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The war in Israel and Gaza presents a diplomatic challenge for U.S. foreign policy


The events unfolding in Gaza and Israel and the wider region present an enormous challenge for U.S. diplomacy. Richard Haass is a veteran diplomat who's worked for both Democratic and Republican administrations, and, of course, is also president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. He joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

RICHARD HAASS: Good to be back with you.

SIMON: Was U.S. foreign policy so intent on Israel normalizing relations with some Arab states that it overlooked Palestinians?

HAASS: In a word, yes. The entire approach to diplomacy in recent years has been what you might describe as from the outside in, normalized between Israel and Arab states. It's understandable why that was desirable given the power of states, given that they're less difficult to work with as negotiating partners, and it made real progress. The problem is that it somehow was built upon this assumption that it could go on forever. And most recently, the idea was to bring Saudi Arabia in. And what I think events of the last week or so have shown in all their horrific detail is that the Palestinian dimension remains necessary 'cause indeed, I worry not only the damage that it could bring without it, but also that it could potentially pose problems even to the relationships between Israel and Arab states.

SIMON: A couple of questions of the moment. How does the Biden administration support Israel while at the same time urging restraint and safeguarding civilians in Gaza?

HAASS: Publicly, the president gave a very powerful voice to support. But privately, I would argue the administration has to urge Israel to act smart. Just because you can do certain things doesn't mean it's in your or anybody's self-interest. And the danger in acting, if you will, wholesale with a large military intervention in Gaza, it will cause, as you suggest, all sorts of civilian casualties that will lead to pressures for a cease-fire. Israel will risk losing the high ground. It could also lead to a widening of the war, which is neither in Israel nor in the United States' interest. And also, it doesn't solve Israel's problems. This is a very difficult terrain, given the density of population, the built-up urban areas. It's not obvious to me how this plays to the advantage of Israel's military. And as Israel learned after 2005, you can go in, you can stay, but when you leave, you create a vacuum. And that could happen again. Israel could hurt Hamas, leave, and once again, Hamas or something essentially like it could fill that vacuum.

SIMON: You mentioned the prospect of a widening war. How concerned are you about other countries in the region getting involved?

HAASS: My biggest concern is not so much countries as it is Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia in Lebanon. Hamas shot several thousand so-called rockets at Israel, causing significant damage. Hezbollah has in its inventory on the order of 150,000 rockets that have greater range, could reach Tel Aviv. So yeah, that's what worries me more than anything else, that Hezbollah would come into the war. So I think one of the principal goals of American foreign policy at this point needs to be working through Iran, which is Hezbollah's principal patron, to see that that does not happen.

SIMON: How does the United States work through Iran?

HAASS: Well, I think we would have to signal Iran that they would be held accountable for anything that Hezbollah does. Hezbollah is not, shall we say, a independent actor. And Iran would have to know that the price it would pay, potentially in its oil exports or in certain, you know, putting some of its military assets at risk, that that would be significant. Again, sometimes in order to prevent a wider war, you may have to threaten a wider war. But I'm afraid that's where we are.

SIMON: And finally, a question - and I know somebody who has a compelling answer for this, there's a Nobel Peace Prize in their future - is there a diplomatic path to break this treadmill of recurring violence between Israelis and Palestinians?

HAASS: There is. Not with Hamas, I believe. Hamas has ruled itself out for all time as a partner. But at the end of the day, there's still no substitute for an Israeli-Palestinian negotiation, leading to some type of an outcome that includes a Palestinian state. It's in Israel's interest - if Israel wants to remain a Jewish, democratic, secure, prosperous entity, Israel really should almost think of this as a favor not to Palestinians, but to themselves. But you need a partner to do it. And that would take time to encourage the emergence of a responsible Palestinian partner. One way you do that, though, is for Israel and the United States to begin to describe publicly their concept of what a Palestinian state would be. What we want to do is give reasonable Palestinians some hope that if they were to rule out all violence, if they were to be prepared to compromise, there would be something in it for them that would be far greater than the misery that will come from Hamas.

SIMON: Would that require some change in Israel's part, as well?

HAASS: Absolutely. It would require a change in Israel's government. The government that Bibi Netanyahu cobbled together is not a government to negotiate peace. It would take a new appreciation on the part of Israel that it would have to be prepared to curtail the expansion and growth of settlements. It would have to be prepared to make territorial compromise. Palestinians would obviously have to rule out the use of force, rule out any terrorism, also be prepared to compromise. And my guess is the United States and several of the Arab governments, including Saudi Arabia, would have to be party to this process. Indeed, it might be that the Saudis and others would link normalization to Israel with significant progress in this area. Again, history teaches us not to be overly optimistic, to say the least, but I don't think it's a fool's errand. To the contrary, I think it's a necessary errand.

SIMON: Richard Haass, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, thank you so much for being with us.

HAASS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.