Is Gaza Bombing Too Much? Bush Won't Say

An Israeli woman shouts as she joins about a hundred protesters in front of the Israeli Prime Minister's residency demonstrating against the ongoing Israeli military action against Gaza, in Jerusalem, Thursday, Jan. 1, 2009.
Smoke rises from a building in Beit Lahiya, in the northern Gaza Strip, after it was hit in an Israeli missile strike, Thursday, Jan. 1, 2009. More than 400 Gazans have been killed and some 1,700 have been wounded since Israel embarked on its aerial campaign on Saturday, Gaza health officials said. The U.N. says the Gaza death toll includes more than 60 civilians, 34 of them children. Three Israeli civilians and one soldier have also died in rocket attacks that have reached deeper into Israel than ever before, bringing one-eighth of Israel's population within rocket range.(AP Photo/Majed Hamdan)
AP Photo/Majed Hamdan

By CBS News White House Correspondent Mark Knoller

From Day One of the Israeli air strikes on Hamas targets in Gaza, the Bush administration has asserted Israel's right to defend itself.

But asked today if the Israeli response was proportionate to the provocation of the Hamas rocket and mortar attacks, the White House declined to offer a view.

"I'm not going to take a position on proportionality, because I'm not even sure if I could define what that is," said Gordon Johndroe, the lead White House spokesman on this issue.

Yet four months ago, President Bush had no doubts about proportionality. He was certain that Russia was waging a disproportionate military response in neighboring Georgia.

"Russian forces invaded the country in a disproportionate response to a long-simmering conflict in Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia," he said in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars on August 20.

So why can the U.S. make an assessment on Russia's response, but not Israel's?

"There is not a one-size-fits-all definition of disproportionate," said Johndroe in an e-mail response to CBS News.

The issue didn't come up when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice emerged from a discussion of Gaza with President Bush.

"Obviously, the United States is very concerned about the situation there and is working very hard with our partners around the world to address it," she told reporters.

But she has no plans to launch a diplomatic mission to the Middle East, and the White House agrees..

Spokesman Johndroe says Rice has been on the phones constantly with key Mideast leaders, and so "we don't see a particular need for her to travel to the region to deal with this one." He says "she can do this work from here."

Furthermore, the Bush administration is not taking a public position on the possibility that Israel may launch a ground invasion into Gaza.

"I don't want to speak to an operation that has not taken place, that may or may not take place," said Johndroe this morning.

But he repeated the White House admonition that Israel "avoid civilian casualties" and "continue the flow of humanitarian goods into Gaza."

The administration says it wants a ceasefire "as soon as possible," but Rice says Hamas must disavow any more rocket or mortar attacks on Israel.

Complicating American efforts to bring about a ceasefire is that the U.S. has no direct contact with Hamas, which it regards as a terrorist organization.

Rice today accused Hamas of holding the people of Gaza hostage by staging "an illegal coup" against Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whom she called "the legitimate president of the Palestinian people."

"Hamas has used Gaza as a launching pad for rockets against Israeli cities and has contributed deeply to a very bad daily life for the Palestinian people in Gaza and to a humanitarian situation that we have all been trying to address," said Rice.

Pres. Bush has also been working the phones - calling Israeli and friendly Arab leaders. But he has kept a decidedly low profile on the situation in Gaza. Only late this afternoon, did he break his weeklong silence on the situation by releasing his Saturday radio address.

He declares that "the recent outburst of violence was instigated by Hamas." And he calls its rocket and mortar attacks on Israel "an act of terror."

He says the U.S. is leading efforts to bring about an end to the violence, but that "another one-way ceasefire" that doesn't stop the Hamas attacks on Israel won't be acceptable.

He says there must be "monitoring mechanisms in place" to help ensure that the smuggling of weapons to terrorist groups in Gaza comes to an end.

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    Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent.