In Israel-Hamas conflict, have both sides reached point of diminishing returns?


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JUDY WOODRUFF: Joining me now to discuss the prospects for the Cairo negotiations are Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator for the State Department. He’s now a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. And Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and a contributing writer for American and Middle Eastern publications.

And we welcome you both back to the NewsHour.

AARON DAVID MILLER, Woodrow Wilson International Center For Scholars: It’s a pleasure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hussein Ibish, what are the prospects that they can pull something off in Cairo, if not just to extend the cease-fire, do something longer-lasting?

HUSSEIN IBISH, The American Task Force on Palestine: I think it depends a lot.

First of all, I do think that the cease-fire is likely to hold because I think both parties reached the point of diminishing returns. And I think for Israel, there’s no reason to restart hostilities and I don’t think Hamas can politically sustain the pushback that would come if they did. I think this is likely to go on.

I think it’s going to be difficult to find a formula that will satisfy Hamas and that the Israelis and the Egyptians can live with, but certainly if the Palestinian Authority can become a fulcrum, for example, being on the other side of the Rafah crossing, if the Egyptians can live with that, the Israelis can probably live with that, that’s certainly one way forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It sounds as if he’s saying, Aaron David Miller, that, yes, the formula may be there for something in the short-term. Longer-term, it’s more complex.

AARON DAVID MILLER: I think it really is because expectations this time around are much higher.

In ’08 and ’09, there were no expectations. The Israelis declared a unilateral cease-fire and withdrew. In 2012, the Egyptians, former President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, now in prison, brokered a cease-fire.

Now you have the Israelis determined to avoid an inconclusive ending, demilitarization. Hamas has staked its credibility, its legitimacy on literally freeing Gaza economically. So the tradeoff, demilitarization for the economic reconstruction of Gaza, is going to be a very tough one to make, let alone to sustain.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hussein Ibish, how do you see — what’s the minimum that you see both sides need to create something that lasts?

HUSSEIN IBISH: Well, I think the Israelis pretty much want to — I think they want to deny Hamas as much as possible a victory, but I think they are probably willing to go along with a program to help Gaza, as long as it’s under Egyptian auspices and possibly the P.A. as well. Probably, the Egyptians would insist on that.

So that’s something I think the Israelis might be able to live with, particularly when it comes to reconstruction, economic improvement, humanitarian aid. Hamas I think needs something — almost anything that is deliverable to the people or that constitutes a political or diplomatic breakthrough for them, because they really have been through this almost one month of fighting and come up with absolutely nothing.

I mean, really, the way they have lost politically as well as militarily and in every possible sense is absolutely pretty spectacular.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So are you saying they — there’s more of a reason then for them to go along with something like what you just described?

HUSSEIN IBISH: Yes, I think there is. And it dovetails back with the strategy that preceded these hostilities.

Hamas — you have to understand the context of Hamas. Hamas really was desperate over the past year. They had lost their headquarters in Damascus and their sponsors in Tehran. Then they lost their friend President Morsi in Egypt, and they were facing this huge crackdown from the Egyptians, who shut down their smuggling tunnels and basically treated them as an hostile entity.

And they were isolated, they were broke, and the economy in Gaza was tanking, and their popularity was tanking. So, their gambit initially was to form a unity government with Fatah and essentially try to bring the P.A. into Gaza and…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Palestinian Authority.

HUSSEIN IBISH: Right, and then have — themselves have a bigger presence in the West Bank.

So I actually think they are trying to parlay a lesser role in Gaza over the long run for a bigger role in the West Bank. That’s my view of their long-term goals.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see that, Aaron David?

AARON DAVID MILLER: You know, Hussein makes a fascinating point, that, in essence, the unity agreement, which was arrived at by desperation on their part, was an effect to reach financial — economic gains and use the backdoor into the West Bank, where, in essence, the Palestinian struggle — even though the first intifada took place in Gaza and they were born, Hamas, was born six days after it broke out, and they are a resistance organization, I think even they understand the importance of changing the political center of gravity to the West Bank.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But are they operating from such a point of weakness, as Hussein just described?

AARON DAVID MILLER: Well, Hussein and I may have a slight difference of opinion here.

They can win, even though they have lost. The reality is, in four weeks, they killed more Israelis, six times the number of Israelis, they shut down Ben Gurion Airport for — at least forced the FAA to suspend it. They essentially fired a significant number of rockets on the last day of the cease-fire.

They retain a fairly large arsenal of high-trajectory weapons. And the tunnel infrastructure has psychologically and even practically — they have launched several operations, some of which succeeded, during the recent confrontation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Even as Israel was destroying…

AARON DAVID MILLER: Exactly.

So, I think that there’s a problem here, because the military wing, which drove the train here, needs to rationalize and justify not only maintaining control of Gaza, but delivering something to the public.

HUSSEIN IBISH: Well, that’s the problem, which is all of those things that Aaron just talked about don’t actually accrue to the benefit of the Palestinian people of Gaza or the West Bank or anybody. And they don’t bring the Palestinians any closer to national liberation.

Hamas can’t point to a single gain out of this. They didn’t even get an Israeli soldier to exchange for prisoners. They have gotten absolutely nothing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But they’re — it sounds lying you’re making a distinction between what Hamas can claim and what the Palestinian people…

HUSSEIN IBISH: Well, certainly, internally, Hamas can say, look, we’re a resistance organization. Last time around, there was a major ground incursion in 2008-2009. Seven Israelis died, four of them from so-called friendly-fire. That means three. And this time, it’s 63, so we did better and all these other things that Aaron was saying.

But I don’t think that explains to the people of Gaza why it was worthwhile to reject a cease-fire that was calm for calm a month ago, 2,000 dead ago, and accept it today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you — how do you — talk about the role of the U.S. We have seen some tension.

AARON DAVID MILLER: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Or what appeared to be real tension, Aaron David Miller, between the U.S. and Israel over the last few weeks.

AARON DAVID MILLER: Yes. The president…

JUDY WOODRUFF: How real is that, and does that affect what happens?

AARON DAVID MILLER: It’s real.

I mean, unlike Lehman Brothers, I think the U.S.-Israeli relationship is probably too big to fail. But there is dysfunction at the top, there’s no question. You have Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama. They do not trust one another, they don’t like one another.

Their views on any number of issues, tactically on Iran, or even strategically on the Arab-Israeli peace process, fundamentally divided. So that’s going to be a problem. I think they have no choice but to accommodate and find a way to work together.

We have seen worse periods, Bush-Baker and Shamir was a very tough — you remember that period. It was a very tough one. But here they can’t find a single project on which to cooperate that is meaningful to both of them, and that’s a significant problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, just very quickly, Hussein Ibish, how does that bode for finding a solution?

HUSSEIN IBISH: Yes.

Well, I don’t think it’s going to make it any easier or any harder, frankly. The U.S. role is important, as a — but it’s secondary. The Egyptian role is crucial here. And really Egypt being the other state that has a say on what happens in Gaza because of Rafah, because of its geographical position and its political importance in the Arab world, is crucial.

And ultimately I think it’s the Egyptians and the Palestinian Authority that can craft a workable solution for Gaza, you know. And I think Hamas is going to be in a very tough situation because claiming credit for that is going to be difficult.

AARON DAVID MILLER: I was just going to add, if we keep our feet on the ground and our head out of the clouds, it may well be that we can actually make a contribution here.

But we are going to have to be very disciplined and very clear about what we want to achieve, and not go for some transformation, some idealized world.

HUSSEIN IBISH: But in the West Bank, I think, is where the biggest American contribution can come.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Talks are just beginning.

Thank you for your insight, Hussein Ibish, Aaron David Miller.

HUSSEIN IBISH: Thank you.

AARON DAVID MILLER: Always a pleasure, Judy.

HUSSEIN IBISH: Appreciate it.

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