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Kerry's cease-fire dispute bolsters hard-liners

By Alan Elsner
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Alan Elsner: Israel-U.S. rift over Secretary Kerry's cease-fire plan empowers hard-liners
  • Elsner: State Department said plan was an early, confidential draft of ideas. But it was leaked
  • Elsner: Dispute serves Israelis who want to reoccupy Gaza, militant Hamas fighters
  • Elsner: Netanyahu's war might be escalating far beyond what he intended

Editor's note: Alan Elsner is vice president of communications for J Street, a nonprofit group advocating peace between Israel and the Palestinians based on a two-state solution. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

(CNN) -- The current rift between Israel and the Obama administration over the terms of a cease-fire in Gaza is empowering hard-liners in the Israeli government and in Hamas who don't want to end the fighting.

In recent days, the Israeli media has been full of personal attacks on U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry over a draft cease-fire document he transmitted last weekend. The State Department says what it sent was a "clearly labeled confidential draft of ideas, sent in order to get Israeli comments, as part of an effort closely coordinated with the Israelis to explore a possible basis for a cease-fire." It was never intended to be an outright proposal demanding a yes or no answer from Israel.

Alan Elsner
Alan Elsner

So administration officials were understandably shocked when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened an emergency meeting of his Security Cabinet, which voted unanimously to reject the document -- and it was quickly leaked to the Israeli media, promoting a firestorm of invective against Kerry.

Although we don't know, and probably will never know, who leaked this confidential document, it is clear that this dispute serves the interests of those within the Israeli Cabinet who want to expand the military operation, possibly to encompass a temporary reoccupation of all of Gaza so Israel can destroy the Hamas military infrastructure and kill or capture its leaders and as many of its fighters as possible.

Palestinians in Gaza celebrate a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas on Tuesday, August 26. After more than seven weeks of heavy fighting, Israel and Hamas agreed to an open-ended ceasefire that puts off dealing with core long-term issues. Palestinians in Gaza celebrate a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas on Tuesday, August 26. After more than seven weeks of heavy fighting, Israel and Hamas agreed to an open-ended ceasefire that puts off dealing with core long-term issues.
Israel-Gaza crisis
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Photos: Israel-Gaza crisis Photos: Israel-Gaza crisis

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is among those advocating that Israel "go all the way" by reoccupying all of Gaza. Some former generals are supporting him. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon oppose this idea, which some analysts believe could take several months and cost hundreds of Israeli and thousands of Palestinian lives with no certainty of ultimate success.

Still, in recent days, Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders have started speaking of demilitarizing Hamas as one of their demands to end the fighting. Kerry and President Obama have endorsed this idea as a long-term goal. But in the short-term, it is impractical without totally defeating Hamas -- and that's not going to happen.

Kerry details Mideast ceasefire proposal
Israel rejects proposed cease-fire deal
Hamas explained

The rift between the Obama administration and the Israeli government must be healed as soon as possible to prevent this war from escalating even further. Israel has the right to demolish the tunnels it has discovered that lead under the Israeli border and threaten villages and civilians. The Kerry cease-fire agreement would have allowed them to continue that work.

But beyond that, responsible leaders in both countries must acknowledge there is no military solution to this conflict and that Palestinian civilians, who have been cynically exploited by Hamas, are suffering unendurable losses. The Israeli government has a vital interest in supporting Kerry's efforts to get massive humanitarian aid into Gaza and also fostering longer-term projects to spur economic development there.

In the middle of a war, it is natural to want one's own side to strike a shattering blow from which the enemy cannot quickly or easily recover. But Israel needs to offer the people of Gaza some hope. People without hope have nothing to lose. They are the wellspring of support for Hamas and even more extreme groups.

Netanyahu may not have wanted this war and has probably been dragged in deeper than he anticipated. He tried to avoid a ground operation and delayed it as long as he could. He accepted a cease-fire agreement that Hamas rejected.

But history is rich with examples of conflicts that escalated far beyond the intentions of those who launched them. It happened exactly 100 years ago in August 1914. It happened to the United States in 2003 when it invaded Iraq. It also happened to Israel when it invaded Lebanon in 1982.

Israel should pay heed and, with U.S. and international help, avoid at all costs going down that same disastrous road once again.

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