As Hamas rocket attacks extending to Jerusalem threatened to take the conflict with Israel to a ground assault, President Obama may have his professed commitment to Israel tested.
And an apparently wary Capitol Hill has been laboring this week — despite the overshadowing issues ranging from the fiscal cliff to the Petraeus scandal to Benghazi — to ensure that America doesn’t neglect its vow to be an unwavering ally of the Jewish state.
The House quickly, with unanimous consent, passed a resolution introduced today by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Ranking Member Howard Berman (D-Calif.), both ardent supporters of Israel, expressing vigorous support for Israel’s survival as a Jewish and democratic state and strongly supporting its right to act in self-defense.
“Israel’s enemies will surely push for the UN to condemn and pressure Israel for protecting its citizens,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “Therefore, the United States must stand with our ally Israel and defend it on the world stage. The administration must unequivocally support Israel’s right to self-defense and oppose all anti-Israel efforts at the UN. At this critical time, there must be no doubt that America has Israel’s back.”
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) spoke on the House floor, where Hoyer reminded lawmakers if Mexico or Canada fired missiles at the U.S., “We would not stand for it for one minute.”
“Since the beginning of 2012, Hamas has launched more than 900 rockets at the state of Israel,” Wasserman Schultz said. “Three hundred forty of these were in the past several days alone. In the face of this brutality, Israel, like any nation, has the right and the duty to protect her citizens from unwarranted violence and destruction.”
An identical resolution introduced in the upper chamber by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) passed last night.
“We strongly reiterate our support for Israel’s right to self-defense as a barrage of missiles from Gaza are attacking the people of Israel and endangering innocent lives,” said Gillibrand.
“The passage of this resolution sends a strong and clear message that the United States stands in solidarity with the State of Israel,” Kirk said.
AIPAC saluted “the resolute stance of the Senate and the House in standing by our democratic ally, Israel.”
“Israel has shown tremendous restraint in the face of the unceasing rocket and mortar fire launched from Gaza,” said the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman. “This operation is directly targeting the leadership responsible for these attacks, as well as the warehouses and facilities housing their weapons. No country in the world would stand by and tolerate such attacks on more than a million civilians.”
While Congress is clearly willing to hold the line, will the White House?
Obama’s day was centered around fiscal cliff negotiations, but he did speak with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan about “the escalating violence in Israel and the Gaza Strip.”
“The two leaders shared their concerns about the dangers to civilian populations on both sides and expressed their common desire to see an end to the violence,” the White House said in a readout.
Obama spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi by phone on Wednesday.
“The President urged Prime Minister Netanyahu to make every effort to avoid civilian casualties. The two agreed that Hamas needs to stop its attacks on Israel to allow the situation to de-escalate,” said a statement from the press secretary. “The President also spoke with President Morsi given Egypt’s central role in preserving regional security. In their conversation, President Obama condemned the rocket fire from Gaza into Israel and reiterated Israel’s right to self-defense.”
Obama called Netanyahu again today, the White House announced this evening, for an update.
“The Prime Minister expressed his deep appreciation to the President and the American people for the United States’ investment in the Iron Dome rocket and mortar defense system, which has effectively defeated hundreds of incoming rockets from Gaza and saved countless Israeli lives,” said the statement from the office of the press secretary. “The President reiterated U.S. support for Israel’s right to defend itself, and expressed regret over the loss of Israeli and Palestinian civilian lives. The two leaders discussed options for de-escalating the situation.”
The president also rang Morsi again.
“The President commended Egypt’s efforts to de-escalate the situation and expressed his hope that these efforts would be successful. The President expressed regret for the loss of Israeli and Palestinian civilian lives, and underscored the importance of resolving the situation as quickly as possible to restore stability and prevent further loss of life,” the White House said.
In a conference call yesterday to discuss Obama’s upcoming trip to Asia, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said the administration continues “to be in close contact with the Israelis to have an understanding of their plans going forward.”
“We’ve also urged those who have a degree of influence with Hamas — such as Turkey and Egypt and some of our European partners — to use that influence to urge Hamas to de-escalate,” he added.
Rhodes said at the United Nations, “We’ve sought to keep the focus where it should be, which is on Hamas’ rocket fire as the precipitating cause here in posing such a grave threat to the Israeli people, and to oppose efforts to single out Israel for the actions that they’ve taken in response to that rocket fire.”
When asked about whether the U.S. would support Israel sending ground forces into Gaza, Rhodes said, “Ultimately, it’s up to the Israeli government to make determinations about how they’re going to carry out their military objectives.”
“We certainly want to see a de-escalation. We certainly want to see a broader conflict avoided,” he added.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner was reminded at yesterday’s press briefing that the response from Egypt hasn’t exactly been what Washington said it’s asked of Cairo.
“We certainly do convey our concerns, certainly to Egypt as a regional leader, as someone who has influence in the region,” Toner said. “We convey our concerns and we consult closely on them whenever there’s this kind of outbreak of violence.”
This is the first “outbreak of violence” between Gaza and Israel, though, where the U.S. has faced dealing with a Muslim Brotherhood leader in Egypt.
The chief of Egypt’s presidential cabinet, Mohamed Refa’a al-Tahtawi, insisted on CNN International’s Amanpour that the country’s treaties with Israel are “not at all” in danger — with a “but.”
“I think after all, what Israel really did was a miscalculation and I’m sure that our brothers in Gaza are also keen to restore peace and to continue their life normally,” al-Tahtawi said. “…We hope that the United States would exert some influence on Israel to restrain from escalation, because you start a war, you never know how to end it.”
Israeli Prime Minister Danny Ayalon said on CNN “the situation now has been exacerbated because of the so-called Arab Spring.”
“What happened is that the Hamas is able now to get more accurate and long-range missiles from the cachets of Gadhafi, get a lot from Sudan and Iran,” Ayalon said. “And they use it, of course, very irresponsibly. All we have to do as a matter of self-defense.”
Three Israelis and 27 Palestinians have been killed by the rockets and retaliatory strikes, which are targeting Hamas leaders.
As the conflict unfolded on Twitter — with #HamasBumperStickers and #HamasMovies taking their turns at the top of trending topics — lawmakers jumped on board the #IStandWithIsrael hashtag.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.): “I unequivocally stand with the Israeli people & their right to defend themselves against terrorists #IStandWithIsrael #PillarofDefense”
“In addition to condemning the violence in Gaza, the UN should condemn terrorists that threaten stability/target civilians. #IStandWithIsrael,” tweeted Republican Policy Committee chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.).
“Israel has every right to defend herself – Hamas attacks against Israel must stop immediately. We mourn loss of innocent lives,” chimed Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
From Ros-Lehtinen: “Hamas’ rain of rockets all the way 2 Jersualeum +Tel Aviv MUST stop. Israel has right 2 defend itself #IStandWithIsrael http://1.usa.gov/TIiXQK”
While the Israeli Defense Forces tweeted updates of airstrikes and rocket attacks, Hamas’ Al-Qassam Brigades tweeted a cartoon showing a weeping Netanyahu speared through his boxers by a rocket.
Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren on CNN yesterday related how one Israeli pilot was targeting a long-range missile yet aborted his mission because he saw children in the vicinity.
“One of those missiles hit outside of Tel Aviv today. So, we pay a price,” Oren said. “…They’re trying their best to kill Israeli civilians. We’re trying to avoid harming Palestinians. That’s the difference between a democratic state and a terrorist organization.”