Barack Obama phoned leaders in the Middle East to push for an Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire on Monday night as the US navy was reported to be deploying three ships to the eastern Mediterranean in case American citizens had to be evacuated from Israel.
Obama, at the end of a day that took him to Burma and Cambodia, spoke with Egyptian prime minister Mohamed Morsi, the head mover in the ceasefire negotiations, and Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu in support of efforts to broker a deal.
The Obama administration insists that Obama and other administration officials have been working hard to try to resolve the conflict, even though they have been in Asia since Sunday morning,
In spite of these protestations, the administration approach has been low-key in contrast to previous Israeli-Palestinian conflagrations during which the US often played a central diplomatic role, even if these were just fruitless gestures such as dispatching envoys to the region.
CNN reported that three US warships in the Atlantic that had been scheduled to arrive in Virginia just after Thanksgiving have been redeployed to the eastern Mediterranean. CNN quoted US officials saying although evacuation remained a remote possibility, such contingency plans had to be put in place.
"This is due diligence. It is better to be prepared should there be a need," an official said, adding they would have no combat role. The ships are the USS Iwo Jima, the USS New York and the USS Gunston Hall.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said of the Obama and Morsi talks: "The two leaders discussed ways to de-escalate the situation in Gaza, and president Obama underscored the necessity of Hamas ending rocket fire into Israel. President Obama also offered condolences for the terrible loss of life in the recent train accident in Egypt."
The US has no official links to the Hamas government in Gaza and is relying instead on Arab leaders such as Morsi who do have some influence.
Carney said: "President Obama then called prime minister Netanyahu of Israel and received an update on the situation in Gaza and Israel. In both calls, President Obama expressed regret for the loss of Israeli and Palestinian civilian lives, and agreed to stay in close touch with both leaders."
On the flight between Burma and Cambodia, Ben Rhodes, the White House national security adviser, replying to a reporter's question about what the US strategy is, said: "Our position continues to be that those nations in the region, particularly nations that have influence over Hamas, and that's principally Egypt and Turkey, also Qatar … that those nations need to use that influence to de-escalate the conflict. And de-escalation has to begin with, again, an end to rocket fire from Gaza."
He added: "The general goal here is de-escalation, because as the president said – as you heard him in the press conference say … Israel has a right to defend itself. The best way to make sure that Israel is secure and the situation doesn't escalate is for there to be a peaceful resolution and de-escalation rather than a continued military conflict."
Aaron David Miller, a former US Middle East negotiator and now vice-president of Washington's Woodrow Wilson Center, agreed that the Obama administration policy was low-key; not so much "a strategy" as "an approach".
He suggested that Obama might be thinking further down the line to his second term when there might be a chance to get a serious peace negotiation going. The president was basically taking a backseat to the Egyptian efforts on securing a ceasefire, given that the US had no influence over Hamas.
"The strategy seems to be get the Egyptians to own this [and] to avoid a situation in which we are perceived to have not succeeded. I say this because the chances of our mediation are slim to nil," Miller said.
He added: "If Obama is to have a chance of pushing a peace process down the road, he has to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Netanyahu … We have to build up our street cred with the Israelis."
The Obama administration is supporting Israel's right to self-defence in the face of rocket attacks while calling on the Israel to show restraint in minimising civilian casualties in Gaza.
Secretary of state Hillary Clinton and national security adviser Tom Donilon, both travelling with Obama on his tour of Thailand, Burma and Cambodia, made calls throughout the day to their counterparts in the Middle East and Europe as well as the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon.
Republican senators rounded on Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for calling Israel a terrorist state over its attacks on Gaza.
Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, in a joint statement, expressed regret over Erdogan's comment. "Israel has the same sovereign right as every country to defend itself, and no government could be expected to remain passive under the daily barrage of hundreds of rockets fired intentionally at innocent men, women, and children, which Israel has had to endure at the hands of Hamas. This challenge should be familiar to Turkey, which has been a victim of terrorism itself," they said.
"Prime minister Erdogan, a man we know and respect, should play a constructive leadership role in pushing Hamas to cease its attacks on Israel so this conflict can be brought to an end. His comments today, unfortunately, will have the opposite effect, encouraging Hamas to continue with its acts of terrorism, thereby prolonging the fighting and risking further loss of life on both sides. This serves no responsible interest."
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