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Amid uncertainty of an open-ended war, U.S.-Israel tensions rise

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The dramatic developments in the war between Hamas and Israel have been accompanied by sharp ups and downs in U.S.-Israel relations.

Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer addresses Jewish leaders at the National Press Club in Washington, July 28, 2014. (Ron Sachs)
Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer addresses Jewish leaders at the National Press Club in Washington, July 28, 2014. (Ron Sachs)
National Security Advisor Susan Rice addresses Jewish leaders at the National Press Club in Washington, July 28, 2014. (Ron Sachs)
National Security Advisor Susan Rice addresses Jewish leaders at the National Press Club in Washington, July 28, 2014. (Ron Sachs)

On Monday, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, made nice with the U.S. national security adviser, Susan Rice, before an audience of anxious U.S. Jewish leaders. But right before, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bluntly vowed to continue Israel’s military campaign against Hamas, notwithstanding President Obama’s unequivocal demand for a cease-fire.

And within a day of Israeli and American pledges not to afflict one another with damaging leaks, Israeli television was running the transcript of what it said was a fraught Obama-Netanyahu telephone conversation.

The tumult in U.S.-Israel ties reflects the confusing and open-ended nature of the current war between Israel and Hamas, insiders and experts suggest.

“The [Israeli] government is confused, the [Israeli] public is confused, and I’m not sure the [Obama] administration is giving absolutely clear signals,” said Peter Medding, a political science professor emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem whose specialty is Israel-U.S. relations. “That’s not a good situation.”

In the first weeks of the war, Netanyahu and Obama seemed to be on the same page, with both leaders angling for cease-fires and putting the blame squarely on Hamas.

But as the war has dragged on, the leaders have been pulled in opposite directions. Obama has been concerned with the rapid growth of civilian casualties while Netanyahu has been concerned with the vast network of Hamas-built tunnels running under the Gaza-Israel border.

“We will not complete the mission, we will not complete the operation, without neutralizing the tunnels, the sole purpose of which is the destruction of our civilians and the killing of our children,” Netanyahu said at a news conference Monday, a day after Obama had called for an “immediate, unconditional humanitarian ceasefire.”

Within an hour of Netanyahu’s news conference, the national Jewish groups held a pro-Israel rally at the National Press Club. The star guests were Rice, who is one of Obama’s closest confidantes, and Dermer, the Israeli ambassador.
They seemed to be on the same page.

“Israel will continue to destroy the tunnels we have found, regardless of whether there is a cease-fire or not, and I know the Obama administration understands and supports that,” Dermer said.

“Israel has the same, unequivocal right to self-defense as every other nation,” Rice said. “No nation can accept terrorists tunneling into its territory or rockets crashing down on its people.”

It was a change from only a few days earlier, when Israel’s Security Cabinet rejected what was being widely referred to as a cease-fire proposal from Secretary of State John Kerry (the Americans denied that it was a formal proposal). The document’s details were leaked, and Kerry was maligned in Israeli press accounts.

U.S. officials responded publicly with anger at the treatment of Kerry.

During his appearance on Monday, Dermer agreed that Kerry had been unfairly maligned.

Officials in both governments have expressed dismay with how the other side seems to misunderstand its postures so deeply.

A U.S. official told JTA that the Israeli Cabinet misunderstood the document Kerry had forwarded. It was an update of an existing Egyptian cease-fire proposal with notes from Turkey and Qatar, serving as Hamas’ interlocutors, and it was not a final version, the official said.

“The reaction was overwrought considering it was procedural,” the official said of the proposal Kerry had sent.
Israel’s Security Cabinet, understanding the document to be final, put it to a vote, and it was defeated 8-0. Then the document was leaked to Israeli news outlets. Israeli officials, quoted anonymously, said it amounted to a “terrorist attack” and said Kerry was acting on behalf of Hamas.

The Israelis were appalled by a proposal to funnel funds to employees affiliated with Hamas.

By Tuesday morning, although it was clear from Netanyahu’s remarks the day before that there still were differences over a cease-fire, the mutual recriminations seemed to have been laid to rest by the joint Rice-Dermer appearance.
Then, Tuesday evening, Israel’s Channel One quoted a “senior American source” who painted a very negative portrait of Obama. The source said that the phone conversation between Obama and Netanyahu on Sunday was “tense” and that Obama was “condescending” and “hostile” to Netanyahu, and that the president behaved like the “law professor he once was,” showing “impatience and a lack of understanding of Israel’s problems.”

The source provided a purported transcript of the Obama-Netanyahu conversation. The transcript has Obama demanding that Israel adhere to a cease-fire and arguing with Netanyahu over the role of Qatar and Turkey as interlocutors. According to the transcript, Netanyahu says he does not trust those countries because of their closeness to Hamas, but Obama counters that Israel is not in a position to pick and choose mediators.

Within minutes of the broadcast, Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Caitlin Hayden, the spokeswoman for Rice, and Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, were expressing alarm.

“We have seen reports of an alleged POTUS-Netanyahu transcript; neither reports nor alleged transcript bear any resemblance to reality, “ Hayden on the NSC’s official Twitter account, using the acronym for the President Of The United States. “Shocking and disappointing someone would sink to misrepresenting a private conversation between POTUS and PM in fabrications to Israeli press.”

Rhodes and Netanyahu’s office both echoed Hayden’s insistence that the transcript was false.

Experts on U.S.-Israel relations said the fast-changing pace of the war inevitably was going to lead to misunderstandings and mischaracterizations, exacerbated by the parlous relationship between Obama and Netanyahu.

“Seeing the United States negotiating” with Hamas’ allies “while the war is going on and suffering casualties — once you see this it brings out very harsh reactions,” said Dan Arbell, a former second in command at the Israeli Embassy in Washington who is now a fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.