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Obama's subtle hint to Netanyahu on Gaza: don't escalate

Win McNamee
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

President Obama's Friday press conference focused on the Malaysia Airlines flight shot down over Ukraine. But there was a short aside on Israel's ground incursion into Gaza, which began Thursday, including this really interesting paragraph at the end:

I also made clear that the United States and our friends and allies are deeply concerned about the risks of further escalation and the loss of more innocent life. And that's why we've indicated although we support military efforts by the Israelis to make sure that rockets are not being fired into their territory, we also have said that our understanding is the current military ground operations are designed to deal with the tunnels.

It's hard to read that, especially the last clause, as anything other than a subtle admonition to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to keep the ground operation limited. Here's why, and how it fits into the bigger picture of the Israel-Gaza fighting.

Israel says the central goal of its operation in Gaza is to destroy "terror tunnels" built by Hamas into Israel. That means tunnels under the Israel-Gaza border that could be used by Hamas or other Palestinian groups to sent gunmen or suicide bombers into Israel.

But there's a basic tension between Israel's tactical and strategic goals in Gaza. The broader aim, according to the prime minister's office, is to "to restore quiet and safety to Israelis for a long time to come, while significantly harming the infrastructure of Hamas and other terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip."

Tunnels into Israel aren't the predominant way that militants in Gaza attack Israel; rocket fire is. In infrastructure terms, Hamas' tunnels into Israel are way less important than its tunnels into Egypt, from which it supplies itself. So if Israel wants to achieve its stated strategic goals, it would need to expand its tactical goals well beyond tunnels into Israel. But Obama doesn't seem to want Israel to do that.

An operation to destroy tunnels into Israel would be way more limited than an operating aiming to cripple Hamas' entire military and resupply operation. The tunnels that go into Israel are near the border and limited in number, but Hamas' infrastructure is extensive and spread throughout the Strip.

What Obama seems to be implying with his statement on Friday is that any escalation beyond tunnels would unacceptably risk "the loss of more limited life." In other words: the US will tolerate or even support what Israel is doing right now, but the more that the ground operation expands into a broader, Gaza-wide, anti-Hamas campaign, the less comfortable America will be.

As far as diplomatic warnings go, this is a very oblique one. There's no threat of consequences or punishment for the Israeli government. Presumably, Obama said more in his private conversation with Netanyahu today than he did in a public conference. Still, in Israeli-American relations, even subtle signals carry big meanings. And Obama seems to be subtly, but surely, telling Netanyahu that America does not want to see an extended ground war in Gaza.