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Fighting in Israel, Gaza Continues

Aired November 16, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET


HALA GORANI, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Good evening, everyone, welcome to the program. I'm Hala Gorani, sitting in for Christiane Amanpour.

The fighting and the violence continue in Israel and in Gaza. There are ongoing strikes across both sides of the border.


GORANI (voice-over): In Gaza, the bombardment has been unrelenting, including this attack which left the Hamas interior ministry in ruins. And there were rockets fired from Gaza that have fallen near Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, setting off sirens in both cities.


GORANI: This is the first major Arab-Israeli conflict since the revolutions of the Arab Spring, and the new reality has changed relationships throughout the region, a point made more than clear by Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi, who said, "Cairo will not leave Gaza on its own. Egypt today is not the Egypt of yesterday. And Arabs today," he said, "are not the Arabs of yesterday."


GORANI (voice-over): As the world reacts to images of the Israeli assault, take a look at this protest in Cairo. It happened at the Al-Azhar Mosque in the Egyptian capital. Gaza's Arab neighbors are circling the wagons in support of Hamas. They are eager to show that they support the Palestinian cause.

A delegation led by Egypt's prime minister Hisham Kandil visited Gaza today in direct violation of Israel's blockade, following a similar visit last month by the emir of Qatar and a visit this weekend by Tunisia's foreign minister.

Meanwhile, what about the Palestinian Authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, seen by the West as the legitimate voice of the Palestinian territories? It appears increasingly sidelined.


GORANI: Now as the assault continues, one thing is clear, however: Operation Pillar of Defense, as Israel calls it, when it ends, will leave behind a very different Middle East.

We'll take a deeper look at all of that in a moment . But first, here are other aspects of the story we'll be covering.



GORANI (voice-over): We saw how the latest conflict began. But what is the end game for Israel and Hamas? And how will the landscape look when the smoke clears?

Then whether it's keeping radio silence in Israel or a call to prayer in Gaza, both sides say God is on their side.


GORANI: We'll get to all that in a moment, but first, Refa'a al- Tahtawi joins me on the phone from Cairo. He's President Mohammed Morsi's chief of staff and was part of that Egyptian delegation to Gaza today.

Thanks for being with us. What surprised you the most during your visit into -- your brief visit into the Gaza Strip today?

MOHAMED REFA'A AL-TAHTAWI, MORSI CHIEF OF STAFF: (Inaudible) the Gazans to resist. They didn't show -- they didn't show any sign weakness, of even -- no sign of concern. It's like they are resigned to their destiny and that their destiny is to resist.

We -- when we arrived to the hospital, few minutes later, a little boy was -- a little beautiful (ph) boy was ushered in hurriedly, and he died immediately. He had a wound -- he had a wound in his head. And his blood is still on the -- on the shirt of our prime minister.

In fact, even our hardened politicians were -- couldn't help ourselves crying. While I show the people in Gaza accepting this with deep sadness, but with great resolve.

And that's why I'm calling for everybody to deescalate, to stop this escalation. This escalation is not going to lead anywhere. And last time -- sorry.

GORANI: Yes, I was going to say, your critics are saying it's all well and good to visit the Gaza Strip, but they're saying Egypt has closed its border, the Rafah border crossing, that this is, in a sense, a PR exercise for the President Mohammed Morsi, to show his solidarity with Palestinians, but in the end, what will he deliver to them? What's your response to that criticism?

TAHTAWI: No, we have many options and practical options. Humanitarian supply (ph) will be sent, practical support will be extended and then practical support is not empty words. Practical support means potential solutions (ph). And I am telling you that the street in Asia (ph) is very angry and --


GORANI: What is practical support mean? But I need to ask you what practical support means. What does it mean? And why is that border crossing closed, by the way?

TAHTAWI: Well, because it closed?

GORANI: Rafah.

TAHTAWI: No, it's not closed. It is not closed. I am telling you that Tunisian delegation, the high-level Tunisian delegation is crossing very soon and that supplies are not going to be stopped. No.

GORANI: And what does practical support mean for the Palestinians, from Egypt? What does it mean?

TAHTAWI: There are so many things. I'm not prepared to military action, but I'm -- so many political (ph), logistic, humanitarian measures. And they will be taken.

GORANI: All right. Thank you very much for joining us. Refa'a Tahtawi is the chief of the Egyptian presidential cabinet, speaking to us from Cairo. Thanks for being with us.

Daniel Ben-Simon represents the opposition Labor Party and the Knesset, Israel's parliament. He has a very different perspective from the Netanyahu government on how Israel should relate to its Palestinian neighbors.

It's a voice, over the last several days, that we haven't heard much of. We'll get to that in a moment, once we're able to connect with Daniel Ben-Simon. And I understand he is with me.

Daniel Ben-Simon, thanks for joining us. We're hearing --


GORANI: -- we're hearing a lot now from the -- from the Israeli government, including Danny Ayalon, who told CNN if the rockets don't stop, a ground offensive will happen. What is your take there on the government of Mr. Netanyahu and the possibility that a ground offensive will take place in Gaza once again?

BEN-SIMON: Hala, Mr. Ben Netanyahu has been prime minister for seven years. This is his first war. I cannot predict how far he will go. What I can tell you is that it's beginning to become a serious crisis because of -- Tel Aviv has been hit.

I mean, the city behind me, the City of Lights in Israel has been hit for the first time in 20 years. The capital of Israel, Jerusalem, has been hit. And two symbols have been hit. So I cannot tell you how serious it is becoming since -- I mean, 70,000 soldiers have been called to go to Gaza.

So I think that the third day of this crisis is becoming nearly a war (ph) between us and Gaza. And God knows, if it can spread over Gaza, somewhere else, so what I think is that it's becoming serious and, Hala, if I can tell you, I mean, it's time for the Americans to step in. It's time from the White House to call and to look at what's happening here.

It seems to me there's a sense of -- almost of absence from the White House, from the Americans and before it become a real war, original war, I think it's time for the president, if he doesn't see this show, see this tape, that I'm telling you, it is really serious. It is becoming --


GORANI: Why do the Americans need to step in, though, Daniel?

BEN-SIMON: -- what happened three years ago.

GORANI: Why do the Americans need to step in? Why can't Israelis figure this out? Why can't the Israeli government --

BEN-SIMON: Because they are -- you know what? We -- you know, I'm telling you as a compliment. You are the only ones who can control the area and the situation, who can talk freely, both to the Palestinians and to the Israelis. I see -- I mean, I say it as a compliment. And we need you sometimes when we quarrel, between us, we need the -- you know, the boss.

And the boss is still the White House. And it seems to me that the White House is too silent and it's been going on. The south of Israel has been paralyzed for three days. I mean, hundreds of thousands of people cannot get out of room on the other side of Gaza, it's also a tragedy.

And it seems that it's beyond control. And that's what I'm saying, that the U.N. is OK; Europe will all -- will -- probably will step in. But the Americans are urgently needed here now.

GORANI: Interesting that you call the Americans the boss in this situation. I need to ask you about the Israeli political left. I mean, you have a very different approach on how you think the situation in Gaza, the West Bank, a two-state solution should be dealt with. What should, in your -- if you had your way, the Israeli Left, what would you do differently from, say, the government of Netanyahu?

BEN-SIMON: We will -- as soon as we win the elections, we will go to the Palestinian Authority, to the president, Abu Mazen, and we will try -- and we will first shake hands and sit to try to find -- to see what is the two-state, where the border will be between us and them. We are neighbors. We will get -- we will give them their own state.

And it's something that not just a Palestinian interest ,but also in the Israeli interest. And we will try to find a solution for Gaza. It cannot go on like this. We have to find a way. How the 2 million people in Gaza will live normally, like us, as long as they don't live normally, I don't think it can -- we can find a solution.

So this is a way -- we don't think that force will find a solution. Only by talking, by dialogue, and this dialogue is urgent now.

GORANI: OK. Now you say as soon as we win the election, but I'm sure you're familiar with polls that indicate that Likud and their coalition allies are set to win this election on January 22nd. And the question I have for you is why is the Israeli Left so politically at this stage incapable of winning elections and forming coalitions and leading the government in this country right now?

BEN-SIMON: First, Hala, this is the land of miracles. And anything can happen, including the Left to win. As to your question, the second question, we were doing well until the war erupted three days ago. We were leading the social agenda. And all the elections were about the social agenda.

And I must tell you now, we have stopped campaigning because of the war and the social agenda is a bit, almost irrelevant. So this situation is new. I don't think the winners are all -- I mean, as you said, are the Likud. It's still early; it's two months from now.

And the polls have been, you know, mistaken so many times. So we'll take it easy; I am optimistic. And we might be the new government in Israel.

GORANI: Well, we're going to have to wait and see for that, and we will look at how this all plays out domestically as far as Israel politics are concerned.

Daniel Ben-Simon, a member of the Knesset -- a Labor Party member of the Knesset, thanks very much for joining us on CNN, with a different perspective on how things have developed over the last several days and how to tackle some of those major challenges for the Israeli and the Palestinians.

We've seen this fight before, but the landscape has changed drastically since the last time Israel and Hamas squared off. We'll examine the consequences for both sides. What is the end game for the government of Netanyahu? That's one of the questions as well.

Before we take a break, let's leave you with another image of Gaza, a week before the missiles and the rockets began to fly.

This was the beachfront of Gaza City. We'll be right back.




GORANI: Welcome back to the program, I'm Hala Gorani, sitting in for Christiane Amanpour.


GORANI (voice-over): As the fighting between Israel and Hamas on the Gaza border continues, we keep coming back to the question: what is each side trying to get out of this, and could this latest chapter in a long history of fighting have lasting consequences for the new political landscape in the Middle East?


GORANI: It is a new Arab world, of course, after the revolutions in Egypt and other countries. Daniel Levy is a Middle East analyst. He joins me now from London with his take on what's going on.

Thanks for joining us, Daniel Levy. I want to ask you about the Netanyahu government first off. I mean, did they make this as a political calculation and is it getting out of hand for Netanyahu right now?

DANIEL LEVY, MIDDLE EAST ANALYST: Well, I don't think you need to be a card-carrying member of Cynics Anonymous to attribute at least some causality to the fact that this is taking place in the context of an Israeli election campaign.

But I think there are other reasons that play into the timing. I think partly the Israeli prime minister did want to lay down a marker in the new regional reality that you've been talking about.

I think that what Prime Minister Netanyahu would like to be in a position to do is to give a speech, his own kind of victory speech, in the coming days, in which he says that the -- those who captured Gilad Shalit, Jabari, are now dead; Shalit is home; Israel's deterrence has been restored, the stockpile of weapons has been removed and the West stayed on Israel's side.

In order to do that, of course, he has to make sure that this doesn't escalate further, because if he finds himself in a position similar to four years ago, when Israel entered Gaza by ground as well, in Operation Cast Lead, in an ongoing quagmire, in the new regional reality, then it's a different ballgame.

GORANI: So if this is a risky move that, by the way, is -- has led to the -- to the deaths of many people that some say were avoidable, of course, had this not escalated to this stage, if this a risky move, then why do it? What is -- what was the calculation that was made initially by the Netanyahu government and by the prime minister himself?

LEVY: Of course this loss of life, first of all, is both tragic and avoidable. This was an escalation of choice by the Israeli premier that could become a war of choice. Why did he do it?

I think, first of all, that he felt that this would shift the agenda of the elections onto his more preferred turf of national security rather than the socioeconomic issues that the Labor member, Mr. Ben-Simon spoke to you about.

He has a wall-to-wall consensus; the leader of Mr. Ben-Simon's party would feel very unhappy if she saw that interview. The leader of the Labor Party is unequivocally supported the prime minister. There's a wall-to- wall consensus.

And I think he wanted to show his public, I haven't ruined Israel's international relations, President Obama is with me, others are with me. And I can still manage and use the military when I want in the new regional reality. That's what he (inaudible).


GORANI: (Inaudible) going to serve him politically? I mean, before we move onto Hamas and the Arab countries, is this going to serve him politically? In polls, he's ahead as far as the January 22nd election is concerned.

LEVY: Look, as you say, he was going into this election in a strong position. He really now is a little bit at the mercy of the lottery ticket he has bought, because a rocket or a missile, 100 meters in this direction or that direction can change the whole calculation. Will it serve him when this is over? Come back and ask me.

GORANI: Let's talk about Hamas, as far as it's concerned, where -- what does this mean for the organization in Gaza, Daniel, do you think?

LEVY: First of all, Hamas, at this stage, can turn around and say, we warned Israel that if they launched this kind of operation, we would demonstrate that our rockets can reach Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities. And they have done that. So they can tick that box.

They have told their own people that we are no longer isolated (inaudible) this new Arab region. They can tick that box with the visit of the Egyptian prime minister Kandil today, Tunisian foreign minister tomorrow.

And one can imagine the dynamic in the coming days if this continues of a kind of relay race of Arab dignitaries visiting. They can make the case, where is Abbas? They can compare their resistance to what he is doing in New York and it will look favorable for them. But, again, it all depends how this ends. Right now, they're not in too bad a place.

GORANI: Now how does this change the calculus, the fact that now you have the emir of Qatar and their billions of dollars, possibly some money coming into the Gaza Strip?

You have the Egyptian prime minister that you mentioned, the Tunisian foreign minister over the weekend, how does that change the landscape in region as far as Israel's relationship with these new Arab countries, led by leaders who are -- who should be, who are technically accountable to their -- to the -- to their electorate?

LEVY: Absolutely. The old Israeli conflict management strategy, which was to be allied with autocratic leaders who didn't have to respond to their publics and who are allies of the Usain (ph) United States and West, of which Israel was an ally, that old management strategy is out the window. Arab leaderships that have to more answerable to their people, whether they are Islamists or not, will have to demonstrate more eagerly their care, commitment to the Palestinian issue. Now --


GORANI: But I want to jump in, Daniel, because that's an interesting point, because all you got from Arab leaders, where there were autocrats ruling countries such as Egypt according to the critics was lip service.

One of the only things Arab League meetings ever produced were statements condemning Israel and supporting the Palestinians. The Palestinians would always say, but we never saw any of that concretely in terms of true help (ph).

Will this change? Will this change? I just spoke to the chief of the cabinet of President Morsi, and he said there will be tangible help for the Palestinians in the future.

Do you think that's going to be the case?

LEVY: Well, I think one of the questions we're going to have to answer is does Israel want to find out the answer to that question and does the West want to find out the answer to that question? Because one of the equations here is do we really want the unrest in Jordan to get worse?

Do you really want President Morsi to be under pressure where he feels a need to revive, abrogate the peace treaty permanently, return his ambassador?

I think right now there would be a consensus amongst those actors, that it would be preferable to put this back in the box.

Can they restrain the Israeli prime minister? We'll find out in the coming days. If Israel continues to deny Palestinians their basic freedom, I think in a more democratic Arab world, it's hard not to imagine that there will be greater pressure on Israel's allies, greater pressure ultimately on Israel and this could really end up in a very bad place for Israel.

GORANI: OK. So let's talk about a very bad place for Israel, if, indeed, this escalates in a way that does not serve the interests of Israel, and not just the interests of the government of Prime Minister Netanyahu, I mean the interests of ordinary Israelis at this point. What is the worst-case scenario for the country?

LEVY: Look, Israel is a militarily strong country. Israel's public is behind this. One has to acknowledge. That's normally the case in the first 48 hours. If Israel pays more of a price, that may change.

But I think that the challenge for Israel now is can it position itself differently in the neighborhood, because otherwise, not this week or this month or even this year, Hala, but over time, over time, Israel is really damaging potentially fatally its long-term capacity to exist in this region if it thinks that it can cling to the old modalities, which, of course, included perpetual occupation of the Palestinians and denial of their rights.

You can build walls between yourself and your neighbors and live by the sword forever. And one has to hope not only that Israel will somehow manage to reach that conclusion, but also that those who claim to be Israel's friends in the West, and in particular in the United States, will no longer indulge what can only be described as suicidal Israeli policies.

GORANI: Daniel Levy, thank you very much, of the New America Foundation, for joining us here on CNN International and AMANPOUR.

Although much has changed in the political landscape of the region, one constant remains, religion and religious differences.

Above the smoke and fire of Gaza, the call to prayer can still be heard; across the border in Israel, the sound of silence. We'll explain after this.


GORANI: Welcome back. A quick note: Daniel Levy is, in fact, at the European Council on Foreign Relations who joined us right before this commercial break.

And a final thought, imagine a world where the threat of war is met with song and with silence.



GORANI (voice-over): Throughout Gaza, even as they clean up the rubble that used to be a mosque, destroyed by an Israeli airstrike, the call to prayer still goes out, summoning the faithful. In contrast, Israel observes the Sabbath with silence, since observant Jews are prohibited from listening to the radio from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.

Israel radio is maintaining a silent channel that it will only break with emergency messages. There's no escaping the impact of religion in the Gaza conflict. Israel has even named controversially this military operation "Pillar of Defense." And I say controversially because it invokes the Biblical pillar of cloud and pillar of fire that guided the children of Israel in their exile from Egypt.

And prayers on both sides of the conflict continue to fill social media. But even with so many prayers, sung and silent, the real miracle will be when men and women of both faiths find a way to make peace.


GORANI: That's it for our program. Thank you for watching. Goodbye from New York.