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Israeli Soldier Captured by Militants; Israeli Soldier Capture Could be Game Changer; Many Factors at Play in Israel/Hamas Conflict; What Can U.S. Do in Israel/Hamas Conflict?

Aired August 01, 2014 - 13:30   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We want to welcome back our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer, reporting from Jerusalem.

Israel says its forces are scouring parts of Gaza. They're looking for a soldier who was captured by militants who launched a suicide attack on a tunnel earlier in the day. The soldier identified as 23- year-old Second Lieutenant Hadar Goldin.

His father spoke out today saying he's certain the Israeli army will find his son.


SIMHA GOLDIN, FATHER OF HADAR GOLDIN (through translation): We want to support the Israeli army and the state of Israel in its fight against Hamas in Gaza and we are certain the army will not stop under any circumstance and will not leave any stone unturned in the Gaza Strip and will bring Hadar back home safe and sound.


BLITZER: Two Israeli soldiers who were with Goldin were killed in that attack in southern Gaza. Israel is now searching desperately for this missing Israeli soldier. We're told Israeli forces in that area in southern Gaza are literally going house to house. A massive manhunt under way.

Our next guest has a unique perspective on what could happen next. Gershon Baskin was the initiator of the secret back channel used to negotiate the release of another Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. He was also an adviser to the peace process of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, an advisor to the former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, as well. Now he's the CEO and founder of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.

You and I agreed, potentially, the capture of an Israeli soldier by Hamas or Islamic jihad or some other faction could be a game changer right now. Why?

GERSHON BASKIN, CEO & FOUNDER, ISRAEL/PALESTINE CENTER FOR RESEARCH AND INFORMATION: The Israelis were accepting a cease-fire, calculating their steps in order to end this operation, and now the operation cannot be ended while Hamas is holding an Israeli soldier underground somewhere in Gaza. It means they can't stop the operation until they find that soldier, dead or alive, and bring him home. They're not going to walk themselves into another situation of having to negotiate a prisoner release with Hamas, which will give Hamas another victory.

The whole purpose of this operation is to weaken Hamas, to turn Hamas into a nonfactor in terms of the future of Israeli/Palestinian relations. Right now, Hamas is claiming victory, both in the military against Israel for all its achievements, of shooting rockets all over Israel, of closing down civil aviation to Israel for 36 hours. And now holding an Israeli soldier forces the Israeli army to remain in Gaza even longer.

BLITZER: The spokesman for Hamas denies Hamas is holding this soldier. That's not unusual necessarily, is it?

BASKIN: No, It's not unusual. When Gilad Shalit was first abducted, the political wing of Hamas refused to take any responsibility or claim any knowledge of that. It lasted into several weeks before Hamas admitted they were behind it.

There was an earlier announcement by the number-three person in the Hamas, Musambusbuk (ph), who is in Cairo who early in the day said, yes, we have a soldier, and even gave his name. Later in the day, he put out an announcement they have no knowledge of Hamas holding a soldier or not.

It's also very interesting that the Israelis put out an announcement the soldier was abducted, is missing and the Israelis are looking for him.

BLITZER: Usually, in a situation like this -- and you know a lot about it. You helped get Gilad Shalit out of Hamas captivity after five years. Usually, Hamas, or Hezbollah, for that matter, in Lebanon, when they held Israelis, they want something for any information about that soldier, proof of life or anything else, right?

BASKIN: Right, for sure. They want release of prisoners, which will be their demand. They will try and isolate the issue with the abducted soldier from the other demands that they have with regard to changing the situation in Gaza, ending the siege, giving them a seaport, an airport, whatever their demands may be. This will be a separate negotiation they will try to do to get further achievements. And I think they won't get it. I don't think Israel is going to play the game right now. We see the Israeli ground operation, with 40,000, 50,000, 60,000 soldiers in Gaza. Israel's not going to leave.

The other thing I think the military wing of Hamas wants to achieve is more opportunities to kidnap additional soldiers and kill additional soldiers, so they're drawing Israel further into the battle in Gaza at a time when Israel was contemplating removing its forces from Gaza.

BLITZER: That's why this is a game changer.

BASKIN: That's right.

BLITZER: And if what we saw over the first four weeks, let's say, of this war was brutal, you say it has potential to get a whole lot worse.

BASKIN: It has the potential to get worse. I think we'll see over the next days a full occupation of the city of Rafah.

BLITZER: Rafah is the southern --


BASKIN: It's a big city. Probably, Rafah, and its surrounding villages, it's about 250,000 people.


BLITZER: You think Israel's going to go in there and take over that site?

BASKIN: I think they'll go in. They're going to start on the outskirts and they'll be leveling the city, house by house, as they search for the soldier, to find the opening to the ground tunnels. There was an announcement made that Israel informed the only hospital in Rafah to evacuate its staff and patients.

BLITZER: When was that?

BASKIN: Over the last hour, the last hour and a half. This is apparently because Israel believes there's probably an underground bunker beneath the hospital where maybe the soldier's being held, where maybe some of the command posts are being held, where maybe some of the leaders are there. There is a tactic in the past where hospitals were used as bunkers.

I would propose to Israel, as they were doing this operation, that they understand this is going to be a humanitarian disaster. And the United States and the United Nations and the government of Israel should call right now for creating a humanitarian corridor to allow civilians to leave Rafah tonight, tomorrow morning, to let them go to the West Bank, to let them go to Sinai, where are they can go to get out of the line of fire, because we can't afford for more hundreds and thousands of civilians to be killed in this operation.

BLITZER: You see that scenario definitely unfolding?

BASKIN: I think if Israel is going to go into Rafah with its very densely populated areas, 250,000 people, we're talking about a humanitarian disaster.

BLITZER: Yes, that sounds like a nightmare to me.

Gershon, thank you for joining us. Is there any opportunity you might see for yourself to play another role in trying to get this Israeli soldier out, the role you played the last time? BASKIN: I don't see that happening. I don't see that happening.

What I can do and what I'm trying to do is throw out some of these creative ideas, like the humanitarian corridor to save human lives. The best I can do is throw out out-of-the-box ideas because the people sitting around the table with all the generals and all the military folks have one way of thinking, and they usually don't think out of the box.

BLITZER: Gershon Baskin, thank you very much for joining us. Let's hope that scenario does not unfold. It sounds like a total nightmare.

And if you thought it was bad before, get ready, it could get a whole lot worse.

The conflict that's fueling the violence in Gaza, certainly decades old, but some loyalties across the region are new. Those critical alliances, their impact, when we come back.


BLITZER: Hamas and Israel have gone to war three times in just the past six years. This time around, there are many different factors at play.

Nic Robertson is joining us live from Doha, Qatar.

Nic, there are regional fault lines key to the conflict. You're in Qatar, which is, of course, a major supporter of Hamas. Turkey is as well. That's not necessarily the case for so many of the other Arab countries in the Middle East, elsewhere in the region. Tell us what's going on right now, big picture, because it's a little confusing.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, one of the things that we haven't heard a lot of, Wolf, is condemnation of Israel that we've heard in the past from countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan. But this is principally because it seems that at the moment they see Hamas as a potential threat. Hamas, of course, affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia very much concerned about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. And they see countries like Qatar as really supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. As we know, Qatar is host to the political leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal. He fled here after the Arab Spring or uprising in Syria where he'd been in Damascus for many years in exile. And the association between Qatar and Hamas is one that many regional players here now fear. They are concerned that Qatar is trying to boost the Muslim Brotherhood across the region on the back of the Arab Spring.

You have a change in Egypt as well. The president, al Sisi, there, very much against and cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Hamas doesn't have those allies across the board with Egypt.

So the whole political picture, if you will, in the region has changed. With a lot more focus of dislike on the Muslim Brotherhood by the -- by many leaders in the region and concerns about what they'll do. And that transposes onto how they react to Hamas, which, of course, transposes on to how Qatar figures into the picture here as well, Wolf, seeing as, you know, as it is seen in this region as a backer of the Muslim Brotherhood on the back of the Arab Spring.

BLITZER: The leader, the political leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, he's there where you are in Doha, Qatar. Is he really, though, in charge of all parts of Hamas, including the military wing of Hamas? Or is there a rivalry going on between some of these other -- these other leaders?

ROBERTSON: That's certainly a question he gets asked a lot. It's a question that he always answers as, no, there's no rift, we're well aligned. He's been in exile for many years. Israel tried to kill him when he was in exile in Jordan. The Jordanians at that time helped get an anecdote to the poison that he was poisoned with when he was in Jordan. So he's been in exile for a long time, separated from the military leaders of the military wing of Hamas. But the organization holds together. And certainly it's in their interests at the moment, particularly right now, while they're in this situation to portray themselves as united.

But, of course, it is difficult for a political leader, so long in exile, living in somewhere like Qatar, to stay in touch with the grass roots feeling inside Gaza, particularly as the population there goes through such an extreme situation. So it's very hard to tell the reality of what that relationship is like. One has to believe it is strained. They have to play it as united, very strongly united -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Every time you speak to the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, he goes out of his way to ridicule Khaled Meshaal. He says he's living in five-star hotels in Doha, Qatar, while his people in Gaza are suffering. But he says he doesn't really care.

All right, Nic, thanks.

Nic Robertson reporting from Doha, Qatar, a critically important country, state, involved in this whole effort. And Nic's going to be reporting from there for several days.

Meanwhile, a cease-fire shattered as the Middle East conflict barrels into a new phase. So what should the United States do next? What can the United States do next? I'll check in with a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, a special Middle East envoy. Martin Indyk is standing by live.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: The White House has just released a statement. President Obama just wrapped up a phone conversation with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. According to the statement, "The president reiterated his deep concerns about Russian's increased support for the separatists in Ukraine." The president also reinforced his preference for "a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Ukraine." The two leaders agreed to keep in touch. We're going to continue to watch that story as well.

The White House is condemning the capture of an Israeli soldier in Gaza. Here is Josh Earnest on CNN earlier today.


JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Individuals used the cover of a humanitarian cease-fire to attack Israeli soldiers and even to take one hostage. That would be a rather barbaric violation of the cease-fire agreement. We could encourage the international community to respond to this and condemn it in the strongest possible terms. And we would encourage those who have influence with Hamas to get them back on to the terms of a cease-fire and to get them to abide by the agreements they struck just yesterday.


BLITZER: The White House press secretary also says Secretary of State John Kerry has been in touch by phone with Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to talk about the next steps.

So what are the next steps? Let's get insight from Martin Indyk, in Washington. He's the director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. Until recently, he was President Obama's special envoy for Arab/Israeli peace talks.

Martin, what realistically can the United States do now, should the United States do now?

MARTIN INDYK, DIRECTOR OF FOREIGN POLICY, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION & FORMER SPECIAL ENVOY FOR ARAB/ISRAELI PEACE TALKS: Well, I think you heard the essence of it in that clip you just showed. It is to concert as much international pressure, particularly from Egypt, Qatar, Turkey, the countries that have influence on Hamas, as quickly as possible to get them to release this Israeli lieutenant they have captured, because that is a game changer. I think you used that word earlier in your program. I think it's exactly right. And if it's not possible to get the soldier out, I'm afraid that the Israelis are going to take much harsher action to try to apply military pressure to get him back, and that is going to just escalate the conflict with potential broader consequences. The West Bank is boiling at the moment and could easily boil over. We could see reactions in the Arab States that we haven't seen up to now. The king of Saudi Arabia has come out and denounced Israel's action in Gaza. That removes the cover from a lot of other Arab leaders who will have to -- they have been solid up to now. I expect they will come out and denounce what's going on. So the whole thing could escalate in very dangerous ways, well beyond anything we have seen up until now. And that's been bad enough.

So I think the emphasis from Washington and from Secretary of State Kerry is to do as much as possible to get Hamas to give up the Israeli soldier and return to the cease-fire package deal that Secretary Kerry had negotiated and announced yesterday.

BLITZER: But is that really realistic? Let's assume Hamas has this Israeli soldier. Let's assume Islamic jihads or other groups have Israelis -- they're going to want something major from Israel in exchange for the Israeli soldier. And Israel -- as you point out and others have pointed out, Israel is going to step up its military campaign. As tough as it was the last four weeks, it's going to get a lot more brutal, I suspect.

INDYK: I agree. It's a stretch. But it has to be tried and it has to be tried urgently, particularly through the Egyptians. As I said, the Qataris and the Turks. But I think this is a slap in the face to the Egyptians. The whole thing was organized with Egypt. Egypt was to host the negotiations that were to follow on from the cease-fire. Egypt has the ability to choke Hamas from the Egyptian side or to open up to Hamas, and that pressure is critically important at this moment.

In terms of them wanting something, I'm sure you're absolutely right. The re-release of Hamas prisoners that had been released by Israel for the Shalit deal but re-arrested in the wake of the kidnapping of the Israeli teenagers was something on Hamas' list of demands that is not included in this package deal. And I can imagine they pulled this one off after the cease-fire in order to put themselves in a position to put it back on the agenda.

So I don't want to underestimate the degree of difficulty involved now in trying to head off this next escalatory step. But there's no choice but to try as hard as we can.

BLITZER: You were once an assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs. You know the region. You were once the U.S. ambassador to Israel. I've got to tell you -- and you know this. I don't have to necessarily educate you about what the mood is in Israel right now with the capture of this Israeli soldier. The chances of Prime Minister Netanyahu agreeing to another cease-fire, as long as that Israeli soldier is held, those chances are minimal, don't you agree?

INDYK: I think so. You're over there, Wolf, and you've got much better sense than I have from here. But certainly, from what I'm hearing from my friends there, that is the sentiment, from left to right, across the spectrum. We have seen a recent poll that said 87 percent of Israelis want the prime minister to press ahead with the military operations. That was before this cease-fire deal. Now I imagine it's 100 percent. And he's under tremendous pressure domestically. But he also knows that he's got some very tough decisions ahead of him in terms of, if he presses ahead, the civilian casualty toll, the toll on Israeli soldiers, the condemnation of Israel internationally, all of those things are the down-side risks involved and costs involved in his next decision. So I sympathize greatly with his difficulty. I'm sure that he prefers not to go that route. But I'm afraid that in these circumstances, he's not going to have a choice.

BLITZER: Martin Indyk, thanks for the analysis.

That's all the time I have right now. I'll be back later today, 5:00 p.m. eastern, a special two-hour edition of "The Situation Room." I'm Wolf Blitzer, reporting from Jerusalem.

CNN's breaking news coverage of the crisis in the Middle East continues right now -- actually, after a short break -- with Anderson Cooper.