(Recasts with fresh quotes, details on U.N., background)
By Arshad Mohammed
WASHINGTON, Jan 6 (Reuters) - The U.S. State Department said on Tuesday it wanted "an immediate ceasefire" in Gaza but U.S. officials quickly stressed they would not budge from their stance that it must be durable, sustainable and indefinite.
The United States had previously steered away from the "immediate ceasefire" language embraced by many of its European and Arab allies, who are gathering for a U.N. Security Council meeting on how to end Israel’s 11-day-old offensive in Gaza.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s decision to go to the U.N. meeting, and the comments by her spokesman Sean McCormack, initially appeared to signal flexibility in the Bush administration’s stance but U.S. officials denied this.
"We would like an immediate ceasefire, absolutely," McCormack told reporters. "An immediate ceasefire that is durable, sustainable and not time-limited."
The Bush administration has consistently supported Israel’s right to defend itself against Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza and McCormack’s comments stopped well short of calling on Israel to halt its offensive.
Rice tentatively decided on Monday to attend the U.N. session in New York, McCormack said, before Israeli tank shells killed at least 40 Palestinians on Tuesday at a U.N. school in Gaza where civilians had taken shelter. [ID:nL6379966]
More than 600 Palestinians have been killed and at least 2,700 wounded since Israel began the campaign last month with the declared aim of ending rocket attacks by Hamas Islamist militants on its southern towns. Nine Israelis, including three civilians hit by rocket fire, have been killed.
Washington has vowed not to support any ceasefire with a specific time frame, saying there was little point in a cessation of hostilities without putting a stop to Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel.
Barack Obama, who takes over as U.S. president from George W. Bush on Jan. 20, broke his silence about the violence on Tuesday, saying the loss of civilian lives in Gaza and in Israel was a "source of deep concern for me."
He declined further comment, saying he believed that only Bush should be the voice of U.S. foreign policy for now.
The Bush administration has said its efforts will focus on stopping rocket fire into Israel, ending the smuggling of arms into Gaza through tunnels from Egypt and reopening border crossings to permit goods to flow into the coastal strip.
"There isn’t a whole lot of flexibility here," said one U.S. official who spoke on condition that he not be identified. "It’s going to be hard for us to support anything that doesn’t deal with those three elements."
Israel tightened its blockade of Gaza after Hamas seized control of the region in 2007. Israel’s frequent closure of Gaza’s border crossings increased hardships for the aid-dependent territory’s 1.5 million residents.
RESOLUTION TO TAKE TIME
U.S. officials said Rice’s U.N. trip in part aimed to blunt possible accusations that the United States was indifferent to the suffering of Gazans had she stayed away.
They also played down the chances of a resolution emerging from Tuesday evening’s Security Council meeting.
Security Council diplomats said it would take at least several days to prepare a ceasefire resolution for a vote.
"The end of this week at the earliest, more likely next week," one diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner met Arab foreign ministers in New York on Tuesday to work out the details of a ceasefire regime that would include international monitors along Gaza’s borders.
The Arabs are advocating an immediate halt to the fighting, diplomats said, while U.S. officials have made clear they did not back a ceasefire without mechanisms to prevent rocket attacks against Israel and the smuggling of weapons into Gaza.
Once an agreement on those mechanisms is reached — and it must be acceptable to Israel — that deal would form the basis of a Security Council resolution which the French will most likely draft and negotiate, the diplomats said.
Rice and Kouchner will be joined by British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and several Arab foreign ministers at special Security Council meetings on the Gaza crisis on Tuesday and Wednesday. (Additional reporting by Caren Bohan, Matt Spetalnick and Andrew Sullivan in Washington and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Editing by John O’Callaghan)