Obama 'encouraged' by Egypt ceasefire plan

President Obama told a gathering Monday that he was “encouraged” by a ceasefire plan proposed by Egypt to end the violence in Gaza, calling the bloody situation that has developed “unsustainable.”

Obama told a gathering of Muslim diplomats and elected officials that further escalation of the fighting between the Israelis and Palestinians “benefits no one” and that the U.S. would do everything in its power to help restore a truce agreement.

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The peace plan, announced by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, includes three stages. A ceasefire would go into effect within 12 hours of both sides joining the agreement, followed shortly thereafter by the opening of Gaza’s border crossings. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators would then begin meeting with 48 hours in Cairo.

“We are encouraged that Egypt has made a proposal to accomplish this goal, which we hope can restore the calm that we’ve been seeking,” Obama said.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Secretary of State John Kerry had been “deeply engaged” with regional leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Egyptian government officials and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas "throughout this difficult period."

“The United States remains committed to working with them and our regional partners to find a resolution to this dangerous and volatile situation,” she said.

According to the State Department, Kerry has spoken with Netanyahu on four occasions since July 12, and with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry twice. He also spoke with Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohammad al-Attiyah, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh.

Despite pledging his hope that the Egyptian plan would resolve the crisis, sparked last month by the murders of three Israeli and one Palestinian teen, Obama also defended Israel’s military action in Gaza.

Obama said “no country can accept rockets fired indiscriminately at its citizens,” and condemned the “inexcusable attacks from Hamas.”

But in a nod to growing anger among Muslims over civilian deaths in the Israeli counteroffensive, Obama also said “the death and injury of Palestinian civilians is a tragedy.”

“The pictures we are seeing in Gaza and Israel are heart-wrenching,” Obama said.

An estimated 185 Palestinians have died in the fighting, with another 1,000 estimated wounded. No Israelis have yet died from the hundreds of rockets fired from Gaza into Israel, thanks in part to the U.S.-funded Iron Dome system.

Obama made the remarks as some high-profile Muslim groups were calling for a boycott of the Iftar dinner, where Muslims celebrating the holy month of Ramadan break their fast. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee called on leaders to avoid the dinner over the administration’s refusal to condemn the Israeli airstrikes.

“In the government’s silence, Israel is committing a massacre in Palestine with the possibility of an all-out ground assault. Our American tax dollars have contributed to over 100 civilian casualties as of Monday morning, of which 70 percent are estimated by the United Nations to be women and children," the group said in a statement Monday. "This deplorable situation, brought on by Israel’s U.S.-sanctioned illegal occupation of Palestine, has received no direct action from President Obama. Yet, as this humanitarian crisis continues abroad, we do not believe it is appropriate to attend iftar dinners sponsored by government agencies while lives are being lost."

White House press secretary Josh Earnest, asked about the boycott, said the goal of the dinner was “an  opportunity for the President and other senior administration officials to pay tribute to the important role that Muslim Americans play in American communities all across the country.”

“Tonight’s dinner is an opportunity to pay tribute to that contribution, and we certainly respect the differences that some people may have on this — on these matters,” Earnest said. “But we would not want that to overshadow the efforts of the President and other senior administration officials to pay tribute to the contribution that so many American Muslims play in their communities.”

Obama also acknowledged in his remarks that “there are strong views, as well as differences, about how we should move forward” in the Middle East.

“We welcome that debate.  That makes us stronger,” Obama said.