WASHINGTON - Barack Obama yesterday appeared to line up behind the Bush administration in support of Israel's attack on Gaza.
Speaking on CBS's Face the Nation, his chief adviser, David Axelrod, initially repeated the Obama team's formula that there could only be one president at a time and that president was George Bush.
But he went on to recall comments that Obama made in July at Sderot, the Israeli town that is the target of rocket attacks from Palestinian militants in Gaza.
At the time, Obama said : "If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that. I would expect Israelis to do the same thing."
A similar sentiment was expressed by Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, on Saturday. She said: "The United States strongly condemns the repeated rocket and mortar attacks against Israel and holds Hamas responsible for breaking the ceasefire and for the renewal of violence in Gaza." She added: "The ceasefire should be restored immediately. The United States calls on all concerned to address the urgent humanitarian needs of the innocent people of Gaza."
Gordon Johndroe, the White House security spokesman, also blamed Hamas, whom he referred to as terrorists and thugs. Rice briefed Obama by phone for about eight minutes on Saturday and further calls are planned to ensure he is up to speed on the issue by the time he takes office.
Although Obama has repeatedly said he would not comment on policy matters until he becomes president on 20 January, he has largely abandoned this in relation to the economic crisis, on which he has spoken regularly over the last few weeks, often at odds with Bush. So far, Obama has given no hint on his policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though he has said finding a peace plan would be an early priority of his administration.
Before running for president, he provoked suspicion among Israelis and some US Jewish groups when he expressed sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians. But after winning the Democratic nomination earlier this year he veered in the other direction, voicing strong support for Israel in a speech in Washington to the Israeli lobby group Aipac.
Yesterday , the Washington Post quoted an unnamed senior Bush administration official saying he thought the Israelis launched the attack because of uncertainty over Obama's policy. The official said the Israelis acted "because they want it to be over before the next administration comes in". He added: "They can't predict how the next administration will handle it. And this is not the way they want to start with the new administration."
Israeli officials denied this, saying the Israeli election in February was more a factor than Obama's take-over.
Bush started his presidency determined not to expend much effort on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, after watching his predecessor, Bill Clinton, devote his last months in office in a futile attempt to bring peace.
Over the last year, Bush has made half-hearted attempts at reheating peace plans.
Obama's proposed secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and various other foreign policy advisers would like to mount another attempt at resolving the conflict. But Obama has other foreign policy issues competing for his attention such as the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and the escalating conflict in Afghanistan.