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Egypt Hopes to Help Broker Cease-fire, If Not Peace Between Israel and Hamas

November 19, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Judy Woodruff talks to McClatchy Newspaper's Nancy Youssef about the efforts of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to negotiate a cease-fire between Israel and Palestinian militants. Though close to a deal, Youssef reports common ground is scarce between Israelis and Palestinians and will prevent long-term brokerage of peace.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We turn to Cairo now, where efforts are under way to stop the fighting between Israel and Hamas.

A short while ago, I spoke with Nancy Youssef, McClatchy Newspapers’ Egypt correspondent.

Nancy Youssef, welcome.

Tell us about those meetings going on in Cairo. Who is taking part? What’s the latest?

NANCY YOUSSEF, McClatchy Newspapers: Well, we heard a little bit about them today from Khaled Meshaal, who is the head of Hamas.

And we have heard repeated suggestions that they’re close to an agreement. We have heard this since Saturday. It’s being mediated by the Egyptians, by Mohammed Morsi, and members of his cabinet. This is the first time he’s had to negotiate something on this scale since winning the presidency in June.

There’s an Israeli delegation here as well. And the negotiations have been happening for a few days now.

Today, we’re hearing from people privately that there doesn’t seem to be a particular sticking point, but that both sides are — that’s really being lost is the time that’s having to happen between shuttling between two sides that won’t face each other in the same room.

Remember, though, it’s in everybody’s interests to keep promising that this cease-fire agreement will come soon because of potential instability.

If there isn’t a promise of some sort of settlement to this, I think there’s universal agreement that the worst-case scenario is escalation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Nancy, what are the Israelis asking for?

NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, I think, very simply, they’re asking for Hamas to stop launching rockets towards them. Remember, this time was significant in that a rocket reached the city of Tel Aviv, which is a first. And so I think that’s very simply what they’re asking for.

The Palestinians, we heard from Khaled Meshaal today that they want to see an end to the five-year blockade that has been imposed by the Israelis, an end to the targeted assassinations of their military commanders, and, of course, an independent, sovereign state.

So, it doesn’t seem that either side can promise either one of those agreements, so — or one of those promises — and so what comes out in the middle will be — will be kind of interesting.

But I think in the immediate, both sides want a cease to the hostilities that really threaten to escalate and destabilize not only Israel and Gaza, but the region.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there literally no common ground there?

NANCY YOUSSEF: I don’t think so. I think that there can be an agreement that such activities cease for a certain period of time. But we’re asking two sides who haven’t been able to agree to this for years and years to come to a settlement. And both sides have a vested interest.

Remember that Hamas, for example, sees that this is a time for them to negotiate, in that they really feel emboldened by the Arab spring and the ability of Arab leaders or the willingness Arab leaders to come forward and say, we’re going to stand behind the Palestinian people, even in the face of the reality that they don’t have the arms to go against the very powerful Israeli military.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, speaking of Arab leaders, you mentioned President Morsi of Egypt is playing a mediator role. He’s been outspoken in his comments before now praising Hamas. And yet the Israelis still seem to look to him. What is his role in all of this?

NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, there’s no other alternative.

And so everyone we have spoken to says that, despite the rhetoric, which arguably was necessary by Morsi in the face of the election, in the face of the constituency which elected him, which was the Muslim Brotherhood, which has always stood behind Hamas, he had to say those things.

But, practically speaking, Egypt more than any other nation can’t afford for this to escalate.

And what we’re hearing is that while the faces have changed in terms of the leadership here in Egypt, that the interests have not and that President Morsi understands this and has been very pragmatic behind the scenes and is looking out primarily for Egypt’s interests.

And so there’s a disconnect really between the rhetoric and what’s happening behind the scenes. That’s what we’re being told.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Nancy, we know the Israelis have talked about making preparations for a ground war if necessary. Is there a timetable folks are discussing there?

NANCY YOUSSEF: We keep hearing that this could be imminent in the next few days.

Yet, what was interesting is Haaretz, the major Israeli newspaper, put out a poll today that found that most Israelis supported the airstrikes, but didn’t support a ground war.

So, even though we were hearing aggressive talk about that just a couple of days ago, it seemed to have lessened in the last 24 hours and again suggesting that perhaps both sides are close to some sort of cease-fire agreement.

But there doesn’t seem to be the appetite that there was just a few days ago for such a ground offensive.

That said, the expectation is that it would start within days, that the Israelis have mobilized their reservists and are preparing for such a ground war. And the expectation here is that it would be some time around the end of the week.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just finally, quickly, evidence of a U.S. role there?

NANCY YOUSSEF: I spoke to a U.S. official today about that. And it’s interesting. The U.S. role from what we hear is essentially they offer words of encouragement to both sides. They keep stressing that Egypt is really leading this and that they don’t need this sort of push that one would expect.

That said, there’s a frustration in Congress by the comments that Mohammed Morsi, the president, made here in support of Hamas. Lindsey Graham came out on Sunday and said that Congress was watching it very closely.

And so the U.S. says that Egypt is taking the initiative on its own, that the U.S. role is ancillary, that the U.S. is monitoring it.

President Obama has spoken to Morsi as recently as today. Hillary Clinton has spoken to her counterpart and the prime minister here — that the U.S. does have a role, but that Egypt is willingly leading the peace negotiations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Nancy Youssef on the story in Cairo — Nancy Youssef with McClatchy, thank you very much.


JEFFREY BROWN: Online, we have a first-person account from journalist Stephanie Freid, who writes from Tel Aviv about how the escalating violence is affecting families in the region, including her own.