An Israeli air assault on Palestinian targets in Gaza has taken an estimated 300 lives over the course of the past several days, and the death toll is mounting rapidly. Dozens of children have been killed, confirming that there is nothing “surgical” about these strikes.

Most U.S. media coverage portrays a simple struggle between Israelis on the one side and Gaza’s Hamas militants on the other. This is the line that is being advanced aggressively by the Bush administration and that has effectively been accepted by President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team, which is maintaining its “Bush speaks for the U.S. until January 20” line even as the crisis mounts. Following Bush’s lead, Obama has refused to call for a more nuanced and effective U.S. response to an escalation of the Middle East conflict that Palestinian parliamentarian Mustafa Barghouti on Sunday described as the worst since the 1967 war in the region.

Obama and his aides should be openly counseling the Bush administration to use every diplomatic avenue to promote a ceasefire and, above all, to urge against an Israeli invasion and occupation of Gaza.

Unfortunately, the president-elect is doing nothing of the sort.Some may imagine that this disengaged approach confirms Obama as a true “friend of Israel.”

But Jeremy Ben-Ami, the executive director of the U.S.-based pro-Israel, pro-peace advocacy group J Street, argues that: “While (the recent) air strikes by Israeli Defense Forces in Gaza can be understood and even justified in the wake of recent rocket attacks, we believe that real friends of Israel recognize that escalating the conflict will prove counterproductive, igniting further anger in the region and damaging long-term prospects for peace and stability. Respecting Israel’s right to defend itself, we urge leaders there to recognize that there is no military solution to what is fundamentally a political conflict between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.”

That sentiment is echoed in Israeli, where many war-weary citizens are objecting to their government’s escalation of a simmering conflict.

While moves to prevent rocket attacks on Israeli targets that have been launched from Gaza enjoy broad popular support in Israel, there is good deal of genuine concern about the prospect that Israeli forces might invade and occupy all or part of Gaza.

A substantial crowd of Israelis – estimated at 2,000 by organizers — rallied in Tel Aviv Saturday to protest their country’s attacks on Gaza and to call for an immediate ceasefire. Chanting “No to War – Yes to Peace,” the protesters carried signs urging “Negotiation Instead of Slaughter” and calling on Israeli leaders to “Lift the Siege from Gaza”.

“(We) are not destined to be the victim of history,” says Israeli parliamentarian Dov Khenin, who has spoken at several anti-war rallies in recent days.

Khenin argues that, “A comprehensive war in Gaza is dangerous and unnecessary and will put the lives of thousands of Gazans and western Negev residents (of Israel) at risk. War is not the solution to (concerns about rocket attacks on Israeli targets by Hamas militants). There is another way: a real truce agreement. Not just a cease-fire, but also ending the Gaza blockade and easing the extreme suffering of a million-and-a-half people.”

Unfortunately, the “comprehensive war” that Khenin fears seems increasingly likely. Writer Gideon Levy argues that Israel has already “embarked… on yet another unnecessary, ill-fated war.”

“Once again, Israel’s violent responses, even if there is justification for them, exceed all proportion and cross every red line of humaneness, morality, international law and wisdom,” Levy wrote in Monday’s editions of Israel’s oldest daily newspaper, Haaretz.

The same paper carried an editorial calling for “a diplomatic move whose goal is a genuine cessation of fire.”

The headline on the Haaretz editorial read: “Defend, Don’t Invade.”

In the U.S., the group Jewish Voice for Peace called for “an immediate end to attacks on all civilians, whether Palestinian or Israeli.”

JVP goes on to argue that:

Israel’s slow strangulation of Gaza through blockade has caused widespread suffering to the 1.5 million people of Gaza due to lack of food, electricity, water treatment supplies and medical equipment. It is a violation of humanitarian law and has been widely condemned around the world.

In resisting this strangulation, Hamas resumed launching rockets and mortars from Gaza into southern Israel, directly targeting civilians, which is also a war crime. Over the years, these poorly made rockets have been responsible for the deaths of 15 Israelis since 2004.

Every country, Israel included, has the right and obligation to protect its citizens. The recent ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza shows that diplomatic agreements are the best protection for civilian life.

Moreover, massive Israeli air strikes have proven an indiscriminate and brutal weapon. In just two days, the known death toll is close to 300, and the attacks are continuing. By targeting the infrastructure of a poor and densely populated area, Israel has ensured widespread civilian casualties among this already suffering and vulnerable population.

This massive destruction of Palestinian life will not protect the citizens of Israel. It is illegal and immoral and should be condemned in the strongest possible terms. And it threatens to ignite the West Bank and add flames to the other fires burning in the Middle East and beyond for years to come.

The timing of this attack, during the waning days of a US administration that has undertaken a catastrophic policy toward the Middle East and during the run-up to an Israeli election, suggests an opportunistic agenda for short-term political gain at an immense cost in Palestinian lives. In the long run this policy will benefit no-one except those who always profit from war and exploitation. Only a just and lasting peace, achieved through a negotiated agreement, can provide both Palestinians and Israelis the security they want and deserve.

Americans for Peace Now, which works in solidarity with Israeli supporters of diplomatic responses to the Middle East conflict, on Sunday called upon U.S. officials to “urgently engage with Israel, regional parties, and the international community to bring about an immediate halt to the rapidly escalating hostilities in the Gaza Strip and southern Israel.”Said Americans for Peace Now president Debra DeLee, “Any real resolution to this crisis will require Israel and Hamas to engage, directly or indirectly, to achieve a ceasefire and to further engage in a post-ceasefire political process.”

“While we hold – as we always have – that Israel has the right and the obligation to protect its citizens from attack and threats,” added DeLee, “we know that military power alone will not provide real, long term remedy for the threat that the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip poses to Israel. Israel needs stability on its border with Gaza. Such stability can only be achieved through a political process.”

This is just another truth about the Middle East that the Bush administration continues to deny.

The Obama transition team – and the Obama administration that will soon end Bush’s reign of error — should end the state of denial and act as candidate Obama said he would when he declared that, “As President, I will work to help Israel achieve the goal of two states, a Jewish state of Israel and a Palestinian state, living side by side in peace and security. And I won’t wait until the waning days of my presidency. I will take an active role, and make a personal commitment to do all I can to advance the cause of peace from the start of my Administration…The United States must be a strong and consistent partner in this process – not to force concessions, but to help committed partners avoid stalemate and the kind of vacuums that are filled by violence. That’s what I commit to do as President of the United States.”

As with the economy, events have forced Obama’s hand. The president-elect cannot wait until he swears his oath of office to “take an active role” is advancing the peace process.

Of course, Obama only has the bully pulpit at this point. And he must use it judiciously. But neglecting to engage at this critical stage sends the wrong message about the seriousness with which Obama will pursue that “active role” once he has the power that goes with the pulpit.

At the very least, Obama and his aides should publicly embrace the spot-on message of J Street’s Ben-Ami:

The need for diplomatic engagement goes beyond a short-term ceasefire. Eight years of American neglect and ineffective diplomacy have led us directly to a moment when the prospects of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict hang in the balance and with them the prospects for Israel’s long-term survival as a Jewish, democratic state.

We urge the incoming Obama administration to lead an early and serious effort to achieve a comprehensive diplomatic resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflicts.

This is a fundamental American interest as we too stand to suffer as the situation spirals, rage in the region is directed at the United States, and our regional allies are further undermined. Our goals must be a Middle East that moves beyond bloody conflicts, an Israel that is secure and accepted in the region, and an America secured by reducing extremism and enhancing stability. None of these goals are achieved by further escalation.

Even in the heat of battle, as friends and supporters of Israel, we need to remember that only diplomacy and negotiations can end the rockets and terror and bring Israel long-term security and peace.