Obama sends Clinton to Middle East to seek end to Gaza violence

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is headed to the Middle East amid continuing violence between Israel and Hamas, the White House announced.

“Secretary Clinton and the president spoke about the situation in Gaza ... and they agreed that it makes sense for the secretary to travel to the region,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters on Tuesday, according to a White House transcript.

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Rhodes said that Clinton, who is accompanying the president on his three-country tour of Asia and attending the ASEAN summit in Cambodia, would leave today to “travel to Jerusalem, Ramallah and Cairo.”

Clinton's trip comes amid reports that Hamas is expected to announce a ceasefire late Tuesday.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, whom the administration has pressed to stem attacks from Hamas on Israel, on Tuesday also predicted an end to the violence soon.

“The efforts to conclude a truce between the Palestinian and Israeli sides will produce positive results in the next few hours,” Morsi said, according to Egypt's MENA news agency.

Morsi's statement comes as President Obama on Tuesday talked to him for the third time in 24 hours while flying home from his trip to Asia.

"It was an opportunity for them to continue the discussions they’ve been having and to speak in advance of Secretary Clinton’s arrival in the region," Rhodes told reporters traveling with the president.

"President Obama underscored once again the importance of working for a de-escalation to the conflict in Gaza. He commended President Morsi’s efforts to pursue a de-escalation. And he also underscored that President Morsi’s efforts reinforce the important role that President Morsi and Egypt play on behalf of regional security and the pursuit of broader peace between the Palestinians and Israelis."

Clinton is slated to meet with Morsi later this week, but will first speak with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Tuesday. 

Rhodes added that Clinton would also meet with officials from the Palestinian Authority but would not speak to representatives from Hamas.

“The United States does not engage directly with Hamas. Hamas has not met the conditions that we’ve set for many years — to renounce terrorism, to recognize Israel’s right to exist and to abide by pre-existing agreements. So we do not engage directly with Hamas,” said Rhodes.

The White House on Tuesday reiterated its support for Israel’s operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. 

Israel began launching air attacks against Hamas targets in Gaza last week after a recent uptick in rockets fired by the terror group into Israeli territory. Hamas leaders responded with further rocket attacks as Israeli officials said they were considering a ground offensive.

The White House has offered public backing for Israel’s operations, with Obama saying on Sunday he was “fully supportive” of Israel’s right to defend itself. But the president cautioned that he hoped Israeli officials could achieve their military objectives without “ramping up” the operation in Gaza.

On Tuesday, Rhodes said that the decision to launch a ground war was up to Israel, but stressed that administration officials believed a diplomatic solution to the conflict was possible. 

“As we've said, we think Israel has the right to defend itself. We think that Israel will make its own decisions about the military operations and decisions that it undertakes,” said Rhodes. “However, at the same time, we believe that Israelis — like the United States, like other countries — would prefer to see their interest met diplomatically and peacefully. As the president said the other day, an Israeli operation of that nature would bring ... a great cost to Palestinians in Gaza, but also to Israelis, because inevitably it would involve Israelis casualties.”

The conflict also poses a test for U.S. relations with Egypt, whose president is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. The White House has pressed the Islamist leader to rein in Hamas, as some congressional lawmakers have suggested reviewing the $2 billion in annual aid sent to Cairo. 

Rhodes described Morsi’s efforts to halt the violence as “practical and constructive.”

“Ultimately, it’s going to have to be Hamas within Gaza that takes a step of not pursuing rocket fire on Israeli territory. But we believe that Egypt can and should be a partner in seeking to bring about that outcome,” said Rhodes.

—This story was first posted at 6:29 a.m. and has been updated.