Friday, 25 July 2014


First priority must be to stop the fighting

Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Broadcast: 23/07/2014
Reporter: Emma Alberici
Martin Indyk former US special envoy on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations discusses the current conflict between Israel and Hamas on the Gaza border.


EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: Joining us from Washington to discuss the hostilities between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza is former US special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Martin Indyk, who is also a former US ambassador to Israel.

Welcome to you, Martin Indyk.


EMMA ALBERICI: US Secretary of State John Kerry, as we've heard, has already flown in to Tel Aviv. How do you rate his chances of brokering some kind of lasting truce?

MARTIN INDYK: I think it's pretty tough at the moment, this week, because of the way in which the crisis has escalated. He - I think, in Cairo - he just came from there with Secretary General of the UN Ban. They managed to at least sort out the conflicting efforts to get a cease-fire which were complicating the diplomacy. So I think there's an Egyptian plan on the table which deals with an immediate cease-fire and then some guarantees that the issues of - that Hamas is concerned about that would open the passages and lift the siege of Gaza will also be addressed. But, meantime on the ground and in a conflict - it's always what happens on the ground that dictates the pace of things - we've got a situation in which Hamas has scored from its point of view a number of "victories" in terms of being able to shut down Ben Gurion Airport, as you just reported, to most commercial traffic. In terms of killing a number of Israeli soldiers, it's up to I think 29 at the moment. And the Israelis are trying to use military pressure to get them to stop firing those rockets. They've launched over 2,000 over much of Israel's main cities. And so, the situation on the ground is one in which neither side feels that they've achieved their military objectives and therefore neither side at the moment is willing to actually cease fire.

EMMA ALBERICI: And yet Cairo's cease-fire plan does seem to have the backing of both Israel and the US, but Hamas has proposed an alternative plan prepared by Qatar and Turkey. Now both sides want to be able to claim - as you indicate, they both want to claim some kind of victory. Is that going to be possible?

MARTIN INDYK: Well, I wish we could get away from claims of victory to actually focusing on stopping the killing because it's horrendous and that needs to be the first priority. All of the other claims and issues can be negotiated at the table, but the first priority is to stop the fighting. And there I think it's become an issue where the Palestinian - the - Hamas and PIJ and other militias want to show that they have the last word in terms of firing the rockets. The Israelis want to try to remove the tunnels. Today they're focused on southern Gaza. This is a kind of new front that they've opened up, I think, again, to deal with the tunnels there. But they may also be going after the leadership of Hamas. I noticed one report this morning that they've issued a warning to evacuate Shifa Hospital. I think that's because underneath Shifa Hospital, Hamas leadership is reported to have its headquarters. I don't know whether that's true. 

But, if you read all these tea leaves, put it all together, it suggests that they want to try to increase the pressure on Hamas militarily on its leadership to get to stop firing those rockets into Israel and that would, from the Israeli point of view, provide the basis for accepting a cease-fire on the terms that you referred to, the Egyptian proposal.

EMMA ALBERICI: What did you make of the comments from Secretary Kerry, who was caught on that open microphone speaking to what's been reported to have been his advisor, where John Kerry seems to be mocking Israel's insistence that they're firing with pinpoint precision?

MARTIN INDYK: I don't know what the exact context of the words "pinpoint precision" were, but I think that it reflected a certain frustration that on the one hand Israel is entirely justified in responding to rocket attacks and these tunnels that are under - into Israel, which provide a basis for Hamas to attack civilian targets on the ground in Israel - that on the one hand, there's in Washington, in the Obama administration, a good deal of sympathy for Israel's predicament in that regard, but on the other hand, a good deal of concern about the way in which its response is causing civilian casualties. And I think you saw that reflected in the President's public remarks as well and I think that's what was going on there.

EMMA ALBERICI: Now the UN has put the number of Palestinians killed at more than 600, including 147 children, 74 women. That compares to two Israeli civilian deaths. Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay has been critical of both sides, but she seems to be particularly concerned about Israel, saying there's been disregard for international humanitarian law and the killing of civilians might amount to war crimes. Does the threat posed by Hamas justify Israel's current response?

MARTIN INDYK: Look, it's a very difficult dilemma and I don't want to take away at all from the unacceptability of so many children having been killed. That's unacceptable. But, on the other hand, what is Israel supposed to do? These rockets have been fired at the rate of 150 a day at Israel's main population centres. The fact that they have been able to develop a defence and therefore reduce the casualties doesn't take away from the threat that's being posed to the civilian population of Israel that is being deliberately targeted. And the Israelis are responding to the source of fire, but the source of fire happens to be in civilian areas, in Gaza, which is a very densely-populated part of the world. And so it's a really difficult dilemma. Israel cannot not respond to the rocket fire, but how does it stop the rocket fire? It's been prepared to accept cease-fires, a number of cease-fire attempts. That didn't stop it. So, unfortunately, you're in this terrible cycle which can only be resolved by some kind of comprehensive resolution to the situation in Gaza, which has gone on for much too long in this kind of chronic conflict where Hamas goes through one of these rounds and then there's a cease-fire and Israel feels it's deterring Hamas and then meanwhile Hamas is burrowing down and building these tunnels and building more rockets - they've got something like 20,000, and these are crude devices made out of sewage pipes and that kind of thing. And it's just for another round, getting ready for another round, and sure enough, we've had three rounds in six years like this. And each time it's all unacceptable, but each time you kind of go back to the status quo ante. I think there really needs to be a much broader solution here which starts with a kind of agreement that Hamas should disarm, and in return, Gaza should be open for business and people should be move in and out and goods should be able to flow and fishermen should be able to go and fish out to 12 miles and you have a transformation of circumstances for the people of Gaza. Only that can make up for the horrible killing that's going on and - but that is going to require Hamas to disarm as well.

EMMA ALBERICI: One of the preconditions of any kind of resolution with the Palestinians on the Israeli side has been talk of the need to demilitarise the Gaza Strip. How big a task would that be and how would it be done?

MARTIN INDYK: Good question. I talked about disarming Hamas and I think the key is that they give up their rockets. But then there's a question of how do you deal with the tunnel threat to Israel as well and that's a much harder thing to deal with. I don't see how it can be done, absent some kind of international force that comes in and supervises it under a UN mandate at the invitation of the Palestinian Authority and then hands over power and control in Gaza to the Palestinian Authority and that becomes the basis for a renewed effort to resolve the underlying Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I think it has to be a kind of comprehensive approach, but that's - you know, is much more easily said than done. Hamas is not going to easily give up its arms and international forces are not going to welcome the challenge of going in and trying to force them to do so.

EMMA ALBERICI: Now you mentioned earlier in this interview that the Hamas headquarters was presumed to be under a hospital with the attendant warning that those patients should leave. Who knows where those patients would go in that situation? But, I was curious to read today that a former Palestinian diplomat, Ali Kazak, writing in The Australian newspaper, challenges Israel's claim that the Palestinian resistance stores weapons in houses, mosques, hospitals and schools. He says that's a lie to justify the Israeli Defence Force's targeting and collectively punishing the civilian population. Is there any way to know who's right?

MARTIN INDYK: Well I haven't seen that article, so it's difficult for me to comment on it. But I would just point out that in the last five days there have been two clear instances of UNRRA schools, UN Refugee Relief Association schools, which - they've discovered rockets there and have condemned Hamas for storing their rockets in schools. So there's some concrete evidence of what is happening there. But there's no doubt, and that's certainly observable to the naked eye, anybody who wants to watch the video of these rockets being fired from Gaza, that they are firing from civilian areas.

EMMA ALBERICI: Now just three months ago, you were in deep negotiations with the Palestinians and Israelis on a potential two-state solution. Can I ask you what went wrong?

MARTIN INDYK: Yeah. Well, it seems a long way away today. But I would just say first before trying to answer your question that this situation was precisely what Secretary Kerry was warning against in his justification for making an effort to resolve the conflict at a time when most commentators thought he was crazy to try to do so. It was precisely his argument that the status quo is unsustainable. And therefore, it's absolutely essential to address the underlying conflict. And that is what we tried to do and that is what President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry will be ready to try again when the parties are ready. 

Now to your question of what went wrong, I think that if I try to give you the short version, the heart of the matter is that it's been 20 years since the Oslo Accords, which kind of govern the situation between Israelis and Palestinians, at least in the West Bank - 20 years since it was signed on the White House lawn when Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin shook hands. And that was an interim accord designed to lead, after five years, to a final agreement and the eventual establishment of a two - of what we call a two-state solution - an independent Palestinian state living alongside a secure Israel. And 20 years later, both sides have gone through experiences, whether it be increased settlement activity to the point where there are now 300,000 Israeli settlers living in territory that the Palestinians consider should be part of their state, and on the other side, Israelis have seen horrendous violence and terrorism. And so the combination has led to a deep, profound, cynicism and scepticism in the hearts of the people on both sides that just don't believe anymore in the solution that is being proffered here, the two-state solution. Add to that a deep distrust between the two leaders and you get a situation in which neither side believes that the other side is serious about achieving this two-state solution. That was a huge hurdle to overcome, and ultimately, despite nine months of intensive negotiations, we were not able to overcome it.

EMMA ALBERICI: Do either side or both have reason to be cynical about the other when it comes to these negotiations?

MARTIN INDYK: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that's the point. 20 years of this interim arrangement gives both sides plenty of evidence through their experience that the other side isn't serious or it doesn't want it.

EMMA ALBERICI: Sorry to interrupt you, but I think I mean specifically that when we're talking about the leaders, how would you compare the relationship between these two particular men, Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu, knowing that, as I understand it, Mahmoud Abbas was quite critical to the Oslo Accord, one of the chief engineers of that. I'm curious to know what you make of that relationship versus the relationship, say, 20 years ago when those two men shook hands on the White House lawn, that being Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat?

MARTIN INDYK: Yeah, yeah, it's very, very different. Yasser Arafat was from central casting in terms of being a terrorist leader in the eyes of not just Israelis, but Americans too. But there was a relationship of trust built between Arafat and Rabin and direct communication between them in which each leader tried to meet the political concerns of the other, even while the negotiations were going on. And Rabin didn't trust Arafat, but he was able to find a way to deal with him and out of that they built a relationship of confidence. Arafat referred to Rabin as his - what was it? - his partner in peace. Whereas Netanyahu and Abu Mazen haven't met for - I think it's something like three years. They have very limited communication between them. They occasionally call each other, maybe twice in the last year. I mean, they live 20 minutes apart. And the antipathy that one feels for the other is reciprocated. It's just so much water is under the bridge and, you know, both leaders, I think, feel that the other leader is simply trying to undermine them rather than trying to build them up and it's a toxic relationship. I haven't seen anything like it in all the years that I've dealt with it. Even Netanyahu and Arafat had a much better relationship. And I think that at the heart, it comes down to a belief that Abu Mazen has that Netanyahu will never agree to the kind of end of occupation and independent state that he has devoted his life to trying to achieve and Netanyahu does not believe that Abu Mazen will ever accept Israel as a Jewish state and accept Israel's security requirements in a two-state solution.

EMMA ALBERICI: Martin Indyk, we're out of time. It's always fascinating to hear your insights. Many thanks for being with us.

MARTIN INDYK: Thanks for having me.

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