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White House and Israel Try to Downplay Discord Over Gaza

White House and Israel Try to Downplay Discord Over Gaza

White House National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer sought to downplay tensions between their respective governments on Monday after the Israeli press reported that senior aides to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were sharply dismissive of American efforts to quell the rising violence in Gaza.

At issue were Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to secure an unconditional cease-fire agreement between Jerusalem and Hamas, which was widely seen in Israel as deeply unfavorable to the Jewish state. "Very senior officials in Jerusalem described the proposal that Kerry put on the table as a ‘strategic terrorist attack,’" wrote columnist Ari Shavit in the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper.

Dermer, who began his term in Washington in September, said those officials didn’t speak for Netanyahu.

"I speak directly for my prime minister here. The criticism of Secretary Kerry for his good-faith efforts to advance a sustainable cease-fire is unwarranted," Dermer said at an event hosted by the National Leadership Assembly for Israel. "There is broad understanding between Israel and the United States about the principles for a sustainable cease-fire."

Speaking at the same event, Rice sought to underscore the Obama administration’s commitment to Israeli security and its right to defend itself against rocket fire from Hamas.

"I must tell you, we’ve been dismayed by some press reports in Israel mischaracterizing [Kerry’s] efforts last week to achieve a cease-fire," said Rice. "The reality is that John Kerry on behalf of the United States has been working every step of the way with Israel in support of our shared interests."

In recent days, President Barack Obama and Kerry have been pushing Israel to accept an unconditional humanitarian cease-fire in Gaza as the administration grows increasingly alarmed by the rising number of Palestinian civilian casualties. Efforts to secure a lasting cease-fire have faltered, however, as Israel seeks to retain the right to destroy tunnels connecting Gaza to Israel used by Hamas to mount attacks — a concession Hamas opposes.  

"We will continue to act with force and discretion until our mission is accomplished," Netanyahu said in a televised speech to the nation on Monday. "We need to be prepared for a protracted campaign."

At the daily briefing on Monday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said she was "surprised" and "obviously disappointed" that confidential details of Kerry’s desired cease-fire agreement were leaked to the press. "It’s simply not the way that partners and allies treat each other," Psaki said.

She rejected the notion that Kerry had settled on a formal deal and disputed the secretary’s preferred terms as described by Israeli journalists. "There was never a formal U.S. proposal presented," she said.

Psaki maintained that the terms sought by Kerry were not radically different from the terms of a cease-fire proposed by the Egyptian government 10 days ago that Israel accepted. "The main difference" between the two agreements, Psaki said, "was there was additional language on humanitarian assistance for the Palestinians — something that the Israelis have historically supported."