Middle East

Renewed Violence In Gaza A Test For New Leaders

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As violence intensifies between Israelis and Palestinians, politics is playing a big role in how governments in the region are reacting. Israel has an election coming up, while Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood is navigating new territory and Syria is hoping for a distraction. Host Scott Simon talks with Rob Malley of the International Crisis Group.


The violence in Gaza is the first escalation of this intensity since uprisings in the Arab world almost two years ago. We're joined now by Rob Malley. He's with the International Crisis Group. He joins us from Dubai. Mr. Malley, thanks so much for being with us.

ROB MALLEY: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And do you think a ground war is just a matter of time?

MALLEY: I don't think that that's what Israel really wants. I don't think they've made that decision. But I think we know in these circumstances things could escalate, get out of control, despite the intentions of the parties who are involved. And in this case, I think Israel was hoping that the Palestinians would stop firing rockets sooner than they have. They may feel compelled to do more, but that would obviously be an extremely dangerous bet.

SIMON: These events, of course, are occurring at a time when there is an election coming up in Israel. Help us understand popular opinion in Israel on this subject.

MALLEY: Well, I think from an Israeli perspective, there's a consensus that it was simply unacceptable to live under the constant threat of Palestinian rockets, which led to as many as a million Israelis having to sometimes take shelter. So, there is that uncertainty, that constant sense of insecurity, even though the number of Israeli casualties have been extremely low. But that was something that most Israelis were not prepared to live with, and that's why you were finding this wall-to-wall, this quasi-unanimity behind this operation.

SIMON: Help us understand Egypt's role. The Egyptian prime minister came to Gaza yesterday. Obviously, under the Mubarak regime that would have been unthinkable. What's Egypt's role in events now?

MALLEY: You know, this is the first real foreign policy test of the new Muslim Brotherhood-led Egypt. This is exactly what they wanted to avoid, which is to be torn between their desire to have good relations with the United States, to project the sense of pragmatism and of tranquility and normalcy, and on the other hand having to cater to their own base, their own constituency, which for years has heard the Muslim Brotherhood denounce President Mubarak as being feckless when it came to defending the Palestinians, as be a lapdog for the United States and sometimes for Israel. And so President Morsi, the Egyptian president, has to balance between these two constraints. He doesn't want things to deteriorate in Gaza, but he doesn't want to lose credibility and face with his own public. And that's what is the real challenge. But then in many ways, Israel is putting Egypt to the test - testing what it means to have the Muslim Brotherhood in power in Egypt.

SIMON: And how do you see public opinion affecting the decisions that governments in the region are going to make over the next few weeks?

MALLEY: Well, I think you're seeing for now in some ways, oddly enough, despite the Arab uprising, despite the fact that many Islamists are in power, there's not much different between the way they are acting in practice and the way their predecessors did. They could sustain that for some time, but already you're hearing grumbling, including from the Muslim Brotherhood itself against its leaders. The longer this lasts, the greater the number of casualties, and in particular, if Israel launches a ground operation, I think you're going to see leaders like the Egyptian leader, but many others as well, who are going to feel compelled to do more. How much more is unclear, but maybe break relations with Israel, do as much as they can, short of taking direct action.

SIMON: Mr. Malley, from your point of view, what could bring the situation back from the brink?

MALLEY: Well, there's only one thing, and we've gone through this movie before. And that's what's really tragic about this situation. Israel goes through these wars episodically and then nothing changes. It's going to be left with the same situation, if not in six months, in a year, when Hamas would have reconstituted its arsenal and will have even more popularity and even more backing than it has today.

So, it is a short-sighted policy, which one understands the popular feelings, but the only solution is a genuine cease-fire that also includes a normalization of the situation in Gaza, the end any of the kind of economic constraints and conditions it's lived under and some form of acknowledgment of the fact that Hamas is ruling Gaza and will continue to rule, at least for some time. And that if Israel doesn't want to engage Hamas directly, it will have to through Egypt for a political dialogue to try to find some understanding that encompasses Israel, Egypt and Gaza.

SIMON: Rob Malley of the International Crisis Group speaking from Dubai. Thanks so much.

MALLEY: Thank you.

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