US & Canada

US-Israel relations tested by Kerry shuttle diplomacy

US Secretary of State John Kerry returns to Washington Image copyright AP
Image caption Kerry's diplomatic credentials took a battering after Israel's cabinet criticized his handling of the crisis

Before US Secretary of State John Kerry set off for the Middle East, he did a round of interviews on the US Sunday shows.

That was not an unusual move during such a time of heightened global instability, except for one incident.

While Kerry was waiting to go live on Fox News, he received word from an aide of new figures making that day - 20 July - the deadliest yet in Gaza.

Caught on a microphone, Kerry replied sarcastically: "It's a hell of a pinpoint operation,", referring to Israel's offensive in Gaza.

The tape was aired during his interview and called an "extraordinary moment of diplomacy" by anchor Chris Wallace. The US was caught criticising its ally.

Prior to Mr Kerry's arrival in Cairo, conversation was dominated by one question: "Can Egypt broker a deal?"

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption After attempted negotiations in Cairo, Kerry enlisted the help of Turkey and Qatar's foreign ministers in Paris

But after meeting upon meeting produced little-to-no progress, the question shifted. Now it was: can Kerry broker a deal despite having failed in a recent wider peace effort and amid plentiful bad blood?

After a US ban on flights to Israel sparked anger and suspicion of economic strong-arming against the Israeli government, Mr Kerry took a day-trip closer to the conflict.

In Jerusalem he got a shorter-than-expected meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

When Kerry returned to Cairo, talk of a new-ish, two-stage plan emerged.

The proposal was a temporary ceasefire, or a humanitarian pause, to serve as a bridge to something more permanent. Any pause would allow for further negotiations on the future of Gaza, especially its economy and Israel's security activities in the area.

In an exclusive interview with the BBC in Doha on Thursday, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal's response to the idea was clear.

"Regardless of the mechanism, what is important to me is there should be a genuine guarantee to lift the siege on Gaza. These promises have been made in the past but nothing was done."

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Media captionHamas leader Khaled Meshaal told the BBC of his ceasefire conditions

By Friday an announcement of this "humanitarian pause" seemed imminent.

However, plans for a joint news conference kept slipping. Talk emerged of a trip to see the Qataris and Turks - Hamas allies - and it became clear the diplomatic initiative was in trouble.

Moments before Mr Kerry, his Egyptian counterpart and the Secretary Generals of both the UN and the Arab League were to take the stage at the Fairmont Hotel in Cairo, Israeli media broke the news that the cabinet had decided to refuse the proposal.

Mr Kerry tried to recover to a room full of Egyptian journalists and US press travelling with him.

"There was no formal proposal or final proposal or proposal ready for a vote submitted to Israel. Let's make that absolutely crystal clear." he said.

"We were having discussions about various ideas and various concepts of how to deal with this issue, and there's always mischief from people who oppose certain things."

The announcement of rejection, he said, was "one of those mischievous interpretations and leaks which is inappropriate to the circumstances".

A senior US official backed up Mr Kerry, saying there was only a "concept", but one based on an Egyptian ceasefire plan that Israel had already signed off on.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Kerry's latest diplomatic tour has been seen as a failure that has exposed strains in the US-Israel relationship

Since that press conference Israeli media has rounded on Mr Kerry, accusing him of pandering to Hamas. The US has responded by calling this treatment "offensive".

The US has been at pains to avoid being seen as friendly to Hamas - a group it deems a terrorist organisation. That may well be a reason why Mr Kerry did not go to Doha, as had been previously considered.

Instead, Mr Kerry met Hamas' intermediaries - Turkey and Qatar - on neutral ground: Paris.

After positive meetings on Saturday, the US feels the most likely diplomatic scenario now could be a gradual move towards a solution: a day of ceasefire at a time, building up until talks get going.

But for now, the US doesn't know how long it will be negotiating.

And those watching from the outside don't know how effective it will be.

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