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 PA 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 fulfil the instructions of President Barack 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’ side and betraying Israel.
Kerry’s mistake isn’t any bias against Israel, but a bias in favor of an executable, short-term deal.
But Gaza has suffered from a generation of brutal expediency. Any deal that reinforces Hamas’ stranglehold – rather than building a path toward change of government, elections and eventual disarmament – is misconceived.
Israel has undermined its own cause with statements that appear to be insensitive to Palestinian loss of life.
Kerry’s initial plan was to support Egypt’s demand that Hamas accept a cease-fire. When Hamas rejected what it viewed as surrender, Kerry turned away from Egyptian mediation toward Turkey and Qatar, which as friends and financial backers of Hamas were thought to have more leverage. That put the deal first, and a stable solution to Gaza’s problems second.
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 America’s 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.
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 PA 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.
David Ignatius’ email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.