A few hours after the United States and Russia announced they had agreed to a provisional ceasefire in Syria, and amid boasts from the State Department that American teams had “been working intensively to develop modalities for the cessation of hostilities,” something of a melee broke out in the State Department press briefing when reporters took turns beating up on spokesman Mark Toner on half a dozen holes in the deal, including on how the Obama Administration could possibly pretend that it had the ability to punish ceasefire violations.
It’s difficult to describe the spectacle, but it suffices to note that at one point Toner fell back to declaring that the U.S. would rely on a taskforce that would not be present on the ground Syria; instead, it would “be in constant touch through email, through video conferencing.” That’s one use for FaceTime even the geniuses at Apple couldn’t have dreamed up.
Absurdities aside, hundreds of thousands of lives rely on Washington’s ability to vouch for a ceasefire that the parties involved will keep. The problem is that, even putting aside the weakness of the specific Syria ceasefire terms, the Obama Administration’s credibility with ceasefires has been, and remains, badly damaged. The reason for this precedent can be described in one name: Hadar Goldin.
Early in the morning of August 1, 2014, nearly a month into Hamas’s war on Israel, a 72-hour U.S.- and UN-brokered ceasefire took hold. Two hours into that ceasefire, Palestinian terrorists exploited the lull in the fighting to emerge into southern Israel from a Gaza attack tunnel. They immediately murdered two Israeli soldiers and abducted Goldin, almost certainly killing him as well.
In a statement issued later that day, Kerry had this to say: “The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms today’s attack, which led to the killing of two Israeli soldiers and the apparent abduction of another. It was an outrageous violation of the ceasefire negotiated over the past several days, and of the assurances given to the United States and the United Nations. Hamas, which has security control over the Gaza Strip, must immediately and unconditionally release the missing Israeli soldier, and I call on those with influence over Hamas to reinforce this message.” President Obama and the UN issued similar condemnations.
Now, however, more than a year after Goldin’s death, Hamas still refuses to return his body for burial in Israel, a blatant violation of international law—and basic human decency alike. It’s also an embarrassment to the Obama Administration, which had backed the lull that the Palestinians used to slip into Israel.
Any issue related to Israeli soldiers held by Hamas, of course, is deeply controversial in Israel. The Israelis have suffered greatly from consenting to prisoner exchange deals with Hamas, often trading living terrorists for fallen soldiers’ bodies. And anyone raising public pressure about the issue in Israel is well aware that the specter of further concessions is sure to follow. But a lack of public pressure from Israel in no way absolves American Jews from pressuring our government to bolster our nation’s credibility on the issue of ceasefires in general, which has emerged as a full-blown national security priority; and on Goldin’s fate more specifically, which we Americans have participated in shaping for the ultimate worst. If the Obama Administration wants to be taken seriously as a force for diplomacy and peaceful resolution in Syria and elsewhere, it must show that it is serious about accountability, and that the warring factions currently slouching their way to the negotiations table have reason to trust that America’s word is solid.
Goldin’s case is a great place to start. He was a victim not of war but of an American-sponsored ceasefire, and if the administration can’t or won’t guarantee his posthumous return for rightful last rites there’d be little reason to see this latest round of talks as anything but more silence in the face of brutality.