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With Cease-fire, Examining Prospects for Lasting Peace in Middle East

November 21, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Will the cease-fire reached Wednesday between Israel and Hamas hold? Ray Suarez talks to former State Department official Nicholas Burns and Hisham Melham of Al Arabiya about the prospects for long-term peace and the crucial diplomatic roles played by the United States, Egypt and other Middle Eastern neighbors.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And more now on the Middle East. Will the cease-fire reached today between Israel and Hamas, hold? And what about longer-term, more difficult issues between the two sides?

Ray Suarez picks it up.

RAY SUAREZ: I’m joined now by veteran diplomat and former Ambassador Nicholas Burns and Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief for Al Arabiya TV.

Mr. Ambassador, as you heard from our reporters earlier in the program, the shooting has stopped, but has it really ended the conflict?

NICHOLAS BURNS, former U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs: Ray, it certainly hasn’t ended the conflict.

I do think there’s a fairly good chance that this cease-fire will hold, for two reasons. First, the Israelis had had a very, very tough week. Their entire civilian population in the southern part of the country has been in bomb shelters, out of school, out of work.

They had the terrible bombing of the bus in Tel Aviv today, and the rockets fired for the very first time at Jerusalem, where several hundred thousand Palestinians live.

So, I think the Israelis have made the point that they will defend their country. Their Iron Dome anti-missile system responded very, very well to the rocket attacks.

And on the Palestinian side, I think Egypt, Turkey, and Qatar will make sure that Hamas adheres to the cease-fire terms. They will put enormous pressure on the Hamas leadership to cease and desist.

So, I do think in the immediate sense we will see the cease-fire hold, but the much bigger question is what can the United States and Egypt do now to strengthen the cease-fire and to make it durable, so that we don’t end up back in this situation in a couple of weeks or a couple of months’ time.

RAY SUAREZ: Can it be made durable, Hisham?

HISHAM MELHEM, Al-Arabiya Television: Only if the United States decides to play a pivotal, important, direct role.

And we have seen Secretary Clinton in Cairo saying that we will work to consolidate and build on this cease-fire to help the people of Gaza and to maintain Israel’s security. But there is absolutely no serious talk about reviving America’s pivotal role in the Middle East.

And unless you have a have political horizon, this thing will hold. I would expect it to hold. The cease-fire will hold in the foreseeable future. That’s the only thing we can talk about with some certainty, because Netanyahu needs quiet on the southern front so that he can prepare for his election campaign.

He tested the Iron Dome successfully for a potential conflict, the bigger conflict with Iran and/or Hezbollah in the future. He degraded Hamas’ arsenal. He made the point, so to speak.

Hamas will stick to a cease-fire right now because they need to rebuild. They proved a point. They will have the crossings opened. They got a commitment from the Israelis on the targeted assassinations of their leaders. And now they’re on excellent terms with their new ally, President Morsi in Cairo.

So, for all these reasons, a cease-fire will hold. But as long — but if you don’t have a political horizon, this thing will crumble, maybe next year.

RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador, do you agree with Hisham’s conclusion that there is no wider American role in the offing?

NICHOLAS BURNS: Oh, I think there is the possibility of a wider American role, but it will be different than the typical role of trying to negotiate a final status peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians.

That is really not possible now, because the Palestinian community is so divided between the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah on the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza.

But the United States could take a page out of the history books. Henry Kissinger after the October war of 1973 negotiated a series of disengagement agreements between the Egyptian and Israeli armies at that time. That’s probably where the United States should put its emphasis.

Can we strengthen and make more durable the cease-fire arrangements in Gaza? Will Israel agree to ease up on the economic restrictions on a very badly suffering civilian population among the Palestinians, and can the Israelis be given, in turn, some confidence that Hamas is not going to strike again?

I think that’s where you will see the American effort over the next couple of days and couple of weeks.

And I do think this crisis really points to the centrality of the United States.

We are not playing the same role in the Middle East as we did before the Arab revolutions, but you saw that the cease-fire wasn’t able to be put together until Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Jerusalem, and then shuttled between meetings with Netanyahu and President Mohammed Morsi.

And I guess I will just say finally there, this was a very important test of the Egyptian leadership, and they passed it. They put pressure on Hamas. They put the original deal together. And they are now a very important force in the Middle East, this new Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government.

RAY SUAREZ: You have both been very cautious. Should we also be talking a little bit about what is not happening? After that bus bombing, there were rising calls inside Israel for a land invasion of Gaza, and that’s not happening. Should the world be relieved by that?

HISHAM MELHEM: Well, the world should be relieved by that. The civilian population in Gaza should be relieved by that.

And, look, Netanyahu learned through lessons from the last incursion to Gaza in 2008. You know — when you go in, you don’t know the conditions that will prevail when you’re trying to disengage. And disengagement is not easy.

I think let me just address the point that Ambassador Burns mentioned. He was focused on Gaza, and he’s correct.

And, by the way, Hamas all along wanted to have what we call in Arabic, which is a truce or an armistice, not a peace treaty, no peace agreement.

And they may get that. The point is, Gaza is only one piece of the puzzle.

The main Palestinian territory is in the West Bank. And one of the biggest losers now is President Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, where the Israelis continue their settlement activities, and now Hamas addressed — Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas, in Cairo today addressed the Palestinian President Abbas by saying, there are lessons to be learned here, and the main lesson is that “resistance” — quote, unquote — works, and that’s the only choice.

Now nobody is talking to the leaders — leadership in Ramallah. In fact, the secretary today — or yesterday went to Ramallah to urge the Palestinian president not to go to New York and seek recognition of a Palestinian state. But the real power now is wielded by the Palestinians in Gaza, where they can claim that radicalism and militancy and resistance pays off.

And I think this is an issue that only can be addressed seriously by the United States. The United States is still the indispensable power in the Middle East. And I think there has to be a revival of the traditional American — even when the parties are not close.

If you leave the Palestinians and the Israelis to their own devices, forever, they will not reach peace, because the Israelis are too powerful to make any concessions, and the Palestinians are too weak and they cannot make too much concessions anyway.

RAY SUAREZ: In the very little amount of time we have left, Ambassador, was this a big moment for the government for Mohammed Morsi? Was this their first — like their coming out party on the world stage? And did they pass a kind of test?

NICHOLAS BURNS: This was a major moment for Mohammed Morsi. There were a lot of doubts about how he would lead Egypt, whether he would maintain the peace agreement with Israel.

And he showed that he’s very tough-minded. He’s willing to pressure Hamas. He was able to work with the Turkish and Qatari governments, as well as the United States. He can be, based on this performance, I think, an important partner for the United States.

I would think this is a confidence-builder, both for the Israelis and Americans, in knowing that they have a stable and impressive leadership in Cairo now that we can deal with.

RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador Burns, Hisham Melhem, good to talk to you both.