President Obama said Sunday a ground invasion by Israeli forces into Gaza would only raise the death toll of the past week, and he warned Palestinians that a further escalation of violence would set back hopes for peace for years to come.
As Israel’s military strikes against Hamas militants in Gaza began its fifth day, Mr. Obama appealed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and to the leaders of Egypt and Turkey to find ways to ramp down the violence. The president reiterated Israel’s right to defend itself and said the provocation began with rockets fired at Israel from Gaza.
“Israel has every right to expect that it does not have missiles fired into its territory,” Mr. Obama said in Bangkok, Thailand, at the start of a three-nation tour in Asia. “If that can be accomplished without a ramping up of military activity in Gaza, that’s preferable. It’s not just preferable for the people of Gaza. It’s also preferable for Israelis, because if Israeli troops are in Gaza, they’re much more at risk of incurring fatalities or being wounded.”
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Sunday that Israel might need to invade Gaza to protect itself from further rocket attacks.
“The problem the Israelis have is that these rockets are being fired on them, from places that they can’t reach by flying over in the air,” Mr. Chambliss, Georgia Republican, said on Fox News Sunday. “They are putting them in school yards, where they are surrounded by schoolchildren, and firing them from marketplaces crowded with people. If sending ground troops is the only way they can clean out these nests of rockets being fired at them, you can’t blame them for doing it.”
Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, said neither side wants a ground invasion, but the onus is on Hamas to stop the violence.
“I don’t think Israelis really want a ground war,” Mr. Lieberman said on Fox News Sunday. “The decision is up to Hamas, as to whether there will be a ground invasion of Gaza or not.”
As Mr. Obama began his four-day trip, he spoke on the phone with Mr. Netanyahu, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was in Cairo to announce a $2 billion loan to promote Egypt’s pro-democracy efforts. Mr. Obama said rocket attacks from the Palestinian side are putting at risk any hopes of a two-state solution with Israel.
“What I’ve said to President Morsi and Prime Minister Erdogan is that those who champion the cause of the Palestinians should recognize that if we see a further escalation of the situation in Gaza, then the likelihood of us getting back on any kind of peace track that leads to a two-state solution is going to be pushed off way into the future,” Mr. Obama said.
“And so if we’re serious about wanting to resolve this situation and create a genuine peace process, it starts with no more missiles being fired into Israel’s territory.”
Mr. Obama downplayed a suggestion by a reporter that his encouragement of the “Arab spring” pro-democracy uprisings around the Middle East may have contributed to the current crisis.
“The exact same situation arose just a couple of years ago, before the Arab Spring,” Mr. Obama said of Gaza. “So I don’t think anybody would suggest somehow that it’s unique to democratization in the region that there’s a conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
He said as Arab populations seek more representative governments, the U.S. and other nations have an obligation “to deliver a message that peace is preferable to war.”
“There are no shortcuts to the hard work of trying to bring about what I think is the best option — two states living side by side in peace and security,” Mr. Obama said. “And that’s a message that you can’t just direct at a single figure in these Arab countries; now you’ve got to be able to deliver that message across the board.”
Mr. Obama also defended his decision to visit Burma on this trip, despite that government’s record of human-rights abuses, ethnic violence and imprisonment of political opponents.
“This is not an endorsement of the Burmese government,” Mr. Obama said. “This is an acknowledgement that there is a process under way inside that country that even a year and a half, two years ago, nobody foresaw.”