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National Security Advisor Rice on sticking points of Mideast cease-fire and Russia proxy-war potential

July 25, 2014 at 6:10 PM EDT
National Security Advisor Susan Rice says the U.S. doesn't support Hamas' use of force as an attempt to end economic isolation. She joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the prospect of a 12-hour humanitarian pause in the battle between Israel and Gaza, obstacles to achieving a cease-fire and the sway that the U.S. still holds in Mideast diplomacy, as well as evidence of Moscow’s interference in Ukraine.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Later, there was word out of Paris that France will host an international meeting tomorrow to try to get a cease-fire agreement in Gaza.

For more on that effort, and containing the conflict in Ukraine, Susan Rice, the national security adviser to the president, joins us.

So, Ambassador Rice, I want to ask you first about the late news that we have this afternoon. Did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tell Secretary Kerry about a 12-hour pause?  Can you confirm that?

SUSAN RICE, National Security Adviser: Hari, what you heard out of the press conference in Cairo was that the U.N. secretary-general has called for a 12-hour pause.

Certainly, that is something that would be a very modest initial step, but something that we would very much welcome. Secretary Kerry has been very much active in the region all throughout the week in consultations with Prime Minister Netanyahu, with the Egyptians, with the U.N., as well as with the governments of Qatar and Turkey.

And in the course of that process, we have been urging the achievement of a 7-day humanitarian cease-fire, during which period there would be an opportunity for the political issues to begin to be addressed, such that we could have a sustainable, permanent cease-fire. So, yes, there’s been discussions back and forth about the length of a cease-fire, the length of a pause.

I can’t obviously speak for the Israeli government or for any of the other parties in this. They will have to confirm their position publicly themselves.

HARI SREENIVASAN: OK.

At the same time, the defense minister in Israel says that they plan to broaden the ground operation in Gaza significantly, whether there’s a pause or not. Has Israel shared those plans with the United States or in this conversation?

SUSAN RICE: We have not had a detailed conversation about their operational plans. I think, frankly, they have some very difficult decisions to make.

We have been very clear that Israel has an undeniable right to self-defense and that the rockets that it has faced coming out of Gaza incessantly, the tunnels that are legion and are being used to infiltrate into Israel are very legitimate security concerns, for which they have an obligation — against which they have an obligation to act.

At the same time, we have said that these operations need to be conducted in a way that don’t lead to a broader escalation, and that minimize the humanitarian and human toll, which is obviously mounting and about which we’re gravely concerned.

And so we’re looking for as soon as reasonably possible the achievement of this interim seven-day humanitarian cease-fire and the opportunity to negotiate a permanent peace.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, what are the sticking points of trying to get a cease-fire on the table?

SUSAN RICE: Well, the sticking points are many.

First of all, Hamas has not been willing to agree to the terms of a cease-fire. There have been several offered over the last few weeks. They haven’t accepted them. Obviously, also, as the death toll mounts, and the circumstances on the ground evolve, the parties’ perspectives evolve, and what they feel was necessary to defend themselves has evolved.

So the Israeli point of view is that they are facing a serious and growing threat, both from the rockets and from the tunnels. They have worked to try to deal decisively with that threat. And we understand the motivation for that. And we are sympathetic and supportive to that.

But the other reality is, this is coming at a mounting and grave cost on all sides. The Israelis have suffered significant casualties and losses, both military and civilian. Obviously, the toll in Gaza is very disturbing, and so thus the need now, as soon as possible, for a cease-fire.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Does the U.S. think that it is a legitimate request by Gaza or by Hamas to ask for the end of the economic blockade on Gaza?

SUSAN RICE: Well, these are very compelling issues and concerns, but the problem is, Hamas is using force to try to extort progress on its political objectives.

And we do not support that. Recall how this started. This started with Hamas firing the rockets into Israel. And if that’s the way that they want to seek an ending of some economic isolation, it’s counterproductive and it’s very unlikely to succeed.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And a quick question about our influence in the region. Are you concerned that the U.S. doesn’t seem to be able to have an immediate impact on stopping the violence?

SUSAN RICE: Hari, quite the contrary.

If there were a magic wand that anybody could wave in the world, I would like to see it. But the United States has been and remains the critical player in all of this. And that is why the parties so much wanted the United States, in the form of Secretary Kerry, to spend the entire week out in the region at a time when, as you know, there are many other pressing issues in the world.

The region, the players, the Israelis, the Palestinians, the Egyptians and all of the partners that we have been working with look to the United States as a critical player, the critical player in trying to resolve this. And we will continue to do what we can to achieve this cease-fire.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, one of those other pressing issues in the world, of course, is Ukraine. What specific evidence does the U.S. government have of a more direct involvement by Russia in this fight?

SUSAN RICE: Well, let me say — recap what we have learned over the last several days since the shoot-down of the Malaysia airliner.

In the first instance, we have a high degree of confidence in the evidence that there was a surface-to-air missile, an SA-11, fired from separatist-held territory inside of Ukraine at this aircraft, and brought it down. We also know that that surface-to-air weapon wasn’t a Ukrainian one. We have ways and means of determining how the Ukrainian model of that weapon was being employed at the time.

We have ways and means of knowing where the weapon was shot. It was shot from separatist-held territory. It was a weapon that we believe was transferred to the separatists by Russia. It also requires sophisticated training, so that training was provided by Russia or it may be — and we can’t say — that Russia had a more direct hand in this.

We also know that weapons, heavy weapons continue to flow across the border, as they have for the last many weeks, indeed months, from Russia into Ukraine. And we have now, in recent days, indications that Russians — Russian military units themselves have, on occasion, fired into Ukraine.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, is there a plan for the U.S. to provide military assistance to Ukraine?

SUSAN RICE: Hari, the United States has already begun to provide various forms of nonlethal military assistance to Ukraine.

We also have begun to assess with the Ukrainians the scope of their larger security assistance requirements. We have had teams out making that assessment with the Ukrainians. And we have already provided various forms of equipment and support to Ukraine.

Now, there are those who have argued that now is the time to provide lethal military support. That is not a decision that the United States has taken to date.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, and, finally, does this have the potential, as we increase our military engagement and involvement, to becoming a proxy war with Russia?

SUSAN RICE: Well, that’s one of the factors that, obviously, we and others take into account as we consider the wisdom of our next steps.

The Russians are clearly already engaged in a proxy war against the government of Ukraine. And that is something that we and the rest of the world have actively condemned and sanctioned Russia already heavily for, particularly the United States, as we have imposed now meaningful, tough sanctions in critical sectors, including the defense sector, the financial sector, and the energy sector.

We are working with the Europeans, who have also now in recent days stepped up their own sanctions, to have them join us in imposing sectoral sanctions in a concerted way. And we are coordinating our efforts to try to accomplish that, and so that the economic pressure on Russia will continue to mount.

Be mindful that the United States really only accounts for about 3 percent of the economic engagement with Russia. Europe is 40 percent, and so Europe’s contribution to this pressure is far more than symbolic. It’s very practical. And that’s one of the many reasons why we have worked hard to remain in close coordination with our European partners.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, National Security Adviser to the president Susan Rice, thanks so much.

SUSAN RICE: Thank you for having me.