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Retired U.S. diplomat discusses calls for Israel to reduce civilian deaths in Gaza

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Health Ministry in Gaza says the death toll there is rapidly approaching 20,000 as Israel continues to bear down on Hamas, which has been the governing authority in the Gaza Strip. Yesterday, the U.N. Security Council delayed a vote on another cease-fire resolution, fearing another U.S. veto. The U.S. has refused to sign on to calls for a permanent ceasefire, but American officials are increasingly public in their appeals to Israel to do more to protect civilians in the Gaza Strip. Here is U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin from earlier this week.

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LLOYD AUSTIN: We will continue to stand up for Israel's bedrock right to defend itself, and we will also continue to urge the protection of civilians during conflict and to increase the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza.

MARTIN: Members of Congress are calling on President Biden to do more to pressure Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a change in his military strategy, and public opinion is split over Israel's military response. And all this raises a lot of questions about the relationship between the U.S. and Israel right now and if there's more the U.S. could or should be doing. We called veteran diplomat Ryan Crocker for his take on all this. He served nearly four decades in the foreign service, serving in many high-conflict areas as U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Lebanon, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Good morning, Ambassador.

RYAN CROCKER: Good morning.

MARTIN: So the Biden administration's pleas for Israel to change its military strategy in Gaza, or to at least do something to limit civilian casualties, don't seem to have made any difference. Why do you think that is?

CROCKER: Well, clearly, Netanyahu is showing that he is in charge and that he will fulfill his pledge to destroy Hamas. It's not a viable proposition, unfortunately, and I hope that - as this proceeds, that we will see at least a change in tactics, if not in strategy.

MARTIN: So I want to hear more about why you say that in a minute, but first I want to ask, is there some leverage the U.S. has that it's not using?

CROCKER: I really don't think so, Michel. It's not viable politically, I think, for the U.S. to say that we will cease military assistance to Israel unless they do this or do that. That's not the way this relationship works. I think that we will continue to exhort them to pursue their goal, but to do so in a way that limits civilian casualties, because it really is - 20,000 is a huge number, and there is a shift in world opinion, if not in U.S. opinion, that Israel, for its own sake, needs to take account of.

MARTIN: What is your sense of what role the U.S. domestic politics plays in all this? I mean, thinking as - and, you know, we just said that members of the president's own party want him to take a more forceful approach with regards to Israel. The president is facing reelection next year. And as we just said, like, public opinion on Israel's military actions is divided. So what is your sense of what role that plays in how the administration is approaching this?

CROCKER: Well, the administration, I think, has been heavily engaged at a variety of levels with Israel on this. We've seen Bill Burns out there, as well as Tony Blinken, Lloyd Austin. We are thoroughly engaged on this, and I think that will continue. I think that the administration's calculations on this are that we need to see this phase of the fight wrapped up and wrapped up swiftly and move on to a day-after approach. And I think if that happens, say, in the next 10 days or so, by the end of the year, I think you'll see a shift in opinion in the U.S. and globally to be less critical of the U.S. as well as less critical of Israel. But again, this current phase of fighting just has to come to an end. That doesn't mean the campaign has to stop.

MARTIN: But I still want to understand why you say the U.S. just does not have that much zone of influence here.

CROCKER: Well, I think we have considerable influence, and I think we're using it. Again, we've just heard Defense Secretary Austin speaking. And we will continue to press Israel not to cease the campaign, but to apply a different set of tactics as this winds down. And although it may not look like it, I think we're getting closer to an endgame, in the sense that I think we may see an - within 10 days, by the end of the year, I think it's reasonable - again, with a lot of U.S. involvement - that we will see an end to this kind of - the kinds of major operations and very heavy casualties that we're sitting here and we're seeing now.

MARTIN: And why do you say that?

CROCKER: Well, Hamas is taking a lot of punishment and losing a lot of fighters, and I think that as this phase progresses, I think you're going to see Israel shift its tactics - again, not to stop the fighting, but they're not going to be confronting major formations of Hamas fighters. I think the - there's going to be attrition here. There has been, and I think that we can then expect Israel to scale down and shift tactics for the next steps here.

MARTIN: What steps do you think would lead to the bigger issue here, which is a longer term - a long-term peace?

CROCKER: Well, there are some major, major questions out there. Clearly, we are hoping that Arab states will play a role in a post-major-conflict Gaza, that Palestinians who dislike Hamas as much as we do will step forward. But there are also just huge impediments. The hostages - it's heartbreaking to think of what they've been through. And Israel has to conduct these next phases in a way that will ensure these hostages come home. And that is not going to be easy.

MARTIN: No. What are you most worried about?

CROCKER: I'm most worried about an expansion of the conflict, maybe slightly less worried than I was before. What we - it's important to think about what we haven't seen. We haven't seen the West Bank blow up. We haven't seen Hezbollah launch a full offensive, and we haven't seen the most extreme of political reactions from other Arabs. Only Jordan withdrew its ambassador. They have a particular problem with a lot of Muslim Brotherhood support in Jordan. Other Arab states have resorted to a lot of rhetoric. But basically, we're keeping all the doors open.

MARTIN: That is former Ambassador Ryan Crocker. He's a diplomat with deep experience in the region. Ambassador, thank you so much for talking to us.

CROCKER: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.