Washington Trying to Prevent Ground Operation in Gaza

In phone conversation with Netanyahu, Obama offers to broker ceasefire; U.S. doesn't yet have a formula for truce.

Barak Ravid
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Israeli armor near the border with Gaza.
Israeli armor near the border with Gaza.Credit: AFP
Barak Ravid

Washington is trying to convince Israel to hold off on a ground operation in the Gaza Strip and let it try to arrange a cease-fire instead, senior American officials said yesterday.

But the American diplomatic effort is still in its infancy, and hasn’t yet produced a formula for a truce.

In a statement late on Thursday night, the White House said that the United States "remains prepared to facilitate a cessation of hostilities, including a return to the November 2012 ceasefire agreement."

The statement followed a telephone conversation on Thursday night between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

US ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro told CNN that Obama made it very clear during the call that the U.S. "strongly condemns” the rocket attacks on Israel and that “no country should have to endure that kind of attack.”

Obama warned against "further escalation and emphasized the need for all sides to do everything they can to protect the lives of civilians and restore calm," the White House said.

At her daily briefing for journalists, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that Secretary of State John Kerry is worried by the escalation and is working to try to stop the rocket fire from Gaza and restore calm. She added that the United States will work with any government that can play a role in arranging a cease-fire.

Nobody wants to see an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza, she added, so it’s important to take steps to de-escalate the situation.

Over the past two days, Kerry has held three telephone conversations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and additional conversations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the foreign minister of Qatar, the country where the head of Hamas’ political bureau, Khaled Meshal, currently lives.

In addition, U.S. President Barack Obama’s top aide for Middle Eastern affairs, Philip Gordon, held meetings on Wednesday with senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem and with Abbas in Ramallah to discuss a cease-fire. So far, however, neither Kerry’s phone calls nor Gordon’s meetings have produced a formula for a truce.

Senior American officials said the message both Kerry and Gordon had delivered to Israel was that it should try to achieve its goal – a cessation of the rocket fire – by diplomacy rather than a ground operation.

The main problem the Americans have encountered in their efforts to arrange a cease-fire is the lack of a credible mediator. In previous rounds of fighting, Egypt mediated between Israel and Hamas. But Egyptian mediation is problematic now, for two reasons. First, the new Egyptian government and the Hamas leadership in Gaza have a terrible relationship. Second, Egypt has various interests in Gaza that conflict with those of both Israel and Hamas.

The Americans and other international actors, such as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, have appealed to several other countries, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to use their influence with Hamas to get it to stop the rocket fire. Abbas has also asked Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has close ties with the Hamas leadership, for help in arranging a cease-fire.

Nevertheless, at a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee earlier yesterday, Netanyahu said a cease-fire is not currently on the agenda.

Knesset members who attended the meeting, held at Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv, said Netanyahu was asked several times what the operation’s goals are and whether he has been in touch with Egypt or other countries about negotiating a cease-fire.

“I’m not speaking with anyone right now about a cease-fire,” Netanyahu responded. “It’s not on the agenda at all.”

Netanyahu told the MKs that in all his conversations with foreign leaders over the past day, he had found them sympathetic and supportive. “French President Francois Hollande told me that I’m right, and even issued a statement afterward denouncing the rocket fire,” he said.

Committee chairman Zeev Elkin (Likud) suggested taking harsher measures against Gaza, including cutting off the water and electricity supplied by Israel. But Netanyahu responded that “the legal advisors won’t allow that.”

Netanyahu said he had ordered the army to intensify the airstrikes on Gaza, but warned that Israel cannot allow itself to act the way other countries do when they’re at war. “We can’t do what the Russians did in Chechnya,” he said.

The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting in New York yesterday to discuss the Hamas-Israel war. Ban Ki-moon briefed the council on the situation in Gaza and his talks with various parties about the issue. He said he is worried by the civilian casualties in Gaza due to the Israeli operation and called for a cease-fire. Gaza residents, he said, are trapped between Hamas’ irresponsible leadership and the Israeli attacks.

The Palestinian envoy to the United Nations, Riyad Mansour, urged the council to halt the “carnage,” adding, “Israel claims it is the only democracy in the Middle East but is attacking innocent civilians.”

Israeli Ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor brought his iPhone to the debate, and during his speech, he used it to play the rocket alert siren. “Mr. Secretary General, while you were talking here, five rockets were fired from Gaza to Israel, and one hit a house,” he said, adding that Israeli civilians have only 15 seconds to get to shelters when they hear the siren.

Prosor later convened a press conference to say that Israel doesn’t want a cease-fire; it wants Hamas’ missile infrastructure to be dismantled.

After the meeting, ambassadors of the council’s 15 member states discussed whether to issue a statement on Gaza. Israeli diplomats said Washington was working to prevent a denunciation of Israel.

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