TOPICS > Politics

U.S. Intensifies Push for Cease-fire in Gaza

January 6, 2009 at 6:45 PM EDT
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President-elect Barack Obama has said that the Middle East will be a top foreign policy priority, but the task of negotiating a cease-fire to the current burst of Gaza fighting still falls to the Bush administration. Analysts examine the U.S. role in Mideast peace talks.

MARGARET WARNER: Secretary of State Rice’s trip to the United Nations today to pursue a possible cease-fire in Gaza came just days after the U.S. blocked a proposed U.N. resolution calling for an immediate halt to the fighting.

And late today, President-elect Obama promised to move quickly on the broader Mideast conflict once he takes office.

For more on the U.S. role in the Gaza crisis, we go to Martin Indyk, former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, now director of the Saban Center for Mideast Policy at the Brookings Institution. His book about U.S.-Mideast diplomacy, “Innocent Abroad,” was released this week.

And Robert Malley, a former National Security Council official, he’s now Mideast program director at the International Crisis Group.

Welcome to you both.

So here we have Secretary Rice up at the U.N. pursuing a cease-fire. The State Department spokesman even used the word “immediate.” Is this a change?

MARTIN INDYK, Saban Center for Middle East Policy: Well, I think that, for the last few days, the administration’s actually been working behind the scenes on a cease-fire or at least a critical — one of the critical elements of a cease-fire, which is how to stop smuggling of offensive weapons into Gaza once a cease-fire is in place.

So now they’ve come out in public because there’s this big event in the Security Council with Abu Mazen, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. This is an effort to show that he is playing a role in trying to help the Palestinians.

He’s obviously been weakened by the fact that Hamas is getting all of the attention, particularly in the Arab street. And so the effort to get a cease-fire is not just to stop the violence, but also to strengthen those who’ve been undermined by it, those parties who actually want to make peace.

Both sides want new terms

MARGARET WARNER: Yet Israel is still saying it's not ready for a cease-fire, essentially, Rob Malley. So is this much of a departure on the secretary of state's part?

ROBERT MALLEY, International Crisis Group: Well, I think what you're seeing from Secretary Rice and the administration as a whole is that they've learned sort of half the lesson of the Hezbollah-Israel war of two years ago, which is they can't afford to appear not to do anything.

That cost them tremendously in the Arab world. They got a real black eye then when it looked like they were on the sidelines when the war was going on. But I say only half the lesson.

MARGARET WARNER: And, as I recall, Secretary of State Rice was even saying at the time, "Well, it's not time yet for a cease-fire."

ROBERT MALLEY: Exactly. Exactly. So now she's saying something different, but, as you say, behind the scenes, they're still insisting on conditions to be added to the cessation of violence, which means that this still may take a long time or still some time.

And as we saw today, as time goes by, the risk of a tragic loss of life, as we saw today at the U.N. school, just multiplies. So there is that danger. The U.S. says they want a solid, sustainable cease-fire, but that means the war keeps going on.

MARGARET WARNER: So is there much of a difference between what the U.S. is saying and what some of these other players, the Arab states or Abu Mazen or the Europeans are saying?

MARTIN INDYK: I don't think the...

MARGARET WARNER: In terms of what they're looking for?

MARTIN INDYK: ... the Bush administration is really playing for time here. I mean, the reality is that both sides -- the cease-fire broke down because Hamas wanted to change the rules of the game of the cease-fire. It wants to be able to bring goods in at will and allow people to go out at will.

And on the other side, the Israelis want to get a new cease-fire that tightens the control, and particularly stopping the smuggling and the building up of fancy weapons, as well as stopping the rocket fire.

So in a sense, the fighting is about negotiating the new rules of the game of the cease-fire. And that's going to take some time to work out, because essentially there is a real difference between Hamas and Israel when it comes to the question of what terms of a new cease-fire will be agreed upon.

Palestinian Authority's role

MARGARET WARNER: But right now, Rob Malley, we still hear -- at least both the rhetoric and the actions from both sides seems to be that they believe, or they act as if they believe, they can win or come out on top through continued fighting. In that circumstance, how do you change the incentives?

ROBERT MALLEY: Well, you know, I mean, you're absolutely right. Both sides, Hamas and Israel, right now think that they gain in a way every day, Hamas because it is standing up to the most powerful power in the region. It can say that it is the first organized Palestinian force to resist occupation of Palestinian lands ever. And so they gain, they boost their prestige every day. And Israel every day can degrade Hamas' capabilities, military capabilities.

On the other hand, there really is a risk that both sides overplay their hand. Hamas could see its levels of power in Gaza substantially degraded. And Israel can either find itself sucked into a quagmire in Gaza or find its credibility and the possibility of it moving in the future with pro-Western, moderate Arab states really undermined.

So I think there is this dynamic which is pushing both to continue, but I think it really is the responsibility of the United States and others to try to stop it now. We can't wait for all the elements to be in place, because things are just going to get worse.

Let's stop the fire now and very quickly thereafter add the ingredients that Martin just mentioned, that Hamas wants to open Gaza to normal traffic and that Israel wants to make sure that Gaza doesn't continue to be a sanctuary for weapons.

MARGARET WARNER: Would you advise the same?

MARTIN INDYK: Well, I definitely think that it's time to sustain diplomatic engagement to try to get this deal done. And I agree with Rob that there is a danger that this will kind of spiral out of control in precisely the way that he says.

I don't think that the government of Israel wants to reoccupy Gaza, wants to have to go in and take control of Gaza City or Jabaliya refugee camp. They do want to degrade Hamas' military capability, but that is for the purpose of trying to achieve this stricter control over what happens in Gaza.

They do not have as their objective to overthrow Hamas. So in that sense, I think they will benefit from diplomacy, and they've already put out the basic elements of what they want to see, not just the smuggling issue, but an international mechanism which will ensure that stuff isn't flowing in that's problematic.

There's going to need to be a humanitarian role. And I think critical to all of this is how the Palestinian Authority gets reintroduced into Gaza. And there may be a way of doing that.

Hamas wants the passages open. The Palestinian Authority, as the legal authority, should be part of that effort to open the passages.

Obama to prioritize conflict

MARGARET WARNER: Back to the U.S. role. You saw President-elect Obama very carefully today say, in this matter, only one person speaks for the United States. But is there any difference here in the agenda or in the interests or objectives of the outgoing Bush administration, which has two weeks left, and the incoming Obama one?

ROBERT MALLEY: And I think you certainly would see different policies towards the Middle East if President Obama were actually president now. But I think, in terms of the broad element of what they want to see in Gaza, I'm not so sure that there are wide differences.

I think both sides right now probably would like to wrap this up with a cease-fire, the outgoing administration, because it doesn't want to pass on to the next administration a Middle East in flames, and President-elect Obama, because he'd rather deal with the situation where there's a cease-fire he can build on, however difficult that's going to be -- and it's going to be extremely difficult -- rather than have to spend the first weeks or months of his administration trying to end the fighting.

MARGARET WARNER: But if two weeks from today this conflict is still raging, which is certainly possible -- and so president-elect -- the new President Obama will be confronted with the same situation, would you expect there to be -- I'll start with you, Martin -- even a nuance of difference in the way he approached either of the parties or the whole negotiation versus President Bush?

MARTIN INDYK: He definitely is going to need to get a sustained cease-fire in place. That's the job of his secretary of state, and particularly if it's not there, really, and I don't think it will be. I think it's still two weeks away.

But the elements could be there. And I think Hillary Clinton could move in and make that happen. But, then, he is going to have to distinguish himself from George Bush.

What Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaida, Ahmadinejad in Iran would love to be able to do to Barack Hussein Obama is take away the star quality, attraction that he has in the Arab and Muslim world. And, indeed, there's an al-Qaida tape out today precisely saying that he's the same as George Bush.

He needs to be able to brand himself separately from George Bush. And the way he's going to do that, I think, is what we heard from him today, is to make clear that, from day one, which he said during the campaign, he is going to make resolving the Palestinian conflict a priority.

And I think if he puts that in the context of a broader vision, of a comprehensive effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, that won't just be a nuance. That would be a sea change in the way in which the Obama administration pursues its interests in the Middle East.

Obama must move quickly

MARGARET WARNER: What are your expectations?

ROBERT MALLEY: Well, and I think Martin is absolutely right that that's going to be the challenges for President Obama to show that he is different, because there is an effort afoot.

And many Arabs -- and I speak to them on Arab TV often -- the first question they ask these days is, why is he silent? Does that mean he's complicit in this?

He may find his credibility undermined even before January 20th. So he's going to have to move quickly to regain that credibility. And he has the assets, certainly, and the ability to do so.

The real problem right now, in my view, is that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians -- which already psychologically would have been so difficult to resolve without what just happened -- is going to be made so much more difficult.

I mean, try to imagine the picture tomorrow of President Abbas sitting across the table from an Israeli prime minister after what happened to one-third of his population? Think of his credibility, given what he's been saying, the credibility of those countries that Obama is going to need, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia.

This is a political fight right now. And, unfortunately, those that we usually rely on are losing.

MARGARET WARNER: A lot on the new president's plate. Rob Malley, Martin Indyk, thank you.

MARTIN INDYK: Thank you.