A Look at the Hamas-Fatah Split

Liane Hansen speaks to Ambassador Dennis Ross about what Hamas-Fatah split means. Hamas has taken control of the Gaza strip; rival Fatah controls the West Bank.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Dennis Ross was the point man on the Middle East peace process in the administrations of the first President Bush and President Clinton. He's new book is called "State Craft: How to Restore America's Standing in the World," and he joins us.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. DENNIS ROSS (Ambassador, Washington Institute for Near East Policy; Author, "State Craft: And How to Restore America's Standing in the World"): Nice to be with you.

HANSEN: A veteran Middle East diplomat once said of the situation there, it can always get worse. How much worse did it get this past week?

Mr. ROSS: Well, it got a lot worse this past week. But unfortunately, I think, the old latter is it can always get worse remains to be true. As bad as things are in Gaza right now, we haven't yet seen how bad it could become. People don't tend to realize that there are at least 47 different militias in Gaza even now. So even though Hamas has the upper hand, we don't yet know exactly what is going to transpire in Gaza. We have a lot of the international aid organizations having pulled out of Gaza. We have 1.3 million people who don't have a whole lot of different ways to earn livelihoods. And so I think we haven't seen the worse necessarily yet.

HANSEN: What are the challenges you see for the United States?

Mr. ROSS: Well, I think the first challenge is going to be how do you guarantee that Hamas doesn't acquire even more weaponry because if it does - and the weaponry smuggled through the tunnels out of the Sinai into Gaza include longer-range rockets and they fire those into Israel, sooner or later the Israelis will feel obliged to do something. And I suspect that when they do, we're going to see a fight in Gaza that looks different than what we've seen before.

HANSEN: The United States has refused to deal with Hamas. Washington considers it a terrorist organization. But given the past week's events in Gaza, should it have a change on that policy? What effect would it have or can it have on that policy?

Mr. ROSS: I'm not sure that we should be reaching out to Hamas right now. Hamas now is being put in a position where having assumed control or at least dominance in Gaza, it now has responsibility there. It can't blame anything on anybody else. It can't blame it on Fatah. It can't blame on the Israelis. It's going to have to assume responsibility. And if it wants help from the outside, then it's going to have to adapt responsible behaviors. If it's going to be smuggling weapons in, if it's going to continue to be firing rockets into Israel everyday, if it's going to continue to declare that it will never change its behavior, who in the outside is going to say, well, we should help bail this guys out?

HANSEN: So where do you sit on the spectrum of opinion? On the one hand some in Washington will presumably push to try to subvert Hamas in Gaza. But on the other hand, others will want the United States to reconcile itself to the situation, if not to Hamas.

Mr. ROSS: I guess where I focus my attention - where, I think, the administration needs to focus its attention is on the following kinds of priorities: number one, work to make the West Bank as a model of success. We need exemplars of success among those who are seen as moderates. And we need to show that they can succeed where, in fact, the Islamists do not. So that's point one. Point two would be, we're going to have to shine a spotlight on the Egyptians. The Egyptians have allowed these smuggling tunnels to operate with almost the kind of impunity.

They can do much more to choke off the weapons going into Gaza and that also would reduce the Hamas instead of to be thinking about firing rockets into Israel. And I think the message needs to go from the international community to Hamas: behave responsibly and there can be response to you. Behave irresponsibly and you're on your own. So Hamas wants to be able to show that something other than a military machine, they're going to have to change their behavior.

HANSEN: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is scheduled to meet with President Bush at the White House Tuesday. If you're advising the president as you did to his father and President Clinton, what agenda would you set for the meeting?

Mr. ROSS: I think my main agenda would be let's focus together on what is really the crux of the problem right now, the crux of the matter, and it is a competition between Fatah and Hamas. What is it that we can do to make sure that those who believe in coexistence are more successful and those who reject it are less successful?

HANSEN: Dennis Ross is with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He played a leading role in shaping U.S. involvement in the Middle East peace process for more than 12 years.

Thank you so much for your time.

Mr. ROSS: It's a pleasure. Thank you.

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