CRAWFORD, Texas — President George W. Bush believes the first steps in any cease-fire in the ongoing violence in the Mideast will require the Islamic militant group Hamas to agree to stop firing rockets into Israel now and in the future, the White House said Wednesday.
From his ranch in Crawford, Texas, Bush called Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for the first time since the conflict escalated between Israel and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.
"I think President Bush thinks that Hamas needs to stop firing rockets and that is what will be the first step in a cease-fire," White House deputy press secretary Gordon Johndroe told reporters covering the president's stay in Texas. Johndroe said that Hamas also needs to stop smuggling weapons into Gaza — a move that would show it doesn't intend to continue to target Israel.
"So I think they're certainly on the same page on that," Johndroe said, briefing reporters on the Bush-Olmert phone call.
Israel so far has resisted mounting international pressure to suspend its devastating air offensive against militants in the Hamas-ruled Gaza, which has enraged the Arab world. It sent more troops and tanks to the border as signs of an impending ground invasion multiplied.
The Israeli offensive, in its fifth day, is a response to rockets fired by Hamas militants, which are landing ominously close to the Israeli heartland.
On Tuesday, France urged Israel to halt its operation for 48 hours. Olmert discussed the idea with his defense and foreign ministers, but the trio decided to pursue the aerial campaign.
Calls for an immediate cease-fire that would be fully respected by Hamas have also come from the U.S., the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.
In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice continued furious telephone diplomacy with officials in the region, pressing them on the need for a "durable and sustainable" cease-fire.
"The effort to bring about a cease-fire continues," State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid told reporters. "We're not allowing any of the events that have happened to dissuade us in our efforts to bring about a cease-fire that is durable and sustainable."
Rice has said she plans a final diplomatic trip early next week to Beijing to celebrate the 30th anniversary of U.S-Chinese relations. U.S. officials say there will be other stops but have not disclosed them. Asked whether Rice's plans include Mideast shuttle diplomacy, Johndroe insisted he was "not aware of any travel by the secretary at this point."
Rice spoke Wednesday with Jordanian Foreign Minister Salaheddine Al-Bashir, their third conversation since Tuesday, he said. Rice spoke three times on Tuesday with the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates and once each with Olmert, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Ahmed Aboul Gheith, the foreign minister of Egypt, he said.
"We're looking for all our friends and allies in the region to use whatever good offices they have with Hamas or with other Palestinian organizations to try and help communicate the international community's desire that the violence stop," Duguid said.
Johndroe said that in the telephone call at the ranch, Olmert assured Bush that Israel was taking the "appropriate steps" to avoid civilian casualties. He said Bush expressed concern about humanitarian needs in the tiny coastal territory that is home to 1.5 million people.
"Israel's permitted dozens of truckloads, and so we're seeing a good flow of humanitarian goods, medical supplies, food into Gaza from various ports of entry," Johndroe said. "President Bush certainly is concerned about the innocent people of Gaza, and wants to make sure that they have the supplies they need."
The White House spokesman, however, gave few other details about the conversation.
Johndroe wouldn't say, for instance, whether Bush and Olmert specifically discussed the idea for a 48-hour truce floated by the French.
"They discussed what steps could lead to a cessation of violence," Johndroe said. "I don't want to get into too many details. But no matter what the details are, it all begins with Hamas agreeing to stop firing rockets and to stop targeting Israel."
Asked if the president was disappointed that Israel hadn't accepted or responded to the international calls for a cease-fire, Johndroe placed the onus squarely on Hamas.
"President Bush is disappointed that Hamas continues to fire rockets onto the innocent people of Israel," he said.
"I think, probably, from the prime minister's perspective, an end to the violence first means that Hamas stops firing rockets into Israel. And then Israel won't need to go after the rocket launchers," Johndroe added.
The spokesman blamed Iran and Syria for supplying weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah.
"I'm not going to get into any specifics on supplies from Iran and Syria that we've seen over the last few days," he said. "But there is no doubt that Iran and Syria are the ones who have assisted Hamas with their weapons acquisition, and that's a problem."
Bush, who will spend a quiet New Year's eve at the ranch with first lady Laura Bush and friends, also called Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari, urging both nations to cooperate in the Mumbai attack investigation and on counterterrorism in general.
"All three leaders, from the United States, India and Pakistan, agreed that no one wanted to take any steps that unnecessarily raise tensions," Johndroe said.