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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Just days after a six-month-long ceasefire expired, a one-sided war has erupted in Gaza. Israel says its forces responded to intolerable attacks on southern cities by mortars and rockets fired from Gaza. Two Israelis are reported killed. In Gaza, the death toll is now estimated at over 300, which a UN agency reports includes more than 50 civilians. A Bush administration spokesman said today that Hamas, the Islamist organization that controls the Gaza Strip, has shown its true colors as a terrorist organization, and called for a sustainable ceasefire. Many other countries called for an immediate ceasefire and objected to what several described as a disproportional use of force.

It's not clear at this point where the fighting goes next. Israel could send ground forces into Gaza. Hamas has already used rockets with longer range into Israel and could resume suicide-bomb attacks inside Israel as well. And all of this is the one country with the most influence on Israel is in the middle of a presidential transition. We'll talk about this latest fighting, but we also want to look a bit further down the road. What could an Obama administration do to change the dynamic in the Middle East? Give us a call at 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org; just click on Talk of the Nation.

Later in the program, Sofia Nelson joins us on the Opinion Page this week to talk about the opportunities and dilemmas faced by black Republicans. But first, the new war in the Middle East. We begin with Aaron David Miller, who wrote about many years of experience in the Middle East in the much-too-promised land. He's now a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Nice to have you back on the program.

Dr. AARON DAVID MILLER (Public Policy Fellow, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars): Pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And it's easy for us from this distance to dismiss Hamas rocket fire to southern Israel as meaningless, at least militarily meaningless, pinpricks, and ask why this massive response and why now?

Dr. MILLER: I think the Israelis were responding to two problems. One is short-term. A large barrage of rockets in the wake of the expiration of the December 19th, tahdia, or lull or calm or ceasefire, which they found to be intolerable. And second, the longer-term problem, the shadow, so to speak, of the 2006 summer war between Israel and Lebanon, which left the Israelis looking feckless, settling for a tie, and the IDF, the Israeli Defense Forces, don't settle for ties, according to the Israelis. So, it's an effort to reestablish a certain measure of deterrence and do so in a very intense and ferocious manner.

CONAN: Does timing have something to do with, not just the expiration of the ceasefire - Israel has tolerated rocket fire in the past - but the timing of, well, the American transition and the timing of the Israeli elections?

Dr. MILLER: I think the Israelis - and again, I don't want to sound like I'm writing a brief for the Israeli government here - Israelis went to relatively long lengths to avoid this sort of action. The weather is bad; there's tremendous cloud cover over Gaza. Israel has elections, as you know, scheduled for February 10th. This operation could complicate those. But I think in part, it was an effort not to take advantage, but to understand the realities that, if they move now during a presidential transition, backed by the administration whose policies they know, they wouldn't have to confront the reality of such a tough and difficult operation at the hands of the administration they don't know.

CONAN: Barack Obama's emissaries on the weekend talk shows were extremely cautious. They have made it a point to suggest that there is only one American president at a time and have said that they will deal with this when the time comes. The Israelis must be looking at these statements very carefully.

Dr. MILLER: I think they are, but I think I want to make something clear at the outset. The issue - had John McCain been elected president, it wouldn't have mattered with respect to America's support for the special relationship with Israel. The real question for the Obama administration is whether or not they're going to permit the special relationship, which is of great value to the United States, to continue to be an exclusive relationship with the Israelis, which, in my judgment, does not serve our interests. And I'm not an Israeli, but I would be so presumptuous to suggest it doesn't serve Israel's interests as well. That's the key issue that the Obama administration will face. Can we identify an American mediation that's credible? In short, can we be tough, fair and smart in the way we deal with this very difficult landscape that the next president is going to confront?

CONAN: And obviously, we have no idea how long this is going to last. As you suggested, the operation in Lebanon lasted considerably longer than the Israelis had anticipated. So, obviously, in combat, things change. Nevertheless, as you suggested, a tie in Lebanon, not perceived that way by much of the world. Much of the world considers that Hezbollah came out stronger than it went in, and wonder if Hamas could emerge the same from this contest.

Dr. MILLER: Well, Israel deals with the reality of asymmetrical warfare, the small, if you will, having tremendous room to maneuver and counter the big. And there's no question that Hezbollah who was able to launch more rockets on the last day of the war before the ceasefire went into effect courtesy of a UN Security Council resolution, than in any previous day of the combat, clearly emerged with political victories. And I suspect Hamas' strategy is much the same.

CONAN: Joining us now from Israel is Itamar Rabinovich, a visiting professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. He served as Israel's ambassador to the U.S. from 1993 to 1996, and joins us now by phone from Tel Aviv. And it's good to have you today on Talk of the Nation, sir.

Dr. ITAMAR RABINOVICH (Public Policy, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University): Well, thank you. Good to be with you.

CONAN: And Mr. Ambassador, are people in Israel questioning, given the history we're just talking about of the Lebanese war just a couple of years ago, the wisdom of these attacks?

Dr. RABINOVICH: You know, Israel is the land of a very rich gamut of opinions. And there's an opposition; there's an Arab minority here who is critical of the operation. But I would say the bulk of the Israeli population does support the operation, because the bulk of the population believes that rocket attacks of the kind that was launched by Hamas recently is unacceptable from an Israeli point of view. The Israeli public...

(Soundbite of silence)

CONAN: Hello?

Dr. RABINOVICH: Oh, yes.

CONAN: You're still there. We just lost the line for just a moment.

Dr. RABINOVICH: I'm sorry. And the Israeli public, the present government, primarily the Minister of Defense Ehud Barak, have learned the lessons of the unsuccessful war in Lebanon. And yet, of course, there are many question marks. This is just the third day of what may be a much longer operation, and many questions linger.

CONAN: You said they learned the lessons of the experience in Lebanon. Why is this experience going to be different, do you think?

Dr. RABINOVICH: The Israeli leadership knows that you cannot fight an asymmetrical war from the air and decide it from the air. So, no one expects that the air raids in and of themselves will bring Hamas down to its knees. And also, unlike the government in July 2006, there was not an ambitious set of goals presented as the goals of the operation. The government this time is very careful to be either vague or modest in presenting the goals of the operation, or rather, in not defining them.

CONAN: By saying that the leaders have come to understand that air raids cannot solve this situation, are you suggesting that you expect ground forces to be going in?

Dr. RABINOVICH: Not necessarily. Ground forces are ready. I think that everybody knows that a ground operation is going to be costly for both sides. One realizes the futility of a ground operation. Let us say that that Israel reoccupies Gaza, and the Israelis are happy to be out of Gaza. They are not anxious to be back in Gaza or in occupation of Gaza and its population. So...

(Soundbite of silence)

CONAN: And again, we're having difficulties with the lines to Tel Aviv. We apologize for the technical problems. These things do happen from time to time. We apologize to listeners. We're going to try to get back to Itamar Rabinovich, the former ambassador to the United States from Israel. In the meantime, let's get back to Aaron David Miller...

(Laughing) Who's with us here in the more reliable Studio 3A, here in Washington, D.C.

And as you listened to what he had to say, it appears - but again, at the start of the Lebanese operation, the country was united behind that operation. It was something that the Israeli people backed until it went wrong.

Dr. MILLER: Yeah, I think that's true. But Ambassador Rabinovich, I think, makes some very good points. There are several key differences between Lebanon and Gaza. Lebanon is a large area, rural, mountainous. Rocket launchers are much more easily disguised. Second, Hezbollah had reliable support from both the Syrians and Iranians. Clearly, Hamas occupies a much smaller area. It's heavily populated among the highest population densities in the world. But the Israelis can also identify targets, and it's an operation of scale, which is much more manageable; plus Hamas has very unreliable sources of resupply, at least in response to an immediate crisis.

CONAN: Now, they have to come through those tunnels dug beneath the Egyptian deserts.

Dr. MILLER: Right, which Israelis have done their best, I suspect, to try to destroy yesterday and part of today.

CONAN: I was going to ask the ambassador this, but I suspect Israel is accustomed to finding itself the - oh, wait a minute. The ambassador is back with us. Ambassador, are you there?

Dr. RABINOVICH: Yes, can you hear me now?

CONAN: Yes, thank you very much, and I appreciate your patience, and I apologize for the problems. I was just going to ask you, I suspect Israel is accustomed to being criticized by much of the world for what appears to outsiders to be a disproportional use of force.

Dr. RABINOVICH: They feel accustomed - I think that this time the criticism is much more moderate. I think that Israel waited, biting its lips, for quite some time, and therefore, I think it's less of a criticism for this operation than on every occasion. And more interestingly, the Arab parties, Arab countries, like Egypt and others' spokesman are critical of Hamas, telling Hamas that we have told you so, not to break the ceasefire. and not to run rockets into Israel. You, in a way, you have invited these problems, and it's much a more complex picture than in the past. I think also that people realize that this is not just a conflict between Israel and Hamas. That Hamas is the, in Gaza, is the edge of an axis that begins in Tehran and reaches to Gaza through Damascus and Beirut. And there is murderous campaign in the Arab world that is not at all anxious to see Iran and its proxies successful. So, it's rather more complex than meets the eye.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: Ambassador Rabinovich, thank you so much for your time today, and again, we apologize for our technical problems.

Dr. RABINOVICH: Not a problem, thank you very much.

CONAN: Itamar Rabinovich has served as Israel's ambassador to the United Nations from 1993 to 1996, with us by phone from Tel Aviv. We're going to continue our conversation with Aaron David Miller. We'll also be speaking with Rami Khouri, editor at large of the Daily Star in Beirut. If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255; email talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. 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 Israel's airstrikes on Gaza Strip targets continue for third day, while Hamas-backed militants fired more rockets into Israeli towns of Sderot and Ashkelon, even as far north as Ashdod. I'm talking with Aaron David Miller, who spent over 25 years working as a U.S. diplomat in Israel and Palestine as a Middle East adviser. And if you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call. What do you think an Obama administration should do to change the dynamic in the Middle East? 800-989-8255; email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our Web site; just go to npr.org, and click on Talk of the Nation. And let's see if we can get a caller on the line. This is Jacob, Jacob with us Minneapolis.

JACOB (Caller): Hi, thanks for talking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

JACOB: I'm going to agree with you that maybe the rocket attacks against Israel is not productive, but I don't think the peace negotiation has been productive either. I mean, the process has been left in the quagmire that's - neither direction is producing any intangible result. So, for Israel to say or the American on their part of it say, the Palestinians are to follow and support the peace camp in their society, if the peace camp in their society has not produced the needed result, the tangible result, I mean, since Arafat(ph), what do they got? All that they got is settlement. The other comments I have that the air raids has not been just targeting Hamas rocket squad and their installations; they've been targeting civilian infrastructure. The police department is not considered a military target by all standards. Imagine we have, God forbid, a war with Canada and Canadian air force bomb the Minneapolis Police Department. That's a war crime, I consider it.

CONAN: There are targets like that that are being struck, Aaron David Miller, and Israel would regard them as part of the Hamas structure. They are part of the Hamas ability to control the Gaza Strip.

Dr. MILLER: That's precisely the point, and this is an effort to undermine and make truly an effective Hamas' overall structure and control and authority. Now, the Israelis may ended up reaping what they sow, if, in fact, you get a situation in which there is no control, there is no structure in Gaza. But this is not really - and states sometimes don't think through the longer-term consequences of their actions, particularly when they have to discharge their responsibilities to protect their citizenry. So, I'm not arguing that this necessarily wise or it'll have the desired impact, but it is a response to a legitimate problem and the Israelis acted.

CONAN: There has also been attacks on university laboratories, the university run by Hamas. But people other than Jacob will regard these as civilian targets and might justify - see it as a justification for Hamas attacks on cafes or buses.

Dr. MILLER: There's no question about that, and I would expect, depending how this plays out, for Hamas to fall back on all of its tools in an effort to make Israel hurt for what it's done. This is part of it in an inevitable sad and tragic tick-tock between Israelis and Palestinians - in this case, Israel and Hamas - out of which I do not see, for the moment, any silver lining. You know, usually in the Middle East, there are occasions when violence and war and even insurgency produce political openings. That was the case in the '73 war; it was the case in the first Persian Gulf War; it was even the case in the first Palestinian intifada, which produced Oslo. Here, I don't see that silver lining. I see more of the same, and that's the real tragedy.

CONAN: Jacob, thanks for the call. Let's bring Rami Khouri into the conversation by phone from Beirut, where he's editor at large at the Daily Star and director of the Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University at Beirut, and nice to talk with you again.

Mr. RAMI KHOURI (Editor at Large, Daily Star; Director, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, American University of Beirut). Thank you. Glad to be with you and with Aaron.

CONAN: And let me just follow up on Aaron's point; do you see any silver linings here at all?

Mr. KHOURI: Not in the short run, no. This is about the worst it's been in the last couple of decades. But I think the key to understanding what's going on and trying to deal with it for everybody - Israelis, Arabs, Americans - is to not to try to deal with Hamas like people used to deal with Fatah and Yasser Arafat. The Hamas and Hezbollah represent a whole new mindset in the Arab world. It is one that Israelis and many Americans and Westerners and others don't like, obviously. But it's important to deal with them for what they really represent.

And I think in the short run, there's going to be intensified suffering and fighting and killing on both sides. In the longer run, I think we can have a little bit of a harbinger of might come in the fact that you've already had Hamas and Israel agree on some truces. They may agree on a prisoner exchange. Hezbollah and Israel have agreed on prisoner exchanges and rules of engagement. What you're getting historically speaking, for the first time ever, are groups in the Arab world that are willing and able to fight Israel and force it to make a truce.

They're not comparable armies. One is a state; the other one is guerilla resistant force that also uses terrorism now and then. They're completely different beasts, but they've been able to hurt each other sufficiently to force each other into an accommodation. So, I think we may be seeing the beginning of a landscape in which people on both sides understand that there is no military solution, there is only suffering, mostly for civilians, and a truce would be the first step towards a longer-term, more realistic political process, which is not going to happen soon, but a truce is the best that we can hope for, but a long-term truce, which both sides have to adhere to, and I think this is possible.

CONAN: And I want to get to the longer term in just moment. But we have to ask you, Rami Khouri, there have been some statements from some Arab capitals that can be read as critical of Hamas' role in deciding to break the ceasefire. Are we reading too much into that?

Mr. KHOURI: No, there's always been criticism in the Arab world, in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia. Many places in the Arab world have been openly critical of Hamas. The other day, the UAE foreign minister went and stood with Abu Mazen at the Bethlehem midnight Christmas mass and made it a clear point to say that he's there to support Abu Mazen and against Hamas. So, you have a lot of people in the Arab world at the government level who are a critical of Hamas, but you have a lot of people, I would say a majority, at the street level, popular level, who are with Hamas and critical of the government. So, there's a deep, serious split within the Arab world, and this is one of the problems that we have. There is a total immobility, incoherence and total lassitude at the political level in the Arab world, and the reality is that neither governments nor people in the Arab world can do anything, and this is why is up to people like Hamas to carry the load, and this is what they feel that they're doing.

CONAN: And finally, the role of Egypt, which helped broker the ceasefire six months ago and asked Hamas to extend it this time and were rebuffed. Nevertheless, Egypt can be seen as - if Israel is Gaza's warden, then Israel is at least complicit in its - in keeping it caged.

Mr. KHOURI: Well, this is the dilemma that Egypt has. It is at one point trying to preserve its peace treaty with Israel, which has held because it was based on equal rights for both sides, and same with the Jordan agreement that has held because both sides were treated equally. But at the same time, Egypt's desire to preserve the peace with Israel means that it has to put itself in a position where it looks like it is the policeman, acting on Israel's behalf to keep the Palestinians in their cage. And this is creating huge tensions for Egypt, but these tensions will not get beyond the beyond the level of street demonstrations and rhetoric on televisions and the newspapers, I believe. I don't think Egypt is in any danger of having the regime threatened or anything like that. They've lived through episodes like this before and gotten through them.

But the important thing is not so much Egypt's dilemma; the important thing is, how strong is Hamas now in Palestine? They've been there for a year now in Gaza. They've expected this attack. They've prepared for it. They're not sitting there watching this stuff on CNN and Jazeera. They know - knew it was coming and we have to wait and see what it is that they're going to respond with militarily as well as politically. This is the critical element, and this is really about the - just about the only new element in this process, because the Israelis have done this many times before, and every time they have achieved a quiet period for a few weeks or months, and then Hamas comes even stronger.

CONAN: And also Rami Khouri was referring to Abu Mazen, the nom de guerre of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president. Let's get some callers in on the conversation as we look a little further down the road. 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And let's go to Mary, Mary with us from Hartford in Indiana.

MARY (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Mary.

MARY: Hi. I think Obama should urge both of these parties to think of their children in this situation, the fact that their children have, really, no future now as it stands, and I think that the Obama administration should stop giving Israel money. I understand the historical significance of our friendship, and we should pursue that emotionally, but financially, I think we should withdraw our support, because all Israel seems to do with the money is to make war on its neighbor.

CONAN: Aaron David Miller, the - that's an option, I guess, the Obama administration can go for. Some of that money, a considerable part of it, is pledged by treaty.

Dr. MILLER: Yeah. And the economic system of Israel is more or less zeroed out. It's really military systems. And that involves, of course, the essence of our special relationship with the Israelis. I'm not sure that's the right way to look at this. I mean, we've had a situation in the last 16 years, where our special relationship with the Israelis, which I think is very important to our influence, has become exclusive. And that's the key distinguishing feature that Obama is going to have to confront. Will he allow the exclusivity of our ties with the Israelis - eight years under Bill Clinton and eight years under George W. Bush - to continue? Or will America begin to emerge as a more independent, credible mediator, prepared to be tough, fair and smart in the pursuit of Arab-Israeli diplomacy? We're not going to abandon the Israelis.

MARY: I'm sure that's going to happen under Obama.

CONAN: I'm sorry, Mary, I didn't catch that.

MARY: Yes. I'm sure that will happen under Obama, because his philosophy is that everyone should get along. But I see what Israel's advantage is in our relationship, but I don't see the advantage that our country gets from that relationship.

CONAN: Well, briefly, Aaron David Miller?

Dr. MILLER: Briefly, American national interests are founded more than just on hard, hard interests. I mean, there's a sense of value affinity. Very few democracies emerged in the wake of the Second World War, and combined with historic anti-Semitism, the United States has made a commitment to Israel's security and well being. That said, we have our own interests, and we cannot allow a tiny country, no matter how close we are to them, to dictate and determine what those interests are. So, I'm arguing, Mary, for a balance, a balance that preserves our relationship, but is also founded on what constitutes American interests and the toughness that needs to accompany the reassurance to the Israelis. If you put that together, we have a chance.

CONAN: Mary, thanks for the call. Appreciate it. Rami Khouri, let me turn to you and ask whether people in Beirut and other parts of the Arab world are looking for the kind of balance that Aaron David Miller is talking about.

Mr. KHOURI: They're certainly looking for it, but they're not expecting it. I think people long ago gave up on expecting any new American presidency to bring with it an even-handed, activist and sustained position in terms of fair mediation. I think people were hoping for that back in the '60s, '70s and early '80s. But I think, after Reagan, they basically gave up. There is a sense of fascination with Obama. People are deeply impressed, those who follow politics internationally, are deeply impressed by his style, his tone, some of the words he's saying about talking to Iran, et cetera. There's an element of fascination and hope in his personality, but none of this applies to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The United States is genetically, as Aaron said - but not using the words I'm using - but genetically, chromosomally, on Israel's side because of the way American politics works and because of the values and principles that have long defined America's position. So, there's no chance that the U.S. is going to sort of do a China - do a Nixon in China and certainly turn around and be a fully even-handed and like it was, say, in Northern Ireland. People don't expect that at all. I think the best we can hope for is for the U.S. to simply lay out a set of principles that it adheres to which are fair to both sides, making it clear that it will work when it sees an opening to work. There is no opening now. The best hope, I think, is for people and the U.S. to focus on Iran and on Syria, where deals are more likely, and that will then, indirectly, bring them back to the Arab-Israeli issue. The Arab-Israeli issue is not solvable right now, unfortunately.

CONAN: We're talking with Rami Khouri of the Daily Star in Beirut and with Aaron David Miller, who's the author of "The Much Too Promised Land." You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is David, David with us from Philadelphia.

DAVID (Caller): Hi. It just seems - how on earth can missiles be produced in a very small, impoverished area on their own? They have to come in from the outside. And I think United States should work in a multilateral way with Arab countries, with other countries, to work on ways to keep the missiles from coming into the Gaza, because this is - these were unprovoked attacks. Nothing was going on in Gaza to provoke hundreds of missiles from coming in. It's as if the United States, all of a sudden, was the recipient of thousands of missiles from Cuba or Canada, raining on Buffalo or Miami, and nobody is doing anything to cut off the supply.

CONAN: Aaron David Miller, cutting off the supply, he's right. Gaza could be an isolated place. It turns out it's pretty easy to manufacture, at least, very inaccurate weapons. Stopping everything from coming into Gaza has proved impossible.

Dr. MILLER: That's true because this history - this region, long before you and I were around, has a veritable tradition of smuggling. And the fact is, these borders are porous; these people are very clever and very smart. The same problem in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Lebanon and in Gaza: If you want to get something in, you can do it.

CONAN: Let me ask you about a point Rami Khouri just made, and I know it's a point that you've been writing about, too, that maybe the path towards working on an Arab-Israeli peace lies not in the south, in Gaza, but to the north with Syria.

Dr. MILLER: I think there is an argument for that, as long we understand that it can't be Syria only. We're going to have to pay an enormous amount of attention. This president, new president, is going to inherit 100-year headache, and it's going to land on him with urgency and intensity. The problem is he doesn't have the capacity - we don't have the capacity - to ameliorate this particular problem. We have to pay attention to it. We have to do everything we possibly can. But if you want to deal, if you want a peace treaty in two or three years, you look north, to two states, no active confrontation between them, over a tiny piece of territory, and Israeli security needs and water. That is a doable deal. Excruciatingly painful, but it can be done. And what America needs now more than anything is a success, not another failure.

CONAN: Rami Khouri, do you think that success is possible at this point with Syria?

Mr. KHOURI: Oh, I think it's certainly more likely, but it's not going to happen in the absence of an agreement with Iran. I think Iran is the key right now, and I think an Iranian deal with the Western world and the IAA, the U.N., on nuclear issues is doable, and I think an Iranian deal would have enormous impact on geostrategic implications on Syria, on Hamas, on Hezbollah, on the whole situation. And then a Syria-Israel deal is certainly doable. It's a straightforward trading land for full peace, and that would have enormous implications as well.

I just want to comment on what your caller said, that these rocket attacks were unprovoked. I think that is factually inaccurate. I mean, Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, but it was strangulating it. It had control of water, air space. It has continued to assassinate people, to bomb now and then, and there was a war going on. It's not fair to say that either Israel or the - or Hamas were angels or purely devils. They're fighting a war. They're fighting each other in very brutal ways, in different ways. You know, Israel was strangling the whole population and depriving it of sufficient medical care and food, et cetera. So, there was a massive Israeli choke on the Gaza Strip, and Israel...

CONAN: Rami, I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there. But thank you so much, as always, for your time today.

Mr. KHOURI: OK. Glad to be with you.

CONAN: Rami Khouri of the Daily Star, a newspaper based in Beirut. Our thanks also to Aaron David Miller, public policy fellow with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholarship. He was with us here in Washington. This is NPR News.

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