President Barack Obama said Sunday an incursion by Israel‘s forces into the Gaza Strip could only deepen its death toll, cautioning against an escalation even as he defended the Jewish state’s right to defend itself. Obama also warned Palestinians the crisis could crush peace hopes for years.
“Israel has every right to expect that it does not have missiles fired into its territory,” Obama said at the start of a three-nation tour in Asia.
“If that can be accomplished without a ramping up of military activity in Gaza, that’s preferable,” he said. “It’s not just preferable for the people of Gaza. It’s also preferable for Israelis, because if Israeli troops are in Gaza, they’re much more at risk of incurring fatalities or being wounded.”
Obama’s comments came as Israel’s campaign against Hamas militants in Gaza blasted into its fifth day. Israel is at a crossroads of whether to launch a ground invasion or pursue Egyptian-led truce efforts. Obama sought to defend the U.S. ally’s rights while pushing for a halt in the violence.
Obama made his remarks during a news conference at the start of a four-day trip, a visit designed to expand the U.S. economic and military footprint in a region long dominated by China.
But the developments in and around Israel illustrated the foreign policy challenges facing Obama. Even as he mounted a proactive mission in Southeast Asia, he was forced into a reactive mode to respond to conflict in the Middle East that he has been unable to help resolve.
From Thailand, Obama also defended his decision to go to Myanmar, also known as Burma, as some critics called his presence premature.
Obama will be the first U.S. president to visit the country, which is moving from a brutal reign toward democracy but still holds political prisoners and is living with ethnic violence.
“This is not an endorsement of the Burmese government,” Obama said. “This is an acknowledgement that there is a process underway inside that country that even a year and a half, two years ago, nobody foresaw.”
Obama said he was also guided by Burma’s longtime democracy advocate, Aung Sung Suu Kyi, who visited him recently at the White House.
“I’m not somebody who thinks the United States should stand on the sidelines and not get its hands dirty when there’s an opportunity for us to encourage the better impulses inside a country,” he said.
Change in a country can happen quickly, Obama said, if people believe “their voices are heard.”
The president will also visit Cambodia during his Asia trip, which began Sunday in Thailand. He was here as a sign of U.S. commitment to a region his administration deems vital to U.S. economic growth, but the shadows of another Mideast conflict hung over his journey.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared Sunday that Israel was prepared to significantly expand its military operation in Gaza. Obama has been lobbying Netanyahu along with the leaders of Egypt and Turkey to try to halt the crisis — including stopping rocket strikes on Israel.
He said Israel was justly responding to “an ever escalating number of missiles that were landing not just in Israeli territory, but in areas that are populated. And there’s no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.”
Obama said Palestinians will have no chance to pursue their own state and a lasting peace with Israel as long as rockets are fired into Israel. He said he hoped for a clearer process over the next 48 hours — showing how much the Mideast conflict had intruded on his diplomatic mission to Asia.
Still, Obama got a red-carpet welcome, a dose of sightseeing and an official dinner of authentic Thai food.
In a news conference with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, both leaders spoke of deepening ties of trade, security and democracy. Obama’s praised Thailand for being a supporter of democracy in Myanmar, the once-pariah state that is rapidly reforming. He said he appreciated the Thai prime minister’s insights into Myanmar during their private meeting Sunday.
On a steamy day, Obama began with a visit to the Wat Pho Royal Monastery, a cultural must-see in Bangkok. In stocking feet, the president and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton walked up to a giant statue of Reclining Buddha, nearly 50 yards long and 45 feet high. The complex is a sprawling display of temples with colorful spires, gardens and waterfalls.
After his time at the temple, Obama paid a courtesy call to the ailing, 84-year-old U.S.-born King Bhumibol Adulyadej in his hospital quarters. The king, the longest serving living monarch, was born in Cambridge, Mass., and studied in Europe.
The centerpiece of the Asia trip comes Monday when Obama travels to Burma.
Obama aides see Burma as not only a success story but also as a signal to other countries that the U.S. will reward democratic behavior.