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Possible Ceasefire Agreement to be Announced; Egypt as Mediator; The Difference Between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority

Aired November 20, 2012 - 12:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST, "THE SITUATION ROOM": Well, I think they're pretty close right now. I know that the Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, has been very much involved. He's got good relations with Hamas. The Israelis have a relationship. I don't know how good it is, but they have a relationship with the Egyptians. I know there have been Israeli envoys that have gone to Cairo to meet with high- ranking Egyptian officials, so they're trying to broker a deal.

Look, there's no trust. Hamas has to trust for the Israelis. The Israelis have no trust for the Hamas. So this is a really, really difficult situation. And over these past seven days, there've been a lot of rockets and missiles coming from Gaza into Israel and the Israeli air strikes have pounded away at targets in Gaza. There have been a lot of casualties. So there's no goodwill on the part of either of these, they don't trust each other.

Having said that, looks like they're close. Hamas seems to think within the next hour or two some agreement will be announced, thanks to the Egyptians. But I spoke with the Israeli government spokesman for the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the past hour, Suzanne, Mark Regev. He said there is no deal yet. He didn't rule out there would be a deal, but he said there's no deal yet. And until all of the "i"s are dotted, the "t"s are crossed, there is no deal. So they might be close but until there's a deal, there's no deal as they like to say, the diplomatic community, Suzanne.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, we also know the President, President Obama, has called and talked to the President of Egypt, Morsi, three times now in the last 24 hours. Really trying to put a U.S. stamp, a footprint, if you will, on these negotiations. How much leverage does the United States have in actually making sure that this cease-fire is something that's going to hold?

BLITZER: Well, the U.S. doesn't have much leverage over Hamas because the U.S. doesn't deal with Hamas. The U.S. government, this government, previous governments, regards Hamas as a terrorist organization. So when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits here in Jersualem later tonight, then goes to Ramallah to meet with the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, tomorrow and then goes to Cairo, she's not going to meet with anyone from Hamas. So the U.S. leverage on Hamas is limited.

The U.S. does have leverage on Egypt, given all the economic and military assistance that the U.S. provides to Egypt and given the dire economic straits that the Egyptians are in right now. So the U.S. has leverage on the Egyptians and obviously the U.S. has very good relations with Israel. So the U.S. is a key player in all of this, ut as far as leverage on Hamas, U.S. leverage is very limited.

MALVEAUX: And we understand Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, she's going to be arriving very soon in Jersualem, about three hours or so from now. She'll go to Ramallah and then on to Cairo. Now, why would she be meeting with the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas? He really has nothing to do with what is taking place in Hamas and is this really something that is more symbolic here?

BLITZER: There's a lot of symbolISM because the U.S. has a lot at stake in the Palestinian authority leadership of Mahmoud Abbas and the prime minister, Salam Fayyad. The U.S. has had very good relations with these Palestinian leaders whose believe in a two-state solution, Israel and Palestine. There's a very good relationship there and the U.S. provides extensive economic assistance to the Palestinian Authority and the West Bank.

But you know what? The problem for the Palestinian Authority is, in recent days, as Hamas has engaged in this continuing struggle with Israel, its reputation, at least in the Palestinian community and I dare venture in the Arab world, much of the Muslim world, has gone up at the expense of the Palestinian Authority and that's probably going to be a problem down the road unless Hamas was to significantly change its views, accept the conditions that would result in U.S. dealings with Hamas, accept Israel and Israel's right to exist, accept all the previous agreements Israel has worked out with the Palestinian Authority and stop the violence. Under those circumstances, then the situation would change dramatically. So far Hamas has been unwilling to do that. As a result, the U.S., the European Union and others refused to deal directly with Hamas.

MALVEAUX: Wolf, you've been covering the region for a long time here. Tell us what happened. You've got talks that are going on when it comes to the truce, the cease-fire. But then you have the quartet, you've got Tony Blair and you've got the quartet involved in peace negotiations that have gone nowhere. Where does that stand?

BLITZER: You know, that quartet, the U.S., U.N., the European Union, Russia -- I met with Tony Blair yesterday here in Jersualem and that peace process hasn't really effectively gone anywhere since maybe 2008. It's really been mired in a total, total collapse and a total mess.

I'm not suggesting there's no hope. It can be revived. It's going to take a lot of goodwill. Maybe out of this current crisis in Gaza, something positive can emerge. We shall see. But right now, there is no peace process for any practical purposes, ddespite Tony Blair's best efforts, despite the efforts of the former U.S. special envoy George Mitchell, who basically gave up about 18 months or so ago when he dropped out of the Obama administration. There really hasn't been much.

Let's see what Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, can do when she meets with Prime Minister Netanyahu, tomorrow when she meets with President Abbas and then goes to Egypt for talks with President Morsi. We'll see what she can do. But for all practical purposes, at least for now, that peace process is dormant.

MALVEAUX: All right. Wolf, thanks. We appreciate it. We're going to get back to you as soon as there's breaking news, obviously, if there's a deal or truce that comes out of it in the next couple of hours.

Israel says diplomatic efforts to end the crisis are still going on. There's not yet a deal. Hamas, though, is telling Reuters that they have reached an agreement with the Israelis that they're going to end at least the fighting.

Our Hala Gorani, she's here with us, and I know you've got breaking news on these talks.

HALA GORANI, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's one more piece of the puzzle because, as you mentioned, over the last several hours, Hamas has told Reuters that a cease-fire deal has been agreed to. However, Israelis are denying this. They're saying negotiations are still ongoing. And a source in Jersualem is telling me that the Israelis are floating an idea there should be 24 hours of calm before they agree to sign on to any deal.

So the difference between a cease-fire and a cease-fire agreement is on the one hand, you stop shooting for 24 hours and then perhaps you sign on the dotted line and agree to a deal. How long-lasting it will be is an open question. But this is a new element that they are requesting 24 hours of calm from Gaza, from Hamas militants, before they agree to any kind of deal.

The other thing that we're getting is that at 1:30 p.m. Eastern, which is about an hour and a half from now, we understand Israeli cabinet ministers will be meeting in order to discuss the various proposals that have been floated out there regarding an agreement to a possible cease-fire between the two sides.

MALVEAUX: So Hala, you have people in Cairo. They're trying to work out this deal. You've got Qatar, you've got Turkey, you've got Egypt, Hamas. Who's the most valuable player? Who is actually running the show?

GORANI: Well, right now, very crucially, of course you have Egypt, because the Israelis don't talk to Hamas, the U.S. doesn't talk to Hamas. Egypt is the middleman, the mediator between all these two sides. And any deal is going to have to go through them.

So you heard Mohamed Morsi just a few hours ago, the Egyptian president, say, "We're hours away from a cease-fire." And so when Mohamed Morsi says that, you understand that he has information, of course, coming from negotiators and mediators in Cairo.

Right now it seems, though, the discussion has moved to Israel and Israeli ministers debating the possibility of agreeing to proposals that have been tabled and floated, including perhaps the 24-hour calm, the lull in fighting, that they would require before they sign on to anything.

MALVEAUX: So when would this take place? When would the timetable be? Because you're talking about, so, 24 hours, you almost wonder where does the clock start on the 24-hour timetable?

GORANI: Absolutely. Always a difficult one. But what do you mean by calm? Is it an absolute total cessation of violence? Is it a lull? Is it calmer than it was a few hours ago? Those are questions out there. But what it does tell me, though, is that the discussions are close to achieving some sort of deal because when you have that kind of specificity being discussed, it means that at some stage, hopefully in the next 24 hours or so, we'll hear something, some sort of agreement, announced. But we're going to have to wait and see.

MALVEAUX: And your source, your source that you're talking to in the negotiations here, why do they believe Hamas was floating this out there, giving it to Reuters that, hey, we've got a done deal? Was that something that was meant to promote, to push this forward a little bit?

GORANI: Well, that's not something that I discussed with this particular individual, but it is not unreasonable to think that this of course is not just a question of behind closed doors. It's what you tell the press, it's what you tell journalists; it's what pushes the story and the ball forward for people to look into the possibility of a cease-fire agreement. But what we're hearing from all sides right now is that it appears as thought we're a lot closer today than we were yesterday.

MALVEAUX: All right, Hala, thank you very much. Excellent reporting as always.

Since Wednesday, rocket attacks killing three people, wounding dozens in Israel. 114 Palestinians have been killed. More than 900 wounded in Gaza.

I want to go to Ben Wedeman in Gaza City. Ben, you've got more details on the cease-fire. What do we know?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Suzanne, I just got off the phone with a senior Hamas official who's been privy to the details of the contacts that have been going on between Hamas, Egypt, and Israel. He tells me that at 9:00 this evening in Cairo, that's less than two hours from now, a -- an announcement will be made by an Egyptian official and Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas movement, that fighting will cease. They're calling it an Arabic Attahiyat, which basically means a calming down. It's not a cease-fire, it's not a truce, but his indication is that the fighting will stop when that announcement is made. Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: When do we think that announcement is going to be made, Ben? Give us the time again.

WEDEMAN: It's 9:00 Cairo time. That's 2:00 p.m. Eastern Time.

MALVEAUX: And describe for us, explain what you mean, this is not a cease-fire, it's a calming down. What would that look like on the ground?

WEDEMAN: Well, basically it would mean a cessation of military activities: rockets going out of here, Israel doing air strikes and other attacks on Gaza. We've seen this before. Back in 2008, in June, the Israelis and Hamas with Egyptian intermediaries did work out a similar arrangement. It was six months and by and large, it lasted six months until, of course, just right before Israel launched its so- called Cast Lead Operation. That, obviously, that truce break, that calming period broke down. But they have that example.

So we don't know the details in terms of what each side is obliged to do and not to do, how long this period is going to last, but it would essentially entail an end to any military activities from both sides.

MALVEAUX: Now it's very early to really get a sense of how people are reacting to this. But a couple of questions here. First of all, does anyone believe that this would actually -- there would be this calm? Do they have faith this is something, in good faith, that they will carry out when you say they're going to make the announcement in two hours?

WEDEMAN: Well, certainly the hope is here that they will be able to carry out, that there will indeed be a period of calm. Obviously, life has been very difficult here in Gaza since last Wednesday. And it's not as if everybody in Gaza is cheering every time a missile gets fired out of the here. As a matter of fact, most people are running for cover out of fear that Israel will quickly respond. And speaking to people in Gaza, they were encouraged. They were hopeful that this will indeed take hold. Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: All right, Ben, we will be awaiting that announcement expected to happen in just a couple of hours. A cease-fire might be in the works.

Some think that the hardline Palestinian political party Hamas may be the real winner in this conflict. It might be a huge boost in popularity in Gaza. We're going to break down who's who in this very complex and volatile situation.

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MALVEAUX: Ongoing strikes between the Israelis and Hamas underscore just how complex the Palestianian situation is. You've Hamas ruling Gaza, the Palestinian Authority in power in the West Bank. You've got Israel sitting in the middle of the two Palestinian territories.

Well, Michael Holmes is here to explain some of this. And I think it's viewers, it's helpful to remind them, because the Palestinians are divided. You have two different sections and you've got Hamas, that essentially, it's not the Palestinian Authority, but Hamas responsible for the back and forth with Israel and these rockets, these attacks.

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, they won the election. Yeah, they won the election back in 2006, kicked out Fatah, the Palestinian Authority party in 2007 in a very bloody way and have ruled the Gaza Strip ever since.

Now, the irony is, on the West Bank, with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, you've got one of the more moderate Palestinian leaders ever in the history of the Palestinian cause and he's essentially being sidelined by all of this.

He's become irrelevant. He's not involved in any of these discussions, no power. You know, you -- Palestinians are looking for leadership, essentially. They're not seeing it from the Palestinian Authority.

And I'm not talking about just the wall that's happened, the expansion of settlements, the occupation, but also things like a very moribund economy.

And Hamas is at least being seen as doing something, you know? Whether it's challenging status quo, getting hundreds of Palestinian prisoners released through the prisoner swap with Gilad Shalit and what's worrying, in a way, is you're seeing growing support on the street for Hamas in the West Bank.

Now, that could be problematic if it continues to grow, but at the end of the day, Hamas can't do a deal on a Palestinian state. They object to the existence of Israel. That ain't happening. Only the Palestinian Authority can do that.

MALVEAUX: So, Hamas has -- I mean, you've got this guy, Khaled Mishal, and he's the one who's negotiating for this ceasefire if you will.

Can he negotiate anything else? Because he doesn't negotiate for a Palestinian state. He just simply says, look, we're going to stop violence.

Where do we go from here? Does he have more power now?

HOLMES: Well, he's got leverage at the moment and what you've seen ...

MALVEAUX: For what?

HOLMES: Well, leverage in a political sense. Hamas can, if this deal is done, this truce happens, Hamas can leave and say, we won.

I mean, you know, that's what they want to be able to say, politically. They won. We stood up. We defied. We got some sort of concessions, depending what comes out in the truce.

So, they have political leverage for now. Now, whether that's a lasting thing in terms of the overall peace process, if we can even call it that, whatever is left of it, yet -- is yet to be seen. I mean, whether that's a lasting influence or not.

But they certainly -- they run the Gaza Strip. It's like two countries, right, Gaza and the West Bank. MALVEAUX: And tell us a little bit about Hamas because it's considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. They don't recognize Israel, the state of Israel, but it's a very powerful -- the military component, the political component and the social component.

HOLMES: And it's important to recognize that there are multiple facets of Hamas.

It was born in the 1980s. It came out of the Muslim Brotherhood which is where you see these other alliances developing with countries like Tunisia and Qatar -- you mentioned that earlier -- because they're all born of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well.

And they were born as a resistance movement, but they quickly realized that providing for the people would win the hearts and minds.

And, so, yes, you have the political wing. You have the military wing, which carries out these attacks. You also have the social wing, which, you know, runs schools, runs hospitals, feeds the people. And, so, they get that grassroots support, mainly from that side of things.

MALVEAUX: So, what does this mean? If the -- you've got the ceasefire that happens. If there is in fact a time of calm here, what is the outcome of all of this?

I mean, does Hamas stay where it is and -- or do they grow, do they become more powerful? I mean, who are losers and who are the winners?

HOLMES: Well, you know, the pessimist in me, I think I said this last time, is that, you know, I predicted they would come to a truce before a ground engagement happened and everyone will go away claiming they won and we'd go back to the same uncomfortable status quo, an unsatisfactory status quo.

Which, I think, is probably what's going to happen.

Whether they -- what Hamas wants to do is to get the economic blockade, if you like, of Gaza.

Let's face it. The Israelis pulled out Gaza. The settlers left. All of that, absolutely true. Palestinian fisherman can't go more than two miles off the coast. They don't control their own airspace. They don't control the flow of goods and services.

That's what Hamas is going to be trying to broker in this truce, is to get some, you know, some sort of something in return that's going to help, economically.

MALVEAUX: Are they more likely to get it this go-round because they are more powerful? Because you've got a friend in Egypt now? You've got Morsi in power?

HOLMES: I don't know. We have to wait and see. I have doubts because Israel is just as strong on this, as well, and they have their own position on the rockets and whether they're going to put up with, you know, giving concessions to a group like Hamas that denies their very existence.

You know, I don't know. I don't know that that will happen. The other thing, too, I think, particularly Americans don't realize how tiny this place is. This is a sliver of land that's 30 miles by between 6-and-10 miles wide.

MALVEAUX: It's the size of Washington, D.C.

HOLMES: And 1.7 million people. It's a hotbed of emotion. That's for sure.

MALVEAUX: Yeah, and certainly, though, it has capability of sparking many conflicts in the region.

Michael, I'm going to get back to you. I'm going to have to let you go here for a minute.

But we're following this, of course, because Hamas says that the fighting is going to stop, at least temporarily. They're going to make some sort of an announcement -- at least that's what they're saying -- at 2:00 p.m. Eastern.

According to our reporters on the ground, however, there are rockets. They are still flying on both sides of the Israeli-Gaza border. And we're going to go to -- go live right after a quick break.

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MALVEAUX: While we track the conflicting reports about a ceasefire in the Middle East, the attacks are still going on both sides of the Israeli-Gaza border. We've got reporters covering all angles of this story.

Our Sara Sidner has been covering the conflict from Gaza. She is in Jerusalem now by phone.

Sara, we found out two things recently here. That, first of all, Israel's requesting 24 hours of what they're calling "calm." In about two hours, we're going to expect to hear from a Hamas official saying that this calming period will be granted, so that they can have some sort of truce between two sides.

What are people on the ground in Jerusalem believe is going to happen? Do they have any faith here? And are there still attacks going on?

SARA SIDNER, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Yeah, I mean, there's a lot of concern.

What everybody is hoping for is that what is agreed to actually happens so that if there is a 24-hour period of calm, that that happens and then some kind of a ceasefire deal or a truce deal can be worked out.

Without that 24-hour period, there's a lot of concern that things will just ratchet up again. We know that Ban Ki-moon came, the U.N. secretary-general, and he came to Jerusalem to speak with different members, different leaders here. He spoke with the prime minister, saying that, you know, while Israel had every right to defend itself, that it should exercise caution and that going into a ground war would be devastating for the civilians. So, cautioning against that.

Israel saying that they want to see calm. They want things to calm down, but that if they keep getting attacked by rockets sent from Gaza that they will do what they need to do to protect their citizens.

We just came back from a neighborhood here in Israel called Beer Sheva where we saw homes that were damaged. One in particular, a 21-year- old girl was inside when it happened.

She ran into an area where they have basically built some of these new homes with bomb shelters in them because they hear those sirens so often and they have had to run for cover so many times and, you know, she's just beside herself with fear, not being able to feel safe in her own home.

I was also on the Gaza side of the border for five, six days where we saw just immense destruction from the Israeli air strikes, but was we also saw in neighborhoods rockets being sent from neighborhoods in Gaza to Israel.

And those are the areas where the Israeli military is targeting, trying to get rid of any of those areas where there are rocket launchers.

But, as you know, Gaza is a small place, that there are very few places where they can hide these things and, at times, they're putting them right in neighborhoods where there's a lot of people living and, those people, some of them have died. Many of them have been injured.

Suzanne?

MALVEAUX: Sara, describe for us, if you will, is there a sense at all of hope, of optimism? Or when people are in such a state of fear, they don't really believe that things are going to get better? What do you think?

SIDNER (via telephone): I don't know if "optimism" might be a strong word. I think what really people are feeling is that they want this to end for good. They are tired of the back and forth.

They are tired of every few years having this conflict flare up and being caught in the middle of it, especially the people who live in the southern part of Israel that have to deal with it and those who live in Gaza, the civilians that live with this and have to deal with consequences of what happens when rockets are sent over to Israel and Israel responds and they get caught in the middle of it all.

I think there's a real sense that people want this to end for good. They want some sort of permanent solution. But in the interim, they'll take anything right now to stop feeling that terror that there's going to be a rocket hitting their house or killing them or their children or, on the converse side, you know, an air strike that hits a building that kills or injures people in Gaza.

It's really a sense of they just want for things to start working out and for a ceasefire to be worked out, but they really want a permanent solution.

MALVEAUX: All right, Sara Sidner, thank you very much. We'll be getting back to you.

This will be hardly the first ceasefire that we've seen between Israel and Hamas. So what does it mean? Is it actually going to happen? How long can it last without real change in the region? We'll take you deeper inside the conflict that is rocking the middle east. Are negotiations breaking down?

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