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Can Israel achieve goal of ‘sustained quiet’ without a ground invasion?

July 16, 2014 at 6:21 PM EDT
Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., joins chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner to discuss the likelihood of resolution without a ground invasion into Gaza, criticism that Israel is using disproportionate force and previous cease-fire negotiation attempts.

GWEN IFILL: Now to our series of conversations about the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East.

Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner has spoken this week with the former U.S. envoy for Israeli-Palestinian peace, an analyst with close — and an analyst with close connections to Hamas.

Earlier today, she sat down with Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer. The interview took place before the Israeli military agreed to a U.N.-brokered pause in the fighting.

MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Dermer, thank you for joining us.

RON DERMER, Ambassador, Israel: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: Today, the Israeli cabinet called up another 8,000 reservists, bringing that number close to 50,000.

After what happened yesterday, is a ground invasion of Gaza imminent?

RON DERMER: Well, the security cabinet met earlier that morning, obviously accepted that cease-fire proposal from Egypt, a cease-fire proposal that was accepted by the international community and the Arab League.

Unfortunately, Hamas didn’t agree to that. It forced Israel into continued operations. And now last night, the security cabinet met and has given now the authority to the prime minister to take the action that he needs to take in order to protect the Israeli people. And that includes any action he needs, whether it’s military or diplomatic.

And I think the 8,000 reservists that were called up makes sure that the prime minister has all the tools at his disposal to protect the Israeli people.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, your foreign minister seems to have already reached a conclusion. He said today that the security of the citizens of Israel just cannot be insured without a ground invasion.

You have known the prime minister a very, very long time. Does he share that view?

RON DERMER: Well, I know that the prime minister will do what’s necessary to protect the Israeli people.

There were debates and disputes within Israeli’s security cabinet. The majority of the Israeli people were against the cease-fire. About 2-1 one were against the cease-fire, not because they don’t want to end the attacks — because they want to be sure that these attacks will not end just for a day or for a month or for six months, that we have some sort of permanent resolution to this problem.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, how intense is the political pressure on the prime minister to do something more than just get back to the status quo here, to actually — quote — “clean out Hamas” from Gaza?

RON DERMER: I think it’s pretty strong.

And the best way to understand it is, imagine you had 200 million Americans who were in bomb shelters, you had 1,000 rockets fired at you by a terror organization in contiguous territory, and there would be a cease-fire proposal. Do you think the American people would support it, or you think the American people would want their government and their military to take very strong action, even stronger action to bring it to an end?

It’s important to appreciate how much restraint the prime minister of Israel has shown in dealing with this and in prosecuting this war against Hamas in a very calibrated and very measured way. It doesn’t mean that we’re perfect. Unfortunately, in any time you have a war like this, even if you take the most legitimate actions to defend yourself, innocents can be put into harm’s way.

MARGARET WARNER: Human Rights Watch, quoting U.N. figures, says that, as of Monday, even though Israel says it’s targeting Hamas leaders in Gaza with these bombing raids, that three-quarters of the people killed are civilians.

RON DERMER: I think that’s not true. And I have seen other reports. And I think we should wait, hopefully, when this operation will come to an end, and we will get a good understanding of what happened.

It’s important to realize Hamas uses the Palestinian population as human shields. They put missile batteries next to schools, mosques, hospitals. They are doing everything they can to put the Palestinian population in Gaza into harm’s way.

Israel is doing everything it can, whether it’s dropping flyers, calling people, sending text messages, taking all sorts of actions to get the Palestinian civilians out of harm’s way.

MARGARET WARNER: So, if there’s international criticism that the use of force is disproportionate, Israel rejects that?

RON DERMER: Absolutely.

It’s completely — I completely reject it, and I will tell you why. I think part of that criticism is not understanding the rules of war. People say it’s disproportionate because they do essentially a body bag count on each side, and they say, look, 200 people have been killed on the Palestinian side, and only one Israeli at this point has been killed, as if, if more Israelis were to die, then the action would all of a sudden become proportionate.

Proportionality has nothing to do with that; 20 times as many Germans died in World War II as Americans. It didn’t mean that America was disproportionate in the use of force against Germany, and it didn’t mean that the Nazis were right.

Proportionality has to do with something else entirely. One is distinction. Always make a distinction between combatants and noncombatants. Israel does that all the time. We do not deliberately target Palestinian civilians. They’re targeting our civilians, trying to kill as many as possible. We don’t target theirs.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s talk about the possibility of a ground invasion.

If there were to be one, what would be the objectives?  In other words, are we talking about targeted raids aimed at command-and-control bunkers of militants or thinking about really taking over in Gaza?

RON DERMER: Well, Israel doesn’t have a strategic objective to reconquer Gaza.

We didn’t have that objective a year-and-a-half ago, the last time we were in a confrontation, that that went on for eight days, and a cease-fire was achieved before there was a ground operation. We don’t have that objective now.

The prime minister has been very clear about what Israel’s objective is, a sustained period of quiet. We’re doing that by degrading the capabilities of Hamas in Gaza. And the prime minister made clear he would achieve that, whether it’s militarily or diplomatically. Obviously, you always prefer diplomatic outcomes. But we have to achieve the objective of sustained quite for the people of Israel.

MARGARET WARNER: But can that be achieved with a very limited ground operation?

RON DERMER: I don’t know. It remains to be seen. The question is what kind of pressure will be brought to bear on Hamas.

MARGARET WARNER: Meanwhile, there is still a flurry of diplomatic activity around this Egyptian cease-fire proposal.

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, is in Cairo today speaking with President Sisi. There is talk that a Hamas security chief is there as well. Secretary Kerry’s asked for a little more time to let this proposal play out.

How much time is Israel prepared to give this process time to possibly work?

RON DERMER: Well, Israel already agreed to the cease-fire yesterday morning.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, but that’s over.

RON DERMER: I know. So now we have rockets, and we have to defend ourselves.

But, obviously, if all of a sudden Hamas changes its mind, I’m sure that the Israeli government would take that very seriously, because we agreed to the proposal. I saw no reason why you won’t agree to that proposal again. But we have to have a sustained period of quiet for the people of Israel.

So, we appreciate very much efforts of everybody. We appreciate the very strong statements that were made by President Obama, by Secretary Kerry. All those diplomatic pressures that are being brought to bear on Hamas hopefully will lead to Hamas to reconsider its position and agree to a cease-fire.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, a person familiar with Hamas thinking and others have told us that all Hamas wants to accept the cease-fire are two things, a re-release of these prisoners that they won back in a prisoner exchange and then were recaptured, and, two, an opening of some of the crossings between Egypt and Gaza.

Could Israel accept those?

RON DERMER: Well, look, we’re not going to negotiate for a cease-fire even on your very prestigious show.

The Egyptians put a proposal to the table. It had a couple of points, I believe four points to its proposals. Israel’s security cabinet agreed to it, as I said. It wasn’t as simple for the prime minister to make that decision. It was an act of tremendous leadership on his part. He had to actually fire a deputy defense minister in the Israeli government for the criticism that he faced from one of his own members of his government for his decision to agree to the cease-fire.

MARGARET WARNER: Are you saying that the Israeli cabinet actually agreed to that proposal to re-release those prisoners?

RON DERMER: No. That wasn’t included in the Egyptian proposal.

The Egyptian cease-fire proposal was on the table.  It was on the table and I assume it still remains on the table. And hopefully Hamas will reconsider for the sake of Palestinian population in Gaza. Right now, we have a situation where from the northern part of Gaza thousands of Palestinians are now having to leave their homes because Israel is going to have to intensify its military operations in order to bring this rocket fire to an end.

So hopefully we can reach a good conclusion as quickly as possible with limited casualties on both sides.

MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Dermer, thank you.

RON DERMER: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As we said, that interview was recorded today before the Israeli government announced that it had agreed to a five-hour humanitarian pause in the bombing tomorrow.

But an Israeli official told Margaret late today that, if Hamas continues firing rockets during the pause — quote — “We will have to react and defend ourselves.” On the other hand he said, if Hamas does observe the pause, it could become the basis for a true cease-fire.

Tomorrow Margaret will interview the Palestine Liberation Organization’s ambassador to the U.S., Maen Rashid Areikat. You can see all of her interviews in this series on our World page.