Obama Adviser: Civilian Toll In Mideast Makes Cease-Fire Critical

Steve Inskeep speaks with President Obama's Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken about the administration's next moves in Gaza and Ukraine.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Presidential Advisor Tony Blinken is with us next. He is deputy national security adviser. And he's on the line amid crises in Ukraine and in the Middle East where Secretary of State John Kerry has been trying to arrange a cease-fire. Mr. Blinken, welcome back to the program.

TONY BLINKEN: Thanks for having me, Steve.

INSKEEP: Stating the obvious here, Israel is the U.S. ally in the Mideast situation. Has Israel gained any advantage through this war?

BLINKEN: Well, Steve, first the most important thing is this - no country can abide having rockets raining down on its people on a regular basis or terrorists tunneling underground to attack and kidnap its people. And so Israel had to take action. And I think what we've seen is they've done significant damage to the Hamas infrastructure in Gaza. And I think this gives them a basis now to have accomplished a lot of what they sought out to do. And indeed, they are working towards a cease-fire, as are we. Secretary Kerry is in the region right now trying to accomplish that.

INSKEEP: So you think Israel has done significant damage, has gained something. Has Hamas gained anything in your view?

BLINKEN: Look, Hamas has - as a result of its actions - I think, first of all, incurred significant damage. But also, we've seen, yet again, Hamas managing to surround itself with civilians. And as a result, there's been tremendous damage done to innocent Palestinians. And that's one of the reasons for the urgency of the cease-fire. No matter how careful Israel is in trying to prosecute this effort without harming civilians, given what Hamas is doing, given the population density in Gaza, given the challenge, we're seeing a terrible civilian toll. There's a great urgency in bringing that to an end.

INSKEEP: But Hamas leaders seem to think Israel had pushed them into the wall in a variety of ways in the last couple of years. They seem to think that they've gained international sympathy. They do have the United Nations High Commissioner telling both sides that they may be committing war crimes, but coming down especially hard on Israel in a report just today. Has Hamas gained some advantage even through the civilian deaths?

BLINKEN: I think as this crisis hopefully comes to an end as a cease-fire takes hold, I think we'll be able to see that, in fact, Hamas has been significantly set back. And then there has to be some way forward that does not involve Hamas having the ability to continue to rain down rockets on Israeli civilians. That's going to be the key test.

INSKEEP: Does not involve Hamas having the ability - does the United States send support Israel's call to disarm or demilitarize Gaza in some fashion?

BLINKEN: One of the - one of the results one would hope of the - of a cease-fire would be some form of demilitarization so that, again, this doesn't continue. This doesn't repeat itself. This is what we've seen happen multiple times over the past two years, which is these rockets coming from Gaza which Hamas controls, as well, more recently, is the tunneling to Israel with terrorists trying to infiltrate Israel. And no country could accept that. So that needs to be the end result of this process.

INSKEEP: Does the United States support Hamas's demands to open up Gaza in some way because, of course, the border crossings and even the sea approaches have been blocked by Israel.

BLINKEN: There has to be a way to make life better for the people who live in Gaza under terrible conditions. And there's been a lot of work done in recent years on that and trying to lift some of the restrictions so that people can live a better life. The United States just recently provided a significant amount of humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people and to the people in Gaza. And that can be part of the discussion as we go forward.

INSKEEP: And I want to come back to this matter of civilian deaths because it is a really remarkable letter by the U.N. High Commissioner. But the detail is all against Israel here. One hundred forty-seven children killed in Gaza up to recent days according to this report. And the UNHCR even says when Israel's trying to warn civilians, they do this technique called roof knocking where they'll send in a lighter explosive first. Even that technique has killed civilians and killed children. Is it damaging to the United States when a U.S. ally is criticized in that way?

BLINKEN: Steve, a big part of the urgency of seeking the cease-fire and the very reason that Secretary Kerry is on the ground right now working to do just that is because of the deep concern we have for the safety and security of civilians on both sides. And that's why we're continuing to urge both sides to do everything they can to protect civilians. Unfortunately, Hamas's technique is to wrap itself around civilians to make it much more difficult to do that. And, of course, Israel does everything it can to avoid that. But the bottom line is, in this conflict what we're seeing is a terrible toll on civilians. That goes to the urgency of bringing it to an end, getting the cease-fire and trying to work through these issues.

INSKEEP: Let me ask you briefly about Ukraine, Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken. The U.S., of course, wants tougher sanctions on Russia for its support for Ukrainian rebels who are now accused of downing a jetliner. Europeans again have not agreed to tougher sanctions. They can't seem to agree on what they want to do. And, of course, they depend - some of them, anyway - on natural gas supplies from Russia. Does this limit what the United States can do?

BLINKEN: Actually, Steve, it doesn't. I think what we've seen just yesterday, in fact, was the Europeans making it very clear they're preparing to proceed with sanctions in key sectors of the Russian economy including the financial sector, the arms sector, the energy sector. And what we've seen over the last couple of months is the result of the president's leadership in bringing Europeans along and in taking our own measures has been a very debilitating impact on the Russian economy. We are seeing investments stay out of Russia, we're seeing capital flee Russia - more capital flight in the first half of this year than all of last year combined. We're seen projections for growth go basically to zero. We're seeing the leader of the head of the largest bank in Russia in announcing the profits were down 20 percent, saying it's because of the sanctions. And so right now, Russia is paying a heavy price for the actions it's taken in Ukraine as a result of the actions we've taken, led by the president, to exert pressure on it.

INSKEEP: Mr. Blinken, thanks very much for your time.

BLINKEN: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: Tony Blinken is deputy national security advisor to the president.

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