The White House yesterday moved quickly to defend the secretary of state, John Kerry, after his failed attempt to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas elicited a flood of criticism from Jerusalem and threatened a rare diplomatic rift between the US and Israel.
Officials were reportedly "fuming" over criticism in the Israeli press attributed to anonymous sources in which Kerry's approach to securing a seven-day ceasefire was dismissed as biased.
Tony Blinken, a senior White House adviser, was one of several to leap to Kerry's defence. "Israel has no better friend, no stronger defender," he said. "No one has done more to help Israel achieve a secure and lasting peace."
The dispute revolves around a document Kerry presented to Israel on Friday to move negotiations over a ceasefire. It was quickly leaked to the Israeli press, where it was described as a proposal that was roundly rejected by Israel's cabinet.
However, US officials insist the document was an informal draft of ideas, based in large part on the Egyptian ceasefire proposal that was initially welcomed by Israel. Blinken said the leaks were "either misinformed or intended to misinform".
Barack Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, said last night that the US was "dismayed" by the critical anonymous briefings which, she said, gave a misleading impression of Kerry's diplomatic efforts in the region. She also underscored the US commitment to Israel and dismissed critics of its military offensive in Gaza as unjustified, saying: "Here is one thing you never have to worry about: America's support for the state of Israel. Hamas initiated this conflict. And Hamas has dragged it on."
A drained-looking Kerry avoided addressing the controversy yesterday. However, in a message intended to reassure Israel, he said: "Any process to resolve the crisis . . . in a lasting and meaningful way must lead to the disarmament of Hamas and all terrorist groups."
Washington has abandoned its push for a week-long cessation of hostilities. Instead, diplomatic efforts are focused on persuading Israel and Hamas to agree to an immediate but short pause in violence to allow food and aid into the Gaza strip.
The criticism levelled at Kerry came from across the political spectrum. The Times of Israel quoted an Israeli official describing the document as "a scandal".
Meanwhile, Ari Shavit, a correspondent for the left-leaning newspaper Haaretz, reported yesterday: "Very senior officials in Jerusalem described the proposal . . . as a 'strategic terrorist attack'."
Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman, said Kerry remained "deeply engaged" and would return to the region if required. "We were disappointed to read them," he said of the leaks. "But I don't anticipate they are going to have any impact on the strong relationship between the United States and Israel."
Original headline: White House defends Kerry from Israeli anger over peace talks 'bias'
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