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'Pressure growing on Netanyahu'

Interview: Anne Allmeling / sgb
July 10, 2014

The Israeli army is preparing for a ground offensive in the Gaza Strip. Only Egypt could mediate in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, former Israeli ambassador Shimon Stein says.

Shimon Stein
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo

Deutsche Welle: The violence between Israel and the Palestinians is escalating. The Israeli army has launched air attacks in Gaza. A ground offensive is also under discussion. What strategy is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pursuing?

Shimon Stein: One thing is clear: Israel will not tolerate the increasing number of rockets coming from the Gaza Strip. Opinion polls suggest an overwhelming majority of Israelis believe that the government must do something.

But does that mean Israel will launch a ground invasion? Or are air strikes that have the goal of destroying the infrastructure of Hamas and its production sites enough? If you start with a limited ground operation, it could be extended. But then, we would find ourselves in the situation we were in two years ago - and even before that.

You are alluding to the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip in November 2012. That did not work out as the Israelis had hoped. Why is a ground offensive now being discussed again?

What is the alternative? Hamas is not currently a partner for dialogue. It is not attempring to meet the conditions set by the European Union and the Americans, according to which Hamas must renounce terror, recognize Israel and accept the agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Hamas has not met these three basic conditions set by the international community.

I was surprised that Hamas allowed the situation to escalate. I believe that was not originally in Hamas' interest. The group "Islamic Jihad in Palestine" forced Hamas into this situation because Hamas cannot control them. And Israel now has no other choice.

The Israeli population has put Prime Minister Netanyahu under pressure. Even his own coalition is putting pressure on him. I must say that until today, Prime Minister Netanyahu has behaved very cautiously. He could have reacted differently, with much greater violence. But for his standards - or at least for what his coalition partners are demanding of him - he has been holding back.

I'm not sure that this can continue. Because the more Qassam missiles reach the region around Tel Aviv, the more the pressure on him will grow.

You say Netanyahu could have reacted very differently. What would an incursion into Gaza mean?

In foreign policy terms, it is understood that Israel has the right to defend itself. But should Israel decide to undertake a ground operation, I doubt the international community would continue to have this tacit understanding of the Israeli action. The longer the operation lasts, the more victims there will be on the Palestinian side, and the greater the criticism will be.

Even today, the European Union and the Americans are demanding more restraint and calling for a ceasefire. But a ground operation would mean an immediate confrontation with the Palestinian population. Innocent civilians would also fall victim.

As part of a larger goal, Israel would destroy the strategic infrastructure, and would take action against the political and military leadership. These are things that have already been done in the past with the goal of deterrence. But now, that evidently has stopped working after two years.

It's still not clear how long it will take before the two sides show a willingness to make concessions. Egypt has already become involved. I think that's very positive because currently it seems to me to be the only one who is able, at least tacitly and informally, to resume talks with both parties.

Why is that?

I see at the moment no other Arab country that is offering to do this. The Americans are not suited to mediating between Israel and Hamas. The European Union doesn't play much of a role. But Egypt can fulfill this role, as it has in the past. Israel has confidence in Egypt and Hamas is dependent on Egypt. That's why Egypt could be able to serve as an intermediary.

Shimon Stein is a former Israeli ambassador to Germany.

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