Kerry's Gaza truce bid burdened by past US failures

Jo Biddle

Washington (AFP) - Waning US influence and John Kerry's failed peace bid are hampering efforts to reach a Gaza truce, but America remains the sole power capable of brokering a deal to stop the fighting, analysts said.

Amid an unfortunate Arab power vacuum caused by Egypt's internal political upheavals, any ceasefire between Israel and Hamas still remains days away with neither side yet ready to bend, experts predicted.

Late Monday, Gaza came under renewed sustained Israeli fire with the Palestinian death toll in 21 days of warfare soaring above 1,060.

Kerry was hit by tide of vitriol in the Israeli press Monday only hours after he returned from a week-long Middle East mission, during which he camped out in Cairo, with little more than a one-off 12-hour truce to show for his intense diplomatic efforts.

The US secretary of state and his team insisted they were still hard at work, but as Kerry said his bid had been scuppered by "misunderstandings" they appear to have scaled back hopes of a seven-day truce, to allow time for broader negotiations, to a more modest goal of a 24-hour humanitarian ceasefire to get medicines and supplies into Gaza.

"I think we have days more of this. Barring some kind of fundamental shift, neither side has the desire or capacity to stand down," said Aaron David Miller, a former US diplomat and veteran of Middle East peace-making efforts.

The US pushed back against the Israeli press which labeled Kerry a "bull in a china shop" and an "amateur who thinks he can solve the world's problems with his presence alone."

Deputy national security advisor Tony Blinken insisted: "Let me say this about Secretary Kerry. Israel has no better friend, no stronger defender. No one has done more to help Israel achieve a secure and lasting peace."

- Sabotage? -

Washington also hinted at a campaign to deliberately sabotage Kerry's efforts after a confidential draft of what they called "a discussion paper" setting out ideas for a ceasefire was leaked to the Israeli press. The leak was "an effort to misinform or was just misinformed," Blinken said.

But US policy in the Middle East has been hampered for years by a belief that Washington was moving away from serious peace-making efforts, and has been further blighted by the Obama administration's perceived mishandling of the war in Syria, including walking away from a threatened strike on the regime's chemical weapons stockpiles.

"The last time we had an effective policy in this region, where we were admired, feared and respected was Bush 41 and James Baker, and that's a long time ago," said Miller, now a vice president at the Wilson Center, referring to the former president George H.W. Bush, and his then secretary of state.

"But if the Israelis want to achieve what they say they want to achieve, which is demilitarization, guess what? There's only one power, as was the case in the US-Russian chemical weapons agreement in Syria... capable of putting its arms around it," Miller told AFP.

"Not only do we still have influence with the Israelis when we choose to use it, but we also have considerable assets in the region."

Expert Hussein Ibish agreed Washington was "uniquely positioned" in trying to bring all sides to the table, even though it is having to work through Qatar and Turkey to try to sway Hamas, designated by the US as a terrorist organization.

"It may be that American influence in the region generally is somewhat reduced in recent years compared to the last 30 or so since the Cold War ended because of a sense among certain US allies of a policy drift... but I think that may be a kind of a premature judgment," said Ibish, a senior fellow with the American Task Force on Palestine.

- Cold shoulder for Kerry -

"For all the desire that some in Washington have to ease off in the Middle East, that's not really possible. People might find it very appealing, but it can't be done," he told AFP.

Some noted that neither Israel nor the Palestinians had welcomed Kerry's truce efforts with open arms, after his dogged bid to reach a comprehensive peace deal spectacularly collapsed in late April.

People were "being courteous and meeting with him, but they're not eager for his help," said Carnegie Endowment for International Peace senior associate Michele Dunne. His "peace-making efforts early on were not particularly welcome, and he did not get the cooperation."

Ibish said Kerry's earlier failed peace bid may have somewhat harmed him, since "people are used to the idea that he may try something and not succeed and that also you can say 'no' to Secretary Kerry and through him to President (Barack) Obama."

Underlining the impasse however is the fact that neither Israel nor Hamas is ready to stop fighting.

Israel still wants to destroy more Gaza tunnels, while Hamas "even though it's probably profoundly weakened still feels it has gained quite a lot. And it is in deep," said Miller.

"It must produce some explanation to justify the death and destruction which their own resistance has helped to create."