CNN speaks with former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, who also more recently served as a special envoy to the Middle East, about the Israel-Gaza violence and what role Egypt could play.
What do you think about the possibility of a ceasefire?
Well, the Egyptians are now working hard as they have in the past to establish a ceasefire and a truce. Over the past several years most of the time, the two sides have had an uneasy truce that’s been broken several times. I think for both sides there is an interest in continuing and interest at some point in stopping.
Continuing the fighting?
Continuing the fighting.
Well, the Israelis want to end the rocket fire first, and they want to make the punishment so severe that Hamas will be deterred from doing this again in the future. On the other hand, they don’t want to risk their peace treaty with Egypt and with Jordan. So how far you go to accomplish the first without incurring the latter is a very difficult question.
The Egyptians, on the other hand, face a real problem of their own. They don’t want this fighting to continue and threaten their own domestic situation. They need help from the West. They want continued good relations with the United States. But it’s the Muslim Brotherhood government and Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. So, they, too, face the opposite problem. They want it to stop, but they don’t want to lose their credentials with either side. It’s a very difficult situation for everyone concerned.
With that tension, what’s the risk of escalation here? As you said, Israel may have an interest in continuing to try to eradicate missiles altogether. But what if they go in with ground troops? Does that hurt their standing in the public arena?
It did the last time…Of course, Israel has a right to defend itself. I think that's pretty universally accepted. And they ought to have that right. On the other hand, when they go in on the ground, the casualties mount, and there comes a tipping point in international public opinion as to sort of when you have gone too far and you have these tragic incidents, because this is a very densely populated area. And one of the problems the Israelis face is that the Palestinians place these batteries in densely populated areas, and near facilities where a lot of people are. So a lot of civilians get killed in the process.
The president had seemed to suggest he would rather the Israelis did not go in with ground troops. The question is, what does the U.S. do then if Israel does march across that line?
Well, we will try very hard to end it as soon as possible because as I said, there comes a tipping point where public opinion moves in the other direction. And you have a new situation now that didn’t exist the last time there was an incursion in late '08 and '09 and that is change in the Egyptian government. Israel had a very close relationship with the Egyptian government under Mubarak and just before that had very good relations with the Turkish government. Now both of those have switched, and are not friendly to Israel and they've got to be careful they don't further isolate themselves in the region.
But how? This is a whole other sort of variable on this whole occasion because you have this newly elected Egyptian president, Morsi the ideological cousin of Hamas. He has vehemently defended Hamas in the past. Yet at the same time you have Egypt struggling economically speaking, they need to make sure that he wants to be the power broker in this part of the world. How does he strike that balance? What would those talks look like?
Well, the answer, of course, is in itself very difficult to achieve. That’s ending the fighting and getting the two sides to the negotiating table to bring about a long-term agreement for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and it would permit a reorienting of concerns toward the real threat in the region and that's Iran. Right now, as long as they’re fighting and divided the Arab publics are concerned mostly about Israel when the real threat to them comes in the region, in the Gulf region, is Iran’s efforts to achieve domination of the oil resources in the Persian Gulf.
As someone who’s been there before, in nearly exactly this type of situation, do you think it will get worse before it gets better?
Probably so for a short time. But I really think that the experience of '08 hangs heavy in everyone's mind, and once the rockets stop, I think Israelis will stop.