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The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted a media call with Marwan Muasher and Michele Dunne on the Israel-Gaza conflict.
Nick Parrott: Hello, good morning everyone in Washington, good afternoon to people in the region. I’m Nick Parrott, deputy director of communications at the Carnegie Endowment. I’m pleased to be joined here this morning by Marwan Muasher, vice president for studies and director of the Carnegie Middle East Program who is joining us from Amman, Jordon, and Michele Dunne, senior associate in the Carnegie Middle East Program joining with me here from Washington. Just right at the top, I’d just like to tell you that this whole conversation is on the record, and please can anyone when they’re not asking a question mute their lines to reduce the background noise. You can either use the mute button on your phone, or star six. So with that Marwan I would just like to start with you, and get your perspective on how you see the situation unfolding at the moment, and also how you see the public move in the region.
Muasher: Well good morning everyone from Jordon where I have been for the last week. I’d like to make a few points about what is going on. The first one is that it is clear that Hamas is gaining in popularity because of the ____ incursion. The latest poll by Palestinian research census shows that for the first time in three years Hamas has out-based on in terms of popularity. So what they have lost I think in recent years because of government issues, they are making up for because of the perceived resistance to the ____. More people now significantly more people agree with the Hamas point of view in the Palestinians territories than they agree with the Palestinian authority. That’s the first point I want to make.
The second point is that, again, the public mood here is boiling. People see horrific pictures of civilians on TV, more than 650 Palestinians have died, Israel’s argument that if there is very careful in targeting civilians has no residence in the Arab world. People see this as indiscriminate killing, and the public mood is truly boiling. I think it would be interesting, I haven’t seen any polls yet, but it would be interesting to see if that would bring an upswing in people’s attitudes not just towards Hamas, but across the Arab world towards Islam in general who have recently come with some setbacks.
The third point I want to make is that Hamas appears to be in much better shape, and better prepared to deal with the government intelligence than before. Not in terms of course of inflicting any significant physical damage, or damage in human life. It is clear that that has not happened, but I do think that what they have done in terms of their strategy of the rockets on Israel is that they have challenged the both the psychological and physical shielding that most Israelis have, because of the security wall inside Israel. Yesterday was the suspension of live Tel Aviv report. I think what we might be seeing increasingly a feeling among Israelis that what they have been protected from for years by the security wall might be now seriously challenged psychologically at least, because of what we have seen done to the rockets.
The fourth point I want to make is that you know this is the third incursion in six years. It is clear that these incursions have not weakened Hamas. In six years Hamas has gotten stronger because of them. It is clear that a cease fire at some point will be reached. I don’t see that coming anytime soon, but once it is reached I think the problem is still going to remain the same, and one has to remember that the bigger context, which is occupation. Unless something is done to that issue, we unfortunately will probably see such incursions be repeated in the future with really no results other than the loss of more life between both sides. These are the points I wanted to make and start this discussion with.
Parrott: Thanks Marwan. So just Michele if you could just offer your initial sort of perspectives on how you see the situation and including the U.S. role or potential U.S. role.
Dunne: Thank you Nick. Good morning everyone. Let me add one point to what Marwan said, and then turn to the diplomacy. I agree with what Marwan said that without what Condoleezza Rice used to call a political horizon for the Palestinian issue, these repeated conflicts in Gaza, and Marwan mentioned the ground incursions, but there has also been a number of additional air wars between Hamas and Israel, you know what has happened here is simply that each side, every time they end a conflict they just begin rearming for the next one. I think we really have to look at the way Hamas is armed now, and recognize that they’re armed much more strongly now than they were, and in a much more dangerous ways with the tunnels into Israel, and the rockets, and so forth, and Hamas’s ability to build its own rockets inside of Gaza, as well as import them. The efforts to isolate Gaza both politically and economically just have failed, and Gaza has become a hot potato I would say since 2005 when Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza, but without making a real agreement with the Palestinian authority to take over in Gaza, and then that was of course followed by Hamas’s victories and elections in 2006, the limited Palestinian war in 2007 that left Hamas in control of Gaza, whereas in some of the past wars Israel spoke of dislodging Hamas from control of Gaza. That’s not even a goal anymore.
So what happens is with each of these wars, the goals that Israel tries to attain are more and more limited. Alright so that’s just a little perspective on what’s going on now. In terms of this diplomacy, secretary Kerry is in the region right now, of course, is in Ramallah right now, but it seems that neither Israel, nor Egypt was eager for him to come. Therefore I think, we don’t see the diplomacy moving forward quickly. The actual parties to the conflict, Israel and Hamas, don’t seem to be ready yet for a cease fire yet unfortunately, and the proposal that Egypt put forward last week was very similar to the cease fire in 2012, and I would call it a kind of bare bones proposal, which simply says the two sides should start fighting, and that there should be some opening of Gaza to the outside world when conditions permit. Hamas clearly rejected that since the provisions regarding the opening of Gaza were never really implemented from the 2012 cease fire, and as we know there’s even less trust between Hamas and the Egyptian government now than there was in not only in 2012 when Morsey was in power, but even under Mubarak. We know that the relations now between Egypt and Hamas are much less.
So Hamas is much less likely to accept some very basic promises from Egypt. This has become the real issue now, who can serve as the neutral interlocker to Hamas? Qatar is serving that role to some extent, and now we see the Palestinian authority trying to step up to that role, and as you might’ve seen the Palestinian authority is putting forward a fine tuning, or an amendment to the Egyptian proposal that would introduce five days of talks, quiet, temporary cease fire, and then five days of talks in order to put into place a broader cease fire. What we see here is the Palestinian authority, as well as secretary Kerry being quite careful of Egyptian sensitivities. Egypt has said repeatedly our cease fire proposal is not open to amendment, and everyone is tip toeing a bit around the Egyptians, because in the end the Egyptians are the ones who have to give something here in terms of access to and from Gaza from the Egyptian side of the boarder in order to get Hamas on board with a cease fire, but once again, as I said, Gaza has become a hot potato, and Egypt does not want to end up holding a hot potato at the end of this conflict. They don’t want to end up being the ones who are primarily responsible for Gaza, and Egypt will want Israel from its side to give things in terms of access to and from Gaza in order to eventually end this conflict.
Parrott: Thanks Michele. So with that we’ll open to question. I just ask if you can introduce yourself, and if appropriate say who your question is addressed to.
Reporter: Hello, Trudy Rubin. Can you hear me?
Parrott: Yes, please go ahead Trudy.
Reporter: Hi from the Philadelphia Enquirer. Thanks to both of you, and hope your re-entry was fun Marwan. I’d like to ask again about who’s going to be the interlocker in the question you raised. It seems like this war is on automatic pilot, and there really is no outside power, who can bring this to a cease fire close. How do you think that’s going to be overcome, or is this just going to suck both sides in, because nobody can stop it, and does the unity government that was formed before this started, and didn’t get anywhere do you think that has any greater prospect now, or any chance that Israel would see it as a vehicle whereas before [Israel] opposed it?
Muasher: The unity government is in a worse position than it was even before the conflict about the have understanding in the polls not just in the Palestinian territories, but across the Arab world it has suffered a loss [in popularity] because of his weakness and not being effective in standing up to ____.
Parrott: Can I just remind people to mute their lines. Thank you.
Muasher: So as Michele also said, there is no party today that is willing or maybe even able to bring about a cease fire soon. Unfortunately I don’t expect a cease fire to come about soon, and when it does it is not going to solve much. the last one in 2012 really was violated almost immediately after it was agreed to in terms of what the parties need to do, and the only way out that I see is a political part in which the two sides get to talk to each other, the Israelis and Hamas in particular, but that is not going -- of course to --come soon, and therefore I’m afraid you’re going to stay in this crisis portal for some time.
Dunne: Trudy, I think you’re asking two very critical questions here. One is you said is who can be the interlocker, and it’s clear that at this point we really don’t have a party accept from perhaps, we’ve got the Palestinian authority, and we’ve got maybe the U.N. secretary general, who could speak to both Israel and Hamas. The other parties, Egypt would’ve played this role in the past, but because of Egypt’s big crackdown on the Muslim brotherhood, and by extension Hamas as well, that has meant that Egypt can no longer serve that role. Egypt still has a critical role here in the sense that it controls the border from Gaza into Egypt, but it no longer is seen by Hamas as a reasonably even-handed mediator.
Right so Egypt can’t do it. It did in the past, and it seems that Qatar are also both the Israelis and Egyptians have some objections to Qatar serving that role. So the Palestinian authority is trying to maybe serve that role, and if they were able to bring it off, and they have to step very, very carefully here, because -- of course -- they can’t be seen as being in favor of the killing of Palestinians in Gaza. If they can pull it off it and perhaps persuade the Israelis to accept the unity government that could be something positive on the political side that could come out of all of this, but I would say right now there’s no guarantee that that’s going to happen. We’re also seeing a lot of anger in the West Bank about what is going on in Gaza, and as Marwan indicated, you know there’s a real chance that all of this could work out badly for President Abbas, the Palestinian authority based in Ramallah.
Parrott: Thank you both.
Muasher: I was just of course in Washington, and I just came back a week ago, and the difference in terms of the pictures you see on TV is amazing. So for an average Arab looking at these pictures and seeing scores of children and women dying in very horrific visual images, I cannot overestimate the feeling of anger among the Arab streets today.
Parrott: Other questions.
Reporter: Hello, this is Jo Biddle, AFP.
Parrott: Hi Jo.
Reporter: Hi, I wonder if I could ask Marwan, and also Michele, Marwan you said that you feel that the Israelis this is not about regime change, which it may have been in the past. Yesterday I was at an event with the Israelis ambassador where he came up with what is obviously the talking points now for the Israelis government, which they are looking for us a sustained peace and quiet. So if the goal is not regime change, what do you believe the ultimate Israelis goal is in this fighting?
Muasher: Well first of all if the goal is the regime change than Israel is doing very bad job at it, because what this has done as I said is this has raised, brought a resurgence in Hamas popularity in the West Bank. Israel, I think, the government as you know, Prime Minister Netanyahu is now under pressure from his own wide screen coalition partners to do more in Gaza, and I suspect that’s what he is doing is partly to appease that pressure rather than appeasing any particular objective of the kinds that we are talking about. We’ve seen already we’ve seen the movie before. We’ve seen three ground incursions in the last six years. None of them have brought about regime change, and none of them have weakened Hamas. In fact, Hamas is stronger today than it was in the last six or seven years. So I think it is partly a result of the domestic pressure than anything else on the Israelis side.
Dunne: I’m sure with Michele if I could add a point to that. You asked what the ultimate Israelis goal is, and I think you need to delete the word “ultimate” from that sentence, because I think this is tactical as the previous limited wars with Gaza have been. It’s simply a matter of degrading Hamas’s capabilities for now until the next time. The others, the Egyptians or others would speak of perhaps extending Palestinian authority control into Gaza, and so forth, but I’m not sure the Israelis even speak of that. There have been some proposals within Israel of the disarmament of Hamas in Gaza, and some have drawn parallels with what happened with the chemical weapons in Syria.
That required the cooperation of the Syrian government, and you’re certainly not going to have Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihadists in Gaza giving up their weapons. So, disarmament would require a broader political framework -- if it were possible at all. So I think probably most Israelis realize that is an unrealistic goal here, and therefore it’s just unfortunately one more tactical war.
Muasher: I’d like to also remind us of this war in Lebanon against Hezbollah. It certainly did not bring an end to Hezbollah. In fact today Hezbollah as we are seeing as we sit here is far stronger than when the war on Lebanon and the past through Lebanon quickly. Again these military incursions really serve no political purpose what so ever.
Reporter: So if I may just on a follow up, if the prospects for cease fire at the moment are kind of bleak, and we don’t see anything soon, will the war end or the conflict end when Israel believes it has achieved its tactical abilities. Are we just going to see a scenario which Israel gets to play out what it wants so then it finally gives up and withdraws?
Dunne: Let me answer that Jo. Yes, I think what Israel at some point will decide if it’s achieved its tactical goal, but I also want to say Jo that these kinds of conflicts are very unpredictable, and change day by day, and even hour by hour, and one never knows when something will happen. Unfortunately it’s often something very bad that causes the calculations of both the warring parties, in this case Israel and Hamas to suddenly say “We need to bring this thing to an end.” So it’s very dynamic. We’re saying right now that we don’t see the conditions for a cease fire. That could change later today.
Parrott: Can I just remind everyone again just to mute their lines in using the mute button or star six. Thank you. Marwan did you want to comment on that or are we going to the next question?
Muasher: No, no I’m fine.
Parrott: So other questions.
Reporter: Can you hear me?
Reporter: Hi it’s Paul Richter with LA Times. I wondered if you both would speak about the U.S. ability to play a role here. I wonder if the tensions from Kerry’s peacemaking efforts earlier in the year have made it harder for him to play a role here, and kind of just with the attitude of both sides are about him, and American mediation here generally.
Muasher: Michele, do you want to start?
Dunne: Well look I guess the question here is whether -- certainly Kerry’s peacemaking efforts earlier on were not particularly welcome, and he didn’t get the cooperation he was looking for. So the question is whether he’s going to try to use this conflict to return to some kind of political process, which my guess would be not welcomed from the Israelis side, and I mean the Palestinian authority might welcome that if they thought this could kid of rehabilitate them politically, but that’s a bit of a long shot. So, if he is able to just keep it to the tactical level, helping to contribute simply to a tactical cease fire, but as I’ve said we’ve seen that, but both from the Israelis and Egyptian side there indications over the last few days that they were not eager to have his help. When he was in Vienna he was willing to go to the region last week, and then it seems as though he was waved off, and then it more recently it seems that he insisted on going to the region, and that people are being courteous in meeting with him, but they’re not eager for his help yet.
Muasher: I totally agree Paul. This war is not going to serve any strategic purpose. I think the Israeli government is doing this largely for domestic purposes. Today Netanyahu, according to one poll, has 77 percent approval rating among the Israelis. He feels that he is doing what he needs to do to appease his own public, but I think that it is almost impossible that Israel is thinking an strategic or political objectives behind what is going on.
Parrott: Thank you both. Others?
Reporter: Can you hear me? I have another question if no one else has.
Parrott: Please Trudy go ahead.
Reporter: Just a follow up on the previous question. What does the current situation and the lack of eagerness to receive Kerry say about the future U.S. role in the region, and are we in a situation now, and I know you’ve talked to this point, but I’m trying to draw it out a little, are we in a situation where there really is no government that can play the role that there was always someone to play before. I mean after 15 years of civil war in Lebanon, you had ___ and the Saudi played a major role. I mean obviously the U.S. has played key roles. Right now the region seems to be on autopilot and there doesn’t seem to be any days ___ ,and certainly not Ban Ki Moon, who has the heft, and the gravitas, and the ability to talk to _____ end conflict.
Muasher: There is certainly a vacuum in the region. The U.S. has been I think on the decline for some time at least with the peacemaking efforts by secretary Kerry having failed is not a good sign for the creditability in the region inclined to broker an agreement, and as Michele said Egypt has possibly put itself out of the game with the cease in government and the crackdown on the Islamic. There are even people who prospect that some governments might be happy with what is going on if it means weakening Hamas. Of course, there’s nothing to prove that, but there is a vacuum in terms of anybody stepping in, and playing an effective role to bring an end to this. Right now I agree with Michele that other than the U.N., which is not particularly always effective, but other than the U.N. there is nothing to be any party that can talk to both sides.
Dunne: Yeah Trudy in the past there were parties that Egypt, Turkey, at one time that had pretty good relations and could speak to, and Jordon too, could speak to Israel, could speak to the various Palestinian parties, but we’ve seen obviously Turkey’s relations with Israel have deteriorated sharply over the last few years, and then Egypt relations with the Palestinian parties with Hamas and so forth. So these regional parties can’t play the role, and the Unites States, I would point out in the previous conflicts in Gaza, the United States has played something of a role in some of them, but Egypt really played the critical role in most of them going between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and even between the two Islamic and Secular Palestinian leaderships. So that is what we see missing here, and frankly it’s fallout from the coup in Egypt last summer, and the fact that the Egyptian government cracked down so much on the Brotherhood, and by extension Hamas that Egypt has different interest and a different role than it’s playing this time, and it’s not particularly helpful.
Parrott: Thanks to both. We’re getting close to the time of nine in Washington, but one or two other question that we can squeeze in.
Reporter: Hi this is Terry Atlas at Bloomberg News. Can you hear me?
Parrott: Yes please go ahead.
Reporter: Thanks can I get both of you to please address the question of disarmament, and I gathered Tony Blinken on NPR today also suggested that the end game was some form of de-militarization. Can you discuss what that means, and whether there is any reality to it? Thanks.
Muasher: You mean disarmament of Hamas?
Muasher: I don’t see any realistic ways to do that. Again, if you look at past history, both with Hamas and with Hezbollah, you know despite thousands of dead in Lebanon and in the last incursion in Gaza with the lives of more than 1,300 Palestinians, I can’t remember the number in Lebanon, but certainly in the thousands, and that has not resulted in disarmament. If fact it only resulted in strengthening both organizations over time, and even if an agreement is reached, disarming people, and I don’t see that happening, you know re-arming these two organizations would probably happen right after. So I don’t really see that happening.
Dunne: Yeah Terry if I could add to that. I mean contrast here, Gaza, and the West Bank. So the West Bank is largely demilitarized, and you have a Palestinian security force in the West Bank that works very closely with Israel, and really has done a great job in preventing most, certainly preventing terrorist attacks on Israel, but they haven’t been completely successful in preventing attacks on Israelis in the West Bank, but they have prevented a lot of them. So that’s the difference, I think, between areas that are under control of a Palestinian entity with which Israel has a relationship and a Palestinian entity that is stitched into all different kinds of agreements and receiving aid from the west that is contingent on keeping those agreements. You know with the Israelis unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, and the fact that there was never an agreement that was going to happen inside of Gaza, and Gaza ending up in the hands of Hamas, it is just impossible. So what would have to have a complete defeat of Hamas, and actually ousting the Hamas military commanders, and so forth from Gaza, and I don’t see it, at least so far, there don’t seems to be signs that Israel is willing to go that far in Gaza. Other than that, I don’t see at this point any signs that Hamas would agree to a disarmament and demilitarization, and cooperate in that. There’s just no sign that that would happen.
Parrott: Let’s end with that as the very last question. We’ve got through so far for now. Thank you all for joining. Thank you Marwan and thank you Michele, and if anyone has any further follow up then please come through, collaborate like today or over the coming days as the situation develops, and Michele and Marwan are happy to have further conversations. Thank you all.
Muasher: Thank you.
Muasher: Take care.