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The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg on the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009
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HH: For all the commentary we need on that, Jeffrey Goldberg joins me now. Jeffrey is the national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has also been a guest on this program before when he was working for the New Yorker. You cannot miss his blog on all matters, but especially on Gaza matters over at The Atlantic. Jeffrey, welcome back to the program, good to have you.

JG: Thanks for having me back.

HH: What’s your assessment of the status at this hour in Gaza and Israel’s operation there?

JG: Well, it’s hard to know. I try to look at this through the perspective of deterrence, the idea that I think it is possible to deter Hamas militarily, not necessarily politically or theologically, but militarily at least for a time. And so what I’m interested in doing is counting the number of tunnels that have been destroyed by the Israeli army and air force. Those are the tunnels that run between Egypt and Gaza, and have been the conduit for all of the weapons that Hamas now has. And from what I can tell, Israel is doing a job on those locations, and they have Hamas running, running in fact so hard that they’re now in the position where they’re hiding behind women and children, not to put too fine a point on that.

HH: Jeffrey, I want to quote from your blog yesterday. It’s an extraordinary statement. “I have friends in Gaza about whom I worry a great deal. I’ve seen many people killed in Gaza. I’ve served in the Israeli Army in Gaza. I’ve been kidnapped in Gaza. I’ve reported for years from Gaza. I hope my former army doesn’t kill the wrong people in Gaza. I hope Israeli soldiers all leave Gaza alive. I know they’ll be back in Gaza. I think this operation will work, and I have no actual hope that it will work for very long, because nothing works for very long in the Middle East. Gaza is where dreams of reconciliation go to die. Gaza is where the dreams of the Palestinian statehood goes to die. Gaza is where the Zionist dream might yet die.” Boy, that’s a pessimistic assessment.

JG: (laughing) Man, I was in a bad mood yesterday.

HH: I’ll say, but at the same time…

JG: I got a good night sleep. I’m a little better today (laughing).

HH: Is it real…now look, obviously this is a terrible time. People are dying, lots of innocent civilians are dying, lots of Hamas terrorists are dying, lots of IDF soldiers are dying. So it’s a horrible, terrible subject. But all war is. Is there any reason not to believe that Israel might score a decisive victory here?

JG: Look, asymmetric warfare is hard as you know. You have this perverse situation, America obvious faces this in Afghanistan, and faced it ultimately, I think fairly successfully in Iraq, or at least provisionally successfully in Iraq, where the weaker party wants you, the stronger party, to maximize his own casualties. I mean, it’s hard as Westerners, it’s a little bit hard to wrap your mind around this. But the Israelis want to minimize Palestinian casualties. The Palestinians want to, or not the Palestinians, but Hamas, which is a very cynical organization, wants to maximize the number of Palestinian casualties. The interesting thing about Hamas is that its power is derived not from its indifference to Israeli life or Jewish life, but from its indifference to Palestinian life. I mean, if their goal was to keep Palestinians alive and healthy, you don’t fire rockets from the middle of schoolyards and hide them in mosques, quite obviously. So that’s all a windy preface to saying that I think this is very hard to do. And Hamas is a fairly implacable enemy. It is not susceptible to domestic pressure on casualties the way the Israeli Army is. It’s not susceptible to international pressure. It’s a proxy of Iran, and Iran is not very responsive to international pressure. So I find it hard to believe ultimately that this will work. I’m very worried about it. I don’t, I think that you have the possibility of the makings of a quagmire. And so I would really hope that Ehud Barak has a well-developed exit strategy there.

HH: I had a number of guests on the program yesterday, Jeffrey Goldberg, Michael Oren among them from Gaza where he’s serving as a reservist right now. He argued that what the Israeli Army is doing is really creating, shaping the battlefield for Fatah to come in and finish the job with Hamas. Meanwhile, Glenn Greenwald from Salom.com spent an hour on the program yesterday arguing that we could negotiate with Hamas, that anyone can be negotiated with, you can separate the Palestinian people in Gaza away from Hamas. And I posted the transcript of that conversation at Hughhewitt.com. It stunned a lot of my audience. Who’s right? What do you think is going on here? Shaping the battlefield, or preparing for negotiation?

JG: Well listen, I’ve known, you know, I’ve known these Hamas guys for a long time. I take them…I don’t think Glenn Greenwald does know them quite as well, or has spent a great deal of time in Gaza. I learned after 9/11 to take people at their word, and to take their doctrine and their theological beliefs seriously. There’s nothing in the record of Hamas, there’s nothing that they’ve ever said or written to suggest that they are interested in making peace with the State of Israel. Period.

HH: I agree. But…

JG: There’s nothing. I don’t know where people get this idea from. Certainly, if…I mean, the interesting thing would be to have someone like Glenn Greenwald debate a Hamas ideologue, because the Hamas ideologue would say what are you talking about?

HH: Yup.

JG: You don’t understand. God wants us to destroy Israel.

HH: Yup.

JG: I mean, and he would be insulted, because it’s almost in a way condescending, because we don’t sometimes credit them with sincerity or sophistication. I don’t think Michael’s right, either, by the way. But it’s a more of a technical point. I don’t think that Fatah, the Palestinian Authority, is very popular right now in Gaza. It’s certainly not ever been a competent organization, competent to run anything. It made a disaster out of Gaza when it was running it. It set the stage…remember, more people voted for Hamas in Gaza not because they supported suicide bombings necessarily, but because they were so angry about the corruption of the Palestinian Authority. So Michael may be right, the Israeli Army’s setting the stage for something, but I can’t, I don’t envision Fatah coming in and running that place. They had a long shot at doing that, and they made a hash of it. So what I worry about, and this is where I guess I take the sort of middle position, what I worry about is that what Israel is doing is removing government structure in Gaza, as flawed as it may be, and replacing it really with nothing, so that Gaza becomes like a Somalia, or some equivalent of a Somalia. And that’s not good for anybody.

HH: Your colleague, Atlantic’s Robert Kaplan, also a guest on today’s show, wrote a piece today talking about Iran’s role in all of this, and how Hamas has thrived on the fact that the Egyptian pharaocracy represents one style of Sunni rule and it’s been rejected. And that sounds like Fatah, the corrupt sort of elites sitting on people.

JG: Yeah, I mean, I wouldn’t even give them the compliment of calling them pharaohs, but you know…

HH: Okay, so between corrupt elites and religious fanatics, who ought we to root for? And is there a third way? Or is that the famous Iraq way that George Bush has been reviled for attempting to build?

JG: Yeah, well, you know, I mean Bush is…look, I mean, Bush is ultimately correct in saying that democracy is the antidote to terror, that freedom is the antidote. But the problem with that is that you might have to endure twenty or thirty or forty years, we’ve already endured thirty of it in Iran, twenty or thirty or forty years of fundamentalist rule before the people get sick of it and figure out a way to get rid of it, because these regimes are brutal. I was just thinking when you were asking me that question how very American you are. And I mean that as a compliment in all senses. But what I mean by that is that I only learned when I went to the Middle East that the American belief that every problem comes with a solution isn’t necessarily true.

HH: Yeah.

JG: And we approach everything as surmountable. It’s why we’re a great country, because we look at a problem and we try to fix it rather than sort of accept it. But…and I think this is what President-elect Obama is going to face as well, a true, honest reckoning of what’s going on over there suggests that rushing toward a peace process that its sponsors believe will lead to a final peace treaty that will allow everyone to have their country, I don’t see it right now.

HH: Jeffrey Goldberg, we’re out of time, and I look forward to talking to you about Prisoners at length, your book about your time in Gaza, and thanks for spending time with us today. Jeffrey Goldberg writes for The Atlantic. You’ve got to read his blog every day on this Gaza war.

End of interview.

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