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Israel-Palestinian Crisis Explodes onto Obama's Agenda

Interviewee: Steven A. Cook, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
December 29, 2008

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Steven A. Cook, CFR's leading Middle East expert, says that the latest attacks by Israel against Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip were "not surprising" given the renewed rocket attacks on southern Israel from the Gaza, and the political and military environments in Israel. Cook says "there is not a tremendous amount" either the departing Bush administration or the new Obama one can do right now, but he says the impact the Israeli attacks have on the Middle East as a whole, and the political gains to be made by Iran as a result, force the Obama administration to put the crisis "high on the agenda once the president enters the Oval Office."

Were you surprised by the outbreak of fighting over the weekend in which Israel launched a devastating air attack against Hamas targets in Gaza, killing well over three hundred people, including many civilians, in retaliation for continued rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza? In addition, Israel seems to be signaling a readiness for a ground offensive if necessary.

It is not surprising to me at all given the fact that the cease-fire had come to an end; once it was over in December, Hamas and other militant factions in the Gaza Strip began bombarding Israel with rocket attacks. In the week after the cease-fire ended, Israel absorbed two hundred such attacks. The Israelis were also engaged in their own military operations in the Gaza Strip and West Bank as well. So both parties saw the end coming and quickly took advantage of it. Thus, it really wasn't surprising that the Israelis launched this significant military operation because Hamas had vowed to continue to take attacks to the Israelis.

There have been all kinds of analyses on why the Israelis launched such a major air operation---its largest in many, many years against Palestinians. Some, as the New York Times correspondent in Jerusalem said in the paper today, postulated that the Israelis wanted to compensate for their poor showing in the summer war of 2006 against Hezbollah. Others think that perhaps it was a prelude to the Israeli parliamentary elections in February and others postulated that the Israelis wanted to get the fighting over with before there is a new president in Washington. What do you think?

It is probably a combination of all of those things. I think that first and foremost the primary issue was that Israeli citizens had been under attack. Before the June cease-fire, three thousand rockets had landed on Israel over recent years. No government can abdicate its responsibility to try to protect its citizens under attack. That's first and foremost the reason the Israelis undertook this devastating attack against Hamas' infrastructure and against other militants in the Gaza Strip. But I think secondarily and certainly driving part of this is the fact that Israel's engaged in an election campaign. The coalition led by Ehud Barak, the defense minister and leader of Labor, and Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister and new leader of the Kadima Party, have been criticized from the right by Likud Leader Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister, who is leading in the polls, and who opposed the Gaza withdrawal, which was taken unilaterally by the then Likud Prime Minister Ariel Sharon [and later founder of the Kadima Party]. This gave the ruling coalition the opportunity to demonstrate to the Israeli people their security credentials, that they could be tough. Barak, a former military chief of staff, doesn't really have to do that, although he did preside over the withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, which is now widely regarded as a failure. It remains to be seen how the situation plays out, whether it will help them in the polls. But it would be remiss not to factor Israeli politics into this situation. But I have to emphasize that the real drive here was that Israeli citizens in the south have been under attack for quite some time.

To the other point, that the Israeli Defense Forces wanted to make up for their performance in 2006, certainly senior officers have been looking for opportunities to reestablish Israel's deterrent, something they felt was damaged as a result of the withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and the subsequent withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, because what Hezbollah and Hamas drew from both events was that if we bloody the Israelis enough they'll cut and run. That is a view that is shared by other militant groups throughout the Middle East, and the senior military officers in Israel want to correct that impression. This is also in keeping with standard Israeli military doctrine which is to respond to threats with overwhelming and brutal force.

Let's talk a bit about Hamas' leadership. It seems that they had very little to gain by resuming the rocket attacks on Israel when the cease-fire ended. Are they under pressure to be even more militant than they are? Or is this almost a suicidal wish at work?

Their radicalism serves them well in Palestinian politics. The radicalism within Hamas has become attractive to the Palestinians who support Hamas. If Hamas would not be radical, it would be like Fatah, which it does not want to become. I think that what has happened ---and it is something we perennially misread about Palestinian politics --- is that this is not some sort of suicidal thing, but there was pressure building within the Gaza Strip to do something about the crippling siege that the Israelis had imposed on Gaza. The cease-fire was supposed to allow more goods to enter the Gaza Strip. It happened to some extent, but not as fully as the people there would like. Resistance is a core part of Hamas' world view. In fact that is the meaning of its name, the Islamic Resistance Movement. This garners support for them among Palestinians.

If you read Palestinian press reports or talk to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who have been under siege for quite some time, they say "Well, we are not necessarily supportive of Hamas, but we have to do something to convince the Israelis that we won't be put under siege like this, that we won't be driven off of our land," and that's essentially why Hamas let the cease-fire lapse and didn't demonstrate a tremendous interest in renewing it. Just as there is a political struggle going on in Israel, there is a struggle going on between Hamas and Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader who is president of the Palestinian Authority. The way Palestinian factions demonstrate their nationalist bona fides is often in these violent responses to the Israelis.

Now, Abbas' term in office ends early in January, and what will happen then? Do you know?

It's entirely unclear what's going to happen. There's certainly not enough time to organize elections. Hamas says it will not recognize Abbas as president of the Palestinian Authority after his term runs out. He says he will disband the Palestinian legislature. Hamas says it will not recognize that. So we are at a political standstill here. I must say that the violence is not beneficial to Mahmoud Abbas. It's not because he holds a brief for Hamas, but the scale of the Israeli attacks have created a very difficult political situation for Abbas. He is the one who has staked his political reputation, his political legacy by negotiating with the Israelis to demonstrate that negotiations between the Palestinian Authority that he controls and the Israeli government will bear fruit for the Palestinian people, to get them closer to their ultimate goal of statehood and sovereignty. The Israelis, by unleashing a brutal attack on the Gaza Strip, only weakens Abbas in his call for moderation and negotiation.

This gets us to negotiations. The Bush administration plan to work out an Israeli-Palestinian agreement which was launched with some fanfare last November has run its course with no deal. A new administration led by Barack Obama is coming into office. There were great expectations, particularly in the Middle East, that he would launch a major initiative but no administration can come into office with war going on and expect to do very much at the outset, can it?

Presently, there is not a tremendous amount that the departing Bush administration or the new Obama administration can do. As long as the parties continue to want to fight, there is not a tremendous amount that Washington can accomplish. But the current situation brings to bear just how important this issue is, and how the fact that the Bush administration had really not discovered the issue until very late in the president's term can lead to tremendous crises like this. But I think that this has been such a significant military operation, such a significant step back from the negotiations, that the president-elect and the transition team should be looking for ways to achieve what it had already said it wanted, to make this a priority.

The situation between Israel and Palestine was not good to begin with. It's only worse now and the longer this kind of violence and instability continues, it becomes more difficult for the United States to achieve its goal of ensuring Israeli security through the establishment of a Palestinian state. But it also affects broader American interests ---the instability in Israeli-Palestinian relations provides opportunities for the Iranians to play Arab politics. And when they do that, they necessarily put major Arab interlocutors like Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Jordan on the defensive because Egypt and Jordan have relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia is closely aligned with the United States. Iran can weave a narrative about how the United States and its allies stand by while the Israelis engage in predatory attacks against the Palestinian people. That makes it harder for our allies to help us and it advances Iran's interest in extending its influence throughout the region. On the issue of Palestinian rights and sovereignty and nationhood, the Persian-Arab-Shiite-Sunni divide does not hold. In fact, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the second most popular figure in the Arab world after the Hezbollah leader, [Hassan] Nasrallah.

This situation creates a situation that makes it far more difficult for the United States to achieve its interests in the region. Already, you see the Syrians suspending the indirect peace talks with Israel, through the Turks, which had been promising. Obama has said this would be a priority for the administration. The situation is grave. The situation is dire. In the very short run there is not a tremendous amount to do, but it should be high on the agenda once the president enters the Oval Office.

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