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We're at a tipping point for Biden and Israel, says diplomat

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

It has been a week of significant developments in the war between Israel and Hamas and the Biden administration's support for Israel's campaign in Gaza. The week began with the deaths of seven World Central Kitchen aid workers. They were killed after the aid convoy they were traveling in came under attack by Israel's defense forces. The IDF has taken responsibility for the mistake.

And as the week came to a close, there was a tense phone call between President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Biden told the Israeli prime minister that he needs to improve the overall humanitarian situation, and that civilian lives must be protected. And if not, Biden warned, there could be consequences. As Middle East envoy for more than a decade, Ambassador Dennis Ross has listened in on many similar conversations. He joins me now to talk through what's happened this week and where things might be going. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

DENNIS ROSS: Good to be with you. Thank you.

DETROW: I want to start by getting your reaction to what we know of that call between Netanyahu and Biden.

ROSS: Well, I think what we know is that the president was conveying a message that really is different than any message he's conveyed previously. And I say that because I don't think, at any point, the president has basically threatened consequences. And that's clearly what he was doing. He was basically saying, if you don't take these steps, we are going to reassess our policy towards Gaza and what you've been doing in Gaza.

What happened this week seemed to be a tipping point for him, and I would even say in looking at the readout, the reading out was quite stern. There wasn't much of an effort to sugarcoat what was being said. In a sense, what was being done was to reinforce the message on the phone to make sure there wasn't going to be one tone in private and a different tone in public. So I take this call as being quite significant. And you noted I've sat in and listened to a lot of these calls. Whenever there's an effort to ensure that the private tone is reinforced publicly, you know, this is a pretty serious move.

DETROW: Yeah. Yeah. What do you think it was about that attack on the World Central Kitchen convoy that has made it such an inflection point?

ROSS: I think that it's, you know, here are people who are doing something and they are completely selfless, and all they're trying to do is make sure that people are going to be fed. And that they should end up dying as a result of that - again, I'm not saying if this had happened in the first week of the conflict, it would have been - it still would have been a tragedy. Would it have had this kind of an effect on the president? I doubt it.

DETROW: If you were on these calls, if you were in these meetings, what would you be saying at this point to Israel, to Palestinian leaders?

ROSS: Well, to the - to Prime Minister Netanyahu, I would focus very clearly on one thing. You need an objective that you can achieve, and you need an objective that is meaningful and achievable, and that is the demilitarization of Gaza.

DETROW: Because you wrote recently that completely eradicating Hamas is not realistic, in your view.

ROSS: It is not realistic any more than eradicating ISIS was realistic for us. We still have 3,000 forces in Iraq for one reason - to prevent ISIS from coming back. We have 900 in Syria to prevent ISIS from coming back. And the truth is, there are pockets of ISIS today because ISIS, as an idea, has not been eradicated - it's an ideology - any more than Hamas, as an idea and its ideology, can be eradicated. You can defeat these groups militarily. We did that with ISIS, and the truth is Israel is doing that with Hamas. They are not far from demilitarizing Gaza.

And what is required is that as an objective and then with a commitment from us to create a mechanism - and Israel's right to require this - a mechanism that ensures that there cannot be remilitarization. Reconstruction for demilitarization is an important and achievable objective. And I'd be focused, with Prime Minister Netanyahu - you need to have an objective that is achievable. Otherwise, you're stuck there forever. And I don't know many Israelis who want to be managing 2.4 million Palestinians in a way that resumes an occupation that guarantees an insurgency against you.

DETROW: And yet 32,000 people, an estimated 32,000 people are already dead from this conflict. Has that moment come regardless, with the enormous amount of suffering that has played out in Gaza?

ROSS: There has been. But you also have an Israeli body politic that feels immensely insecure, that is convinced that there isn't a difference between Palestinians and Hamas. You know, they point to the images of people in Gaza welcoming Hamas as they brought back kidnappers. There's a trauma that has been suffered on the Israeli side, and it creates enormous insecurity. To be fair, there's a trauma on the Palestinian side right now, given the death and destruction, not only the numbers but the destruction as well. The problem when both sides are suffering from trauma is they are consumed by their own pain, and they have an inability to acknowledge or even recognize the pain of the other side.

So we have a lot of work to do even after this is over. The idea that you can produce two states anytime soon is a complete illusion, because neither side can contemplate serious concessions to the other, and it's going to take some time. First you have to get back to establishing low levels of cooperation just to prove that Israelis and Palestinians can cooperate. That's an essential baseline to reestablish.

DETROW: You know, big picture, you and I talked in the early weeks of the war, and the thing I took from that interview was just how profoundly sad you were about the whole situation. It seemed like you were looking down the line of what was coming, and you had a lot of concerns and fears. And I'm wondering, six months later, is this about how you thought it would play out?

ROSS: Worse than I thought it would play out. I was worried, obviously, partly because I knew what the human suffering was going to be, and I knew it was going to be difficult to bring this to an end. But I was hoping that you could do this in less than six months. And I was hoping that the scope and the level of destruction would be less profound. But I worried that there was a very real potential to be where we are today.

You know, for some time, I felt that the - talking about total victory was a slogan. And it was - it wasn't a serious objective, and you needed to get a serious objective. And I wanted the administration with the Israelis to focus on reaching a common understanding of how much demilitarization is enough because that way, you could define an endpoint. And it could be an endpoint that also was reflecting what was necessary to achieve and could be seen legitimately as a success.

DETROW: That's Ambassador Dennis Ross. Thanks so much for your time.

ROSS: Always a pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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