What's at Stake in Latest Mideast Conflict? Israeli tanks moved into Gaza overnight as Prime Minister Olmert said he is determined to rescue a captured Israeli soldier. Guests discuss the military incursion, and what's at stake for both sides.
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What's at Stake in Latest Mideast Conflict?

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What's at Stake in Latest Mideast Conflict?

What's at Stake in Latest Mideast Conflict?

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

As expected, Israeli armored forces pushed into Palestinian territory in Gaza last night. Today, Israeli aircraft zoomed across the area, and artillery fire was reported as well. Air strikes cut water and power for most people in Gaza, but so far, no casualties have been reported. And so far, Israel appears to be willing to see if this might be enough to win the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit, the 19-year-old soldier captured by Palestinian militants over the weekend.

Today, the Hamas-led government in Ramallah endorsed the militants' offer to release Cpl. Shalit in exchange for Palestinian women and teenagers held in Israeli prisons. Israel ruled out any exchange, and today sent a warning to Syria when Israeli jets buzzed the home of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

There's every reason to fear that the standoff could escalate at any moment. We'll talk in a moment with a reporter in Jerusalem and with a doctor in Gaza, and then hear from experts about what's at stake on all sides. Later in the program, David Savage of the Los Angeles Times joins us to talk about the Supreme Court's decision on Tom DeLay's project to redraw congressional districts in Texas, which gave Republicans six extra seats. Then, Political Junkie Ken Rudin comes in for his regular Wednesday visit. So if you have questions about yesterday's primary elections in Utah or elsewhere - other races underway - or about the politics of immigration, the minimum wage, and the flag, you can send us mail now. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

In the meantime, if you have questions about what's happening in Gaza and why, our number is 800-989-8255 - 800-989-TALK. E-mail, again, talk@npr.org.

We begin with Steven Erlanger of the New York Times who joins us on the phone from Jerusalem. Nice to talk to you again, Steven.

Mr. STEVEN ERLANGER (Journalist, New York Times): Hi, how are you?

CONAN: I'm well. There seems to be a sense that this is an incursion, an invasion of Palestinian territory, yet everybody seems to be holding their breath.

Mr. ERLANGER: It's very measured. It's designed to be. I think the Israelis are trying to send messages both to the Palestinians who are holding Cpl. Shalit -and also to the rest of the world - to the Palestinians, there's a lot more in store for you unless you release our corporal. And to the rest of the world, look how patient we're being.

CONAN: And they also sent that message to Syria today, and people might be puzzled. Why Syria?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, why Syria is a good question. Bashar al-Assad is considered immature and not a very great help to peace in the Middle East by Israelis and Americans. But he also is the host of Khaled Mashaal, the exiled Hamas leader who is accused, certainly, of being the commander of the Hamas militant wing and who ordered this raid into Israel that resulted in the kidnapping of Cpl. Shalit. And part of what the Israelis are trying to do is to convince Mr. al-Assad that it's in his interest to influence Mr. Mashaal to solve this problem.

CONAN: And, other people appear to be attempting to do that as well. Any signs yet that diplomatic efforts, including these muscular messages, are having any effect?

Mr. ERLANGER: No signs of that at all. In fact, the capture of the corporal appears very popular in Gaza. Mr. Mashaal's tactic seems to be working. He's weakened very badly the Hamas Prime Minister, Ismail Haniya, who has been trying to work with the Palestinian President of Fatah - Mahmoud Abbas - to resolve this crisis. So, its not working very well at all, it seems.

CONAN: Egypt and France have also been said to have been involved in these negotiations.

Mr. ERLANGER: Very much so. I mean, Cpl. Shalit is - holds dual nationality. He's also a French citizen, so the French have been very active. And normally, the Palestinians listen very carefully to what the French say. They certainly listen to what the Egyptians say. But it feels like there's a split in Hamas, that the military wing is really listening to Mr. Mashaal - that's the thought - rather than to Mr. Haniya.

And it's understood, at least, that Mr. Haniya wasn't really informed of this raid. But the Hamas government has also refused to push the people holding him to release him. They've said, treat him well. Keep him alive. They've supported the idea of a prisoner exchange. But they have not gone so far as to call for his release.

CONAN: Israelis have explicitly threatened Mr. Mashaal, saying that despite the fact that he is now in Damascus, he is not immune to reprisals.

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, that's - they've done that. In fact, they've tried to kill him once before - I believe it was in 1997 - and poisoned him. And then Mossad agents were captured, and for their release, a previous Israeli government agreed to give an antidote to Mr. Mashaal, who is alive and - from the Israeli point of view - certainly causing trouble again.

They keep saying that the people who order terrorism against Israel, who work to hurt Israelis, will suffer the consequences. And they hope, I presume, that Mr. Mashaal will get some sort of message.

CONAN: So at this point, what are Israeli options? To continue to ratchet this up, step by step?

Mr. ERLANGER: Israeli options are very difficult, particularly since another group appears to have captured another young Israeli, 18-years-old, a settler in the West Bank. So you have at least two Israeli captives, if not more. It's very complicated, because Israel left Gaza almost a year ago. It doesn't really want to reoccupy it, and yet, it finds itself criticized at home for not stopping Qassam rockets fired from Gaza into Israel. And it finds itself captured by this one soul, this kind of sweet looking 19-year-old kid who is driving Israeli policy in a way diplomats never do.

CONAN: And one option that apparently has been ruled out is to release - go along with the demands of the captors and release women and teenagers being held in Israeli prisons.

Mr. ERLANGER: Yes, the captors, which are a group including - as I said, the wing of the ruling party in the Palestinian Authority, Hamas - have called for his release in order to release information about the state of Cpl. Shalit. They haven't promised to release him in return for a prisoner release. But Prime Minister Olmert of Israel, who's pretty new in his job, rejected the idea of a prisoner exchange from the very beginning.

CONAN: And he, as you said, is new in his job and presumably trying to establish some sort of a reputation here.

Mr. ERLANGER: Yes, that's true, and that's always dangerous. He's been a politician for a long time, and he's been a leader for a long time. But he's never been the leader. And that changes things.

And Israel also has a new defense minister who's actually the leader of the Labor Party, which is - believes in peace and negotiations - Amir Peretz, who finds himself very caught, because what he really wants to do is negotiate with the Palestinians, not bomb them. But he's in a job where the pressures to act, to save an Israeli citizen who was abducted from Israeli soil, and to stop rockets flying into Israel, are giving him a real confrontation with his own beliefs.

CONAN: Steven Erlanger, thanks very much.

Mr. ERLANGER: Thank you.

CONAN: Steve Erlanger is Jerusalem bureau chief of The New York Times and he was with us by phone from Jerusalem.

Dr. Mona El-Farra, a Palestinian physician, is Vice President of the Red Crescent Society in the Gaza Strip and she joins us now by phone from her home in Gaza. And it's nice to have you on the program tonight. Hello, Dr. El-Farra?

Dr. MONA EL-FARRA (Palestinian Physician; Vice President, Red Crescent Society): Hello.

CONAN: Thank you very much for being with us. I'm wondering what's going on tonight? We've been hearing all day about Israeli aircraft over flying, about water and power being cut off. What's your situation?

Dr. EL-FARRA: The situation, you know, the street since the early hours of the morning are now nearly deserted. People are very worried regarding the electrical power cutoff and the water supplies. And are waiting anxiously to know what's happening tonight. So everybody in their homes or hospitals or institutions in Gaza are expecting the worse tonight after what happened last night.

Last night, everybody was awake and it was really very harsh blow to the Palestinian infrastructure, the electricity and water. And I believe now we are in dire humanitarian disaster.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Dr. EL-FARRA: Our power plant that has been destroyed, it supplies Gaza Strip with two-thirds of its electricity. The other third we get it from Israeli company. So, literally, now we are under the control of Israel. Two-thirds are destroyed of the power and the other third is under the control of Israel. In Rafah area, for example, they cut the power today. They're supplying Rafah area.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Dr. EL-FARRA: So we are in real humanitarian disaster.

CONAN: And were people able to leave their houses today to buy food and get water if they needed it?

Dr. EL-FARRA: Yes, people were in shops trying to get some food, but to tell you the truth, people are going through very economical hardship, so they don't have money to buy stuff from the supermarkets and shops because they don't have cash. People have, for the last four months, no salary. And for some months before that period, there's high unemployment rate in the Gaza Strip, in Palestine, especially in the Gaza Strip. And there's poverty, severe poverty, so people don't have enough cash to buy their food.

CONAN: And...

Dr. EL-FARRA: So the shops were not crowded.

CONAN: And I wonder, we hear that this incident, that the capture of this Israeli soldier is generally popular. Is that the case with the people you talk to?

Dr. EL-FARRA: People, after long period aggression, atrocities against them, home demolition, assassination, closing the border, people are frustrated in Gaza. Even after the disengagement of the Israeli army last September, people feel they are - they live in big prison called Gaza with the economical sanctions. So people, they are not jubilant or happy about the soldier kidnap, but at least they don't want the exchange to happen between the militiamen and Israel with no prize.

CONAN: So they want there to be some benefit from this?

Dr. EL-FARRA: Exactly, yes, because the Palestinian are suffering a lot under occupation...

CONAN: Even, I...

Dr. EL-FARRA: ...in Gaza, despite disengagement plan and no settlements in Gaza, but we still live under occupation.

CONAN: Dr. Mona El-Farra, thanks you very much for being with us. Good luck to you.

Dr. EL-FARRA: Thanks. Bye.

CONAN: Dr. Mona El-Farra, Vice President for the Red Crescent Society in the Gaza Strip, also a blogger. She joined us from her home in Gaza. We posted the link to her blog, From Gaza with Love, at our Web site, npr.org.

We're talking about Israel's incursion into Gaza. After the break, what's at stake for each side? And we'll take your calls, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us, talk@npr.org. A bit later, we'll talk with David Savage of The Los Angeles Times about today's Supreme Court decision. And Political Junkie's coming up later, too. What a day. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

The Israeli military moved into Gaza last night in an effort to secure the release of a captured Israeli soldier. With renewed fighting, what's at stake for Israel and for Prime Minister Olmert and for Palestinians, and President Abbas and for the Hamas-led government?

To answer those questions, we turn to David Makovsky first. David Makovsky is Director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He's with us right now by phone from Jerusalem. And it's good to have you with us again.

Mr. DAVID MAKOVSKY (Director, Project on the Middle East Peace Process, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy): It's good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And the Israeli options, at this point, they have moved into Gaza. It has produced nothing so far as we can see. Options seem to be limited and a great deal remains at stake.

Mr. MAKOVSKY: Yes, I mean, we'll see how long this plays out. I happened to actually see the prime minister of Israel this afternoon. And, you know, he seemed very hopeful that this would be resolved and the soldier would be brought back home and that the 700 rockets that have fallen on Israel since Israel left the Gaza Strip would stop.

CONAN: History has not been encouraging in this regard. Israelis have not been returned, as I understand, without a swap of prisoners.

Mr. MAKOVSKY: Well, there've - you know, there've been examples of where some -I think there've been some kidnapped people have been let go. There was one several years ago. But, you know, Olmert, I think, is new and Amir Peretz, the Defense Minister, is brand new. They both are - for the first time, you have a prime minister, defense minister combination where neither of them, you know, have - were generals and have that kind of military gravitas that Sharon, Barak, Rabin had.

And they feel they're being tested here. That here, Israel got out of Gaza with the idea that not a single Israeli is there and that there would be no justification under any thinking for any, you know, any firing. And they - he wants to go further now and pull out of good parts of the West Bank, but people are saying, if we didn't like the book, why would we see the movie? So, politically, he is, you know, he's plummeted in the polls. And I think that, you know, the soldier was the last straw.

And he would, you know, say look, in the Canadian border, if you had 700 rockets being fired into Israel, with the ascent of the Canadian government into Detroit or Buffalo or wherever, wouldn't the United States do something? And he's also, politically, like I said, you know, his whole plan of trying to get out most of the West Bank is - seems to be going up in smoke before his eyes. And I think the soldier kidnapping was the last move. He felt he was being tested and now he's striking back.

CONAN: And let's bring another voice into the conversation: Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Nice to talk with you again, Shibley.

Professor SHIBLEY TELHAMI (Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development, University of Maryland; Nonresident Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution): Nice to talk to you.

CONAN: And there's a great deal at stake for the Hamas government and, indeed, for the Hamas leadership in Damascus as well.

Prof. TELHAMI: No question. I think it's a difficult time, because I think, you know, David is correct in pointing out that these are untested leaders and I think - Olmert and Peretz, actually, at the helm of the Defense Ministry. But Hamas is new to governing. And they have to deliver. They're under a lot of pressure. Certainly, people are not blaming them for the Israeli moves. They blame Israel, they blame the outside world. But they have to do something; they have to deliver.

And so far they've refrained from using large-scale violence. They've been able to hold out with the ceasefire, despite some threats to restart the violence. They're being tested and there's so much at stake. But in all of this, something is really missing here. You know, we're all talking about, all right, so they've - both have domestic politics and they're uncertain...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. TELHAMI: ...and they're trying to figure it out, but they're hundreds of thousands of people are effected by this. I mean, this is - there's humanitarian issue here. There is a sense of proportionality that has to come in. And these domestic considerations don't really explain this. I think there's a lot of strategic confusion. There's a lot of moral confusion. I think this is a very difficult environment.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. David Makovsky, you were talking earlier about this capture of the soldier being the last straw, but what about what Shibley Telhami was saying about proportionality? This seems like an awful lot of motion and danger for the life of one soldier.

Mr. MAKOVSKY: Yes, I mean - look, I agree with Shibley that, you know, that we're hopeful that no innocent Palestinians are hurt. I mean, it's good that the Israeli army is staying out of Rafah the town and trying to avoid population centers and working on the roads. But I, you know, you have to admit that there's definitely some pain here.

The Israelis would argue, however, you know, return that soldier and then, you know, it's resolved. Israel doesn't - didn't want to get out of Gaza in order to go back in. And Olmert made that clear today as well. So, I - you know, I hope that the Khaled Meshaal in Damascus, the head of Hamas, or whoever it is, that they return the soldier and this deterioration ends. I mean, it's just horrible.

I would just add there, is that the people in the border town in Israel, Sderot, it's inside Israel, it's not an occupied territory. They feel that there have been these hundreds of rockets that have fired at their town since Israel left. Not a single Israeli is left in Gaza. There's been like, I don't know, like eight or nine killed. Their life is disrupted and no one seems to care that these people are living at night in shelters.

So both peoples here are suffering and I hope that there's a speedy resolution and we can get on to trying to think of ways to get out of this terrible situation and give dignity to both of these peoples.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Let's see if we can get a caller on the air. This is Mike(ph). Mike calling from Boca Raton in Florida.

MIKE (Caller): I was just - I wanted to make a comment that here is Israel trying to bring peace to the area by pulling out of Gaza and even attempting to pull out of the West Bank and the Arab states do not reciprocate. They have nothing to gain by getting a soldier, kidnapping a soldier. They're only making their own people miserable.

CONAN: Let me ask you about - to respond to that, Shibley Telhami. Obviously, Egyptian - Egypt, for one, has been extremely active in trying to win the release of this soldier.

Prof. TELHAMI: Well, I think both the Egyptians and the Jordanians have a stake in not having an escalation. They really want to see a negotiated settlement. Both governments have a lot at stake. They've made the peace with Israel. They have a relationship with the U.S. that they have to protect. But I - you know, I think, you know, one can certainly blame a lot of Arab actors for not doing enough or doing too much on a different direction. I think there is a lot of that that's reasonable and legitimate.

But the bottom line of what is going on in Gaza, most Arabs and Palestinians don't see the Israeli withdrawal as having been part of a plan to make peace, but as part of a unilateral Israeli move to protect some presence in the West Bank. And they see it as happening under duress. And Hamas captured that, obviously, in its own configurations, its own politics. And that's one reason...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. TELHAMI: ...perhaps, why it won elections. I think that what we have to keep in mind here is the environment in which this is taking place. I mean, Hamas was elected and immediately, I think, the Israelis and the U.S. have made a decision that they're going to try to bring this government down, certainly because Hamas has not accepted Israel and had not renounced the use of violence. But, nonetheless, there was not even a time for them to test them. And there was no real consideration of consequence.

So the environment in which this is happening is that there is a Palestinian government that is not accepted, that is under siege. And the Palestinians are trying to figure out, you know, whether they have one government or two governments, with Mahmoud Abbas and Ishmail Haniya.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. TELHAMI: And we have a breakthrough agreement, in a way, that came out of the prisoner deal between the different Palestinian factions coming together, with a move forward that is calling for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. And, I think to my mind, somewhat more importantly, that operations by the Palestinian factions should focus on the West Bank and Gaza. That is a huge breakthrough, if, in fact, it's implemented, because it seems to suggest an agreement not to attack on Israeli soil. And if, in fact - if that is the understanding, it would be a huge breakthrough.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. TELHAMI: So we have an opening that can be tested, that needs to be tested, but this is happening in an environment of escalation and violence and humanitarian crisis that could overcome any possible move forward.

CONAN: Also, part of an historical pattern. Every time it seems that there is an opening - this one, the window closed rather quickly, yet militants seem to be determined to make sure that doesn't happen, militants on both sides.

Before we let you go, David Makovsky, you said you met today earlier with the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert. Did he mention the Israeli aircraft that buzzed the home of the Syrian president by the Mediterranean Sea earlier today and what he meant by that?

Mr. DAVID MAKOVSKY: No, he didn't. He didn't talk about it, but he said that there's some things that are going to be released soon that you'll hear. But I think, look, the key in this whole thing is understand that it's not the U.S. and Israel, you know, against Hamas.

What we got here is a situation, you know, where - what we call a quartet. The U.S., the Europeans, the Russians, the U.N. have come together. It's the whole international community that has said to Hamas, you know, we've poured billions of dollars in this peace process over the last decade because it was predicated on the idea of co-existence. In comes Hamas, says it wants to destroy its neighbor, but don't give me a penny less than you gave the last guy. And that's just not acceptable and it won't acceptable either to have a partial ceasefire in my mind, because you know the Israelis won't accept, well, if, you know they don't kill you in Manhattan, they'll kill you in New Jersey. They're not going to go for that. They'll end up going after their people, because they have to protect their citizens.

What we need to do is help codify a comprehensive ceasefire that all the factions stop shooting and start talking about ways to moving forward. All these partial moves are going to have holes as big as Swiss cheese and it's just not going to work and the violence is going to continue. Let's try to find a comprehensive ceasefire with Fatah and the Islamic Jihad, and define it, which hasn't been done. And then have real quiet. I feel these partial approaches are going to create such big loopholes that we won't be stopping the violence.

CONAN: And Shibley Telhami, let me finally ask you. We seem to be - this is obviously an important incident thus far. It is not yet all-out war, but that certainly seems a possibility, too.

Prof. TELHAMI: Well, I don't think so for the following reason. I think if you go into an all-out war, it's a strategic decision that has huge consequences. I don't think the events of the past couple weeks, bad as they were, warrant a huge strategic shift. And I think that, frankly, neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis have an option other than to pursue an opening.

The Israelis are learning that unilateralism has its limits, and ultimately they're going to have to enter into some kind of an agreement with the Palestinians. I think that, sure, Hamas is going to have to recognize Israel. If they don't, there can be no deal. That is quite obvious. I think the only question is, how do you ever test them? Do you test them without giving them any leeway to be tested? Or do you put them under constant siege in which you have a risk of an escalation every single day? That's a big question. I think we haven't thought about the consequences of a tough measure. This is what we get, and sure, things can get out of hand in ways that neither side wants.

CONAN: Shibley Telhami, thanks very much.

Prof. TELHAMI: My pleasure.

CONAN: Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland. Our thanks, as well, to David Makovsky. Appreciate your time today.

Mr. MAKOVSKY: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: David Makovsky, Director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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