Diplomatic efforts to halt the fighting in Gaza have taken some “steps forward,” Secretary of State John Kerry says, but the chief US diplomat’s press for a cease-fire is snagging not least on Arab disagreements over Hamas and the Islamist movement at its roots.
Secretary Kerry arrived in Israel from Egypt Wednesday for meetings in Jerusalem, in the West Bank with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and then back in Jerusalem, where he planned to sit down with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
He landed at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport just hours before the Federal Aviation Administration extended by another 24 hours a ban on all US-carrier flights in and out of the Tel Aviv airport over safety concerns related to Hamas’s rocket fire.
The US flight ban, first declared Tuesday and quickly followed by a number of European carriers, has infuriated Israeli officials who see it as a concession to terrorists.
Israeli aviation officials, noting Israel’s poor relations with most of its neighbors, said the country’s links to the world are through air transport, and that the flight ban would begin to have an impact on its economy.
Although US transportation officials said the FAA made a dispassionate decision based solely on safety considerations, the move was quickly seized upon by supporters of Israel. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg – a billionaire who otherwise travels by private jet – made a point of flying into Ben Gurion on an El Al flight. He was met at the airport by Mr. Netanyahu, who hailed him as a “man of principle.”
Kerry launched into shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East Monday night after declaring Sunday that it was “crazy to be sitting around” in Washington while violence raged and the death toll mounted on both sides in the fighting.
But the secretary of state seems to be having a rough go of it, and not simply because the two antagonists, Israel and Hamas, are digging in their heels and look to be in no hurry to end hostilities.
Kerry found Mr. Abbas to be siding strongly with Hamas, his former nemesis, on the issue of lifting Israel’s trade and other restrictions on Gaza as part of any cease-fire deal.
The other stumbling block is the deep divide among Arab and other regional powers over any cease-fire provisions that might strengthen an Islamist militant group that before the recent fighting was increasingly isolated in the region.
Egypt – backed by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates – is keen to forge a cease-fire that excludes any measures that might reinforce Hamas or allow it to declare itself victorious to the people of Gaza, regional analysts say. They point out that Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, was instrumental as commander of Egypt’s armed forces in the coup last year that toppled the Muslim Brotherhood government of President Mohammed Morsi.
Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, had the wind in its sails while Mr. Morsi was in power in Egypt, a critical lifeline to the tiny Gaza Strip. But it has seen its fortunes fall since Mr. Sisi’s rise to the presidency.
On the other side of the divide are Turkey and Qatar. They are among Hamas’s closest allies in the region, and both have poor relations with Egypt over the coup against Morsi. Qatar is viewed as a likely source of funding for any financial-aid arrangements for Gaza that a cease-fire deal might include.
Kerry continues to insist that a plan Egypt proposed last week can serve as the basis for a cease-fire in the fighting, which is now in its third week. But while Kerry speaks of incorporating ideas into the plan to make it more palatable to Hamas – primarily steps to ease Israel’s blockade and other restrictions on Gaza – Egypt has shown little interest in modifying its proposal.
Kerry is scheduled to return to Cairo after meeting with Netanyahu. But aides traveling with the secretary say he could also decide to travel to Turkey or Qatar to help secure a deal.