Media Conference Call: Violence in Gaza (Audio)

Media Conference Call: Violence in Gaza (Audio)

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PERATOR:  Excuse me, everyone.  We now have our speakers in conference.  Please be aware that each of your lines is in a listen-only mode.  At the conclusion of today's presentation, we will open the floor for questions.  At that time I would like to give you instructions on how to ask a question.

I'd now like to turn the conference over to Bernard Gwertzman.

BERNARD GWERTZMAN:  Hi, this is Bernard Gwertzman.  I'm consulting editor at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.  Welcome to our phone call discussion.

We have today Steven Cook, who's the Council's senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies, and Dan Senor, who is an adjunct senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies as well.

We're going to be talking about the conflict or the violence in the Gaza Strip which broke out over the weekend.  And I'd like to start with Dan Senor, who's recently come back from Israel, where he's working on a book on the Israeli economy.  Dan's an expert on Israel who, during the early years of the Bush administration, worked with the Provisional Authority in Iraq for a while and has recently joined the Council.

Dan, did you have any premonitions of this Israeli attack when you were in Israel recently?

DAN SENOR:  Yeah, I mean, the Israeli officials I spoke to, there was definitely a sense that action would have to be taken.  The cease-fire looked like it was going to expire.  The question among a number of the officials is obviously when.  And there was, I guess, a consensus that they either had to move very quickly or actually wait a lot of time.

There wasn't a lot of middle ground, simply because the last thing a number of these officials wanted was when President-elect Obama is sworn in, the first thing on his welcome mat is this incursion into Gaza.  It wouldn't be good for Israel and it wouldn't be good for President Obama's new administration in the sense it wasn't in anybody's interest.

So either move immediately or wait some time, so this isn't the first event that the Obama administration is contending with, and waiting some time could have been four, six or eight months.  And the sense was it just wasn't sustainable to wait that long, given the pace at which the violence, the rocket delivery, was escalating.

GWERTZMAN:  Steve, how much do you think this attack was also inspired by the fact that the Israeli parliamentary elections take place in February, and the ruling coalition has been accused of being a little soft on the violence?

STEVEN COOK:  Well, I think, without a doubt, it was a factor.  But as Dan pointed out, you know, the intensity of the violence as the cease-fire unwound -- 200 attacks on the Israelis in the first week alone -- made securing or trying to secure Israel's southern communities the first and foremost issue in the minds of the Israeli government.  They were under tremendous pressure prior to the June 18th cease-fire to do something, even militarily to do something about it.  Once the rocket fire returned, that political pressure returned immediately as well.

But you cannot look at the situation without looking at the context in which it is taking place.  Ehud Barak is the leader of the Labour Party.  Tzipi Livni is the leader of the Kadima Party.  They are contending for the prime ministership against Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposed the Gaza withdrawal, who has been attacking them from the right on security issues.

This does -- it is cynical, but it does provide an opportunity for both Livni and Ehud Barak to strengthen their security credentials.  You would think that Barak would need it, having been the most decorated soldier in the history of the IDF, but he did preside over Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, which, in hindsight to many in the IDF senior command and many Israelis in general, damaged Israel's deterrent.  And as a result, he needs to build his credibility back.  And this is presenting an opportunity for him to do it.

SENOR:  I would add something to that, Bernie.  Livni -- it's interesting; Livni, obviously, was a member of Prime Minister Sharon's government, which was the government that decided to withdraw from Gaza.  And there were bitter debates within that cabinet about issues like should the Israelis withdraw from the Philadelphia corridor, which is the corridor between Egypt and Gaza, and some were saying, "Look, if we're going to do disengagement from Gaza, we shouldn't leave this corridor, because Hamas and other terror groups can smuggle weapons from Egypt into Gaza."

And Sharon and senior members of the government ultimately decided, "If we're going to do disengagement, if we're going to do withdrawal, we've got to do it completely."  And they withdrew from the Philadelphia corridor, which many in Israel believe is a big part of the problem that Israel is contending with right now, which is the amount of weapons and personnel and resources they've been able to smuggle through there.

So Livni carries a lot of the Gaza disengagement, not just the last Lebanon war that she carries; it's also the disengagement strategy and the way it was executed that could be a political burden for her too, particularly running against Netanyahu, who, as Steve said, was opposed to withdrawal.

COOK:  Yeah, and Bernie, just quickly, one more thing -- I know you want to get to other questions -- Livni was in Cairo this week.  And Israeli leaders tend to, when they go to Cairo, be quite deferential to their Egyptian counterparts.  But she publicly rebuffed Mubarak's calls for restraint.  And this, again, was demonstrating to this Israeli public that Livni, you know, despite the legacy of the Lebanon war and the Gaza withdrawal, which Netanyahu is trying to hang around her neck, can be tough as well.

GWERTZMAN:  How did the -- Dan, again, how did the Lebanon war of 2006 factor into all this?

SENOR:  Well, there are a number of ways.  Specifically related to the last question you asked, with regard to Barak, he has -- on the one hand, he has something to gain here politically.  He's running third, a distant third, in the polls right now in Israel.  And so there's a lot he can gain here if his reforms are executed well.  There's also a lot he can lose.  I mean, if this starts to look like another Lebanon situation, Barak really is done.

GWERTZMAN:  I might point out, he was not defense minister.

SENOR:  He was not, no.  But nonetheless, under his watch, this thing is -- this is his operation.  And if it goes poorly, he has a lot to lose here politically.  Other than that, I mean, the big dilemma among the Israelis is how do you define an end game here.  How does this end?  What are the objectives?

And if you look at the words they're choosing, they're choosing their statements very carefully.  Remember, the Lebanon war, they talked about wiping out Hezbollah.  They set what we now know were extremely unrealistic expectations.  And they used very sort of far-reaching, sweeping language in defining what they were going to accomplish.

They're not saying that now.  In fact, Barak just, I think, in the last 24 hours, his exact words were something like, "We are going to change the security situation.  We are going to, you know, beat down Hamas.  And it will take as long as it takes."  But he put in some qualifier.  "But we expect that as tough as we beat them down, there will be a rocket that flies from Gaza the day after this incursion ends," meaning this is dramatically different in terms of tone from Lebanon, which is, "This isn't going to end the Hamas problem."  And they used language like this was going to end the Hezbollah problem in the last war, and they're not doing that.

GWERTZMAN:  Now, I'll ask this; either one of you can answer this.  There's been a lot of interest, particularly in the American press, and I'm sure in Europe as well, in the Middle East on the apparent buildup of Israeli ground forces along the Gaza border.  In fact, reporters are not allowed within two miles of that area right now.  Do you expect there may be a ground intervention?

COOK:  Bernie, I'm not -- as you know, not a guns-and-trucks military analyst.  But it seems to me that the air strikes, to the extent that they are either successful or unsuccessful in suppressing rocket fire into Israel, will determine whether the Israelis commit ground forces.

This can be seen in a broad way that the kind of wide-scale attacks as a way of knocking Hamas back on its heels, making it that much more difficult for them to fight the Israelis should there be a need for a ground invasion.  The Israelis, I know when I was there last June, were quite concerned about the buildup of not just the rockets in Gaza but the kinds of things that Hamas has learned from the experience in Iraq -- improvised explosive devices, armor-piercing types of explosive devices along roadways that could kill Israeli tanks, those kinds of things.  So I think the Israelis are taking great care to kind of soften up the Gaza Strip should they need to commit those forces.

I would expect that air power alone is not going to be able to suppress the rocket fire.  And Dan said that they are, you know, managing expectations.  But again, you know, politics can come and take over here.  This has become an extraordinarily contentious issue in Israeli domestic politics.  And it's incumbent upon the Israeli government and the IDF to do something about these attacks.  And that may very well result in Israeli tanks and troops in the Gaza Strip.

Now, of course, they don't want to take over the Gaza Strip.  They do not want to return to those 38 years of occupation.  What I think the Israelis would prefer to do is to foist Gaza onto the Egyptians, something the Egyptians are likely to resist.  But nevertheless, when Hamas breached that border last January, Israeli officials were open -- some Israeli officials were openly suggesting this was the solution to the problem, which is it would become an Egyptian issue.

SENOR:  Bernie, just on that, I mean, there's three end games, right -- I mean, here.  One is just to bloody Hamas; two is overthrow of Hamas; and three is reoccupation of Gaza.  I think Steve's right.  I mean, the one thing Israel doesn't want to do is reoccupy Gaza.

In terms of the domestic political pressure, there is strong support for this operation across left and right.  I mean, it's pretty amazing, they held a Press conference -- the government held a Press conference the other day that included Olmert and Livni and Barak standing together -- even two of the three are competitors for prime minister, and really standing there as a national unity government.

But, Netanyahu has issued a statement, obviously supporting the operation; so does the leader of left wing Meretz Party, Haim Oron, has endorsed this.  So, you have -- there is, I mean, this is the, this is the biggest operation in Gaza by the Israelis really since, you know, 1967, and it has strong support across the board, which is important.

GWERTZMAN:  All right, I'm ready to throw it open to questions.  At this time we will open the floor for questions.

OPERATOR:  If you would like to ask a question, please press the "*," followed by "1" key on your touch-tone phone now.  Questions will be taken in the order in which they are received.  If at any time you'd like to remove yourself from the questioning queue, please press "*2."  Again, it is "*1" to ask a question.

And our first question comes from Mark Lander, The New York Times.

QUESTIONER:  Good afternoon.

A question for either of you:  Do we have any kind of a sense for whether the -- a little more about the rockets that Hamas is using?  Is there evidence that their weaponry is more sophisticated than it had been in the past?  And if so, is there any discussion in Israel of whether Hamas if getting support either from the Syria, the Iranians, anything like that?

GWERTZMAN:  Dan, you want to take that?

SENOR:  I mean, I don't have first-hand information on this, but a number of the Israelis I've spoken to think that there's obviously equipment coming through Egypt, but sources include Syria and Iran.  You know, in terms of defining what's coming from where, I just -- I don't have that information first-hand.

COOK:  Well, also just a description of these rockets.  Where previously we heard about Qassam rockets -- which are, kind of, homemade rockets, now we're hearing about Katyushas and Grad rockets.  It doesn't make them any more, you know, sophisticated in terms of their accuracy.  But, they certainly have a longer range than these Qassam rockets that, you know, only had a range of a number of miles.

The fact that you now have rockets landing as far as Ashdod, and Ashkelon, and there's some concern about Be'er Sheva as well, which suggest that Hamas, and other factions that are using these rockets, are getting them from outside and not just manufacturing them within the Gaza Strip.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.

Our next question comes from Andrew Schneider, from Kiplinger.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.  And this is also for either of you.

Throughout the last several months and over the course of the presidential campaign, President-Elect Obama made a point of saying that he felt the U.S. should be more directly involved in any negotiations with the peace process, and gave ample signs of doing so.  Once he does take office, given that, as he said, that part of the concern here was avoiding having this be the first thing on his plate, how is this likely to affect the incoming administration's options for dealing with the Mideast?

GWERTZMAN:  Dan, you want to take that?

SENOR:  Yeah, I think the whole notion of a Two-state solution, as far as the Israelis are concerned, is on the line right now.  What I mean by that, if Israelis can't be convinced that the U.S. and the international community will "let" them, if you will, defend against Gaza, then I think the West and the international community can forget about a serious process that would also involve disengagement from the West Bank.

I mean, the ability for terrorist organizations to launch attacks against population and industrial centers in Israel from the West Bank is far easier than from Gaza.  So, if Israel cannot be, you know, "allowed," if you will, to solve their Gaza problem, I think the Israelis' attitude is -- the leaders, at least, attitude is:  forget about trying to convince the Israeli people that we can do something on the West Bank.

And so I think that is the -- that is the posture the Israelis are going to take with regard to the Obama administration.  'You have these grand designs, you have these big hopes for a very direct, robust process, but before you begin that you have to let us take care of this operation and give us a lot of space to do it.  If you don't, all your grand designs sound wonderful, but we'll never be able to convince our public to participate.'


QUESTIONER:  Steve, you think any possibility the U.S. might end its boycott of Hamas?

COOK:  No, I don't think so, not at this point.  You know, it's clear that when it comes to the boycott of Hamas, the Bush administration -- and I think it's likely that any U.S. administration is going to follow the Israeli lead; of course the Israelis were involved in indirect negotiations with Hamas via the Egyptian intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman -- but at this point, with the Israelis and Hamas basically engaged in low-level warfare, I don't see the prospects for a serious dialogue between the United States and Hamas.

And, of course, the narrative in the Arab world is that the United States is complicit in the killing of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip this week, so it's not at all clear that Hamas would be amendable at this point to talks with the United States.  I certainly -- you know, one thing that Dan said I think is worth emphasizing here is that, as long as there are rockets landing on Israeli territory from Gaza, it's impossible for the Israeli public to think about a withdrawal from the West Bank.

Just, you know, the idea that Israel's major international airport and its major population centers would be in range of these types of rockets is unthinkable from the Israeli perspective.  And it complicates this issue of Two-state solution, which is actually necessary for Israel's long-term security.

GWERTZMAN:  Next question.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.

Our next question comes from Paul Richter, from Los Angeles Times.

QUESTIONER:  Yes, I wonder if you all would speak about how this looks from George Bush's viewpoint right now?  He has preferred, over the last eight years, not to have to, you know, pressure Israel to do anything when the Israeli security is on the line.  So far, he's siding strongly with the Israelis.  Is there anything that you see that could happen that might cause him to shift position to intervene here more forcefully?


COOK:  Well, given the president's record on this, I don't really see that, unless there is some sort of, you know, major catastrophe where, you know, we have an escalation -- a number of lives lost are, you know, are a degree in factor greater than what they are.  But, I think the president has been steadfast in his support for the Israelis in stating that, you know, Hamas -- the blame for this lies with Hamas, and Hamas' rocket firing has got to stop in order for the Israelis to stop.

But, I don't really see anything that is going to -- that is going to alter the administration's position on it.  There was the Press conference with the spokesman from the National Security Council this morning who reiterated the administration's position that they support Israel on this, and they see Hamas as the party that needs to come to heel before this military operation can be wound down.

SENOR:  I would just add, I mean, it is true that the administration has had a very supportive position with Israel -- to Israel, in the situations over the last eight years.  However I would break it down slightly, because I think the second term is a little different from the first term.

In the second term you've seen strong statements like this in the past by President Bush, particularly during the Lebanon war in the summer of 2006, but then at the same time you see -- I don't want to say a different strategy, or different statements, but you know, Secretary Rice being a little more forward-leaning in pressuring the Israelis while these strong statements are coming out of the White House.

And I actually expect, over the next couple of weeks -- which is all that's left, the same thing to happen.  In fact, from what I understand, Secretary Rice has communicated to the Israelis that if they are -- if the administration is going to stand with the Israelis through this, they need a few things from the Israelis:  One, is clear exit strategy; two, clear objectives and a timeframe; and three, no mistakes -- nothing like the, you know, -- (inaudible) -- Qana, which, you may remember, that involved a lot of civilian casualties in the Second Lebanon War.

The challenge this creates a little bit of a tension, though, with Barak's strategy, because Barak does want to provide a timeframe.  He doesn't want to provide crystal clear objectives --

GWERTZMAN:  This is Defense Minister Barak, okay.

SENOR:  Yes, Defense Minister Ehud Barak does not want to do those things, precisely to avoid what he believes were the mistakes of the Second Lebanon War, which is, as I said earlier, being too explicit up front about what they were going to achieve.

GWERTZMAN:  All right.  Next question.

OPERATOR:  Okay, our next question comes from Jim Lope (sp), from Enterprise Service (sp).

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  Actually, I just wanted to follow up on a couple:

I wondered if Steve could more directly address the possible consequences of what's going on to -- on Obama's hopes and plans, as enunciated during the campaign.

And also, with respect to Barak's war aims, I know until today they were quite specific, but my understanding is, in talking to the Knesset today he talked about war -- quote, "war to the bitter end against Hamas."  And at least the media reports suggest that he's greatly broadened the goal.  And Deputy Prime Minister Ramon said that the goal of the operation is to topple Hamas.  I wondered how you thought the consequences of this broadening of the goals might be.  And also, any regional -- broader regional consequences that you think might --

GWERTZMAN:  You've got a lot on your agenda today!

QUESTIONER:  I know!  I'm trying to get as much in as I can.

COOK:  Let me try to take that from the back end back up to America policy.

I think clearly, the regional consequences are, I think, immediately there is the risk at least of possible conflict in the north.  What people forget about the July 2006 war is that it began by Hezbollah trying to distract the Israelis and open a second front, as the Israelis were engaged in military operations in the Gaza Strip trying to free Corporal Gilad Shalit.  And Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah has made some from very strident statements today.

So that should be at least a cause for concern on the part of the Israelis and the United States.  But I think more broadly for the region, it's abundantly clear that there is a tremendous gap between that mythic Arab Street, which to some extent does exist, and the governments in the region.

And the governments in the region -- specifically Egypt -- is no friend of Hamas, deeply distrustful of Hamas, sees Hamas as a security threat, yet the Egyptian people and the Arab world writ large are generally supportive of Hamas.  And this creates a significant problems for them and puts Arabs leaders on the defensive.

Added to that is that it also -- these kinds of -- this crisis provides opportunity for the Iranians to get involved and to advance their interests and their influence in the region by weaving a narrative that governments like the Egyptian government, the Jordanian government, the Saudi government that have good relations with the United States -- and in the case of the Jordanians and the Egyptians have peace treaties with the Israelis -- are essentially complicit in not only undermining the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people, but are complicit in the murder of the Palestinians.

And when it comes to this issue of Palestinians and Israelis, those kinds of sectarian, ethnic, national differences tend to melt away and people coalesce around this issue of the Palestinians.  And Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah; and Ahmadinejad are number one and two the most popular figures in the Arab world.  So there is a significant downside risk for the governments in the region, for the United States and for the Israelis on that score.

As far as Barak broadening the goals of the operations, you know, one thing about Ehud Barak -- he's a very smart character and likes to keep things close to his vest and doesn't like to let on exactly what he's doing.  That is one of the problems that occurred in the July 2000 Camp David negotiations.  And so I don't think you can really read into what he was saying in the Knesset.  And I think developments on the battlefield will dictate how this operation unfolds.

Remember, once again, even though he has said while this operation goes on, he is not engaged in any kind of electoral politics and so on and so forth, he is still the leader of the Labor Party and is still going to be running in the February 10th elections.  So standing in the podium in the Knesset and saying, "We are going to fight Hamas to the bitter end" warms the cockles of many Israelis who are deeply, deeply concerned about their country being under attack -- an organization that has vowed to destroy Israel.

On the consequences for the president-elect's plans, I'm a little reluctant to discuss the president-elect's plans, because I'm not a member of the transition.  But I would say that it clearly, clearly complicates any effort to engage in a vigorous diplomatic effort, because the Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip has necessarily weakened Mahmoud Abbas, who has staked his political legacy and his vision of the Palestinians finally achieving their rights on negotiation with the Israelis.  And it's hard to negotiate with the Israelis as they are attacking the Gaza Strip or had just completed attacking the Gaza Strip, in an unprecedented since 1967 type of military operation.

GWERTZMAN:  Dan, do you want take a crack at this?

SENOR:  I mean, I agree with what Steve said.

I would just add, you know, what the Israelis keep pointing to is something that Barack Obama said when he was visiting Israel in July and when he went to Sderot.  And his exact quote was, "If somebody was hitting rockets into my house where my two daughters were asleep at night, I would do everything to stop that and would expect Israel to do the same thing."

And so the Israelis are sort of holding that up and saying, well, we're doing what many people who, if they were in our shoes, would be doing -- including the next president.

GWERTZMAN:  Interesting.

All right, next question.

OPERATOR:  Our next question comes from Warren Strobel from McClatchy Newspaper.


I spent a little bit of time this morning rereading the glowing things that Ariel Sharon and George W. Bush said about Gaza disengagement in 2004 and 2005.

I'm wondering if both of you -- either of you -- could spend a little more time talking about what went wrong in terms of both Israeli actions in terms of choking off Gaza to some extent; obviously Hamas's actions.  And does it -- the failure of the unilateral option that Sharon put forward -- say anything about strategies for the future in terms of peacemaking.


SENOR: Yeah, I'd say a few things.

I mean, one, I think one: It's easy for me to say one mistake, one issue that many people will point to as a major mistake was this issue I talked about before, which if you're going to do disengagement, still figure out a way to secure the border, which they didn't really do with the Gaza disengagement.  That, I think, people point to as one of the critical factors.

I would say, two -- and this is part of a broader discussion -- was the manner in which, you know, some would argue that both the U.S. and Israel allowed Hamas to consolidate its power in the territory -- specifically in Gaza; how they managed to run in an election where they could actually, you know, attain electoral power in the first place, which under previous peace accords they should never have been -- a political party that didn't accept the Oslo Accords and recognition of the state of Israel's right to exist should never have been allowed to participate in an election.

The fact that they were able to gain political ascendance through the ballot box and then further, you know, confront Fatah and consolidate their power violently was a huge mistake and should have been dealt with early on.


COOK:  Well, I think certainly on this point of allowing Hamas to consolidate its power, the elections in January 2006 were something that almost everybody counseled the Bush administration against.  Yet, it was a need on the part of the administration to demonstrate that the resources being spent in Iraq was really, truly having a transformational effect throughout the region.  So the administration went ahead with those elections.

There's another problem with the Gaza withdrawal and that is the Israelis have been in this back-and-forth, tug-of-war conversation argument with the Egyptians over the Egyptian presence in Gaza and the Egyptian responsibility to stop the smuggling in Gaza.

Now, the Egyptians have been pitiful in trying to put these things to an end, although we've been helping them on it technically.  And they have about 750 specially trained border policemen along there and they claim they need another 750.  And the Israelis say, no.  They can do 750 and they want to -- you know, some skeptical Israelis believe that, you know, the additional 750 begins this slippery slope of the remilitarization of Sinai.

I think that the Israelis should have been more forthcoming in allowing more Egyptian border guards along there.  They could have, with American help, made a difference.  You're never going to stop the smuggling.  The smuggling has been going on for a very, very long time.  But the Egyptians could have made at least a certain amount of difference.  Seven hundred and fifty sounds like a lot, but the Egyptians don't have Halliburton cooks and so on and so forth, so it's actually a much smaller number and they could have used more personnel on that border.  And again, with our technical assistance, it could have made somewhat of a difference on the question of bringing rocket components into the Gaza Strip.


OPERATOR:  Our next question comes from Jonathan Broder from Congressional Quarterly.

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  This is for both of you.

From the sound of what both of you are saying, it sounds like Obama is not going to have much leverage or much influence on any sort of effort to bring about a cease fire, if this thing is still going on when he takes office.


COOK:  Well, you know, I think that the Israelis are trying to do everything they can to ensure that they have political cover from the Obama administration.  That's why the Israeli embassy in Washington today released video of the president-elect saying that if, you know, rockets were falling on his house and threatening his daughters, he would defend himself as well.

But I think there's something to what Dan has said about the fact that they don't -- the Israelis don't want to greet the president-elect with this problem to be the first thing when he enters the Oval Office.  And there's something to be said for the reason why they did this now, besides the fact that they were confronted with 200 rockets falling on them in the first week since the end of the cease-fire.

But remember, Obama was -- had an overwhelming victory.  He has a vision for how he wants to deal with this problem; he has said it is going to be a priority.  And just because this has happened -- even though I said, look, when the dust settles this is going to be a more complicated issue than ever before, there is going to be an opportunity for the Obama administration to engage more -- in a more vigorous diplomatic effort than his predecessor.

I think that the way people have looked at this is that the Bush administration's relative neglect of this situation over the course of its first six and a half years in office have led to these types of crises.  And the Obama administration would like to avoid them, because it only serves to complicate America's efforts in other parts of the Middle East.

So I wouldn't go so far as to say that it compromises the president-elect's leverage.  I think he'll have significant leverage, as someone who was elected with an overwhelming victory, popular around the world, there's great expectations.

They don't want to pick a fight with Obama from the get-go.  That would -- that wouldn't bode well for Israel and it wouldn't bode well for whoever becomes the Israeli -- the next Israeli prime minister, because the relationship with the United States is in many ways an existential issue for the Israelis.

GWERTZMAN:  All right.  The next question?

OPERATOR:  Our next question comes from Clarissa Kretikin (ph) from ABC News.

QUESTIONER:  Actually, it's Lara Setrakian, but -- it's close.  The network's right.

I wanted to ask, actually, the Jordanian-Hamas relationship has been growing stronger over the past few months.  The Jordanians seem to be cultivating that relationship, whether for strategic or domestic political reasons.

Is that being noticed in Israel, and is that going to complicate the Jordanian-Israeli relationship?


SENOR:  I would actually defer to Steve on that.  I --

GWERTZMAN:  All right.

COOK:  Well, look, the -- as the situation goes in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, so goes the tactical maneuverings of a variety of Arab governments.  And King Abdullah in Jordan faces considerable difficulties in managing a very large Palestinian population and a growing support for Hamas in the region, as well as his own country.

So this is a certain amount of hedging on the part of King Abdullah, should things end quite badly, even before -- as you pointed out, even before these recent hostilities.  But this is, in his way, which is taking a page directly from his father's playbook, in trying to hedge and protect his monarchy.

I don't think that it's terribly surprising and I think that the Israelis are particularly sensitive to the kind of political constraints and cross-cutting pressures that their Jordanian counterparts confront.  I don't think there's a tremendous amount of concern on their part about those overtures.

SENOR:  I would just add to that there is no leader in the Arab world who has the kind of direct -- at least among Israel's immediate neighbors -- that has the kind of direct conduit, direct line of communication to the Israelis, even while he's hedging, like Steve said, with Hamas -- which is, true, right out of his father's playbook.

So he's got closer relationships with the Israelis than even the Egyptians do, that have a peace treaty that goes way back.  He's very clever at nurturing relations on both sides.


OPERATOR:  Our next question comes from Paul Osgood, from Executive Intelligence Reports.

QUESTIONER:  It's Carl Osgood, but that's okay.  Thank you.

Could you -- either of you address the implications for the -- for negotiations between Israel and Syria?  It seems to me that the Syria track was on the verge of a breakthrough last week, but now it appears that there's no way this can go forward as long as the operation goes on in Gaza.

Can either of you address that?

COOK:  Sure.  In fact, the Syrians have announced that they're suspending those indirect negotiations.  So whatever progress has been made -- perhaps it'll still be there when they find their way back, through the good offices of the Turks.  But right now it's an untenable situation for the Syrians to continue -- those negotiations.

SENOR:  And I would just add that the Hamas office in Damascus, from what I understand and what the Israelis are reporting, was obviously in very close contact with Assad over this entire -- these sets of developments.  And that Assad was advising Hamas not to extend the cease-fire.

And the Israelis themselves regard Assad as -- not directly complicit in the escalation of violence and the failure to extend the cease-fire, but certainly an advocate for it.

GWERTZMAN:  That's interesting.  (Inaudible) -- never heard that.

Okay, next question.

OPERATOR:  Our next question comes from Francine Kiefer, from the Christian Science.

QUESTIONER:  The Christian Science Monitor.

I had a question about the internal politics on the Palestinian side.  How big of a deal is it that Abbas technically should have his term over next month, and there's disagreement about when elections should be, and so on.

Can you address that and how that might bear on this situation?

SENOR:  Steve?

COOK:  Sure.  Well, this has been a contentious issue.

Abbas's term runs out, I believe it's January 8th or January 9th, and obviously there has been no effort to organize elections.  And Hamas has said that it would not -- it would no longer recognize, to the extent that it (could ?), Mahmoud Abbas as the Palestinian president.  He has, in turn, countered that he'll dissolve the Palestinian Legislative Council.

So I think the implication is that not only will you have potentially turmoil and chaos in Gaza as a result of the military operations, but the unsettled political situation in the West Bank as well will further complicate the position of Mahmoud Abbas, who is already weak, dependent upon the good will of the United States and the security provided to him by the Israel defense forces.

And it's not at all clear whether, without those things, in a period of tension between the Palestinian Authority -- (inaudible) -- the West Bank and a time of warfare between the Palestinian Authority and the Gaza Strip that Abbas can maintain the position that he's in.

GWERTZMAN:  Dan, do you have anything to add on that?

SENOR:  (Inaudible.)

GWERTZMAN:  Next question.

OPERATOR:  Our next question comes from Andrea Murtha (sp) from Aloha -- (inaudible).

QUESTIONER:  Hello, can you hear me?

MR.    :  Yeah.

QUESTIONER:  (Inaudible) -- actually.

I hope I'm not being repetitive.  I just wondered what signs, if any, can you see from the Obama team that his approach would be any different from what Bush's approach has been so far.  It seems that many analysts think that the hardliners have won the battle of influence within the Obama team, at least at this point.

And what could he do, in fact, to avoid the mistakes of the Bush administration?

GWERTZMAN:  Dan, do you want to take a crack at that?

SENOR:  Yeah.  The question of whether or not the hardliners have won or the -- I think it's too early to make that -- to draw that conclusion.

I would come back to something I said earlier, though, is that the Israelis plan to set this up as -- if  -- any hopes you, the Obama administration, have for any real engagement to facilitate a two-state solution must be on hold until this operation is done.

If this operation cannot go through as we see fit, as we think it is necessary and the way we think it must be done, we will never be able to bring the Israeli public on board with what you are advocating.  That is how the Israelis are setting this up, and --

Whether or not that resonates with the hardliners or the softliners in the Obama administration, I think the two-state -- a permanent two-state solution is very important to the Obama administration.  I think it's a high priority.

I think they intend to expend significant political capital internationally and domestically on it.  But they're not foolish.  They're not going to do it if they believe that it's going to get zero traction within Israel.

And if the Israelis can make a persuasive case that that is the case, that it will get zero traction inside Israel unless they do what they need to do in Gaza, I think that has resonance with hardliners, softliners, with people who are experienced, seasoned observers of the region.

GWERTZMAN:  Steve, anything to add?

COOK:  Well, yeah.  I think that's right.

Look, to the extent that a -- an administration wants to ahead with negotiations on the Palestinian issue and an Israeli government is reluctant to, there's always going -- there's going to end up to be -- being friction between the two governments.

I wouldn't -- I think that the Obama administration-to-be's vision of rigorous and vigorous diplomatic engagement on the issue remains intact.

I think it's much complicated as a result of this week's events, but nevertheless I think that, provided that they see an opportunity to make a difference and that they have the Israelis and Palestinians on board to move negotiations forward, that they'll do it, but if the parties don't want to go forward, it seems hard to believe that the president-elect will choose that route, because in the end he won't achieve anything.

I find this whole thing about hardliners in the president-elect's team rather curious because I think that there is an agreement that he has set the tone and the vision for the administration, and when he presented his national security team, he clearly outlined that the Israeli-Palestinian issue was going to be a priority for his administration.  If there's nothing to be gained from it, then my assumption is that they will look for opportunities down the road in which they can make a difference, but in fact, the Israelis, the Palestinians, the Egyptians, the Jordanians, the Saudis, every one are going to be looking to this administration, to the United States to help stabilize this situation.  As I said, it's complicated and it's going to be a long and difficult process, but nevertheless, I don't think there's a way that the Obama administration can just totally avoid the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

GWERTZMAN:  Next question?  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Garrett Mitchell from Mitchell Report.

QUESTIONER:  Thanks.  A two-part question, I think.  What did Hamas hope to gain by starting this fight?  What were its strategic aims?  And have they or will they -- have they or will they have gotten something along those lines?  And, concomitantly, what would motivate Assad -- Musharaff to be complicit in this and to recommend to Hamas that they not honor the ceasefire and take this action?


SENOR:  Look, there's the sort of stated objectives, or the short-term objectives that Hamas has -- or officials within Hamas have talked about, which include loosening the ease of entry from Gaza into Israel and back and forth, and ease within movement within the territories broadly, and there are a number of these various issues.

I would lift the lens up a little bit, though, with regard to Assad and with regard to Hamas and with regard to large parts -- swaths of the Arab world.  I think there is a growing sense that Israel's deterrent capability is substantially weakened and Israel is -- the Arab world, or enemies within the Arab world are not as intimidated by Israel as they used to be in the beginning of that process, or I would say the middle of that process with the second Lebanon war, and that many view this as another stage in that process, which is continuing to weaken Israel's deterrent capability, continuing to weaken the perception that Israel cannot be challenged.  And whatever the different narrow interests are of the different governments within the region, whether it's some sort of diplomatic track like the Syrians are on via the Turks, or whether a much more confrontational process like Hezbollah has been at the forefront of, all of them share -- have an interest in seeing the perception and the real deterrent capability of Israel weakened, and I think this is part of that process.

COOK:  Let me just add, I think there's something to that on this question of, you know, perceiving the weakness of Israel, because just like in July 2006, you get the sense from the statements coming out of the Gaza Strip that the Palestinian leadership are quite surprised by this rather significant military operation that the Israelis have undertaken.  I don't think that they were expecting this kind of response at all.  Previously the Israelis had used, you know, artillery pieces in very kind of controlled, restricted ways, and the Israelis have just kind of -- all bets are off, and have really undertaken something to take Hamas down.

But in terms of Hamas's strategic aims, I think that there's something to internal Palestinian politics here.  The negotiations with Abbas were going on.  It's been very difficult for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.  Hamas feeds off of its very radicalism, and it is something that the Israelis miscalculate over and over and over again, which is that the Palestinian tend to coalesce around that party that is under attack.  And so, Hamas, needing this kind of domestic boost -- they were losing their grip on Gaza -- sought to bulk up its kind of nationalist, radical bona fides here, and how do Palestinian factions do that?  It's essentially a race to the bottom.  Palestinian factions demonstrate that they are nationalist by engaging in violence against the Israelis, and that's something that you cannot dismiss in this situation.

Now, on Assad -- you know, if this is in fact true.  Dan is hearing this from Israeli officials and there's no reason to doubt them, but, again, you do have to take some things that the Israelis say with a grain of salt.  If this is in fact true, it's not terribly surprising.  It's in keeping with patterns of Syrian behavior, which is to be forthcoming in certain areas in order to kind of keep the wolves, as the Syrians see it, at bay while retaining certain features of their policy and policy instruments so that they can continue to be up to no good and cover their flanks in that way.

So it's perfectly reasonable, from a Syrian perspective, to be engaged in indirect negotiations with the Israelis while at the same time encouraging Hamas to break the ceasefire and start attacking the Israelis once again.  From Damascus's perspective, this may make the Israelis even more pliant and more willing to make concessions to them.

SENOR:  And I would just add, on Steve's point about how Hamas was totally caught off guard by the fierceness and the high voltage dimension of this incursion, I also think everyone was caught off guard by the sophistication of the disinformation campaign that the Israelis were engaged in in the lead-up to the incursion -- I mean, just things that seem small but are important.  The Israelis had sort of stoked a debate inside Israel about whether or not the army was, you know, up to this -- should they do this, shouldn't they do this -- and there was like sort of a big debate about whether or not it made sense, and pros and cons, and it they conveyed a sense, I think quite effectively, that there was just like a serious discussion in Israel about it, but, you know, far be it from anything really well organized and ready to implement immediately.  And given the hangover from the second Lebanon war, it was understandable to Arab observers of Israel -- or those observers of the territories -- how difficult this decision would be for Israel in light of the second Lebanon war, so they weren't going to just rush into it, and certainly if they were just in discussion-and-debate mode, an operation wasn't imminent.

Secondly, you know, Friday night Ehud Barak went on the equivalent of sort of Israel's "Saturday Night Live," a comedy show -- which he's a pretty serious guy; it's not the kind of thing he typically does -- and when he was on that show he had already authorized the operation, which was to begin, you know, within hours.  Again, the idea of the defense minister sitting there yukking it up on a comedy show would lead many to believe that the defense minister probably wasn't in the midst of planning and authorizing a major incursion.

So there's a number of things the Israelis did that they hadn't done, at least in the recent past, that really caught Hamas off guard.

GWERTZMAN:  Next question.  We're reaching near the end.

OPERATOR:  Our next question comes from Jacob Goodwin from Government Security News.

QUESTIONER:  Good afternoon.  What is the possibility that even if there is a ceasefire negotiated between Hamas and Israel that there will be non-Hamas freelance-type extremist groups in Gaza that will continue to launch rockets against the communities in Israel?

SENOR:  It's a very, very good chance.  In many ways the ceasefire that General Omar Suleiman negotiated -- spent a long time negotiating and finally got an agreement to last June -- was predicated on the idea that Hamas, being the strongest faction in the Gaza Strip, could control Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and prevent them from launching rockets into Israel.  After this episode, the leadership of Hamas will neither have the capacity to do that, nor, one suspects, be amendable to controlling other factions, given that they've vowed revenge against the Israelis.  So I think it's certainly a strong possibility.

GWERTZMAN:  Okay.  Next question?

OPERATOR:  Our next question comes from Paul Starobin from National Journal.

QUESTIONER:  Yes, Steve, following on what you just said about Israel's tending to miss the Palestinian tendency to rally behind the group offering the most robust challenge to Israel, so does this look to you basically like another Israeli miscalculation?

COOK:  Well, it's hard to say that it's a miscalculation.  We haven't seen the end quite yet.  And the Israelis were in a very difficult position with the political pressure building to do something.  You know, what government would allow their communities to be attacked by rocket fire incessantly and do very little about it?  But there is that possibility that in the end this will strengthen Hamas in the eyes of many Palestinians.  If you pay attention to the Palestinian press and kind of talk to Palestinians -- I don't mean to traffic in anecdotes, but many Palestinians will say, look, I'm not a Hamas supporter but what are we supposed to do?  We've been under siege here.  This is our only response to Israel's barbarity against us.

So I think that it is, as I said, entirely possible that this will be a rallying point for Hamas.  I believe it will weaken Mahmoud Abbas.  In general, more broadly, the Israelis have tended to miscalculate and underestimate the power of this idea of steadfastness in Palestinian society -- in Arabic "sumud" -- and that is exactly what you said, the tendency to rally around and coalesce around that group that is offering the most resistance to the Israelis.

For quite some time the Israelis have been responding to Palestinian provocations with overwhelming force and it's yet to break the Palestinians.  And I don't see how this episode, you know, as brutal and widespread and wide-scale as it has been, is going to break the will of Hamas.  So there is the downside risk for the Israelis if they do not succeed in achieving whatever their goals are, given the fact that we're not entirely clear whether it's to topple Hamas, break Hamas or whatnot, but in turn there will be Hamas there once they've run out of targets and once they've concluded their operations.

GWERTZMAN:  All right, the next question. We're reaching the end.

OPERATOR:  At this time we have no questions.

GWERTZMAN:  Okay.  Well, look, thank you very much, guys.

COOK:  Thank you very much, Bernie.

SENOR:  Thank you.

COOK:  Thanks to everybody on the phone.

GWERTZMAN:  Okay, great.  Happy holidays.

SENOR:  Okay, bye.

COOK:  Thank you.  Bye-bye.

OPERATOR:  This does conclude the teleconference.  You may disconnect.







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