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CONFLICT IN THE MIDDLE EAST: CONCERN IN WASHINGTON

Behind closed doors, U.S. seeks an exit

Washington is worried a prolonged campaign in Gaza could bolster Hamas. It wants Israel to set a timetable.

December 31, 2008|Paul Richter

WASHINGTON — While publicly declaring strong support for Israel, the Bush administration is increasingly nervous about the 4-day-old campaign in the Gaza Strip and is urging its ally to settle on a timetable and exit strategy, say foreign diplomats and Middle East experts close to the discussions.

U.S. officials are concerned that the campaign could drag on without destroying Hamas, and might even bolster support for the militant group -- just as the 2006 Israeli campaign in Lebanon strengthened Hezbollah, they say.

"You're not hearing that same confidence you did in 2006 that the Israeli military can impose a new strategic reality and should go full force," said one Arab diplomat in Washington. "There's a real contrast between their words then and now."

U.S. officials were talking intensively Tuesday to Arab and European powers about the possibility of a two- or three-day cease-fire, diplomats said. U.S. diplomacy is complicated by differences between the White House and the State Department, these sources said.

President Bush has been a steadfast supporter of Israel's right to take whatever steps it considers necessary for its defense, and U.S. officials are not pressuring Israel to stop fighting before it believes it can safely do so.

But the State Department must deal with the growing international pressure for a halt in the campaign. U.S. officials are calling for a "durable" cease-fire -- meaning the Israelis need to stop fighting only after Hamas has done enough to convince them that rocket attacks will not resume within hours.

Yet U.S. officials have keen memories of what happened in Lebanon. The administration gave broad support to that campaign, which Israeli officials said could "eviscerate" Hezbollah. The war, which lasted 34 days and involved intense ground and air attacks, strengthened America's enemies and weakened its friends in the region, most observers agree.

"The United States put itself in a vulnerable position internationally with that commitment," said Daniel Senor, a former administration official now affiliated with the Council on Foreign Relations. "Just like Israel, the Bush administration is thinking now about the lessons of the Lebanon war."

U.S. officials have also been warning Israel to take care to avoid any single strike that, by inflicting devastating civilian casualties, could further swing international opinion against it.

That happened in July 2006, when Israeli warplanes hit a building in the Lebanese village of Qana, inflicting dozens of casualties.

The Qana attack "was a big turning point in that war," Senor said. "The administration wants Israel to execute this operation in ways that avoid the mistakes, setbacks and blemishes of 2006."

Of the almost 400 Palestinian deaths in the latest violence, the United Nations estimates that 62 were civilians. Four Israeli civilians have been killed by rocket fire from Gaza.

Senor said the Americans' desire for clarity about the end game and exit strategy may put them in conflict with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who wants to preserve his options and keep his enemies guessing.

Though Bush is in his last three weeks on the job, he and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have an enormous stake in the outcome of the battle.

They have been claiming that their peace efforts have been yielding results, but the war has weakened their foremost Palestinian ally, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, while raising the prospect that it will give his Hamas rivals both greater public support and political power.

The fighting also has resulted in criticism of U.S. allies Egypt and Jordan, both of which have diplomatic relations with Israel and are regarded by some Arabs as unable to halt the current conflict. That could enhance the status of Iran and its hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has been under tremendous pressure because of his country's slumping economy.

The Arab diplomat, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the diplomacy, said that until the offensive, "Hamas was in a bind -- their popularity was declining. . . . Now they could be the winner."

White House and State Department officials declined to comment on what they are telling the Israelis. A State Department spokesman, Gordon Duguid, said U.S. diplomats were "working as hard as we can to help reestablish a cease-fire that can be fully respected, one that's sustainable, one that's durable."

Foreign diplomats who have been talking to U.S. officials say they see a difference in emphasis between the White House and State Department.

On Saturday, when the Israeli campaign began, Rice issued a statement calling for restoration of the cease-fire, which had been mediated by Egypt and which Hamas often violated.

Now, however, both State Department and White House officials are referring to a "durable cease-fire," entailing new and stricter terms.

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