John Kerry Arrives in Israel in Effort to Broker a Gaza Cease-Fire

US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) during his a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (R) in the West Bank city of Ramallah on 23 July 2014.
US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) during his a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (R) in the West Bank city of Ramallah on 23 July 2014. –EPA

JERUSALEM — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry began a round of intensive meetings here Wednesday as he sought to forge a cease-fire to stop the bitter fighting in the Gaza Strip.

Kerry began his consultations by meeting in Jerusalem with Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary-general. He was scheduled to meet later in the West Bank with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, before heading to confer with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister.

Kerry said at the start of his meeting with Ban that there had been some steps toward cementing a cease-fire but that “there is still work to do.’’

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The goal, Kerry stressed, was not only to obtain a cease-fire but to map out a “sustainable process going forward’’ that would address some of the long-term grievances of the Palestinians in Gaza and prevent the fighting between Hamas and Israel from erupting every few years. Kerry also remarked that he had arrived on the day of the funeral in Israel of Max Steinberg, an American who joined the Israeli military and who was killed in Gaza during the ground operation there.

Ban said there was an urgent need to make headway and that he and Kerry were joining forces on the issue.

Achieving a cease-fire, however, will be a formidable task, and there was no sense that Kerry was near a breakthrough.

The aims of his surprise visit seemed to be to get a better sense of the Israelis’ bottom line, support the U.N. effort and enhance the stature of Abbas, whose influence among Palestinians is being eclipsed by that of Hamas.

Kerry’s plane touched down at Ben-Gurion International Airport, just a day after the Federal Aviation Administration instructed U.S. carriers to suspend flights to Israel. The landing was uneventful, and there were no missile attacks or air raid sirens during Kerry’s first few hours in Israel.

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The FAA action was taken after a Hamas rocket fell about a mile from the airport, leading to what the agency called “a potentially hazardous situation created by the armed conflict in Israel and Gaza.’’

Ben-Gurion airport is the main international gateway to Israel, and the FAA’s decision prompted complaints from Israeli officials that it amounted to a reward to Hamas for its missile attacks.

Netanyahu spoke with Kerry on Tuesday night to ask for his help in getting the suspension lifted. Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, issued a statement later, saying that the FAA instruction had been given to protect U.S. carriers and citizens, and would be reviewed within 24 hours.

Israel agreed last week to Egypt’s proposal for a cease-fire but soon resumed its airstrikes, and eventually sent troops into Gaza, after Hamas continued to fire rockets and sent militants to carry out attacks in Israel using tunnels dug from Gaza.

While the Obama administration has insisted that Israel has the right to defend itself, it has also sought to persuade Netanyahu’s government to limit its ground attacks to sealing the Hamas tunnels.

In discussing his decision to send Kerry to the region to seek a cease-fire, President Barack Obama expressed concern Monday about the rising Palestinian and Israeli death tolls and asserted that the Israeli military had already done “significant damage to Hamas’s terrorist infrastructure in Gaza.’’

But as Israel’s military losses have mounted and Hamas has continued its rocket attacks, Israeli officials may not agree with that assessment.

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There is also no indication as yet that Hamas is prepared to accept a cease-fire. On Tuesday, Kerry said that the United States was prepared to address the reconstruction of Gaza and the political demands of the Palestinians living there, but that a cease-fire first needed to be concluded.

“Hamas has a fundamental choice to make, and it is a choice that will have a profound impact for the people of Gaza,’’ Kerry said. “And the Egyptians have provided a framework and a forum for them to be able to come to the table to have a serious discussion together with other factions of the Palestinians.’’

Kerry flew here from Cairo, where he has been holding intensive talks. On Tuesday, he conferred with President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt and with the country’s foreign minister and intelligence chief. He has also made a flurry of calls in recent days to his counterparts in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.

Kerry said Egypt’s truce proposal had provided the “framework’’ for the continuing discussions on how to arrange a cease-fire.

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