Bush sticks with support for Israel

By insisting that Hamas go first in any cease-fire with Israel, the Bush administration is sticking to its support for the Jewish state’s right of self-defense while stopping short of encouraging an Israeli ground assault aimed at fully reoccupying the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

The Bush administration on Wednesday asserted its desire for a halt to the fighting but also made clear its view that the first step in any cease-fire will require Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rejects Israel’s right to exist, to agree to stop firing rockets from Gaza into Israel now and in the future.

From his ranch in Crawford, Texas, President George W. Bush telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for the first time since the conflict escalated last weekend. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice worked the phones with other leaders in the region.

"I think President Bush thinks that Hamas needs to stop firing rockets and that is what will be the first step in a cease-fire," White House deputy press secretary Gordon Johndroe told reporters. He said Hamas also needs to stop smuggling weapons into Gaza — a move that would show they don’t intend to continue to target Israel.

"So I think they’re certainly on the same page on that," Johndroe said of Bush and Olmert, briefing reporters on their phone call.

Israel so far has resisted mounting international pressure to suspend its devastating air offensive in Gaza, which has enraged the Arab world. It sent more troops and tanks to the border as signs of an impending ground invasion multiplied.

The U.N. Security Council met Wednesday night to consider an Arab request for a legally binding resolution that would condemn Israel and halt the attacks. But the U.S. called a draft resolution "unacceptable" because it made no mention of halting the Hamas rockets. A vote on a resolution was not expected before Monday, Sudan’s U.N. ambassador said.

Although the Bush administration has only three weeks left in office, the Gaza crisis could look considerably different by the time President-elect Barack Obama and his designated secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, take office. And it is only one element of the broader challenges in the Middle East.

Two prominent Mideast analysts, Martin Indyk and Richard N. Haass, argued in an essay published this week by the Council on Foreign Affairs and the Brookings Institution that the Obama administration should push for a peace deal between Israel and Syria as a way of diminishing Iran’s influence in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon.

The Israeli air offensive is a response to rockets fired by Hamas militants. At least four Israelis have been killed, including three civilians. Gaza officials put the death toll from the Israeli retaliatory strikes at more than 390 dead and 1,600 wounded.

France has urged Israel to halt its operation for 48 hours, but that proposal seemed to be overcome by events. Olmert discussed the idea with his defense and foreign ministers, but the trio decided to pursue the aerial bombing campaign.

Calls for an immediate cease-fire that would be fully respected by Hamas and by Israel have also come from the U.S., the European Union, the United Nations and Russia, the group known as the Quartet.

Asked if the president was disappointed that Israel hadn’t accepted or responded to the international calls for a cease-fire, Johndroe put the onus squarely on Hamas.

"President Bush is disappointed that Hamas continues to fire rockets onto the innocent people of Israel," he said.

"I think, probably, from the prime minister’s perspective, an end to the violence first means that Hamas stops firing rockets into Israel. And then Israel won’t need to go after the rocket launchers."

Johndroe blamed Iran and Syria for supplying weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah.

"I’m not going to get into any specifics on supplies from Iran and Syria that we’ve seen over the last few days," he said. "But there is no doubt that Iran and Syria are the ones who have assisted Hamas with their weapons acquisition, and that’s a problem."

Rice, meanwhile, continued her telephone diplomacy with officials in the region, pressing them on the need for a "durable and sustainable" cease-fire.

Rice has said she plans a final diplomatic trip early next week to Beijing to celebrate the 30th anniversary of U.S-Chinese relations. U.S. officials say there will be other stops but have not disclosed them.

Rice spoke Wednesday with Jordanian Foreign Minister Salaheddine Al-Bashir, their third conversation since Tuesday, State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said. Rice spoke three times on Tuesday with the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates and once each with Olmert, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Ahmed Aboul Gheith, the foreign minister of Egypt, he said.

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Associated Press writers Deb Riechmann in Crawford, Texas, Ibrahim Barzak and Matti Friedman in Gaza City, Gaza, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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