PrintPrint EmailEmail ShareShare CiteCite


The Crisis in Gaza

Speaker: Robert M. Danin, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Presider: Toni Johnson, Deputy Editor, Council on Foreign Relations
November 20, 2012
Council on Foreign Relations


TONI JOHNSON: I'm Toni Johnson, deputy editor for With us today on the phone is CFR senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies, Robert Danin. CFR Senior Fellow Steven Cook had a last minute -- had to make a last-minute cancellation and will be not joining us today. So I'm very sorry about that.

Today we're here to discuss the conflict in the Gaza Strip. Robert's going to get things started with a few comments and then I'm going to ask a couple questions, and then I will open it up to you for questions. OK? So let's get started. Robert, would you like to take over?

ROBERT DANIN: Sure. Thank you. And thank you to everyone who's listening in. Pleasure to be with you. I guess I'll just start off by making a few introductory points. Actually, I just had the benefit of returning from the Middle East just a few days ago. And so I spent actually a good deal of time in Cairo as well as Amman and have been in touch with -- extensively with people on the ground in Gaza and in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Obviously, things are very dynamic at the moment. Secretary Clinton is on her way to the Middle East, said to arrive there within hours. Ban Ki-moon is also making the rounds today. It looks like we're on the precipice of a cease-fire of sorts, which is, if it holds or takes hold, would be very encouraging.

The violence has escalated a bit, it seems today, which is not surprising that -- on the eve of a -- of a cease-fire, both sides are going to want to try to get the last blow in as we're -- because so much of this that is taking place now is both -- not only at the military level but at the diplomatic/psychological level, and both sides want to try to emerge from this as -- seeming as victorious as possible.

And the -- should there not be a cease-fire, then obviously we have tens of thousands of Israeli troops poised to go into Gaza, as we saw, you know, with Operation Cast Lead in 2008. So that's a distinct possibility that will remain. And -- well, I think we shouldn't probably -- I'll hold off for now and let the people -- I'll turn it back over to Toni and let you get into it.

JOHNSON: So this cease-fire seems to be largely brokered, the one that's on the table right now, by Egypt. A lot has changed politically in the region since the Arab Spring. So what has this process shown us about the Egypt -- sorry, Egyptian-Israeli relations?

DANIN: Well, first and foremost, I think it's shown us that there is durability to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. When this crisis erupted, Egypt withdrew its ambassador for consultations, which is the minimum diplomatic step one can take to express displeasure. And throughout, the Egyptians have played the key role as the intermediary, being able to both, you know, talk to Hamas as well as the Israeli government. And you have Israeli and Hamas mediators in Cairo.

So Egypt has emerged as the -- as the central point here -- the fulcrum here for diplomatic activity. And so it shows us that the peace treaty is intact, but it's -- but -- which is not to say it's not under strain. And I think one of the reasons that the Egyptians were very keen to avoid a ground offensive is very much for fear that if there's a ground offensive and then consequent violence and bloodshed, that this will then lead to popular pressure on the Egyptian government to abrogate the peace treaty or at least take steps in that direction. And that's something that the Egyptian government, even under the Muslim Brotherhood, does not want to do.

MODERATOR: In these deliberations, Mahmoud Abbas seems largely sidelined. What does this say about the ability for Hamas and Fatah to reconcile?

DANIN: Well, you're right. In the short term, I mean, Mahmoud Abbas has been marginal to this -- to what is going on, and it's only heightened his marginality here. And given the fact that he does not control Gaza, given the fact he does not control Hamas, that Hamas has broken off and taken -- you know, took control of the Gaza Strip in -- has only hurt him.

I mean, the tragedy for the Palestinian Authority is they still pay for the price for what's happening in Gaza, in that the Palestinian Authority -- the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority is still the largest employer in Gaza and is responsible -- you know, therefore, the people's livelihoods in Gaza are still dependent on the -- on the Palestinian Authority, even though Hamas is the one who's in control there and is the one that stands to benefit politically from this.

Now, yesterday I believe President Abbas dispatched Nabil Shaath to Gaza in order to, once again, restart reconciliation efforts. We've had periodic reconciliation efforts, and this is something that is of primary and paramount priority for the population of both Gaza and the West Bank. When we've seen demonstrations in both places, it's been for unity.

However, at this point, you know, neither the leadership in Gaza -- the Hamas leadership -- nor the PA leadership have been sufficiently willing to make the compromises that are necessary for there to be real reconciliation. And so they go through the motions of reconciliation, of trying to broker reconciliation, mainly to appease the public. But at the end of the day, neither is really willing to pay the price that would be necessary to -- that either is demanding.

Whether that's shifted now and whether there's going to -- I mean, I have no doubt there will be a new effort to appear to broker a reconciliation agreement. But whether or not they can actually do so, I'm very -- I remain skeptical.

MODERATOR: And as you said, Secretary Clinton's on her way to the region. So what is the U.S. role here, given the current state of affairs, and what are the chances for a restart of the long-held -- sorry, long-stalled peace process?

DANIN: Well, the U.S. has been playing a -- you know, playing a key role from afar, really, with the president himself playing a key role, working the phones both with -- you know, daily with Prime Minister Netanyahu, with the -- with the Egyptian leadership, President Morsi, others in region. But clearly, he's, you know, dispatched Secretary Clinton to the region, and in a way it's very -- it's an apt metaphor, or it's an apt image. The president wanted to pivot towards Asia, reset American priorities towards Asia.

He -- they were in Asia, and yet the Middle East pulled them back in. And Secretary Clinton has had to, you know, curtail her visit and head off to deal with the Middle East crisis. And it just shows that even though you try to ignore the Middle East, the Middle East will pull you back in. And that's precisely what's happened to the United States now.

It's one thing to broker a cease-fire, and that's what the effort afoot now is. It's another thing to pivot that into a peace process. And you know, now one of the -- one of the --


DANIN: -- benefits -- hello? Yeah.


DANIN: One of the results of this -- you know, of this latest round of conflict is to highlight the role of Hamas in Middle East politics. The peace process to date has not really factored in Hamas. The effort has been to broker some sort of negotiation to bring the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas back to the negotiating table with the Israeli government. How you do this with Hamas outside is going to be a bigger challenge, you know, as a result of this crisis.

And so I think that will be one of the challenges for the next administration, for the new administration, as it -- as it tries to plan a strategy forward, is how to pivot from a cease-fire and ensure that this is a durable cease-fire. I mean, that will be the first, immediate challenge because there are many ways and reasons that this could easily break down. So moving from crisis management to conflict resolution is hopefully a situation we'll be in. But first they have to ensure that the conflict -- or the crisis management part is secure. And we're still far from that, so I don't think the -- you know, we just have to be careful not to be -- to get ahead of ourselves.

JOHNSON: And with those comments, I will open it up for questions.

OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time we will open the floor for questions. (Gives queuing instructions.)


OPERATOR: We'll take our first question from Garrett Mitchell with the Mitchell Report.

QUESTIONER: Thanks, and thanks to you both for doing this. I want to ask a -- I guess it's a hypothetical question. But assuming the best outcome of this, which is that -- beginning by getting a cease-fire, I'm interested in getting, Dr. Danin, your sense of whether there is apt to be -- it goes to the question of who will get credit for having done this? Is this going to be a feather in Morsi's cap? Will this be seen as something that Clinton did?

I realize that that's not substantive, in one sense. But on the other hand, I wonder -- I was looking at Morsi's statement in which he said that Israel's aggression against Gaza would end today, which is -- which is -- it's pretty clear sort of where he comes from on this. But I'm interested to know whether that -- you know, politics will play a role here and whether that makes any difference.

DANIN: Well, it's -- I think it's an excellent question. And I think it makes a lot of difference. I mean, perception and regional perceptions and perceptions of power are as important as the real -- are the real thing in diplomacy. And I think in the first instance, President Morsi stands to gain considerably -- and I think already has -- through -- by what has happened, by, you know, making Cairo the center point for regional diplomacy with both Israeli and Palestinian and Hamas negotiators going there, as well as, you know, the Turks, the Tunisians, the Qataris, the Arab League delegation being (launched ?) from there. It has re-established Egypt as the -- as the leading force in -- as, you know, a broker here.

So I think it's a -- it's a feather in his cap. It also is a potential benefit on the eve of what looks like a visit to the United States by President Morsi. So you know, once again, the Egyptians, especially given that they're in negotiations with the United States over lifting economic holds on economic assistance and that it's in talks with the IMF -- you know, they're going to want to -- this is -- this shows their importance and their centrality. And so you know, that's clearly something that will give them leverage in the bilateral -- (inaudible).

(Automated message.)

DANIN: (Inaudible) -- hello?


DANIN: Yeah. That was -- Moderator, should I just continue?

JOHNSON: OK, yes, please, continue.

DANIN: So I think this -- you know, in the first instance this is a -- this is a potential feather in their cap. I mean, I think -- it seems that behind the scenes, given the number of phone calls from President (sic; Secretary) Clinton to Morsi, given the fact that it looks like -- if there is indeed a cease-fire, that Hamas will have moved away from its position of having called for lifting of the siege -- what they call the siege -- the economic closure on Gaza as a condition for the cease-fire -- I suspect that behind the scenes there's been a lot of arm-twisting on the Egyptians in order to then twist the arm of Hamas. So I'm sure this has not been at all as cordial as it's being portrayed to be, but that's pure speculation. I don't -- I have no information to support that. But I -- it's just based on experience and reading the tea leaves. That's how it would appear to me.

But nonetheless, if at the end of the day, Morsi can claim credit, that will be the case. But at the end of the day, the United States too will have been shown to have played a key role from afar. It's a bit of a Rorschach test. Some will say, well, the United States had to -- you know, we're the indispensable player here to bring it about. Others will say, well, the United States was late to the game, and why did it take them so long to come to it? And their response will be, well, we were working it from the phones. And again, people's predispositions will lead them to different answers, I think, to that -- to that question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Evelyn Leopold with The Huffington Post.



QUESTIONER: Quick -- two quick questions: What's in this for Israel? What really does it gain, since Hamas is going to be in place no matter how many they kill? And secondly, can you ever have real peace talks that aren't jump-started by the United States or Egypt or some outside power?

DANIN: Well, I think Israel has gained -- made some significant gains on the ground. First and foremost was the elimination, by their -- by their claims, of most of the long-range Fajr-5 rockets that were imported into Gaza from Iran. This is what has posed a real threat to the metropolitan Israel, to the major population centers in Tel Aviv and in -- and in Jerusalem.

And that's what was the first major target of the operation following the assassination of Ahmed Jabari, who had been a long-wanted, high-value target for the Israelis. Ahmed Jabari was the -- you know, was the architect of the Shalit capture, the Shalit kidnapping. He's been the military commander who has been responsible for the transformation of Hamas, in many ways, from a -- just a guerrilla force to a much more effective paramilitary unit. So his assassination was a blow for Hamas. Israel's also taken out other key Hamas leaders.

Sure, whenever they take out Hamas leaders new ones step into the breach. So it's a -- it's not a -- necessarily a strategic victory, but it definitely is a setback for Hamas on the ground. And that will be what the Israelis point to. I mean, for them, they treat this as a -- as an exercise in maintenance. It's not a -- it's not -- it's not a game changer. It's meant to put Hamas back in the box.

What's interesting here and what people lose sight of is that what the Israelis are trying to do -- I mean, the Israelis look to Hamas as the de facto in power in Gaza and look to Hamas to keep order. And the fact that Hamas had allowed other even more militant groups to be firing rockets over the last year and then culminating in Hamas' own involvement in some of the attempts to launch violence across the border, that's what triggered the strong Israeli response. But the goal is to compel Hamas to enforce order. It's not to destroy Hamas. It's to make Hamas act responsibly. And if that's the case, if indeed we have a cease-fire and it -- a halt to efforts, then Israel will be able to say, aha, you see, we slapped them back into their place.

One of the ironies of the situation, if indeed where it ends is with the situation as it is now, is that you'll have both Israel and Hamas claiming victory at the same time. And both will have evidence to support it, Israel on the ground in many ways, Hamas at the diplomatic, political level.

As for the second issue about launching peace talks, I mean, I think we -- you know, first we need to -- I mean, the administration is obviously going through a transition, and we don't know who's going to succeed the secretary of state. So I think what the United States is looking to right now is just a bit of time. It also has another crisis or a potential crisis coming up at the end of the month, which will be the move by Mahmoud Abbas to take the statehood initiative back to the U.N. General Assembly, something the administration opposes and believes is not the way back to peace talks, unlike President Abbas, who argues that this actually is a weigh station to peace talks. So we have more diplomatic turbulence ahead of us, even if the violence stops later tonight or tomorrow.

JOHNSON: Can we have the next question?

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Stewart Ain (ph) with New York Jewish Week.

QUESTIONER: Hi. I have two questions. One -- according to these reports, we're on the verge of a truce; why is Hillary coming? And two, how are they going to really keep the weapons out of Gaza coming back from Iran and from Libya and Sudan, the whole -- the whole business? How are they going to really keep those weapons out?

DANIN: OK. Well, on the first question, I mean, I think -- you know, I think that the fact of her traveling to the region itself will make it much more difficult for the parties to violate the truce if, in fact, it's -- if it's reached. You know, obviously, one objective will be -- from the American point of view -- will be to urge Prime Minister Netanyahu not to launch a ground offensive. That's been the U.S. position. I think a second element will be to impress upon President Morsi to ensure that Hamas keeps in line and does not violate the truce. So she, I think, in a -- in a way, even if -- is not there to broker it on the ground, can be -- serve as a -- as a guarantor, as it were.

But -- which gets to the second question about, you know, the situation in Gaza, and how does this -- how does this affect it? I mean, I think one of the -- you know, the second agenda item for her is going to be -- and I think one of the things the Israelis are trying to do is, by bringing Egypt into the center of this, is to make -- have Egypt play a much greater role as a transit point for these weapons that have gotten into Gaza. I mean, these long-range weapons that have found their way into Gaza, you know, have gotten there through tunnels that are coming from Egyptian Sinai. And there, I think there will probably be a lot of behind-the-scenes pressure put on Egypt to play a much more robust role in preventing such weapons from transiting Egypt.

JOHNSON: Could I have the next question, please?

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Jill Dougherty with CNN.

MR. : And -- well, there's a building just across the street a little bit towards the sea that it got hit by what appears to be an Israeli airstrike, a very, very loud blast that really shook the building. We could feel the concussion, and I heard some glass shattering in some of the floors below. So it's ironic that the evening when we're speaking so much about a cease-fire, there seems to be more fire than anything else. Debra (sp)?

MS. : Is it that -- it's fascinating that both sides seem to be at least continuing launching rockets. Does that suggest that --

JOHNSON: Moderator, can we -- (inaudible) -- question?

MS. : -- they're going to go up until the alleged sort of quiet period begins?

DANIN: It's like we got a feed.

JOHNSON: Hello? I'm sorry about that. Seems like we got caught in the middle of an actual news report.

Can we take the next question?

OPERATOR: OK, sure. Just one moment.

JOHNSON: Well, let me just jump in here and just ask a question of my own. How is this playing in with the upcoming Israeli elections?

DANIN: Well, there are -- there are a few dimensions. I mean, you know, there are many people who have posited that Prime Minister Netanyahu may have launched this so that the timing of this may have been done with an eye towards the elections.

I am actually quite skeptical of that -- of that argument because going into this, the prime minister's standing in Israeli public opinion was already quite high, and he looked like he was already in a very strong position vis-a-vis the elections. And this operation is politically very, very risky and -- especially when you are going to the precipice of a ground operation, you never know where it's going to end and how it's going to end and how it could (rebound ?) politically. And this is not a prime minister who is prone to taking great risks. So just I tend to discount the notion that this was done in any way with an eye towards the elections.

Now, what we've seen is in the initial days of the operation, the popularity for this has been extremely high, polling over 90 percent support among the Israeli populace. That is not surprising. That's very often the case in Israel, you know, in the early days of a military operation, particularly when they were able to record, you know, successes on the ground with minimal casualties to the -- to the Israeli side. I think were they to go to a ground operation, then it becomes a much more politically dangerous move and could have negative ramifications.

We've seen today the speaker of the Israeli parliament say that Israel might need to consider postponing or delaying the elections if this goes on because it could affect the primaries for some of the parties. So it may call into question the election -- the timing of the election, which is now slated for January 22nd. But I -- but they have not made a definitive statement on that or determination on that, and if indeed the cease-fire holds, then I would expect that the elections will proceed as planned.

That said, the situation could, you know, easily, you know, evolve. And it's not -- it also would not be surprising if the cease-fire, once it's in place, breaks down, there's then subsequent diplomacy to reconstitute it. I mean, there's many avenues this conflict could take before we're out of it.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Farah Stockman with Boston Globe.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Thanks for doing this. I have -- you mentioned pressure on Egypt to try to stop some of these dangerous weapons going into Gaza, and Egypt obviously has its own security challenges in the Sinai. Can you tell me whether the Camp David accord stops Egypt from having the kinds of military people on the Gaza border that it needs to prevent -- you know, to basically secure that border?

DANIN: Sure. Well, first, hi, Farah.

QUESTIONER: (Chuckles.) How are you doing?

DANIN: It's a good question. The Camp David accords does limit the number of -- the number and quality of troops and armaments that Egypt's allowed to keep in the Sinai, and there are three broad zones of -- within -- in Sinai. In -- over the course of the last few months, the Egyptians have asked for and gotten temporary respite from that, that is, to allow them to bolster their forces. I was in Egypt last week, and my understanding then was that Egypt had pulled back from their surge, if you will.

This has been a long-standing debate between Israel and Egypt over the number of troops that could and should be allowed to operate in Sinai and the degree to which Israel should accommodate Egyptian requests to go beyond the limits imposed by the Camp David peace treaty. When I was in -- when I was a deputy assistant secretary, I spent a good deal of time on that border and working with both Israeli and Egyptian officials on this issue, and the debate was essentially the Egyptians always wanting more troops and the Israelis saying it's not an issue of troops; it's an issue of will, and also that what you really need are not necessarily military troops but intelligence and other special forces that the Egyptians have at their disposal. So it's a hard issue to get at, what is the real key here.

But you know, one of the things that we've seen in this crisis is that you've had the Egyptian intelligence working very closely with both Hamas and the Israeli intelligence. So, you know, Egypt and Israel have a -- have a shared interest here, which is to try to keep Sinai quiet. And it's a huge challenge. I mean, this is -- for two millennia at least, Sinai has been the transit point for smuggling between Africa and Asia. And even under the better -- under better times, the Egyptians have not been able to keep this under complete control. At a time when their focus is on securing the country, then Sinai becomes the wild -- the "Wild East," if you will, as many troops are pulled out to keep -- ensure stability in major population areas.

So you have a situation now where you have Salafists and jihadists that have been flowing into Sinai and a reluctance, until relatively recently, of the Egyptian government to devote the resources to it, or to divert the resources to it, I should say, because right now for them, you know, they're quite overwhelmed. But I think that the violence and the -- you know, the results of all of this has sequestrated to them the need to take it more seriously. And clearly there has been a lot of pressure put on the Egyptian government to put greater assets on the ground and take the smugglings and the arms shipment -- takes a much more aggressive stance towards that.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

Our next question comes from Fernie Nugati (ph) with -- (inaudible).

QUESTIONER: Hi. I'd like to ask you in more detail about the upcoming vote at the U.N. next week. How would that influence the peace process if Palestine gets the status they desire as a nonmember observer state?

DANIN: Good question. First of all, I -- you know, I think the context will depend. If we're still in the midst of this military or -- you know, crisis in the south of Israel and Gaza, then perhaps it might force President Abbas to rethink that that may not be the most propitious time to move forward. But assuming they do reach a cease-fire, then I think it's probably a safe bet that he will move forward.

Now, the Israelis have threatened to take very strong countermeasures against President Abbas, if he is to go forward with this -- with this. You know, the Palestinian Authority is assured a majority here, so it's not a question if they'll get the votes. One issue in play is whether or not they will get European votes. That's something that the Palestinians very much desire, to give them what they say is -- what they call a moral majority. They think that Europe plays a very important symbolic role, and if they can peel the European opposition, which has been largely the case up until now for this gesture toward them, and then sort of isolate Israel and the United States and a handful of other countries opposing it, that's the Palestinian Authority's dream.

The fear, of course, is that it will precipitate a strong backlash by the Israelis, and the Israeli argument being, well, you can't -- you know, this would be a hostile unilateral act that could force us, the Israelis, to consider aggregating the Oslo Accords or many elements of the Oslo Accords. President Abbas says no, this could be a stepping stone back to negotiated -- to negotiations. And so this is going to be the next diplomatic -- major diplomatic challenge for the United States, once the Gaza -- once the Gaza crisis is put on hold. And how it plays out is, you know, very hard to determine. If Israel does carry forward with very strong punitive measures, it could be very harmful to the Palestinian Authority.

And the problem is that, you know, moving towards the U.N. in late November, a month and a half from an Israeli popular vote, is not very good timing in the Israeli context. So -- and I think that will exacerbate the tendency of Prime Minister Netanyahu to want to stand tough against what's seen as a unilateral action.

The reason this is seen as a hostile action is because what gaining nonmember state status would do is allow the Palestinian Authority to be able to challenge Israel in international fora like the International Criminal Court, and that's Israel's big fear, is that Israeli officials will then be taken to the International Criminal Court and challenged for previous action, and that's anathema to them.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Stewart Ain with New York Jewish Week.

QUESTIONER: I'm just wondering where we really go from here. Do you -- do you see Israel at any point -- and this was given as an option a while ago -- actually going in and destroying Hamas and then letting the PA come in and rule Gaza Strip? Do you see that as any kind of an option?

DANIN: No, in short. (Chuckles.) You know, when Israel initiated Cast Lead in late 2008, early 2009, that was what many Palestinians in the West Bank actually hoped, that Israel would go into Gaza, depose Hamas and then allow the Palestinian Authority to return. Now, that's a very problematic scenario for the Palestinian Authority, because to ride into Gaza on the -- on the heels of a Merkava tank is not exactly the imagery that makes them look like -- very well, because then they look like Israeli, you know, proxies.

But at -- you know, the fact of the matter is, you know, Gaza is extremely densely populated area -- perhaps the highest population density in the world. If Israel were to go in on the ground -- and this is the reason it's so hesitant to do so -- it would entail, you know, a level of violence and casualties to one or both sides, that would be quite horrendous, and Israel doesn't want to do that unless it's utterly avoidable -- unless it's not avoidable, and I don't believe Hamas wants there to be a ground invasion, contrary to some of the arguments that are put forward that Hamas would welcome this.

From my contacts, who are talking to people in the senior levels of Hamas, Hamas is very fearful of an invasion, because they know that they'll pay a very high price, one, and two, the population will pay a very high price and be very resentful at the Palestinian -- at the Hamas leadership for having brought that on. That's why, if the situation, you know, stops today where it is, Hamas can emerge, you know, politically in a strong place. And I think that must be something that is very worrisome to the Palestinian -- to the Israeli leadership, and then that's why you have, you know, some voices in Israel saying no, we need to go in on the ground.

What's been striking is -- and talking to many Israelis, even some who are no fan of the current prime minister, who give the prime minister extremely high marks for his handling of the -- of the crisis so far, extreme judiciousness, they see -- is the perception in Israel, and so Prime Minister Netanyahu's getting very high marks for his handling of the crisis so far, and there's just no stomach to go in and basically do regime change, as you suggest.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Machi Mendoza (ph) with the Energy Intelligence Group. And as a reminder, to ask a question, you can press star, one. Machi (ph), your line is open.

QUESTIONER: Hi, thanks. Just wondering how much impetus do you think this provides to bumping the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to the top of the U.S. foreign policy agenda in the Middle East for the second Obama administration, and perhaps at the expense of diplomacy with Iran, let's say.

DANIN: Well, on the first part of that, I think it will force the United States to think more -- to be more proactive on the peace process. You know, up until now, the situation had been one in which, you know, the prospects for a real breakthrough have not been very promising, and so therefore, the United States has asked itself, well, why should we get involved in something that looks like it can't -- does not have a high prospects of success? The response has been, and as demonstrated by this crisis is, if you don't, the situation deteriorates, and then you have the kind of outbreak of violence that we're seeing now.

All that said, I don't think it can or would, in any way, divert attention from the situation with Iran, which is a strategic issue for the Israelis, for the United States, for the countries in the Gulf. And so there are many in the region who would argue that you need a peace process to help galvanize a coalition against Iran, and that rather than see these as mutually exclusive, that, rather, they complement one another, that an active peace process helps put together a coalition, if you will, that ultimately can stand firm against Iran, either at the negotiating table, but more importantly, you know, should there be -- lead to armed conflict.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Robert Windrem from Fordham School of Law.

QUESTIONER: Good afternoon. One quick question is, we have not heard anything, basically, from Hezbollah on this, and whereas we might not expect to hear from it, I'd just like your analysis of why we haven't, and more importantly, does the success of the Iron Dome dilute what is, essentially, Hezbollah's biggest strategic asset, its stockpile of 40(,000), 47,000 rockets and missiles?

DANIN: Right. Excellent question, and greetings.

QUESTIONER: Greetings.

DANIN: Hezbollah's focus right now is elsewhere. It's with the situation in Syria, it's with the -- its relationship with Iran. And it's ironic that given the instability and unrest in Jordan and now the crisis in Gaza and Egypt that it would be the border with Israel -- between Israel and Lebanon that would be perhaps the most stable fronts for Israel right now. But that's the situation today.

I think that the -- you know, Hezbollah is now the party in -- you know, in control of the government in Lebanon. And so, you know, that has a way of moderating one's behavior as a militant group or as a terrorist organization because they know that if they were to launch rockets now, they'd be taking the Lebanese state to war. And they've done that already, and they -- and Nasrallah paid a very high price politically.

You know, militarily, Iron Dome is not designed to take out long-range rockets, which is what Hezbollah has plenty of. I mean, Israel has in the production phase a different technology that it's -- that's looking to come online that could help address the Hezbollah rocket threat. But my understanding -- and I'm not a military expert -- is that Iron Dome would not be -- would not have the same kind of effectiveness against the -- Hezbollah's missile arsenal, which means that Hezbollah's in a -- in a strong place with its missile arsenal, although Israel has made very clear that if Hezbollah were to employ those weapons, that the Lebanese state will take a significant beating for it. And, you know, politically, it's hard to see how Hezbollah can emerge from that in a better place than it is today. That's point one.

Point two, you know, is again, Hezbollah is, to the extent, you know, focused on Syria. And, you know, what has happened as a result of the violence in Syria is that the -- you know, Hezbollah is in a -- in a very vulnerable position and stands to lose its lifeline to Iran if indeed -- if Bashar al-Assad is toppled and a -- and a, you know, Sunni-led government emerges. So I think Hezbollah's in a very -- in a kind of wait-and-see mode anyway for reasons, you know, exogenous of what's happening on the Israel-Gaza front.

JOHNSON: Can we have the next question?

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Judith Miller with the Manhattan Institute.

QUESTIONER: Hi, Dr. Danin.


QUESTIONER: Good to hear your views on this. Could you talk a little bit about the role of Iran in this -- if any, in this current brush-up? After all, these were Fajr -- Iranian-supplied Fajr missiles that Israel took out. Do you think that Hamas would have permitted the amount of rocket firing had they not had at least the quiet acquiescence of Iran to this activity? And what do you think the impact will be on Iran, if any, of this latest confrontation?

DANIN: Yeah. Well, Hamas' relationship with Iran has undergone a, you know, significant challenge as a result of the violence in Syria. Hamas moving its external leadership away from Damascus was not well-received by the Iranians and not well-regarded. And given that they've moved their headquarters -- well, their headquarters are in flux. Some of them have gone to Doha, some have gone to Egypt. You know, this is seen as a potential loss for the Iranians of the -- you know, from the -- from the Shia umbrella back into the Sunni one.

The missiles were one element of Iran's efforts to curry influence with Hamas, but they by no means had control, and their degree of influence even with Hamas I think has been limited. They've been -- the Iranians are much more -- have much more effect and influence with Palestinian Islamic jihad, which has been their traditional ally in the Palestinian resistance front or whatever you want to call them.

You know -- but you know, so Israel taking out the Fajr rockets, I think, is a setback for Iran because it's -- to the extent that they're -- they did have influence, this has -- this set it back. You know, we also had reports, what, a month ago when Israel struck the -- well, when a factory was struck in Sudan, believed to have been, though neither denied nor confirmed that it was the Israelis, but it's widely believed that the Israelis took it out. And so that was the transit route that we've seen, Iran, Sudan, Egypt into Gaza.

So I think the net -- you know, the net whole is probably a setback for Iran, also the fact of Egypt moving into the fray as a -- as a broker here is, I think, a diplomatic setback for Iran. So I'm not sure that Iran has come out of this very well.

QUESTIONER: Mmm hmm. Thank you.

DANIN: Yeah.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Khaldun Khalil (sp) with SAS Corporation (ph).

QUESTIONER: Hello, gentlemen. Thanks for taking the time. But you know, my question is related to the chance of a ground war in the Gaza and how that might risk Likud's chances in the election. You know, this kind of tit-for-tat bombing at the moment seems to be not hurting them as far as their popularity is concerned, but if Israel was actually move into Gaza, you know, on the ground, that might actually -- I would believe that might have some consequences for Netanyahu's election chances, since it would get a lot more bloody. And as a part to that, as far as the ground war is concerned, would that have any effect on the cohesion of the alliance that is basically maintaining these sanctions on Iran?

DANIN: OK, sure. Well, I think, you know, one of the things that we -- you know, one of the things we're seeing in this operation is that Israel has learned a lot of lessons from its previous Cast Lead operation. And so it's -- without seeing a ground invasion unfold, we don't know what it would look like. I was in Jerusalem heading the Quartet mission for the last one, and you know, clearly, I mean, the Israelis -- the last ground operation in Gaza, which was a limited one and was not a full-scale invasion or a full-scale occupation -- I mean, Israel still incurred relatively low losses, if I'm not mistaken, only in the teens. The Palestinians incurred significant losses.

But that was -- you know, so the Israelis use a very -- a doctrine which really took the fight to the enemy and incurred, you know, the casualties on the -- on the -- on the Palestinian side. The political ramifications of that are then limited as you -- as you -- back in the Israeli political context. You know, I think a ground war -- you know, if the missiles continue, if the rocket fire continues, then Prime Minister Netanyahu will have support for a ground operation.

And again, it all depends on how it goes. If it goes well, then it's -- then it's -- you know, it's probably politically -- you know, it would -- I don't think it would redound to his benefit because he's already -- his standing is already quite high. But you know, it's only if it were to go bad and there were significant Israeli casualties would it have a negative political impact.

You know, but I don't think this is really affecting Netanyahu's decision-making, as I -- as I, you know, mentioned earlier. I mean, I think he's been very calculated. The fact that Israel's gone very slowly up the escalatory ladder suggests to me -- you know, they've been very attuned to keeping international public opinion behind them, and look, not only have they had the United States supporting them, they've had Europe very strongly behind them as well in this operation so far.

Now, if it goes to a ground operation, they'll probably lose some of Europe. And if you start to see significant -- really significant casualties on the ground in Gaza, then they'll lose, you know, even greater support in Europe. And so, you know, war is fought on many fronts. The battlefield is only one of them. The diplomatic arena is another. And Netanyahu's quite aware of that.

But you know, if it were to go to that -- and even in the worst-case scenario, to get to your last question, you know, I think -- it could put pressure -- you know, if we had a situation in which, you know, you had really all-out bloodshed taking place in Gaza and something really horrific, would it affect, you know, the tacit alliance on Iran? I don't think so. Yes, at a rhetorical level, you know, it will be ratcheted up, and states in the Gulf that are, you know, very worried about the Iranian threat will both continue to be concerned about the Iranian threat and maybe feel the need to take a, you know, tougher line against Israel publicly. But I don't think it ultimately would materially affect things.

What it would do is it make it much more complicated for Israel to focus its efforts on a potential, you know, Iranian strike. And so I don't think Israel wants to get bogged down in Gaza because it wants to maintain its freedom of maneuver to deal with larger strategic issues such as Iran.

QUESTIONER: Thank you.

DANIN: Sure.

JOHNSON: Are there any more questions?

OPERATOR: Thank you. There are no further questions.

JOHNSON: I think that's all for today. I would like to thank our senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies, Robert Danin, for taking his time with us today. You can follow Robert on Twitter at robertdanin. You can also read his blog, Middle East Matters. Thank you all for joining us.

DANIN: Thank you, everybody.

More on This Topic