Race against time before Bush goes : Israel eager to continue war as President gives backing of the US

AS EUROPEAN and UN officials have called urgently for a ceasefire in Gaza, the Bush administration has squarely blamed the rocket attacks of the Palestinian militant group Hamas for Israel's assault, maintaining to the end its record of stalwart support for Israel.

Bush said the United States did not want a "one-way ceasefire" that allowed Hamas to keep up its rocket fire.

Many Middle East experts believe that Israel timed its move against Hamas, which began with air strikes on December 26, less than a month before Bush leaves office, with the expectation of such backing from Washington.

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Israeli officials could not be certain that president-elect Barack Obama, despite past statements of sympathy for Israel's right of self-defence, would match the Bush administration's unconditional endorsement.

Sami Hajjar, a veteran scholar of Middle East politics and a visiting professor at the National Defence University in the US, said: "Bush, even by comparison with past US presidents, has been very, very pro-Israel.

"Despite Obama's statements, and his advisers who are quite pro-Israel, the Israelis really didn't know how he'd react. His first instinct is for diplomacy, not military action."

Hajjar said that in addition to relying on Bush's backing, Israeli officials may not have wanted to begin their relationship with the new president by forcing him to respond to their military action.

But Obama has disappointed many commentators in the Muslim world by steadfastly declining to condemn the Gaza operation.

Brooke Anderson, chief national security spokeswoman for Obama's transition team, said: "President-elect Obama is closely monitoring global events, including the situation in Gaza, but there is one president at a time."

Obama's stance has been interpreted by Hamas spokesmen and others as tacit assent both to Israel's actions and to the Bush administration's policy.

However, other experts believe he may be about to open a channel of low-level communication with Hamas amid a growing consensus that Bush's policy of ostracising the group has been counter-productive.

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Obama aides say he has spoken with both Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about the situation in Gaza but they do not expect him to carve out a distinct position before his inauguration.

Last week, a UN resolution calling for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire between Hamas and Israeli forces in Gaza was passed, although the US, represented by Rice, abstained.

During his presidential campaign, Obama promised a new, positive approach to the Muslim world. But Israel's invasion of Gaza, and Obama's studied silence on the matter threaten to short-circuit his plans for a US image makeover.

Critics at home and abroad have noted that Obama did speak out against the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November, when he condemned what he called the "hateful ideology" of militant Islam.

And others have recalled Obama's remarks last July in the Israeli town of Sderot, where he recognised Israel's right to respond militarily. "If somebody was sending rockets into my house, where my two daughters sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that," he told reporters.

The Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, quoted Obama's statement in justifying the attack on Hamas.