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US in Diplomatic Push for Renewed Gaza Cease-Fire

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The Bush administration on Monday mounted a campaign of telephone diplomacy aimed at achieving a durable and sustainable Gaza cease-fire.  Meanwhile, analysts say the Gaza crisis has complicated Middle East peace-making hopes for President-elect Barack Obama. 

With little more than three weeks left in office, President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are applying all of the political leverage they have to try to restore the Gaza cease-fire and preserve the gains of a year of intensive Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

While putting the blame for the crisis squarely on Hamas, the administration is urging Israel to avoid civilian casualties in Gaza and imploring nations in the region to use their influence to restore calm.

President Bush telephoned Jordan's King Abdullah early Monday while Secretary Rice continued a series of calls to Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, among others.

State Department Acting Spokesman Gordon Duguid said the aim is to restore the Gaza cease-fire that lapsed earlier this month, but with an end to the rocket firings into Israel that prompted the Israeli offensive.

"The United States is working actively to restore the cease-fire," he said. "The responsibility for violating the truce lies with Hamas.  Hamas needs to stop its rocket attacks and then we believe the cease-fire can be restored.  But it must be sustainable and durable."

Rice's outreach included calls to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, European Union chief diplomat Javier Solana and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov - the other principals in the international "Quartet" on the Middle East.

Rice is also briefing the Barack Obama transition team and aides to incoming Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on her Gaza diplomacy.

U.S. political analysts say Israel timed its Gaza offensive so that military action would be over before Mr. Obama takes office on January 20.  But they say the offensive has dimmed hopes for early progress on an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.

In a conference call with reporters, U.S. Council on Foreign Relations analyst Daniel Senor, a former chief U.S. spokesman in Iraq, said Israel would be disinclined to consider a West Bank withdrawal if the rocket threat from Gaza is not removed.

"The whole notion of a two-state solution, as far as the Israelis are concerned, it is on the line right now," he said. "What I mean by that is that if the Israelis can't be convinced that the U.S. and the international community will let them, if you will, defend against Gaza, then I think the West and the international community can forget about a serious process that would also involve disengagement from the West Bank."

Senor's fellow analyst at the New York-based policy group, Steven Cook, said the Gaza crisis also sets back hopes for peace-making by the Obama administration because it has undercut Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas.

"It clearly, clearly complicates any effort to engage in a vigorous diplomatic effort because the Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip has necessarily weakened Mahmoud Abbas, who has staked his political legacy and his vision of the Palestinians finally achieving their rights on negotiations with the Israelis," he said. "And it's hard to negotiate with the Israelis as they are attacking the Gaza Strip or have just completed attacking the Gaza Strip in an unprecedented since 1967 kind of military operation."

Officials from the Obama transition team have said little about the Gaza crisis, deferring to the outgoing administration.  Senior Obama adviser David Axelrod told interviewers on Sunday that the president-elect wants to be a constructive force for the peace and stability that both Israelis and the Palestinians want and deserve.

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