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Why Israel and Hamas are interested in making this cease-fire stick

August 26, 2014 at 6:15 PM EDT
The war between Israel and Hamas, which took thousands of lives this summer, appeared to be at an end with the announcement of a new cease-fire. Gwen Ifill talks to Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution about the prospects of enduring calm, the emergence of Egypt as lead negotiator and the rebuilding process ahead.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: For more on where things go from here, I’m joined by Dennis Ross, a longtime U.S. diplomat and Middle East envoy who served in the George H.W. Bush, Clinton and Obama administrations. He’s now a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. And Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat of peace and development at the University of Maryland, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and author of the book “The World Through Arab Eyes.”

Gentlemen, welcome back to the NewsHour.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI, Brookings Institution: Pleasure.

GWEN IFILL: So we have talked about this before.

Dennis Ross, you have certainly been on the other side of the negotiating table before. Does this cease-fire seem real to you?

DENNIS ROSS, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy: It does seem real to me because I think both sides really want this to be over. Neither side knew, at this point that there was much more that could be gained and they each saw that the price they were paying was one that was going to continue to go up.

And we can look at it as the price not being equal to the two sides, but how does each side evaluate those costs? I think, for the Israelis, they had destroyed the tunnels. If they wanted to go in and stop the mortars, they had to go in on the ground again and basically try to take over Gaza, which was just too high a price to pay.

So, they had achieved basically what they were going to achieve militarily. For Hamas, they’re in a situation as well where, if you look at the rockets they have left, if they kept firing, they would begin to deplete the arsenals they have. The price that was being paid within Gaza was also going up.

So I think each was looking for a way out, and right now this way out gives them a chance to sustain something.

GWEN IFILL: Shibley Telhami, we heard Mark Regev, the Israeli spokesman, say in that piece he didn’t understand why Hamas didn’t take the same deal a month ago. Is he correct in that?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: No, I think it was actually the same deal for either side.

The Israelis got some more out of it in some ways, but obviously the immediate opening of the passages, the crossings and providing relief is something to get out of it, but they didn’t get everything they were asking for, especially not the ports.

But I just want to go back to the question that you asked about, will the cease-fire hold? I agree with Dennis, first of all, that I think the incentives for both of them to keep it and respect it is very high. They don’t have much incentive to break it. They have very little to achieve in the short-term.

But here’s the thing. I believe, from the outset, neither side wanted the escalation, and they ended up with an escalation. It remains very volatile. There is a lot of negotiations at stake coming up. Politically, there are some gains and some losses. The prime minister of Israel started of the 82 percent approval rating. Yesterday, the latest poll was 38 percent approval rating.

There’s a political problem for each one and there’s much to go. So I don’t think it’s over, even though I think it’s a different kind of strategic decision right now. Both sides don’t want to reengage again in conflict.

GWEN IFILL: Is the Palestinian Authority strengthened in this? Is Netanyahu, as Shibley Telhami says, weakened?

DENNIS ROSS: I don’t believe that Netanyahu has really been weakened.

This is not like 2006 with Prime Minister Olmert. Netanyahu was much more careful in terms of how he framed the objectives. His objectives were to destroy the tunnels and to restore quiet. Now, it’s true the threat of Hamas is still there. They have been militarily weakened, but the threat is still there.

And for those on the right, he will be challenged. He — the numbers of support he had at 82 percent were unrealistic and weren’t going to be sustainable anyway, so he will have to contend with explaining where you go from here. And I think simply having the pre — the status quo ante is not something that will necessarily be acceptable.

I think Hamas though is also, in the near term, you know, the sense that they have stood up is one thing, but, as the dust settles, I think that there will be a lot of questions about where do you go from here, and in terms of the Palestinian Authority, they want to show that they’re back in Gaza now.

Hamas will look for ways to demonstrate who’s still in control and that’s I think an issue for us to be watching.

GWEN IFILL: How different is the role that Egypt played this time around for this deal, and how different was the role the U.S. played?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Oh, this is very different, because I think, obviously, in some ways, Egypt is essential, partly because, of course, Egypt has a stake in Gaza. It’s right there and it cares about what happens in Gaza for multiple reasons, A, for the Palestinian cause, but, B, because they see Hamas as the threat and an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood.

But what made them more valuable this time for the Israelis is that they were closer to Israel on Hamas in many ways. That’s why — one reason why the Israelis in some ways preferred Egyptian mediation to American mediation, whereas, oddly enough, the Palestinians actually preferred American mediation to Egyptian mediation. This is the oddity of all of this.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Dennis Ross about the U.S. role in this.

Was it — did it help to step back from the table a little bit?

DENNIS ROSS: Yes, I think it did, because, at the end of the day, the Egyptians did have the leverage. And Shibley is right.

You had a conversion of interests between Egypt and Israel. If anything, in some ways, Egypt was even harder on Hamas than the Israelis were. For Egypt, Hamas is part of the Muslim Brotherhood and this is an existential struggle. They’re the ones — and part of the deal here is probably the reopening of Rafah. Only they could do that. From an American standpoint…

GWEN IFILL: Right, the checkpoint in Egypt, yes.

DENNIS ROSS: Yes.

From an American standpoint, we looked I think at Egypt and wondered, well, are they active enough to try to make something happen? And that probably had us look at Turkey and had us look at Qatar, but in a way that in a sense was unlikely to produce the Egyptians.

So, our taking a step back at a certain point helped, number one. And, number two, I think there was — one of the things that was different from last time, this time, the Egyptians didn’t want it to appear as if they needed the U.S. to come in to do this. And because of that, I think we were still active, but I think we were active in a much more low-visibility fashion.

GWEN IFILL: What is the carrot at the end of the stick in another month? Right now, this whole deal is for a month. And, if so, others things happen. What is it likely those things will happen?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: And this is really a central question, because the reality of it is, we can say that both lost and political stalemate or whatever, but here’s the reality on the ground.

Gaza was in horrible shape before the war started, needed relief before the war. So, guess what? Not only do we have 0.8 percent of its population dead or wounded and about a quarter homeless, but we have — the damage to property is many times its GDP. And no one can do that from the inside.

So even to get back to where they were, which was horrible, it is going to take an enormous amount, billions of dollars that’s not going to come. And, two, I think when you look at it, nobody really can do this over and over again. There was a war in 2008-2009 that was devastating. There was a war in 2012, just two, three years later. There’s a war now, and some Israelis are saying, well, this is not — unfinished business. We need to do this again.

GWEN IFILL: Had this devolved into a war of attrition, that this was only way out?

DENNIS ROSS: Yes, I think that is one of the things that helps to explain why we’re seeing this end right now.

The price did become too high. And the gains grew increasingly suspect. So that produced a reality where we are right now. And I think it is going to create an incentive on each side not to see it end.

But I would build on one point that Shibley made. The more you do the reconstruction — it has two elements to it. One element is the P.A. is at the border crossing.

GWEN IFILL: The Palestinian Authority.

DENNIS ROSS: Yes, the Palestinian Authority, so that they can be in a position where they can take some credit for this, but also the more you begin to have reconstruction, assuming there are safeguards for its end use, so that Hamas can’t misuse this material to rebuild the tunnels and the rockets, the more it is going to be hard to go back to conflict, because to begin to restore life again in Gaza is going to create a very strong incentive not to put that at risk.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: If I may just say, the Gaza war itself was a symptom, not the source of the problem.

Just before, we were talking about the possibility of a third intifada, that the two-state solution was just coming to an end, collapse of hope. And so even if you fix Gaza, meaning what has happened, all of the tragedy that has happened, that’s not going to fix it.

And I think one of the things that wars do, historically, is they create new opportunities, because you reshuffle the deck. And I think it can cut both ways, obviously. People can say I’m going to fight again or people can say this is not tenable. And I think the diplomatic effort right now should focus on turning this into, we need to do something much more comprehensive.

GWEN IFILL: That’s what we will be watching for.

Shibley Telhami from the University of Maryland, Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, thank you both very much.

DENNIS ROSS: Thank you.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Pleasure.