PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the Middle East for urgent talks with Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian leaders in his most decisive move yet to try to halt the Gaza crisis.
Clinton left an Asian summit in Cambodia’s capital, which she was attending with Obama, and headed for Israel to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the first round of a new U.S. diplomatic initiative.
“We want to ... send a clear message that it’s in nobody’s interest to see an escalation of the military conflict,” U.S. deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters in Phnom Penh.
Clinton’s mission appeared to signal growing U.S. alarm over the prospects of a threatened Israeli ground invasion of Gaza as Palestinian rocket fire and Israeli air strikes continued for a seventh day.
Washington has seemed powerless to affect unfolding events and has faced criticism of a hesitant response, and the Gaza crisis has dogged Obama on an Asia trip meant to show a “pivot” East as the United States winds down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Rhodes said the onus remained on Hamas to halt its rocket barrages into Israel and stuck to the administration’s stance that Israel had a right to defend itself.
But he said, “We all agree that the best way to resolve this is through diplomacy, so that you have a peaceful settlement that ends that rocket fire and allows for a broader calm in the region.”
Clinton was due to meet Netanyahu on Wednesday and then go to Ramallah in the West Bank to meet with Palestinian Authority leaders, presumably President Mahmoud Abbas.
She was then to travel to Cairo, where Rhodes would say only that she would meet “Egyptian leaders.”
That would likely mean an encounter with Egypt’s Islamist President Mohamed Mursi, who has spoken by phone several times with Obama since the Gaza crisis erupted and is seen as a possible linchpin in getting Hamas to back down.
“Secretary Clinton will emphasize the United States’ interest in a peaceful outcome that protects and enhances Israel’s security and regional stability, an outcome that can lead to improved conditions for the civilian residents of Gaza, and that could re-open the path to fulfill the aspirations of Palestinians and Israelis for two states living side by side in peace and security,” Rhodes said.
Asked whether Obama was specifically asking Netanyahu to hold off on any ground assault to give more time for diplomacy, Rhodes said: “No. The president has been very clear that Israel is going to make decisions on its security.”
Obama, weighing in with his first comments on the crisis on Sunday, said t would be “preferable” to avoid an Israeli ground invasion but urged Egypt and Turkey to do more to rein in Hamas, which Washington considers a terrorist group.
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 table. (Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Jeff Mason; Editing by Nick Macfie)