Obama: Even after truce, status quo unsustainable

At annual Iftar dinner, president decries civilians’ suffering, asserts Israel’s right to defend citizens, says ‘just and lasting peace’ needed

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

US President Barack Obama speaks as he hosts an Iftar dinner in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington on July 14, 2014. Obama said he hopes Egypt's ceasefire plan can restore calm in Gaza (Photo credit: Jewel Samad/AFP)
US President Barack Obama speaks as he hosts an Iftar dinner in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington on July 14, 2014. Obama said he hopes Egypt's ceasefire plan can restore calm in Gaza (Photo credit: Jewel Samad/AFP)

WASHINGTON — Even if the Egyptian ceasefire were to take effect Tuesday, the current status quo in the region is “unsustainable,” US President Barack Obama told guests at an official White House Iftar dinner on Monday evening. Using strong language to condemn rocket attacks launched from the Gaza Strip against Israeli civilians, Obama described the pictures that are seen from both Gaza and Israel as “heart wrenching.”

“The situation in Gaza reminds us again that the status quo is unsustainable and that the only path to true security is a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, where differences are resolved peacefully and in ways that respect the dignity of all people,” Obama told attendees, including elected officials, religious and grassroots leaders in the Muslim American community, leaders of diverse faiths, and members of the diplomatic corps.

“Our goal has been and continues to be peace and security for both Israelis and Palestinians,” Obama said. “And I will say very clearly, no country can accept rocket fired indiscriminately at citizens. And so, we’ve been very clear that Israel has the right to defend itself against what I consider to be inexcusable attacks from Hamas.”

The president followed the statement by saying that “at the same time, on top of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza that we’ve worked long and hard to alleviate, the death and injury of Palestinian civilians is a tragedy, which is why we’ve emphasized the need to protect civilians, regardless of who they are or where they live.”

Obama did not, however, call for an end to — or even criticize — the continuing Israeli airstrikes against Gaza terror targets which are frequently embedded within the civilian population.

Speaking hours after Egyptian officials presented a deal for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, Obama said that the US was “encouraged that Egypt has made a proposal to accomplish this goal, which we hope can restore the calm that we’ve been seeking.”

He promised that the US would “continue doing everything we can to facilitate a return to the 2012 cease-fire,” a deal brokered with the intercession of both Egypt and the United States.

Prior to the Egyptian announcement, the US was said to be attempting to enlist the help of Egypt and Qatar in mediating the escalating violence and putting an end to the rockets launched into Israel by Gazan terror groups.

A senior State Department official revealed late Monday evening that the US was not attempting to work alone, but instead, its “focus is on working with countries in the region to see if it is possible to facilitate a cessation of hostilities, including a return to the November 2012 ceasefire agreement.”

The official said to that end, Secretary of State John Kerry “has been in regular contact with key partners.”

“The Secretary has never hesitated to engage to get important diplomacy done,” the official said, emphasizing that between July 12 and July 14, Secretary Kerry spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on four occasions and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiyah twice each. He also spoke once with his Turkish and Jordanian counterparts.

The official did not, however, note any official conversations between Kerry and Palestinian officials.

This year’s dinner in the State Dining Room was the sixth Iftar that Obama has hosted, continuing the tradition of hosting Iftars and Ramadan Eid celebrations that began annually under President Clinton and was continued by President George W. Bush.

Obama did not mention the boycott of the dinner by the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, which issued a statement in which it asked that “all government Iftar invitees stand together on behalf the community and reject the normalization of the continuous breach of our fundamental rights.”

The organization cited “the government’s condoning of the current slaughter of Palestinians in Palestine and the spying of American Arabs and Muslims domestically.”

Earlier in the day, White House Spokesman Josh Earnest responded to reports of the protest, saying that “it is important for every American to understand that they are critical to the success of our country and interwoven into the basic fabric that makes the United States of America such a unique place to live. 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.”

At the same time, Earnest said, “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.”

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