by David Jackson, USA TODAY
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was on her way to the Middle East on Tuesday as the U.S. urgently tries to contain the blood conflict between Israel and Hamas.
Clinton hastily left Cambodia, where she had joined President Obama for summit meetings with Asian leaders. She will make three stops, meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Palestinian officials in Ramallah, West Bank, and Egyptian leaders in Cairo, according to State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
Nuland said Obama had spoken to Netanyahu and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. Clinton, she said, will build on those talks to encourage "de-escalation of violence and a durable outcome that ends the rocket attacks on Israeli cities and towns and restores a broader calm."
"She will emphasize the United States' interest in a peaceful outcome that protects and enhances Israel's security and regional stability; that can lead to improved conditions for the civilian residents of Gaza; and that can reopen the path to fulfill the aspirations of Palestinians and Israelis for two states living in peace and security," Nuland said.
Clinton's trip marks the Obama administration's most forceful engagement in the week-long conflict that has killed more than 100 Palestinians and three Israelis, with hundreds more wounded. While the U.S. has backed Israel's right to defend itself against rocket fire from Gaza, the Obama administration has warned its ally against pursuing a ground assault that would further escalate the violence and could dramatically increase casualties on both sides.
Clinton has a major goal during her shuttle diplomacy: Avoid an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza.
The White House doesn't put it that directly, but has made clear it wants a peaceful solution to the latest violence in the region.
Deputy National Security adviser Ben Rhodes -- speaking to reporters in Cambodia -- said the administration respects Israel's right to defend itself against rocket attacks. He said, "we think that Israel will make its own decisions about the military operations and decisions that it undertakes."
Rhodes added: "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 (ground) operation of that nature would bring with a great cost to Palestinians in Gaza, but also to Israelis, because inevitably it would involve Israelis casualties."
Obama and Clinton have consulted about the widening crisis throughout their three-day tour of Southeast Asia, their final joint trip before Clinton leaves her post as the top U.S. diplomat. They spoke again about the situation Tuesday morning, aides said, and made the decision for her to travel to the region.
Obama and Clinton each have held multiple telephone calls with their counterparts in Israel and Egypt, which is at the center of negotiations to quell the violence. Because the U.S. considers Hamas a terrorist organization and prohibits contact between its members and American officials, it is relying on Egypt, as well as Turkey and Qatar, to deliver its message to the Hamas leadership in Gaza.
Israel and Hamas say they are open to diplomatic mediation efforts being led by Egypt, but they are far apart in their demands.
Hamas wants Israel to halt all attacks on Gaza and lift tight restrictions on trade and movement in and out of the territory that have been in place since Hamas seized Gaza by force in 2007. Israel demands an end to rocket fire from Gaza and a halt to weapons smuggling into Gaza through tunnels under the border with Egypt.
The widening conflict has threatened to overshadow Obama's three-country tour of Southeast Asia, his first overseas trip after winning re-election. The president, after a marathon day that took him from Thailand to Burma to Cambodia, worked the phones with Mideast leaders into the early hours of Tuesday morning, aides said.
The White House said Obama will be working the phones as he travels aboard Air Force One, returning to Washington from the conference in Cambodia before dawn on Wednesday.
The president "will continue to reach out to his counterparts" in the Middle East, Rhodes said, while Clinton will "have direct face-to-face discussions with those leaders. I don't want to predict exactly what the outcome of those discussions will be."
One key contact: Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who says a cease-fire should be close.
Clinton is scheduled to land in the region Tuesday night, and not return to Washington until Wednesday or Thursday.
Contributing: Associated Press