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Current Violence Must Not Disrupt Mideast Peace Attempts, Ross Says

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Suppose you're a Palestinian living in Gaza. You can't easily leave. Israel and Egypt control the borders. Your local government is dominated by Hamas. And for the past week, Hamas rockets have flown out of Gaza while Israeli bombs have been falling in. That is the experience for Jamal al-Sharif (ph) and his family.

JAMAL AL-SHARIF: For a full week now, we couldn't sleep for more than two or three hours in the 24 hours. Children are screaming, shouting all the time. The situation is terrifying.

INSKEEP: We've heard elsewhere on MORNING EDITION of Israelis heading for shelters as Hamas rockets fall. President Biden has now said he would welcome a cease-fire in this weeklong war. So how does this conflict look to the United States, Israel's most vital ally? We've called Ambassador Dennis Ross, who has been a Middle East envoy in the past, to presidents from both parties. Ambassador, welcome back.

DENNIS ROSS: Nice to be with you.

INSKEEP: What is the immediate U.S. interest here?

ROSS: I think the immediate U.S. interest is really more a humanitarian one than anything else. We want to see this come to an end. Beyond seeing it come to an end and seeing the suffering stop, we also don't want it to resume anytime soon. And we also don't want it to disrupt the possibility of trying to build peace again. I mean, right now, the sense of possibility on both sides is probably at its low point. And I would also say those Arab states that have been reaching out to Israel at this point - they're feeling somewhat on the defensive, so they, too, would like to see calm to get back to what drew them to Israel in the first place.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to figure out from the president's actions how he views this conflict. President Biden first said Israel had a right to defend itself when Hamas was first firing these missiles and Israel struck Gaza. Then the U.S. waited a few days for a United Nations meeting on this, and now the president says he'd welcome a cease-fire, but he's not demanding it this minute. The impression is that the president favors a cease-fire after Israel has done what it wants to do. Is that accurate, do you think?

ROSS: I think it may be a little bit more of an overstatement, but I think it's pretty close. The reason I say a little bit more of an overstatement is because I'm not sure he knows precisely what Israel itself has decided it wants to do. What's the actual endpoint? I'm sure that's what he's talking to Prime Minister Netanyahu about.

But I also think the essence of what you're asking - or what you're saying is right, because Israel withdrew from Gaza. It didn't, in fact, impose an embargo on Gaza for close to two years after it withdrew. So it withdrew entirely, and now in this week, it's taken more than 3,200 in rockets.

So I think he's very sympathetic to the reality that Israel withdraws from a territory and what it gets is rockets in return. And he sees that what Hamas is doing has nothing to do with the well-being of the people in Gaza. It has everything to do with being able to inflict pain on the Israelis. And I think he's quite sympathetic to the idea that Israel should have the right to defend itself.

INSKEEP: There is also, of course, a different view of this conflict, which we've heard from critics on the left, including some in the president's party - the idea that Israel essentially started this, that Israel is the occupying power in the region, that Israel conducted evictions of Palestinians and other things that can be described as provocations. How, if at all, do those facts factor into the way the president would see this situation?

ROSS: Well, it would be, I think, highly unlikely that he wouldn't feel some pressure from those who are making those points. But again, I think we go back to President Biden, who has his own understanding of the region, his own understanding of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and his own understanding of Hamas and what Hamas represents. Hamas provides no civil or human rights within Gaza. It puts all of its resources into developing tunnels and rockets, meaning cement, steel, electrical wiring, which could be very useful for reconstruction within Gaza, which was necessary prior to this.

So he looks at what Hamas does, what it represents, that it isn't committed to coexistence at all. And I think that's what's guiding him probably more than anything else - plus a historic sense of a partnership with Israel and his belief that Israel remains the one true democracy in the region. So it's not that he's indifferent to what he's hearing, but I think those other factors are influencing him.

INSKEEP: You just mentioned the historic U.S. partnership with Israel. What is the state of the U.S. partnership with this Israeli government, led for the moment by Prime Minister Netanyahu?

ROSS: Well, I think there's obviously questions about, first of all, the durability of this Israeli government in Israel. We've had four Israeli elections. I think the effect of the current conflict is to make a fifth election likely. So I think there's a kind of uncertainty about what the Israeli government is going to be, what its purposes will be, how will it approach Palestinians in the aftermath of this? The social fabric of Israel is being stressed by what we're seeing during this conflict. So I think there's a lot of questions about where is Israel headed in the aftermath of that, and that will probably also shape some of the questions that President Biden has.

INSKEEP: Can I just ask about money because, of course, the Biden administration has approved another weapons sale to Israel? The president, by the way, has also restored U.S. aid to Palestinians that had been cut by President Trump. So the United States is aiding both sides in this conflict. Does the U.S. really not have very much leverage to cause it to end in a constructive way?

ROSS: Our leverage on the Palestinians is pretty limited because this is Hamas. In fact, our leverage there is really working through Egypt. And Egypt does have a stake - especially President Sisi has a stake in showing the Biden administration how helpful Egypt can be on issues that matter to us. So our leverage is more in that area. Obviously, with Israel, there is a profound historic relationship that is measured by much more than money alone. And I do think American views will matter to the Israeli government, especially on security-related issues. But obviously, ultimately, Israel makes its own decisions, and on an issue like this, self-defense, when its citizens are being hit by more than 3,000 rockets - that's going to be the overwhelming driver in terms of what they do.

INSKEEP: Thanks for the reminder that the U.S. aid to Palestinians is going to groups other than Hamas. It's good to point that out. One final question, Ambassador - does the cycle of violence here, because there've been multiple wars like this, suggest that whatever the U.S. has been trying for decades just isn't working?

ROSS: I think you could say that. I think one thing we could do in the aftermath of this, as it relates to Gaza - we should mobilize the whole world, major international participation to reconstruct Gaza, to do the equivalent of a Marshall Plan for Gaza on one condition. Make it very public, one condition - Hamas has to give up its rockets. No one is going to invest in Gaza if Hamas at any point keeps its rockets and can launch against Israel, and Israel responds and destroys the investment.

INSKEEP: Ambassador Dennis Ross, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thanks so much for your insights.

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