WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is increasingly concerned about the escalating violence in Gaza, believing that a ground incursion by Israel there could lead to increased civilian casualties, play into the hands of the militant Palestinian group Hamas and inflict further damage to Israel’s standing in the region at an already tumultuous time.
Though President Obama uttered immediate and firm public and private assurances that Israel has a right to defend itself from rocket attacks emanating from Gaza, administration officials have been privately urging Israeli officials not to extend the conflict, a move that many American officials believe could benefit Hamas.
A protracted escalation, the officials fear, could damage Israel’s already fragile relationships with Egypt and Jordan at a time when both of those governments have been coming under pressure from their own populations.
Mr. Obama telephoned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Friday for the second time this week, and officials at the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department have been on the phone with their Israeli counterparts since then.
Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, the Israeli Air Force’s commander in chief, was in Washington early in the week — before the Gaza crisis began — and met with American officials, although it was unclear whether he warned them beforehand that Israel intended to launch a missile strike against the Hamas military commander.
During this call with Mr. Netanyahu, the White House said that Mr. Obama “reiterated U.S. support for Israel’s right to defend itself, and expressed regret over the loss of Israeli and Palestinian civilian lives.” The two leaders, the White House said, “discussed options for de-escalating the situation.”
Mr. Obama was also grappling with how to cajole an Egyptian government that is radically different from the one that the United States has relied on for so many years. This is no longer the Egypt of Hosni Mubarak, who for decades stood with a succession of American leaders to try to rein in Hamas against popular opinion at home.
Now, Mr. Obama’s pleas are being directed to President Mohamed Morsi, who was the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is skeptical of Israeli motives. Mr. Obama called Mr. Morsi on Wednesday, after Israel launched more than 50 airstrikes on Gaza, and called again on Friday. Israel said the airstrikes were in response to days of rocket fire out of Gaza, which is ruled by Hamas, and were the beginning of a broader operation against Islamic militants.
During the phone call, Mr. Obama and Mr. Morsi “agreed on the importance of working to de-escalate the situation as quickly as possible, and agreed to stay in close touch in the days ahead,” the White House said in a statement.
A senior Obama administration official said the American message to Egypt had been “that we cannot have this conflict drag on, as it just risks greater threats to civilians.”
If Israel goes back into Gaza, both Egypt and Jordan — the only two Arab countries with peace treaties with Israel — would come under pressure from their people to break off ties, a move that would undoubtedly strengthen Hamas.
But to the relief of Obama administration officials, Mr. Morsi so far has not hinted at such a move, which would threaten the 1979 Camp David peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, a linchpin for stability in the region in Washington’s view. And administration officials say Mr. Morsi has indicated that he will try to calm the situation in Gaza before it worsens.
Whether that effort extends to lobbying for Hamas to crack down on jihadist groups that have been launching attacks on Israel, as Israel would like to see Mr. Morsi do, is not clear. But at the moment, the relative quiet out of Cairo is being viewed in Washington as a positive first step.
“If Morsi wanted to use this for populist reasons, he’d be adopting a different posture,” said Martin S. Indyk, the former American ambassador to Israel and the author of “Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy.”
“If he wanted to take apart the peace treaty, this is his opportunity,” Mr. Indyk said. “The fact that he’s not and is instead apparently working with President Obama to calm the situation is important.”
But Mr. Morsi’s cooperation can only be counted on, another administration official said, so far as Israel does not invade Gaza, with the attendant civilian casualties. A ground war, the official said, “could mean all bets are off.”
And the consequences for Israel could be severe, according to experts. “It’s a question of diminishing returns, and the chances of mishaps go up,” said David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He pointed to the Israel-Hezbollah war in Lebanon in 2006 and the Israeli raids in Gaza in 2008 as examples where Israel suffered deeply in terms of international opinion after protracted fights with its Arab neighbors that produced televised images of Arab casualties.
“I’ve got to believe that the lesson from the 34 days in 2006, along with 2008, which went on for weeks, is that Israel does much better with short campaigns than with long ones,” Mr. Makovsky said.