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The core issues and politics behind the escalating conflict in the Middle East

John Yang discusses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with Shibley Telhami a professor at the University of Maryland who's been an advisor to the State Department and the U.S. mission to the United Nations, and Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who helped shape U.S. policy in the Middle East at the State Department for more than three decades.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, returning to the renewed, and worsening, crisis between Israelis and Palestinians.

    Here again is John Yang.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, the escalation has been very quick.

    We have widespread civil unrest in Israel, rockets coming from Lebanon, and now Israeli tanks rolling into Gaza.

    Shibley Telhami is a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution and a professor at the University of Maryland. He's been an adviser to the State Department and the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace for more than three decades and four administrations. He helped shape U.S. policy in the Middle East at the State Department.

    Gentlemen, welcome to you both.

    Shibley, let me start with you.

    We have seen a lot of cycles of violence in the Middle East, but does this feel different to you, the way this ratcheted up so quickly, the way we're seeing people fighting in the streets?

  • Shibley Telhami:

    Yes, the escalation was very rapid. The crisis was certainly unexpected. It happened seemingly out of nowhere.

    Certainly, the Biden administration didn't expect it. There are two reasons for that. One reason is that the issues at stake were core issues for Palestinians, the evictions from homes of Palestinians in Jerusalem. This is something that is obviously an immoral act, but also one that the E.U. says blatantly violates international law, where the U.N. says a possible war crime, and is seen to be part of a strategy to limit the number of Palestinians in Jerusalem and increase the number of Jews.

    And it evokes what happened, obviously, in 1948, for the Palestinians. It's coming in Ramadan, when people are mobilized and praying in them — in the assault on the mosque itself, the Aqsa Mosque, more graphic than I have ever seen, to be honest, in all the years of occupation, particularly inside the mosque itself.

    All of this happening, obviously, in a rapid fashion because of that and because the Palestinians were under — in a situation of despair, I would say, reminiscent of the 1987-'88 period, when there was the rise of intifada, in part because they seemed to have no hope after 50 years of occupation. Even the Arab world was moving away from the issue.

    They placed some hope in the Biden administration. But, obviously, Biden didn't look at this as a priority. He renewed some aid to them, but it wasn't going to happen. And even the Palestinian Authority postponed the elections that we're hoping would shake things up.

    So, clearly, there was that. Plus, there's interest on both sides. The Israeli government the extreme right, even the prime minister of Israel, had an interest in escalation, maybe not to this extent, but it served their political purposes.

    Netanyahu not only distracted from his legal troubles, but he was able to prevent his opponents from forming a coalition government. We see that now is off the table. And Hamas, of course, this is an opportunity for them to show that they can act when the Palestinian Authority is helpless.

  • John Yang:

    Aaron David Miller, this sort of different kind of conflict, or at least different trajectory for this conflict, the United States is sending an envoy. They have reached out to the Egyptians, who often have influence over the Palestinians.

    Are these going to work this time, do you think?

  • Aaron David Miller:

    No.

    I think, frankly, you have several vectors that are shaping this right now. The previous several conflicts between Israel and Hamas in 2008-2009, Operation Cast Lead, 2012, 2014, all had a rhythm and an ebb and flow driven by the two major protagonists, with little or no influence, initially, by any outside party, the Egyptians, the Qataris, certainly not the United States.

    We have a relationship with Israel. We have leverage on paper. We choose not to use it very often. But we have no relationship with Hamas. And I think, not until both Israel and Hamas are persuaded that they have reached the limit, both politically and strategically, of what they hope to achieve will mediation be possible.

    I think the one intriguing and truly dismayed — and Shibley is going to forget more about this issue than I'm ever going to know — is the communal violence. And it may well be, paradoxically, that it is that, the widespread communal violence in a half-a-dozen mixed times, Nazareth, Lod, and others, even in Akko, that ultimately constrains the Israeli government and pushes them to bring an end to this round.

    The truly tragic and sad and devastatingly depressing takeaway from all this, John, is that I'm persuaded, whether it goes on for another week, or, in the case of 2014, it went on for 50 days — it will end. There will be a cease-fire, probably negotiated by the Egyptians.

    But it will not leave or create any sort of pathway, either for a longer term cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas and, perhaps more profoundly, with respect to the broader Israeli Palestinian issue, it's very hard to see how any of this pain, even with the involvement of the United States, is going to create the kind of framework that would allow Israelis and Palestinians to come any closer to ending the conflict that has taken so much from both sides.

  • John Yang:

    Shibley Telhami, your colleague there Aaron David Miller talked about each side trying to achieve as much as it can, or their goals of what they're doing here.

    You talked about the politics, sort of the internal domestic politics and both Israel and the Palestinian areas, the Israeli elections, this never ending series, it seems, of Israeli elections, trying to form a new government, the Palestinian Authority trying to hold legislative elections for the first time since 2006.

    How are these internal political forces affecting decision-making on both sides?

  • Shibley Telhami:

    There's no question that they have affected the escalation.

    I have no doubt about that. And I think — but neither side was looking for an all-out war. And I think, even now, they're not looking for all-out war, because, as Aaron said correctly, they don't see a strategic horizon. In the end, everyone is going to lose.

    The Palestinians lose more always. Look at the ratio of casualties. The asymmetry of power is huge, and they lose 10-1 so far in terms of the casualties. But, in the end, there will not be a solution, a strategic solution.

    So there are two things to keep in mind here. Number one, what do you do if you're trying to achieve diplomacy? First, obviously, you have to stop the fighting, undoubtedly. That's not going to be enough, but it's going to be essential. So you have to provide some kind of fig leaf to the Israelis and to the Palestinians, to Hamas, to be able to reach a cease-fire agreement as quickly as possible, but then to remind yourself that this can happen again and again.

    And, as Aaron said, part of the problem here for the Israelis now is not just this continuing Palestinian-Israeli conflict with the West Bank and Gaza, but now that it's come inside Israel on a scale that I have never observed since 1948 — we have not seen this kind of confrontation in a city where people coexisted like Haifa, where you have this kind of confrontation, in a way that the went out of control of the Israeli government that has to worry them.

    But, for Biden particularly, as he's moving forward, one of the disappointing things is that, as they're doing diplomacy, they have not met this moment, and particularly with regard to human rights and any international law.

    So, if there is no horizon, this is not a priority issue for the administration, for sure, and it's not likely to become one. But, nonetheless, because it's not a priority issue and a political settlement is not on the horizon, what you do is, you focus on the core — the key issues of people's lives, equality, human rights, democracy, freedom for people.

    You focus on those. This is an issue where there's a very clear-cut case of violation of international law. And the administration couldn't bring itself to saying Israel should not carry out the evictions, the evictions are wrong, both sides should calm down.

    That's not a very good start for the administration.

  • John Yang:

    Unfortunately, Shibley Telhami, we are out of time, so you get the last word.

    Shibley Telhami from Brookings and University of Maryland, Aaron David Miller from the Carnegie Institute for International Peace, I'm sure we're going to have more opportunities in the days ahead.

  • Shibley Telhami:

    Pleasure.

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