* First comments on crisis from Obama, on Asia tour
* "Fully supportive of Israel's right to defend itself" -
* Israel bombs Gaza targets for a fifth straight day on
By Matt Spetalnick
BANGKOK, Nov 18 President Barack Obama said on
Sunday it would be "preferable" to avoid an Israeli ground
invasion of Gaza but put the onus on Egypt and Turkey to get
Hamas to halt cross-border rocket fire, saying Israel had a
right to defend itself from attack.
Obama, weighing in with his first comments on the crisis,
made clear he was firmly on the side of U.S. ally Israel against
the Palestinian militant group, but he also seemed to appeal to
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to allow more time for
Middle East leaders to rein in Hamas.
And he warned those in the region who support Palestinian
aspirations for statehood that any peace deal would be pushed
off "way into the future" if the Gaza conflict escalated.
"There's no country on earth that would tolerate missiles
raining down on its citizens from outside its borders," Obama
told a news conference during a visit to Thailand. "So we are
fully supportive of Israel's right to defend itself."
Israel bombed Palestinian militant targets in the Gaza Strip
from air and sea for a fifth straight day on Sunday, preparing
for a possible ground offensive while also spelling out its
conditions for a truce.
Palestinians launched dozens of rockets into Israel and
targeted its commercial capital, Tel Aviv, for a fourth day.
"We're actively working with all parties in the region to
see if we can end those missiles being fired without further
escalation of violence in the region," Obama said during his
first trip abroad since winning re-election on Nov. 6.
He noted that he had spoken regularly during the crisis with
Netanyahu, with whom he has had a testy relationship.
But Obama was more pointed in talking about his
conversations with Egypt's new Islamist president, Mohamed
Mursi, and with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who have
been strongly critical of Israel's air assault on Gaza.
"What I said to President Mursi and Prime Minister Erdogan
is 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," he said.
With Netanyahu warning that Israel was ready to widen its
offensive, Obama said his message to all leaders in the region
was that Israel "has every right to expect that it does not have
missiles fired into its territory".
"If this can be accomplished without a ramping up of
military activity in Gaza, that is preferable," he said when
asked if he would support an Israeli ground assault. "That'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."
"We're going to have to see what kind of progress we can
make in the next 24, 36, 48 hours," Obama added.
He said Hamas's rocket barrages were the "precipitating
event" in the conflict and had to be stopped. The United States,
like Israel, considers Hamas a terrorist organization.
Obama promised to make Israeli-Palestinian peace diplomacy a
high priority when he took office in 2009, but his
administration's on-again-off-again efforts have done little if
anything to bring the two sides any closer to the negotiating
In Washington, senior U.S. lawmakers said they would be
understanding of a potential Israeli ground invasion of Gaza.
"If sending ground troops in is the only way they can clean
out these nests of rockets being fired at them, you know, you
can't blame them for doing it," Republican U.S. Senator Saxby
Chambliss, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told
the "Fox News Sunday" program.
Asked whether Obama should put more pressure on the Egyptian
government - including a threat to cut off aid - to get Hamas to
stop firing rockets, Chambliss said: "He needs to exert every
kind of pressure he can ... to try to make sure this doesn't
escalate into a full-blown war between the Palestinians and the
Israelis. And, you know, whatever that takes."
Senator Lindsey Graham, a key Republican voice on foreign
policy, added a warning to Egypt.
Speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press" program, Graham said:
"Egypt, watch what you do and how you do it. You are teetering
with the (U.S.) Congress in having your aid cut off if you keep
inciting violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians."
Senator John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed
Services Committee, said the United States needed to be heavily
involved in the latest conflict.
"The United States obviously should be as heavily involved
as it possibly can," McCain said on CBS's "Face the Nation"
television show. "I'm not sure how much influence that this
administration has," he said, following failed efforts in 2009
to help bridge differences between Israelis and Palestinians.
"The United States of America has got to push as hard as we
can to resolve this Israeli-Palestinian issue. So many events
are hinged on making that process go forward."