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US fuming over Israeli criticism of Kerry bid to secure ceasefire with Hamas

Kerry US Religious Freedom-1.jpg

Secretary of State John Kerry leaves after speaking at a news conference at the State Department in Washington, Monday, July 28, 2014, about the 2013 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom. The U.S. says millions of people were forced from their homes because of their religious beliefs last year. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen) (The Associated Press)

The Obama administration pushed back Monday at a torrent of Israeli criticism aimed at Secretary of State John Kerry's latest bid to secure a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, with U.S. officials saying Kerry had in no way abandoned key Israeli needs.

"Israel has no better friend, no stronger defender than John Kerry," said Tony Blinken, President Barack Obama's deputy national security. He said the criticism of Kerry was based on "people leaking things that are either misinformed, or attempting to misinform."

Other officials used even harsher language, saying the attacks on Kerry crossed a line and put the relationship between the U.S. and Israel in jeopardy. Those officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter on the record by name.

Israeli media commentators have leveled almost nonstop criticism at Kerry in recent days over his attempts to bring Qatar and Turkey — two countries viewed by Israel as strong Hamas supporters — into the cease-fire negotiations. Kerry was also being accused of abandoning some of Israel's key demands during the negotiations.

In trying to implement the cease-fire over the weekend, "U.S. Secretary of State of State John Kerry ruined everything," wrote columnist Ari Shavit in Monday's Haaretz, Israel's leading liberal newspaper. "Very senior officials in Jerusalem described the proposal that Kerry put on the table as a 'strategic terrorist attack'."

Blinken disputed such characterizations, saying Kerry's proposal included "virtually every element" that was in an earlier Egyptian proposal the Israelis agreed to more than a week ago.

Kerry did not directly mention the criticism during brief remarks Monday. However, he did seek to debunk the notion that the U.S. had backed away from its support for the demilitarization of Gaza, which has been a top priority for Israel.

"Any process to resolve the crisis in Gaza in a lasting and meaningful way must lead to the disarmament of Hamas and all terrorist groups," Kerry said.

Kerry returned to Washington Sunday after a week of shuttle diplomacy in the region failed to secure the weeklong cease-fire he sought.

U.S. frustration with Israel seeped into the White House's readout of a phone call Sunday between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The White House said Obama told Netanyahu that the U.S. had "serious and growing concern" about the worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza. He also called to an "immediate, unconditional humanitarian cease-fire," according to the White House.

White House national security adviser Susan Rice was expected to address the situation in the Middle East later Monday.

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Associated Press writer Peter Enav in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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Follow Matthew Lee at http://twitter.com/APDiploWriter and Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC

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