Obama treads lightly on Gaza

President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team is choosing its words carefully in dealing with Israel’s assault on Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The deaths of hundreds of Palestinians in Israel’s deadly air assault on the militant Islamic group will further complicate Obama’s challenge to achieve a Middle East peace — something that eluded both the Bush and Clinton administrations.

David Axelrod, senior adviser to Obama, said the president-elect would honor the "important bond" between the United States and Israel.


"He wants to be a constructive force in helping to bring about the peace and security that both the Israelis and the Palestinians want and deserve," Axelrod said Sunday on CBS’ "Face the Nation." "Obviously, this situation has become even more complicated in the last couple of days and weeks. As Hamas began its shelling, Israel responded. But it’s something that he’s committed to."

Pressed about how much support Obama will offer Israel, Axelrod said: "He’s going to work closely with the Israelis. They’re a great ally of ours, the most important ally in the region. … But he will do so in a way that will promote the cause of peace, and work closely with the Israelis and the Palestinians on that — toward that objective."

The Bush administration has blamed the renewed violence on the militant Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, saying it broke a cease-fire by firing rockets and mortars deep into Israeli territory. The Arab world, however, has reacted with rage to the aggressive Israeli counterattacks.

It’s unclear whether Obama will be as supportive of Israel as President George W. Bush has been.

Jon Alterman, head of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, speculated that Israeli leaders synchronized their retaliatory attacks to political calendars in both Israel and the U.S. More moderate politicians running in the Feb. 10 national election needed to appear strong against Hamas, and it was perhaps better to strike before Bush left office on Jan. 20 because they weren’t as sure about what Obama’s reaction would be.

"I think Obama will be supportive of Israel, but will bring a little more skepticism to it," Alterman said. "I think Obama will start from premise that Israel is an ally, but that we have to look at this fresh."

Bush, who is staying at his Texas ranch, spoke on the phone with national security adviser Stephen Hadley to receive an update on the situation and was being kept abreast of developments throughout the day, said Gordon Johndroe, a presidential spokesman. He said Bush would receive an intelligence briefing via a secured video hookup at the ranch early Monday morning and would be briefed then on any overnight developments.

According to an aide on Obama’s transition team, the president-elect, who is in Hawaii, continues to closely monitor global events, including the situation in Gaza. He had an intelligence briefing Sunday and plans to talk with his incoming national security adviser, Gen. James Jones, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, his nominee for secretary of state.

The aide said Obama appreciates the information the Bush administration is sharing with him. The aide requested anonymity because the Obama team is refraining from comment, saying the U.S. has only one president at a time.

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Associated Press writers Ibrahim Barzak and Amy Teibel in Gaza City and Philip Elliott in Honolulu contributed to this report.