Bush, Olmert have no timetable for Gaza crisis end

CRAWFORD, Texas Wed Dec 31, 2008 6:14pm GMT

CRAWFORD, Texas (Reuters) - President George W. Bush received assurances from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Wednesday that Israel was trying to avoid civilian casualties in air strikes on Hamas-ruled Gaza, but a timetable for ending the assault was not discussed, the White House said.

Bush and Olmert were on the "same page" that a lasting ceasefire required Hamas to stop firing rockets, stop smuggling weapons, and to demonstrate that the Islamist Palestinian group does not intend to target Israel in the future, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

"President Bush thinks that Hamas needs to stop firing rockets, and that is what will be the first steps in a ceasefire," he said.

Bush, who spoke with Olmert by phone while on vacation at his Texas ranch, sought assurances from the prime minister that Israel was trying to avoid civilian casualties in the air strikes that began on Saturday and have so far killed more than 390 Palestinians.

"Prime Minister Olmert assured President Bush that Israel is taking the appropriate steps to avoid civilian casualties," Johndroe said.

The United States has backed Israel's pursuit of Hamas targets, saying the Palestinian faction that Washington considers a terrorist organization had provoked the attacks by escalating rocket fire on Israel when a six-month truce brokered by Egypt expired on December 19.

The escalation of Middle East tensions showed no signs of abating and will be another foreign-policy problem handed to President-elect Barack Obama when he takes office on January 20, along with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

ISRAEL: TIME NOT RIGHT FOR Ceasefire

International pressure has grown for ending the hostilities and France has proposed a 48-hour truce that would allow in more humanitarian aid for Gaza's 1.5 million residents.

But Israel said the time was not right for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and stepped up preparations for a possible ground offensive after Hamas's long-range rockets hit another major population center.

The White House said a short-term cessation of violence would not resolve the need for a long-term truce.

"There's nothing wrong with a cessation of violence. But, at the end of the day, we still need to see a ceasefire that will be an agreement that is lasting and durable," Johndroe said.

The White House dismissed Hamas offering to study proposals for a ceasefire. "I don't get what Hamas needs to study. Hamas needs to stop firing rockets into Israel. It's very clear," Johndroe said.

He accused Iran and Syria of supplying weapons to Hamas and said the two countries were "not playing a constructive role" during the Gaza crisis.

"There is no doubt that Iran and Syria are the ones who have assisted Hamas with their weapons acquisition, and that's a problem," Johndroe said.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told the Arab League, which began a meeting on Wednesday, that it must act quickly to end Israeli attacks on Gaza, but he did not suggest specific actions.

(Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky in Washington; Editing by Philip Barbara)