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Israel-Hamas Conflict;

Aired November 22, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET


ALI VELSHI, CNN HOST: Good evening and welcome to the program. I'm Ali Velshi, sitting in for Christiane Amanpour.


VELSHI (voice-over): Well, they call it the toughest neighborhood in the world, and right smack in the middle of it is the hottest spot in the world: the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip.

This week, rockets flew into Israel from Gaza, air assaults flew into Gaza from Israel and at the end of it, death and destruction, but also, perhaps, a shifting of the power structure with a new reality taking shape.


VELSHI: Hamas has long been regarded by Israeli and the West as a terrorist organization, but the group has suddenly become a powerful voice for the Palestinian cause.


VELSHI (voice-over): Meanwhile, its friend, Egypt, has come to the defense of Hamas and despite having a brand-new president and government in its infancy, the Egyptians are beginning to look like regional power brokers, which leaves Israel now facing many former foes who are uniting around the Palestinian cause and no longer letting Washington call the shots.


VELSHI: Joining me now to talk about all of this, our CNN senior international correspondent, Ben Wedeman, who has reported for many years from all corners of the region; and Jamie Rubin, who was the assistant secretary of state for public affairs in the Clinton administration and who has helped shape and communicate American foreign policy.

Gentlemen, thank you both for being here.

Ben, let me start with you. This got very big very fast. When you look at what both Hamas and the Israelis were hoping to gain when they first made their decisions, when this began, what were their end games and who got closer to a win or a loss as we stand right now?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's really hard to second guess their motives in this particular outbreak of violence; but in a sense, both have gained something. Hamas, for instance, has shown that its rockets have improved, that it's not quite as vulnerable to Israeli strikes as it used to be.

They've learned lessons of -- from the 2008-2009 Cast Lead operation.

So Hamas has been able to gain popular and official Arab support and perform in relative terms much better than it did last time.

For Israel, they have the Iron Dome system that has proven its worth and then some, being able to stop a lot of those missiles being fired into Israel. They have, in a sense, shown also Hamas that they can conduct a massive military operation in Gaza with, relative to the last time they were fighting four years ago, fewer casualties.

You have to keep in mind that during the Cast Lead operation four years ago, more than 1,400 Palestinians were killed. This time, after seven days, the death toll is relative to that, relatively light. There's around 130.

And also for Prime Minister Netanyahu's looking ahead to elections in Israel in January of next year, he can show that he's an effective military leader and according to Israeli opinion polls, a vast majority of Israelis have supported this operation.

VELSHI: You bring up a good point, Ben.

Let me ask you about that, Jamie. As Ben said, we can't guess as to motives at the moment, but we do know that there's an election coming up in Israel. Does this make Israel stronger? Does it make Netanyahu stronger?

JAMES RUBIN, FORMER ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE: I don't think he's stronger. I think his position has been secured. He was the leader -- leading figure in Israeli politics for some time. His opposition's had a very tough time getting together.

But I think his policy here, if there is a de-escalation, you know, will be, you know, a relative success for him because they made clear that when the Hamas rockets come to Israel, Hamas pays a terrible price in terms of individual leaders who've been killed, obviously in terms of the terrible deaths of innocent civilians.

The real losers in all of this -- let's remember -- are the Palestinian people, the people who were killed because Hamas chose to escalate. And of course the Israelis are losers because they had to live under such fear for so many days.

VELSHI: So this -- Khaled Meshaal, a name you've known for many years, the leader of Hamas, he's not a name everybody has known. And he has come to remarkable prominence in this -- in this whole episode.

Does he become a rallying point for those Gazans, for those Palestinians living in Gaza, because the Palestinian Authority is not pleased about all the stuff that Ben just mentioned, delegations from other countries, going straight to Gaza, the both popular and official support that Gaza is getting?

RUBIN: Well, that's the big difference, as Ben pointed out, between this episode and the last episode. There's been an Arab Spring since then; a new set of leaders have come into power in Egypt. There's revolutions in Libya, in Syria going on right now.

And the leadership of Egypt, which has long been seen as the most powerful country and the most important country in the Middle East, has changed from a relative friend and secular friend of the United States to a fellow member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Morsi.

I think that has changed the calculation of the Hamas leadership. They now are part and parcel of the mainstream in the Arab world rather than isolated the way they used to be by Saudi Arabia, by Egypt, by Jordan.

VELSHI: Saudi Arabia, which has been largely absent in this event -- we're looking at a map now, Ben, of the Middle East, Egypt. You are, to many of our viewers, the face of coverage of the Arab Spring and that is so different, that Egypt is such an influential player here.

The U.S., you know, everybody used to wait for their cues from the U.S. The U.S. is now -- we'll discuss what the terminology is, but the U.S. has not been fully present and in front of this whole thing. Egypt has been. How does a democratically elected leadership in Egypt affect this process, Ben?

WEDEMAN: Well, the democratically-elected leadership in Egypt has to respond to the people who voted for it. And an overwhelming majority of Egyptians support the Palestinian people. They don't necessarily support some sort of scrapping the Camp David Accords and going back to war -- quite to the contrary.

But certainly, Arab leaders are far more aware of the importance of listening a bit more closely to public opinion. In fact, I spoke to the Iraqi foreign minister and he pointed out that this is really what's driving all of this. It's an awareness that public opinion finally matters.

And I spoke to the Palestinian -- one of -- a senior Palestinian official from the West Bank, from the Fatah movement. And I asked him about the American role. And he said the American and European roles are frozen. They've done nothing for us.

The feeling is that the Americans just aren't the players that they used to be.

VELSHI: How then, Jamie, does the United States play a role in saying to Israel there is this new reality, like that new map -- it's not a new map; it's the same countries, but there's a new political reality in each of those countries, in many of these countries.

Can the U.S. play a role in helping Israel navigate this new reality? The new reality isn't a war on each border, it's a larger -- it's a larger bubbling sentiment.

RUBIN: Well, hopefully, the role the United States can play is influencing Egypt, making them understand that, yes, they may care a lot about the views of their people and the support of their people for the Palestinian people.

But the Egyptians also care about their economy and their role in the world. And breaking with the United States fully by siding so completely with one over the other could have an effect on Egypt's future economically, and that matters to the Egyptians. So that will be one role the United States will play.

Too, I think the U.S. can make clear to the Israelis in a way that perhaps no other country can of this new reality; the Israeli leadership probably thinks that, at the end of the day, the United States can still wield the same influence it did before. They've probably not fully appreciated the change in the ability of the United States to influence events on the ground.

And convincing the Israelis that there's a limit to what the United States can do when these events start, when these wars break out in terms of support in the region and that there's a real cost for Israel in terms of isolation.

VELSHI: Is there a new way for Israel to look at this, though, to come to some comprehensive solution that gives them the ability for long- term peace with Gaza, but ultimately does Israel have to deal with each of these hot spots on its own? Or is there some comprehensive solution that can be had?

RUBIN: Well, I don't see a comprehensive solution right now. You've talked about Khaled Meshaal. The leadership of Hamas, you know, plays an occasional word game here or there, but they don't believe in the peace process. They never have. They -- you know, they may confuse a few people by using their code words.

But they don't believe in the peace process. Until the Palestinians get together those who do believe in it, in the West Bank, and Hamas in Gaza, I don't see a comprehensive solution.

VELSHI: So here, Ben, this is an interesting distinction, whether or not Hamas believes in a peace process. There are many Palestinians who do believe in wanting a state, and they may not associate the two. But that part, Hamas' leadership and Khaled Meshaal have capitalized on.

WEDEMAN: Well, certainly the Hamas movement has said that they're willing to consider accepting the 1967 borders as opposed to taking the whole thing, so to speak. And they do play around with that quite a lot.

But I think if you speak to most Palestinians, you know, they realize that, at this point, it's unrealistic to go for the maximalist position; what they want to do is see the creation of a state within Gaza and the West Bank, free, perhaps, of Israeli settlements with certain modifications to the borders, another to avoid too much disruption to both sides.

But there still is a desire for a two-state solution.

VELSHI: Let me ask you this, Jamie, Iran: we know those missiles have come from Iran. We know that Iran and Israel have been the topic that we've talked about for the last couple of years. Where is Iran in this and what is it taking from this?

RUBIN: Well, I think Iran is not very relevant, and that's interesting and different. Iran is stuck in the greater Middle East because it's on the side of the Syrian government, Bashar al-Assad, which is wildly unpopular amongst all of the people we've mentioned today, perhaps with the exception of the Iraqi foreign minister.

But throughout the region, Hamas had to break with Syria; Khaled Meshaal was in Damascus. That's where he used to be based. And he broke with Syria. And so Iran and Syria are the outliers.

This is now a situation where Egypt and Turkey, the other major players in the region, with Iran being a third and Saudi Arabia a fourth, Egypt and Turkey have come to the fore as the leaders of the Middle East and Iran, because its government has not allowed the kind of democratic change the rest of the region has and because of it being on the other side of this Syria issue, I think, is almost irrelevant in this crisis.

VELSHI: Jamie, thanks for your analysis and for giving us a sense of this.

Ben Wedeman, stay safe in Gaza City and we will be back with you for more coverage of this.

Ben Wedeman and Jamie Rubin.


VELSHI: Welcome back to the program. I'm Ali Velshi, sitting in for Christiane Amanpour.

We're continuing our coverage of the Israeli-Hamas conflict. Palestinians are divided, and when I say that, I mean it literally.

Hamas runs Gaza while the Palestinian Authority governs the West Bank. It is Hamas who has been trading fire with Israel. And for this and other reasons, it appears to be gaining popularity.

Conversely, in the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, were sidelined during the cease-fire negotiations, which may be a sign that it is losing relevance.

Here to talk about how these two factions and what their rising and falling popularity could mean for peace is Rashid Khalidi. He has been directly involved in peace negotiations on the Palestinian side. He's advised President Obama on the issue as well. He's now the director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University.

Rashid, pleasure to see you; thank you for being with us.

RASHID KHALIDI, DIRECTOR, MIDDLE EAST INSTITUTE, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: I actually haven't had the honor of advising the president, but.

VELSHI: You haven't? You've spoken to the president?


KHALIDI: Not for many years.

VELSHI: OK. Well, at some point you did, and at that point, the Palestinian Authority or Fatah was substantially more influential amongst the Palestinian people.


VELSHI: Since then, we have seen popular elections in 2006 in Gaza. We've seen the emergence of a character who's been on the scene for a long time, but not popularly known outside of the region, Khaled Meshaal, who now you've seen on TV. He's the leader of Hamas.

Is he ascendant here? And is that coming at the expense of the Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas?

KHALIDI: They are ascendant. Hamas, in fact, won an election all over the Palestinian territories with 45 percent of the vote to 42 percent for Fatah.

So they won a majority -- or at least a plurality -- throughout the Palestinian territories. But what has happened recently is that, really, Israel has undermined Abu Mazen -- Mahmoud Abbas -- by refusing to negotiate. Seriously, by expanding its settlements, it has made the Palestinian Authority look weak, feeble, unable to advance the Palestinian cause.

Hamas, by contrast, by saying we insist on a strong position in terms of dealing with Israel and by trading, as you say, fire with the Israelis now, seem to have been gaining credit, as well as being able to say look at the shifts in the Arab world. We are obviously stronger because Islamists like ourselves are now in power in a variety of places in the Middle East.

VELSHI: Let's talk about the move by Abu Mazen, by Mahmoud Abbas to go to the United Nations on November 29th and seek statehood for Palestine. There are some saying is this now relevant in the face of what's going on.

Is there a different role that they should be playing? Should they be looking to Hamas, or is Hamas playing an extreme role and getting an extreme reaction?

KHALIDI: I mean, I think what all Palestinian factions should be working for is unity.

VELSHI: Right.

KHALIDI: The idea that a --


VELSHI: That has been elusive for some time.

KHALIDI: It has been, partly because the United States and Israel have been determined to prevent it.

VELSHI: Right.

KHALIDI: But that could and should change. If you seriously want to negotiate with the Palestinians, they have to have a consensus position. And that means bringing them all together. So the United States opposing it is one of the main reasons it hasn't happened --


KHALIDI: -- vested interests on both sides.

VELSHI: Something that has happened in the last week is very interesting. The acceptance not just in the Arab world, but by Arab leaders or other Muslim leaders who have now traveled to Gaza, something that the Palestinian Authority has pushed back on, has not wanted. They've not wanted the legitimacy given to Hamas. That is now happening.

Does Hamas now have a place to go where they've got now this legitimacy and a seat at the table to negotiate something?

KHALIDI: In the Middle East, they probably have more -- as many or more places to go than does the Palestinian Authority in the moment (ph) because there are governments that are sympathetic to them in a variety of ways, in power in Turkey, outside the Arab world, and most importantly in Egypt and in a variety of other places, Tunisia and so forth.

So, yes, there's no question that the regional environment has changed and it's -- I think it's time for everybody to take account of that.

You have democratic governments that are much more responsive to their public opinion than the autocrats who were in power before them, in places like Yemen and Tunisia and Libya and Egypt. And even, for that matter, Turkey, where the generals were in charge and public opinion didn't have much of a role back in the day.

And so I think it's time to take public opinion in the Arab world seriously, instead of taking the dictators that the United States preferred to use as interlocutors.

VELSHI: Hamas is -- at least officially, Hamas' charter is much more critical and not accommodating of Israel and a Jewish state than the Palestinian Authority has been in its conversations.

Does Hamas ever get to a point where that they can translate this legitimacy they've got into a legitimate negotiating position with Israel? Or is there no peace that they would ever make with Israel?

KHALIDI: Hamas -- I mean, Hamas has offered at various stages, 100- year truce or different kinds of truces. In fact, the man whom Israel killed, starting off this escalation, had negotiated a truce with Israel.


KHALIDI (voice-over): Ahmed al-Jabari, who's been, you know, professionally demonized by public relations outfits galore was the man who negotiated the truce that Israel decided not to accept a few days ago, leading to this horrible escalation.


KHALIDI: The founder of Hamas, Ahmed Yassin, was the one who put together the idea of a long-term truce.

Hamas leadership talks about letting the P.A. in Ramallah negotiate something with Israel, which they would accept as long as a Palestinian vote sanctified it, accepted it. So they want a -- some kind of plebiscite on any agreement.

So those things are out there. Israel and the United States insist that Hamas accept conditions that are not imposed on Israel. Israel doesn't recognize Palestine. There's no Palestinian state. In fact, Israel has done everything to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.

If you had a Palestinian state and Israel, the two could be asked to recognize one another. One is in occupation of the other, and the occupied party, the victim, is being told you have to accept this condition, that condition --


VELSHI: Does what's happened in the last week bring Israel closer to this, ironically, having to deal with Hamas, does it bring Israel closer to saying let's figure out a two-state solution?

KHALIDI: It depends on whether the Israelis want to stop using a hammer. They're like people who have a hammer and the only thing they can use -- think of doing is use the hammer. Well, maybe that's not the right approach. Maybe so-called mowing the grass, maybe constantly saying there's nothing we can do with these people except use force is not the right approach.

VELSHI: You have worked with the Palestinian Authority, is that right?

KHALIDI: I worked -- I was chosen as one of the group of advisers by the PLO back in the day.

VELSHI: Back in the day.

KHALIDI: To be advisers to the Palestinian delegation that negotiated at Madrid and at Washington --


VELSHI: -- Palestinian Authority --

KHALIDI: Precisely.

VELSHI: Do you have some sense of how they feel about Hamas?

KHALIDI: Well, there are people in Fatah who have a very sectarian, very narrow view of Hamas. And there are people in Hamas who have that view. Those are not popular views among Palestinian public opinion.

Most Palestinians are sick to death of this split. They understand that they're the weaker party and that the split weakens them further.

So whatever people in Ramallah, who are comfortable in their chairs. or people in Hamas, who are being subsidized from the outside, may think, this is not either the right thing for the Palestinians or what most Palestinians want. It's not the right thing for peace, either, frankly.

VELSHI: What is the right thing for the Palestinian people, though? There are two ways, there are two paths right now that are -- that are playing out in the last week: the Palestinian Authority path that still involves going through the U.N., that, as unaccommodating as some people may find it, is one that works through the system and is trying to, you know, work on long-term solutions; and the Hamas solution, which seems to be much more effective and quicker, although it may result in substantially more destruction and death?

KHALIDI: Well, there are not really two ways. The Palestinians have to get their act together, have to develop a consensus and decide how to go forward. That does not involve what the Israelis seem to want, which is capitulation and submission. That will not work. You have to negotiate from a position of unity and something of a position of strength. So I would --


KHALIDI: -- I would argue that neither of these two sides is really right.

VELSHI: All right. What role then in -- there's been some criticism of the United States about leading from behind or having a light footprint here.

Is this a role, is this a place that the United States can be a meaningful presence, meaningfully present in trying to figure out what that middle way is for the Palestinians, for the Gazans and the -- those in the West Bank?

KHALIDI: I think the United States has to stop letting Israel call the tune on everything, and it has to stop accepting an Israeli narrative. I mean, there are victims here. There are Israeli victims here. But the real victims are not the Israelis.

This is not an issue of Israeli self-defense. It's the things that the president is saying, have not really corresponded with reality. There is a reality there that rockets have been fired from Gaza, but there is a reality as well that Hamas has to be dealt with and was willing to do -- have a cease-fire, when Israel went and killed with a drone the person who was negotiating with them.

VELSHI: Is it right, then, for the world to continue to say they will not deal with Hamas as a -- as a terrorist organization?

KHALIDI: The world is dealing with Hamas. The secretary of state is going to go to Cairo, and she's going to talk to the Israelis -- sorry; talk to the Egyptians, and they will talk to Hamas. Israel is dealing with Hamas. Israel negotiated a deal for the release of Gilad Shalit a year and a half ago, whenever it was.

I mean, this fiction that, oh, heavens, we can't talk to them -- they did the same thing with the PLO, until finally Rabin was able to overcome that taboo. It's time to overcome that taboo. They don't recognize Israel? Israel doesn't recognize Palestine. Should Palestinians not talk to the Israelis? It simply doesn't make sense.

VELSHI: Rashid, what a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you for being here.

KHALIDI: A pleasure. Thank you, Ali.

VELSHI: Rashid Khalidi.

We've seen what rockets and missiles can do, but peace brings its own dangers and casualties. We'll take a look back at the desperate gamble that brought over 30 years of peace and came at the ultimate price, when we return.


VELSHI: A final thought: the pictures from Gaza and Israel tell the terrible price of war, but the price of peace can be even higher.

Thirty-five years ago this month, Egypt's President Anwar Sadat stunned the world by announcing that he would do the unthinkable: become the first Arab leader to go to Israel and seek a lasting peace.


ANWAR SADAT, FORMER PRESIDENT OF EGYPT (from captions): Israel will be surprised to hear me say that I am ready to go their parliament, to the Knesset and debate with them!




VELSHI (voice-over): Eight days later, Sadat's plane crossed the 250 miles and the once-insurmountable barrier of three wars and years of distrust to touch down in the land of his enemy. He would then take another historic step, addressing the Israeli Knesset in Arabic, calling for a comprehensive peace among all the players in the region.

But two years later he found himself and his country isolated from the rest of the Arab world. As he shook hands with U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his old foe, Prime Minister Menachem Begin, to sign a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, a treaty which has lasted to this day.

For his efforts, Sadat shared the Nobel Peace Prize, but he also paid the ultimate price when he was assassinated by his own soldiers during a victory parade.


VELSHI: Blessed are the peacemakers, but peace even more than war requires courage and sacrifice.

That's it for tonight's program. Meanwhile, the AMANPOUR inbox is always open, Thank you for watching and goodbye from New York.