The death toll from Israel’s military operation in the Gaza Strip surpassed 100 on Monday with scant evidence that an Egyptian-brokered truce is in sight.
“The president and Secretary Clinton have been talking about the situation throughout the trip,” said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, referring to Obama’s four-day trip to Asia, which concludes Tuesday. Obama “met with Secretary Clinton this morning... and they discussed the way forward. ... They concluded the best way to advance discussions with leaders in the region is for Secretary Clinton to take this trip beginning with our close partner Israel.”
Israel faces an increasingly stark choice between deploying ground troops to further weaken the capabilities of rocket-lobbing militants in Gaza and settling into what would almost certainly be a fragile cease-fire with Hamas, the Islamist group that runs the enclave.
Obama spoke with Egyptian President Morsi and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on the phone Monday night and he spoke again to Morsi on Tuesday morning. The Obama administration has been pressuring the Egyptians to help broker a truce. The United States would support an agreement only if it includes an end to rockets being fired into Israeli territory, Rhodes said.
“It’s not a matter of leverage. It’s a matter of what’s in everybody’s best interest,” Rhodes said when asked what leverage Clinton will bring with her.
While negotiators in Cairo sought to find common ground Monday, neither Israel nor Hamas appeared ready to give way, and each articulated aims that the other appeared unlikely to accept. Khaled Meshal, the exiled leader of Hamas, said in Cairo that his group did not want a ground war but was “not fearful” of it.
A backdrop of upheaval across the Middle East has only added to the tension, with the internal struggle in Syria and Israel’s threats against Iran over its nuclear program creating uncertainty on multiple fronts.
Israeli President Shimon Peres said Monday that Iran, with flows of money and weapons, was putting “tremendous pressure” on longtime ally Hamas to maintain its belligerent stance. Throughout the conflict, the Israeli military has accused Hamas of turning Gaza into a “front-line base for Iran.”
As Israel considers its options, a ground invasion or a truce could each bring significant risks for the Jewish state as well as for Palestinians in Gaza, Israeli analysts said.
A ground war would probably result in higher human losses on both sides, erode international support for Israel and galvanize neighboring Arab states that support the Palestinian cause but stayed out of previous flare-ups. Backing away could restart the clock on a new confrontation if grievances were left unresolved.