qatar and Turkey in his ceasefire proposals.

Psaki also pushed back on claims that Kerry had left Egypt and Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas out of the loop, saying he had “remained engaged with many of the key actors” including Abbas and Egyptian President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi.

Psaki said Egypt and the P.A. had not been in touch to complain about Kerry’s efforts.

Speaking on Fox News, political commentator Charles Krauthammer called Kerry’s ceasefire efforts “wreckage,” saying he had acted “essentially as the lawyer for Hamas.”

The flap arose after the Israeli cabinet late Friday unanimously rejected a draft paper submitted by Kerry, which Israeli officials characterized as favoring Hamas’ demands and therefore being completely unacceptable. Cited as a major concern was the absence of references to Hamas’ disarmament.

Matters worsened when Kerry on Saturday huddled in Paris with his Qatari and Turkish counterparts, fueling the growing criticism being aired in Israeli media.

Psaki was not alone in defending Kerry’s ceasefire efforts on Monday.

“I must tell you, we’ve been dismayed by some press reports in Israel mischaracterizing his efforts last week to achieve a ceasefire,” national security advisor Susan Rice told a meeting of American Jewish leaders at the National Press Club.

“The reality is that John Kerry, on behalf of the United States, has been working every step of the way with Israel in support of our shared interests,” she added. Rice did not mention Turkey or Qatar in her remarks, which underscored strong U.S. support for Israel.

In various engagements on Monday, Kerry himself did not directly address the criticism. But in an address on U.S.-India relations at the Center for American Progress he did touch on his recent diplomatic efforts.

“When the people of Israel are rushing to bomb shelters, when innocent Israeli and Palestinian teenagers are abducted and murdered, when hundreds of innocent civilians have lost their lives, I will and we will make no apologies for our engagement,” he said.

Arab disapproval

Reports in Arab and Western media indicate that Egypt and Abbas’ Fatah organization also were unhappy about the Qatari-Turkey-Kerry meeting – Fatah, because it wasn’t present in Paris and Egypt in part because the Sisi administration loathes the Muslim Brotherhood (which both Qatar and Turkey support and which is affiliated to Hamas.)

“Egypt was reportedly so angry that Qatar and Turkey had been invited to the Paris talks that it declined to send its foreign minister, Sameh Shukri,” Newsweek reported.

A Palestinian official told the London-based Arabic daily al-Sharq al-Awsat that Kerry had tried to destroy an earlier Egyptian ceasefire initiative and replace it with one more acceptable to Qatar and Turkey.

And Fatah spokesman Ahmed Assaf was quoted by official P.A. news agency Wafa accusing Kerry of sidelining Egypt and failing to invite Palestinian representatives to Paris, while giving Qatar and Turkey a role.

Psaki rejected the notion that the confidential draft paper rejected by the Israeli government on Friday was an alternative one to that put forward originally by Cairo, saying that it was in fact “based on the Egyptian proposal.”

She reiterated that Kerry was dealing with Qatar and Turkey because they were “parties that we feel have the most leverage with Hamas.”

Asked why players like Egypt had not been in Paris, Psaki said the purpose of that meeting had not been to negotiate, but simply for Kerry to brief Qatar, Turkey and European representatives on his efforts.

Regional strains

Kerry’s attempts to reach an agreement to end the fighting in and around Gaza come at a time when relationships between several major countries in the region are strained.

Ties between Cairo and both Turkey and Qatar have been chilly since the Egyptian military – then headed by Sisi – toppled the Muslim Brotherhood government in July 2013. Last November Sisi expelled the Turkish ambassador, and Turkey reciprocated.

Two weeks ago, after Egypt presented a ceasefire proposal that was accepted by Israel but rejected by Hamas, Egypt’s Shukri accused Turkey and Qatar of sabotaging the initiative.

Egypt’s foreign ministry also summoned Turkey’s charge d’affaires twice in the space of six days to complain about Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s strident criticism of Sisi and his handling of the Gaza crisis. (Turkey’s Hurriyet on Monday quoted Erdogan as saying of Egypt’s government, “This administration came after a coup. I do not recognize el-Sisi as the president.”

Meanwhile Abbas at the weekend traveled to Saudi Arabia to confer with King Abdullah – another arch-foe of the Muslim Brotherhood whose relationship with Qatar has been tense as a result – and on Tuesday the P.A. chairman was heading to Cairo for more talks about Gaza.

A spokesman in Ramallah said Abbas would likely be accompanied by representatives from Hamas and a smaller terrorist group in Gaza, Islamic Jihad.