Rising tensions in the Gaza Strip have put President Obama’s sometimes rocky relationship with Israel back in the spotlight and afforded the administration an opportunity to back a growing military crackdown on Hamas for its spate of rocket attacks against Israeli civilians.
Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, met Tuesday with Mr. Obama and offered rare public praise afterward, saying the president afforded “strong support of Israel’s right to defend itself.”
The pleasantries in what has often been a cool relationship were exchanged on a day when Israeli fighter jets pounded 150 sites in Gaza — including some homes — and approved the mobilization of 40,000 reserve troops for a possible ground invasion of the Palestinian enclave.
Publicly, Mr. Obama called for a peaceful resolution and restraint. He even penned an op-ed in a top Israeli newspaper Tuesday.
White House officials, however, made it clear that the U.S. supports Israel’s offensive, and security specialists said the administration appeared to accept Israel’s argument that a strong response is necessary to bring Hamas to the bargaining table.
“The idea is to try to convince Hamas that they will suffer far more than any possible gain that they can register from this conflict,” said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Hamas cannot know for sure if they pursue more rocket attacks deep in the heart of Israeli population centers that Israel may use ground forces to end once and for all Hamas control of Gaza.”
The Israeli decision to call up a large number of reservists is “more threat than reality,” said Mr. Satloff, who noted that the Israeli offensive now is restricted to airstrikes.
Palestinian officials said the Israeli bombardment killed at least 23 people across Gaza, according to the Reuters news agency. Israelis ran for cover late Tuesday as air raid sirens sounded in the business capital Tel Aviv and the holy city of Jerusalem, both of which were hit in the Gaza war of November 2012.
Hamas responded to the strikes Tuesday by launching a fresh volley of long-range missiles toward population centers inside Israel, one of which was intercepted by Israeli defenses over Tel Aviv.
Israeli military officials said nearly 300 rockets and mortars had been fired from Gaza in recent weeks after two years of relative calm. The two sides agreed to a cease-fire in 2012.
Tensions have mounted since the collapse of U.S.-brokered peace talks in April and reached a boiling point after last month’s kidnappings and killings of three Israeli teenagers in the Palestinian-controlled West Bank, and the subsequent abduction and burning to death of a Palestinian teen in Jerusalem.
The Israeli air force has conducted a growing number of bombing runs over Gaza during recent days and said the goal is to “retrieve stability to the residents of southern Israel, eliminate Hamas’ capabilities and destroy terror infrastructure operating against” Israel.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest defended the Israeli mission Tuesday and appeared eager to lay the onus for the escalation in violence on Hamas.
“No country can accept rocket fire aimed at civilians, and we support Israel’s right to defend itself against these vicious attacks,” he said.
But he also said the White House is “hopeful that even as Israel exercises their right to self-defense that they’ll leave open a channel for diplomacy to prevail and for a cease-fire, or at least a de-escalation in the violence, to commence.”
The remarks dovetailed with the president’s op-ed for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
“While walls and missile-defense systems can help protect against some threats, true safety will only come with a comprehensive negotiated settlement,” Mr. Obama wrote.
He reiterated his oft-made calls for a “two-state” solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Refusing to compromise or cooperate with one another won’t do anything to increase security for either the Israeli or the Palestinian people,” the president wrote. “The only solution is a democratic, Jewish state living side-by-side in peace and security with a viable, independent Palestinian state.”
It remains to be seen, however, whether the calls for peace will get much of an audience at the moment with the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Analysts say Israeli frustration toward Washington is running high after the administration’s failed attempt to broker an agreement over the past year.
The Obama administration wasted significant diplomatic capital during recent months when it effectively recognized the formation of a “unity government” between Hamas and the more moderate Palestinian Authority, said Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“You look right now at America’s calls for calm and they’re difficult to take seriously,” Mr. Schanzer said by telephone from Israel on Tuesday. “It’s not because the U.S. doesn’t want to see calm in the region, but because it seems as though the U.S. has exacerbated the current tensions by raising expectations for a peace process that was not ripe, and by acknowledging a technocratic Palestinian government that included, at least by proxy, the interests of Hamas.”
The Palestinian Authority-Hamas alliance prompted unease in Washington, but the Obama administration ultimately accepted it. Despite Hamas’ status on U.S. terrorist lists, the White House announced that it would continue disbursing American aid to the West Bank and Gaza.
The move infuriated Mr. Netanyahu, who asserted that the Palestinian Authority essentially rejected the peace process in favor of aligning with a “murderous terror organization that calls for the destruction of Israel.”
While the Israeli military offensive against Hamas has thrown the unity agreement into disarray, the U.S.-Israeli ill will still hangs in the background and may factor in the White House’s conciliatory posture toward Israel.
“There’s going to be a time here where Israel has the opportunity to take out the longer-range rockets that Hamas has been hiding for the last two years,” said Mr. Schanzer. “I don’t expect the U.S. will say much about it for the next few days. After that, there will be calls for calm.”
“The question is: Who will broker that calm?” he said.
To reach the 2012 cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, he said, the Obama administration leaned heavily on the role of the now ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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