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Players in Israel-Gaza Truce Talks Face ‘Complicating’ Regional Realities

November 20, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
As the Israel-Hamas conflict continues and pressure for peace rises, some factors complicate the negotiation process. Jeffrey Brown talks to Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Dennis Ross and Brookings Institution's Khaled Elgindy about Egypt's prominent role, failures of old U.S. policy and the rise of political Islam.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I’m joined now by Dennis Ross, a longtime U.S. diplomat and Mideast envoy serving in the George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and Obama administrations. He’s now a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

And Khaled Elgindy, an adviser to the Palestinian team involved in the 2007 Annapolis peace negotiations, and now a fellow at the SabanCenter for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Dennis Ross, I want to start with you. Your reading on where things stand tonight in terms of a pause or a cease-fire?

DENNIS ROSS, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: I do think the outlines of a cease-fire have probably been shaped at this point.

I think the secretary of state is there and has a chance to finalize this by, in a sense, becoming the — I think, the repository of the commitments that each side has made.

I think one of the things that’s going on right now is trying to make certain that all the understandings are understood the same way by each side and whatever promises are being made will now be promises made to her as well. And, in effect, she becomes almost the holder of those as a kind of deposit.

That, I think, is a chance for the cease-fire to actually be implemented and gives it more of a chance to endure. But these things from my experience, having done a lot of this in the past, they are never done until you actually see them implemented.

JEFFREY BROWN: What — Mr. Elgindy, what is known or what can be said about the Palestinian stance at this point in terms of what it would take to get the cease-fire?

KHALED ELGINDY, Brookings Institution: Well, on the Palestinian side, it’s obviously a very different dynamic.

On the Palestinian side, you’re dealing with a divided authority, essentially. You have Hamas that is running the show in the Gaza Strip, and President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.

And Hillary Clinton is really only able to meet with one side. And it’s the side that doesn’t have any say in what happens on the ground.

JEFFREY BROWN: You should explain that. She’s only able to, by law, really, right, to talk to…

KHALED ELGINDY: That’s right. So, it’s one of the complicating realities in this kind of dysfunctional dynamic.

And so the Egyptians are playing a very prominent role because they’re one of the few parties that can actually talk to everyone.

JEFFREY BROWN: But does President Abbas have any influence at all in what goes on in Gaza at this point?

KHALED ELGINDY: At this point, no, he doesn’t.

And he has been marginalized over the years. He was pushed out. His leadership was pushed out of Gaza in 2007 by Hamas, which had won an election in 2006. But the situation between these two rival factions had gotten to the point where it was essentially a civil war.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s been a lot of talk in recent days about Hamas gaining influence in Gaza, certainly, in the region.


JEFFREY BROWN: How do you see that, what’s going on in sort of its positioning?

DENNIS ROSS: Well, they’re certainly a focal point in this conflict but I would say the one who has really gained influence is Egypt.

Here is Egypt that prior to the time that the new Egypt emerged in the last years of the Mubarak regime was playing less and less of a role within the region.

Now here we have President Morsi. Even though he’s a new Egyptian president and the preoccupation is primarily internal and economic, the fact is he’s the one who is brokering this, and not…

JEFFREY BROWN: Is it even more than Hillary Clinton? You were saying she comes in and plays this role of sort of repository, but is it more the Egyptians who are the power brokers here?



DENNIS ROSS: Because the Egyptians have a relationship with Hamas.

And what’s interesting, notwithstanding that this is a new Egyptian government that is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Muslim Brotherhood has been fundamentally hostile to Israel, nonetheless, to recognize where they are in the region, to recognize that they have to preserve the peace treaty with Israel, here they are.

They’re brokering between Hamas and Israel.

It’s a new role for this government, but it also shows that they’re playing a very significant place within the region right now.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think about that and also this question of Hamas gaining a kind of legitimacy through all of this through Egyptian foreign minister, other foreign ministers coming to Gaza and leaving Mahmoud Abbas out of it?

KHALED ELGINDY: Yes, he’s sort of out in the cold.

I agree with Ambassador Ross. The Egyptians have been playing a very prominent role, but I think we can’t ignore the fact that Hamas has been greatly emboldened.

Even since the attacks began, even since the assassination of their top military commander, their popularity, their stock, if you will, in the region has skyrocketed, while their rivals’ in the West Bank has plummeted.

So, and even we’re at a situation now where the exact opposite of the intended outcome is what we have. The policy has been for the last five years to support and build up the leadership in the West Bank.

JEFFREY BROWN: The U.S. policy.

KHALED ELGINDY: The U.S. policy, right.


KHALED ELGINDY: And to minimize and weaken through sanctions and diplomatic and other means to the government of the Hamas authority in the West Bank.

Today, we have the Qataris and Egyptians and other Egyptian leaders visiting Hamas, emboldening them and legitimizing them. And it’s the American-backed Palestinian Authority that is on the verge of financial collapse.

So, essentially, you cannot have — the definition of a failed policy is when it achieves the exact opposite of its intended outcome.

So, it’s really time for a dramatic shift in how the United States approaches this entire issue.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think about that, a failed U.S. policy over there?

DENNIS ROSS: Well, I think let’s take a step back.

One of the reasons Hamas is also emerging is because each of these actors that we see coming to deal with Hamas are also basically Islamists.

We have an Islamist government in Egypt now. It’s a very different government than the one before. The fact that Turkey is there, again, you have the AKP. You have Erdogan. This is basically an Islamic party. Qatar basically hasn’t met an Islamic party it doesn’t like.

So, what you have at this point is the rise of political Islam. It’s not a big surprise that Hamas felt emboldened to try to change the rules of the game with the Israelis, and the Israelis came back and decided not going to change the rules of the game.

I think there is a great deal of sort of popular support for the moment for Hamas, but I think as those within Gaza begin to think through, all right, what did we actually gain out of this, how are we really better off, I wonder whether or not the same kind of sense of popularity will remain as strong as it is right now.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are you suggesting that the U.S. should now be talking directly to Hamas?

KHALED ELGINDY: I’m not. Actually, I’m suggesting that the U.S. should allow Palestinians to talk to one another, because as long as you have a dysfunctional Palestinian polity, you’re going to have a dysfunctional situation on the negotiating track with Mahmoud Abbas and on the security track of Gaza with — vis-a-vis Hamas.

Neither is going — neither of these tracks are going well. And the only way to fix it, in my view, is to have a unified Palestinian house where the Hamas folks are reined in and are checked and not as triumphant as they currently are. And the only way to do that is to is by building up Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian — his Fatah faction in the West Bank.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, just in our last minute, what happens overnight and tomorrow, as we watch Hillary Clinton meeting with some of these players?

DENNIS ROSS: Well, my guess is that she is going to try to make certain that, in fact, there is a common set of understandings that, in fact, don’t require additional clarification. I think that there’s very clear promises that are made.

And I think she will try to be as precise as she can be to make certain the understandings are shared by everyone. And then I think there’s a potential for the implementation. I hope that this takes place, because I think, if you don’t nail it down very quickly, then you run the risk of it unraveling.

JEFFREY BROWN: And does nailing down mean a short-term cease-fire or is there a potential for something longer term?

DENNIS ROSS: I think there’s a potential for something longer-term. I think that’s one of her values of her being there. I think, had she not come, probably what you would have seen is, a cease-fire would have taken hold, but you couldn’t be certain that it wouldn’t break down. It could have broken down again within a short period of time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just a brief last word. Do you think there’s a potential for a longer-term something here?

KHALED ELGINDY: I think, if it’s just going to bring an end to the violence and it’s purely on the bilateral Hamas-Israel track and only deals with that issue, independent of the broader — this is part of an Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has been going on for decades.

And you can’t extract Hamas and Gaza from that equation. As much as American and Israeli policies has tried, I think it is an artificial kind of reality that they’re imposing.

And we’re seeing the realities of that. You cannot have a functional diplomatic track, and you can’t have a durable cease-fire on the Gaza track either.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Khaled Elgindy and Dennis Ross, thank you both very much.

DENNIS ROSS: Pleasure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: If you want to learn more about the origins of Hamas, the Council on Foreign Relations has published a Hamas primer that you can read on our website.