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Kerry travels to Cairo to help mediate Mideast conflict

July 21, 2014 at 6:24 PM EDT
Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner joins Judy Woodruff to discuss Secretary of State John Kerry’s game plan as he arrives in Cairo to work on cease-fire prospects between Israel and Hamas.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Margaret joins me now.

So, Margaret, Kerry is now in Cairo. What’s the game plan?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, the game plan when they left, Judy — and he’s only been on the ground an hour-and-a-half or two — was to first try to get another one of these humanitarian pauses in place that might last a little longer than the five hours of last week, and during that time, if passions cool just a little bit, start working on a real cease-fire.

But even that is very complicated, because it depends on Hamas playing ball. Israel already says it’s ready to play ball with a humanitarian pause. Hamas will have to agree. And unlike in 2012, when the president of Egypt, who was a Muslim Brotherhood member, President Morsi, had direct leverage with Hamas, this time, he doesn’t. And so even getting that humanitarian pause is a challenge.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But — so what does the administration believe Kerry brings to the table that all the other players involved can’t or don’t have?

MARGARET WARNER: That’s a great question, because the Egyptians, the American indirectly, but the Egyptians, Israelis, Hamas, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, they all have been in Cairo over a week trying to get this going.

And they have moved around also to Doha and to Ankara. And so far it’s just dead in the water. What U.S. and Israeli and even Palestinian officials think he brings is, he has leverage and he has relationships with all the players who count here, in a way that General Sisi, now President Sisi of Egypt, doesn’t.

In other words, President Sisi has no leverage with Hamas because, after all, he helped oust the Muslim Brotherhood President Morsi. And the two players that do, Qatar and Turkey, one, are upset of course that their fellow Islamist was ousted as president — they’re popularly elected — Morsi was ousted as president — and, two, they have a great rivalry with Egypt.

So, if anything, the Israelis think they have deliberately frustrated the Egyptian cease-fire efforts. Kerry has built careful relationships with both the Qatari foreign minister, with General Sisi, despite a lot of criticism here at home at that. And President Obama has a very good relationship with the Turkish president, Prime Minister Erdogan.

So, the hope is that Secretary Kerry will be sort of the grownup in the room, meaning no disrespect to anyone else, but the one person who can act as mediator. That’s at least the hope and expectation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you reported on this, off — when he thought he was off the mic yesterday, the comments Secretary Kerry, “hell of a pinpoint operation.”


JUDY WOODRUFF: You have been talking to people about that. What was behind that?

MARGARET WARNER: That’s why I was smiling, because it reflected really his unhappiness and his frustration at, of course, the civilian death toll. And he’s understanding that there’s no such thing as a pinpoint operation. This is a former — guy who served in the military.

I am told that, far from being necessarily upset by this, this actually reflected the view of people in the White House and the State Department. And it all dates back to the killing of four Palestinian boys on the Gaza beach last week. And that’s when you saw the tone of the administration comments changing, which is, whatever Israel is saying they are intending to do, and they are trying to limit civilian casualties, they say, it’s not possible, and this shows exactly the slippery slope you start going down, and it was time to say it’s time to get a cease-fire.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, which brings me to the question, is there daylight, how much daylight is there between the U.S. position and Israel’s?

MARGARET WARNER: OK, officially, on the record, we hear none, which is President Obama and Secretary Kerry always say Israel has a right to defend itself.

And, in fact, they do believe that these tunnels in particular are a real security threat to Israel, because, as Israeli officials said to me today, those militias could come in and get behind our lines, and then we’re squeezed on both sides.

So even the U.S. agreed with getting of the tunnels. But what I was hearing today from U.S. officials was, OK, the Israelis say they have gotten a lot of the tunnels. We really think it’s now time to work on a cease-fire.

What a senior Israeli official said to me today is, well, we have gotten a lot of the tunnels near the border, but we have discovered lots more tunnels, and it’s a whole spider web of tunnels. And there are a lot more.

And here was the chilling thing, Judy. This official said to me, there are a lot of other neighborhoods, just like the one yesterday, densely populated ones, where it’s essentially a network of tunnels underneath, and sort of terrorist leadership cells and command centers. And we know where they are.

And so what that says is, if a cease-fire isn’t reached, we could see more of the sort of civilian mass casualties we saw yesterday.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, just quickly, Kerry is in Cairo. Where does he go from there, and how long is he prepared to devote to this?

MARGARET WARNER: The game plan was, with no date certain of when, was he would go to Doha definitely to see the Qataris perhaps next. Then he would definitely go to Jerusalem, maybe to Ankara to see Erdogan.

The short-term game plan was a week. But the State Department was busy tamping down expectations today about how hard this was going to be and how long it would take. And as someone said to me, Secretary Kerry, once he gets out there, he could stay two weeks. So, it won’t be fast.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we will be talking to you throughout.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret Warner, thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: My pleasure, Judy, as always.