Obama to Netanyahu: U.S. Seeks Immediate Cease-fire

U.S. President reiterates support for Israel's right to self-defense, raises concerns over growing number of casualties on both sides.

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Obama and Netanyahu shake hands during a meeting in the White House. March 3, 2014.
Obama and Netanyahu shake hands during a meeting in the White House. March 3, 2014.Credit: AFP

U.S. President Barak Obama told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a telephone conversation on Sunday that the United States wants to achieve an immediate cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, along the lines of the understandings that ended Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, told journalists Sunday night that the Gaza operation was “a war for our home.” He added that the ground operation would continue as long as necessary to restore quiet, and that Israel had taken all the necessary diplomatic steps to bestow legitimacy on the ground operation.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will arrive in Cairo on Monday to try to advance a cease-fire agreement. He will be coming to Israel on Tuesday.

The phone call between Obama and Netanyahu was the second between the two leaders during the last three days. The conversation, which took place a few hours after the results of the battle in the Sujaiyeh neighborhood of Gaza City became known, was the first time that Obama had said the United States was interested in an immediate cease-fire.

Obama continued to express support for the Israel Defense Forces operation and for Israel’s right to defend itself, and condemned the rocket fire from Gaza. But in an announcement the White House said that Obama had made it clear to Netanyahu that he was seriously concerned by the rising number of Palestinian civilian casualties and the number of Israeli soldiers who’d been killed. Obama told Netanyahu that the United States would work with Israel and other countries in the region to achieve an immediate cease-fire.

The cease-fire between Israel and Hamas that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton brokered with the help of the Egyptian government to end Operation Pillar of Defense called for an immediate cease-fire and only then detailed negotiations on issues relating to Gazans’ daily lives, like opening up the crossings, expanding the fishing zone, and stabilizing the security situation in the strip.

Kerry gave a series of interviews on Sunday to the five major morning talk shows on U.S. television networks, and while waiting for commercials during an interview with Fox News, the rolling camera and open microphone caught Kerry conversing with an aide standing off-camera.

Kerry had just been told of the dozens of Palestinians that had been killed in the Sujaiyeh neighborhood and 14 Israeli soldiers who had been killed during the fighting. After hearing this, Kerry, not realizing that the mike was open, said cynically, “That’s a hell of a pinpoint operation; a hell of a pinpoint operation.”

He then added, “We’ve gotta get over there. I think John, we ought to go tonight. I think it’s crazy to be sitting around.”

Kerry’s remarks about a “pinpoint operation,” were a reference to a phone conversation he had had with Netanyahu on Thursday night after the decision to launch the ground offensive. During that call Netanyahu had stressed that the ground operation would be focused and deal solely with destroying the tunnels that Hamas had dug into Israeli territory. Kerry told Netanyahu that keeping the operation confined to the tunnels was very important.

Most of the diplomatic activity on Sunday took place in Doha, the capital of Qatar, where Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met with Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Meshal. UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon and the Norwegian foreign minister also came to Doha in an effort to convince the Qatari emir and foreign minister to pressure Hamas to accept the Egyptian cease-fire proposal.

The security cabinet convened last night for another debate on broadening the Gaza operation and on the diplomatic efforts to reach a cease-fire.

In interviews Netanyahu gave to the foreign media before the security cabinet meeting he said he was interested in an agreement that would assure quiet for the long term, and then work with the international community to rid the Gaza Strip of missiles.

“In the days before the ground operation we worked to build a diplomatic infrastructure,” Netanyahu said. “We responded to the Egyptian cease-fire proposal and to the UN and Red Cross proposals for a humanitarian cease-fire. These actions, together with talks with world leaders, laid the diplomatic groundwork for the operation, for which we are being granted diplomatic credit for the right of Israel to defend itself and restore quiet to our communities and our cities.”

Netanyahu told the press conference that Israel was in contact with the PA at all levels.

“There is a congruence of interests with regard to Hamas, because no one except for Iran and Qatar supports Hamas,” he said. “[Abbas] could be part of the solution, if we understand that this Hamas, which is cynically sacrificing Palestinians in Gaza, can’t be part of the peace process. I think that the entire world is starting to understand that.”

Netanyahu updated United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron on the progress of the IDF ground operation in a telephone conversation on Sunday evening

The premier stressed to his British counterpart that Israel had accepted the Egyptian cease-fire proposal, the UN request for a humanitarian cease-fire and the truce requested by the Red Cross, while Hamas had rejected the Egyptian proposal and broken the humanitarian cease-fires.

Netanyahu said that it was up to the international community to ensure that Gaza was free of weapons. Hamas, he said, was a murderous terror organization that sacrifices the civilians of Gaza by using them as human shields. Israel is making every effort to avoid civilian casualties in Gaza, he said.

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