Rising tensions in the Gaza Strip have put President Obama’s sometimes rocky relationship with Israel back in the spotlight and afforded the administration an opportunity to back a growing military crackdown on Hamas for its spate of rocket attacks against Israeli civilians.
Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, met Tuesday with Mr. Obama and offered rare public praise afterward, saying the president afforded “strong support of Israel’s right to defend itself.”
The pleasantries in what has often been a cool relationship were exchanged on a day when Israeli fighter jets pounded 150 sites in Gaza — including some homes — and approved the mobilization of 40,000 reserve troops for a possible ground invasion of the Palestinian enclave.
Publicly, Mr. Obama called for a peaceful resolution and restraint. He even penned an op-ed in a top Israeli newspaper Tuesday.
White House officials, however, made it clear that the U.S. supports Israel’s offensive, and security specialists said the administration appeared to accept Israel’s argument that a strong response is necessary to bring Hamas to the bargaining table.
“The idea is to try to convince Hamas that they will suffer far more than any possible gain that they can register from this conflict,” said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Hamas cannot know for sure if they pursue more rocket attacks deep in the heart of Israeli population centers that Israel may use ground forces to end once and for all Hamas control of Gaza.”
The Israeli decision to call up a large number of reservists is “more threat than reality,” said Mr. Satloff, who noted that the Israeli offensive now is restricted to airstrikes.
Palestinian officials said the Israeli bombardment killed at least 23 people across Gaza, according to the Reuters news agency. Israelis ran for cover late Tuesday as air raid sirens sounded in the business capital Tel Aviv and the holy city of Jerusalem, both of which were hit in the Gaza war of November 2012.
Israeli military officials said nearly 300 rockets and mortars had been fired from Gaza in recent weeks after two years of relative calm. The two sides agreed to a cease-fire in 2012.
Tensions have mounted since the collapse of U.S.-brokered peace talks in April and reached a boiling point after last month’s kidnappings and killings of three Israeli teenagers in the Palestinian-controlled West Bank, and the subsequent abduction and burning to death of a Palestinian teen in Jerusalem.
The Israeli air force has conducted a growing number of bombing runs over Gaza during recent days and said the goal is to “retrieve stability to the residents of southern Israel, eliminate Hamas‘ capabilities and destroy terror infrastructure operating against” Israel.
“No country can accept rocket fire aimed at civilians, and we support Israel’s right to defend itself against these vicious attacks,” he said.
But he also said the White House is “hopeful that even as Israel exercises their right to self-defense that they’ll leave open a channel for diplomacy to prevail and for a cease-fire, or at least a de-escalation in the violence, to commence.”