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What’s making Mideast violence seem intractable

July 28, 2014 at 6:11 PM EDT
Why is it proving so difficult to halt the current conflict between Hamas and Israel? Gwen Ifill gets debate from Robert Satloff of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and foreign policy analyst and writer Mark Perry on the sticking points standing in the way of peace and what each side has to lose — or gain.
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GWEN IFILL: The latest battle between Hamas and Israel has raged for nearly three weeks, as efforts to broker a cease-fire, including Secretary of State Kerry’s whirlwind trips to the region, have fallen short.

So, why is it difficult — why is it proving to be so difficult to bring a halt to the violence?

For that, we turn to Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He’s written extensively about the Arab-Israeli peace process. And Mark Perry, a writer and foreign policy analyst who’s covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for over two decades.

Mark Perry, this renewed conflict seems especially intractable this time. You have been in contact over the years with representatives of Hamas. What are they saying? Why is this so tough?

MARK PERRY, Writer: Because their request, their demand, their conditions for an end of the conflict have not been met. And they have one condition and one condition only. And that’s an end to the siege of Gaza.

It’s absolutely out of the question for Israel, Israel says, to do this. It’s what the secretary tried to get Israel to agree to. They wouldn’t. And so tonight, sadly, this conflict continues. I don’t think it’s going to end in the short-term, and I don’t think Hamas is going to give in to Israel’s demands.

GWEN IFILL: Robert Satloff, what do you think the major sticking points have been?

ROBERT SATLOFF, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy: Well, the most significant sticking point is that Hamas continues rocket fire, that Hamas continues to use its underground tunnels and attack civilians in Israel.

When that ends and when there is an agreement on the path toward disarming Hamas, this will end. The Israelis accepted two cease-fire proposals along the last three weeks. Hamas rejected them. When there’s a cease-fire that brings an end to the actual fire, it’s over.

GWEN IFILL: I will start with you, but I want you both to answer this question. What does either side have to gain or lose from a prolonged conflict, as this is turning into, starting with you, Mr. Satloff?

ROBERT SATLOFF: Well, a prolonged conflict is never in Israel’s interest. Israel is a small country surrounded by enemies. It is a civilian army of a people’s army. So it doesn’t want to get into conflict. And I think everybody around the world saw the long hesitation before the decision was made to use ground forces in Gaza.

Israel, once it went in, and then it discovered not just the rocket fire, but also the tunnels that were coming out into Israeli communities, into villages and…

GWEN IFILL: They didn’t know about those tunnels before?

ROBERT SATLOFF: They knew that there were tunnels, but nobody knew the extent, the number, the sophistication and the coordination amongst all the tunnels, that the potential for a dramatic event of many different villages and communities being attacked in kindergartens and schools, not by rockets, but by terrorists coming up from within these buildings.

The Israelis across-the-board, 90 percent of Israelis urged the government to go in and finish the job. The government actually has been reluctant to send in troops to finish Hamas, because that’s not what their goals. They want to end what Hamas is doing and deny them the means, the rearming — the acquisition of more rockets and more ability to attack further. That’s what their goal is.

GWEN IFILL: Mark, same question to you. What does Hamas have to gain or lose from allowing this prolonged conflict to continue, not agreeing to a cease-fire?

MARK PERRY: Their freedom, a state, respect of the international community, a retrenchment of their land in Gaza and the West Bank, a flag, a parliament, self-determination.

This is what the Palestinians have always wanted and been denied for 60 years. It’s not going to be solved militarily. It’s going to be solved politically. Israel undermined the peace process, derided our secretary of state and continues to do so. There were three Israelis who were killed, sadly, unfortunately, kidnapped. It’s not clear that Hamas did it, but Israel decided to launch this war. And here we are.

GWEN IFILL: You said Hamas wants to be a state, but it is not a state currently.

GWEN IFILL: Would it make a difference in this?

MARK PERRY: Yes, Hamas is one of the political parties that joined a national unity government before the outbreak of these hostilities. There was no Hamas member in the cabinet of that national unity government.

They were willing to cooperate with Mahmoud Abbas in forming a government. And they have said time and again they’re willing to negotiate. But they won’t negotiate for their rights. And they joined a unity government to prove that. And they have been repudiated by Israel.

GWEN IFILL: How about how — go ahead.

ROBERT SATLOFF: Well, look, I think, to be accurate, we should recognize that we are not dispassionately looking at two equal combatants here.

One is a democratic ally. The other is a terrorist organization. Mark just described the Palestinian Authority as being a negotiating partner. And with John Kerry and the Israelis and the Mahmoud Abbas, there were important, diplomacy — but Hamas opposes that peace.

It opposes the idea of a solution with any Israel, big, small, any Israel. Their goal is to kill Israeli civilians.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you about the John Kerry piece. You brought it up, Mark Perry. Usually, when a United States secretary of state goes to a region and attempts to broker a peace, he’s seen as a fair and honest broker. That doesn’t appear to be the case right now. Why is that?

MARK PERRY: Sadly, I think that our relations with Israel are strained. I think that John Kerry was an honest broker attempting to get a cease-fire, worked tirelessly and I think courageously, to do it.

And you hear now in the Israeli press about how he was on the side of Hamas, how he was with Qatar and Turkey, how he undermined Israel. It’s really painful to see a close friend, an ally of the United States like Israel call names, point fingers at the secretary of state. I think he did his best.

And the cease-fire proposal that is on the table, that he put on the table by asking Turkey and Qatar what Hamas wanted, an ends to the siege, is — in fact, it was called today in Haaretz — a cease-fire that Israel should and could accept, that it was the best deal that they have seen in 10 years.

GWEN IFILL: So, Robert Satloff, what is your take on why Secretary Kerry has not been warmly welcomed by an old ally?

ROBERT SATLOFF: Well, let me quote David Ignatius from tomorrow’s Washington Post. You can read tomorrow’s newspaper these days.

GWEN IFILL: Just tell me about it now.

ROBERT SATLOFF: And it is that he says that John Kerry pushed too fast, instead of getting what should be inside this agreement, namely, disarmament.

Three key elements to an agreement, stopping the rockets, ending the tunnels and a path toward disarmament, if that had all been within the agreement, the deal would have been sown up. Instead, the idea was to kick that down the road. Indeed, in your — in the original quote that we saw in the clip, he talks about an eventual path to disarmament. Put disarmament in the deal now, the deal is done.

GWEN IFILL: Does a deal get done if disarm is in the deal, from Hamas’ world view?

MARK PERRY: Well, it’s interesting that we are hearing about disarmament and demilitarization now. Three weeks ago, when Israel started this offensive, we didn’t hear about it.

And the reason we’re hearing it now from the secretary of state and from Israel is that the disarmament and demilitarization of Gaza Strip, because of Israel’s offensive, has failed. Israel cannot defeat Hamas. This is an intractable quagmire for Israel. They are going to have a hard time extricating themselves from it.

GWEN IFILL: Who has the leverage, whether it’s the U.S., Qatar or Turkey, somebody in this, to get everybody off the dime?

ROBERT SATLOFF: The key leverage is Egypt and Israel, because what Hamas wants, only those two parties can provide.

Hamas wants access. They want to survive. Only the Egyptians and the Israelis control the area around Hamas. Turkey, Qatar, everybody else, essentially irrelevant.

GWEN IFILL: But Hamas doesn’t trust Egypt.

MARK PERRY: And Egypt doesn’t trust Hamas. And General Sisi is an enemy of Hamas.

But Sisi has a street. And the Egyptian street and the Arab street is very clearly here turning against Israel. I think Europe is turning against Israel. This offensive has turned out to be political nightmare for Israel. So, sooner or later…

GWEN IFILL: But the U.S. is not turning against the Israelis?

MARK PERRY: No, we’re not. And I don’t think we will.

But, sooner or later, Sisi is going to come to the table and say, all right, what do we need to do? He doesn’t want to have a conflict on his border. And he’s going — I agree with Robert. It’s going to be Cairo and it’s going to be Sisi and Egypt that really lays out how we get to a cease-fire.

GWEN IFILL: All right, we will be watching to see who makes the next move.

Mark Perry, Robert Satloff, thank you both very much.

ROBERT SATLOFF: Thank you.