William Katz:  Urgent Agenda

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GRADUAL ESCALATION IN THE MIDEAST – AT 10:21 A.M. ET:  We reported yesterday that all the talk in the Mideast was about a possible truce, ending the small but fierce conflict between Hamas and Israel.

That talk is fading as the conflict escalates.  For some reason, and it's hard to know exactly what their strategy is, Hamas has increased the number of rockets fired at Israeli civilian areas, including Tel Aviv.  Fortunately, many have been knocked down by Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system, developed partly with American funding, proof that you can fight conventional missiles, and even artillery shells.

Israel has expanded its air strikes into Hamas territory, trying to take out the missile launchers and, at the same time, damage the Hamas infrastructure.  The key question now is whether this will expand further into a ground invasion, which the Israelis are openly threatening.  President Obama, who has publicly taken Israel's side in the conflict, is warning against a ground operation, with its obvious implications, including dramatically higher casualties. 

It's hard to believe that Israel actually wants to go in by ground, but may be making public threats to try to convince Hamas and its Iranian backers to cool it.  Israel is getting reasonable support so far, but knows that a ground offensive will provide fodder for the anti-Israel, international leftist media, headquartered in Europe, but including The New York Times and elements within CNN.  From Reuters:

President Barack Obama insisted on Sunday that Israel had a right to defend itself but said it would be "preferable" to avoid an Israeli ground offensive in Gaza.

He said persuading Israel not to attack would depend on the success of efforts by Middle East leaders to bring a halt to Hamas rocket fire into Israel.

"There's no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders," Obama told a news conference during a visit to Thailand. "We are fully supportive of Israel's right to defend itself."

Israeli forces struck Gaza for a fifth straight day on Sunday and its military prepared for a possible ground invasion, although Egypt, which is trying to mediate, held out hopes that a ceasefire could be reached.

Asked whether he believed an Israeli ground invasion would be an escalation of the conflict and if he would support such a move anyway, Obama said he had been in regular contact with Egyptian and Turkish leaders to secure their help in stopping Hamas's rocket barrages, which he called the "precipitating event" in the conflict.

"My message to all of them was Israel has every right to expect that it does not have missiles fired into its territory," Obama said in his first public comments on the Gaza crisis.

"If this can be accomplished without a ramping up of military activity in Gaza, that is preferable, that's not just preferable for the people of Gaza, it's also preferable for Israelis because if Israeli troops are in Gaza they're much more at risk of incurring fatalities or being wounded," he said.

"We're going to have to see what kind of progress we can make in the next 24, 36, 48 hours," Obama added.

COMMENT:  I can't fault the president's comments.  Obviously, though, he's building up street cred with Netanyahu, and will expect something in return, in later negotiations.

This is an hour by hour story.  So far all the Hamas missiles fired at Tel Aviv have either missed the city or have been downed.  But if one hits, and inflicts heavy casualties, all bets are off.

November 18,  2012