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Former Israeli Ambassador Talks About The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

On Day 10 of open conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, President Biden called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu again, fourth call that we know of this week. Biden told Netanyahu he expects to see a significant de-escalation today on the path to a cease-fire in Gaza. Now, whether that happens, what that might look like and what Israel's next move may be are not yet clear, but our next guest has deep insight into Netanyahu's thinking. Ron Dermer is Israel's former ambassador to the United States. He remains a close adviser to Netanyahu. And he is on the line now from Jerusalem. Ambassador, thanks for being with us.

RON DERMER: My pleasure.

KELLY: Let me put to you, as someone who has navigated both Israeli and American politics for many years, what is your read on this latest call between Biden and Netanyahu? What is the message you hear the U.S. delivering?

DERMER: Well, I think probably the president is facing internal pressures within his party to be more forceful in asking for calm. But I think that President Biden is somebody who has traditionally, and especially in the last few days, has certainly backed Israel's right to defend itself. It might just be him signaling that he - I think both internally within America and maybe globally, that he'd like to see this come to a close. I can tell you Israelis would like to see a way to find a cease-fire.

KELLY: Every time one of these flare-ups happens, you know public opinion here in the U.S. hardens a little against Israel. Support for Palestinians is growing. And I wonder, in Israel, do Israelis see that?

DERMER: Well, I mean, I think they hear reports about it, but it doesn't matter because we're not a public opinion issue. We're not an experiment on somebody's whiteboard somewhere. We're a real sovereign country with over 9 million citizens, and they want their government to protect them. So I think public opinion matters to them. There's no question about that. And actually, in some cases, it infuriates them because they say, here we have a terror organization. It's not a battle between Israelis and Palestinians. It's a terror organization that controls Gaza, not just the terror organization, but a genocidal one that...

KELLY: You're talking about Hamas, which is recognized internationally as a terror organization. Go on.

DERMER: And so when they see people being sympathetic with Hamas in any way, and even though I think many Americans are not sympathetic with Hamas, but they see the civilian casualties and the pictures that are coming from Gaza. And somebody would have to have a heart of stone to not be moved by it. I really think, Mary Louise, that no country in the history of the world has taken such great lengths to keep the civilians of the enemy population out of harm's way. Even the reports that you have from Gaza right now, where you're talking about the number of civilians who have been killed, even the worst reports think to say that it's about one to one. Israel is fighting this war in a way that other countries do not fight wars thousands of miles away, let alone when their own cities are being rocketed.

KELLY: Let me put to you a policy question. It's about sequencing. It's about how this ends. We have been trying to hear from as many people as we can across Israel, across Gaza, across the region. And today, we heard from Hamas. NPR spoke with Basem Naim. He's a spokesman for Hamas. We reached him in Gaza. I want to let you hear part of what he told us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BASEM NAIM: We have said it from the beginning. We are ready to stop immediately if the Israelis stop their aggression. But this is the (unintelligible) to destroy more houses and to kill more people and to smash more families.

KELLY: Ambassador Dermer, understanding, of course, that every country, including Israel, has the right to defend itself. You are the stronger power here. Why not go first?

DERMER: I don't understand why, if Israel is the stronger power, that makes any difference. You just had a representative, a spokesman for a terror organization. And, Mary Louise, it's important to tell your audience this is an organization that calls for the murder of Jews worldwide.

KELLY: Let me stop you because my question to you is, why doesn't Israel stop the shooting first?

DERMER: I'll answer the question. I'll answer the question. But the context has to be given to the people of the United States. I think you have an obligation as a journalist, to also explain what we're dealing with.

KELLY: Whatever Hamas may or may not be, why not go first? Why not put a cease-fire into place? Why not explore?

DERMER: Why not go what in terms of what?

KELLY: In terms of stopping shooting.

DERMER: The reason why you don't have a cease-fire is that Israel has to degrade Hamas's capabilities. When we achieve that military objective, when we restore deterrence, which means that Hamas has to understand that they should never have started this violence in the first place and has to be deterred from starting such violence in the future, when our military finishes the job that it was assigned to do by the political leaders in the country, then Israel would not have to move forward.

But it's not a question of let's just stop firing for a few hours because you know what's going to happen? We're. going to have round five and round six and round seven and round eight. And how do we get out of this is we have to deliver Hamas a lethal blow. Now, in my own opinion, even if we deliver them a very, very tough blow, we might only have a period of calm for three, four or five years. That may be it.

KELLY: I have to say, listening to you, it sounds like the response to President Biden saying he wants to see a significant de-escalation - I understand you're not speaking in an official capacity for Israel, but as an adviser to Netanyahu, the answer is not yet.

DERMER: Well, I can't answer that question definitively. I have no doubt that President Biden supports Israel's right to defend itself. And I believe that the people of Israel, just like him, would like to see a de-escalation as quickly as possible. And they'd like to see a cease-fire that is a durable and sustainable cease-fire. And what we should be talking about and many people have to think about is, how do you create such conditions for a sustainable cease-fire? Because what Hamas does is after the cease-fire, they rebuild their military machine. So we can degrade their capabilities, but then they'll start rebuilding it.

And the question is, will Israel act against Hamas to thwart them from rebuilding those capabilities? When Israel does that - and this is not a theoretical exercise. They can have a weapons manufacturing facility that has long-range rockets. If Israel were to attack it in six months, will the world support us? Or again, will the world instead condemn Israel for defending itself against a terror organization?

KELLY: Ambassador, thank you.

DERMER: Thank you.

KELLY: Ron Dermer is Israel's former ambassador to the United States, speaking to us there from Jerusalem, one of many voices we are bringing you from the region this week as the fighting in the Middle East continues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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