DATE March 19, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: James Bennett discusses both sides of the Middle East
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
In his position as Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times, James
Bennett is covering both sides of the Middle East conflict. He's been writing
about the tit-for-tat attacks and how they're affecting the daily lives of
Israelis and Palestinians, and he's been covering diplomatic efforts to bring
the two sides back to the negotiating table. Today, he has the lead story in
The New York Times, reporting on how Israel has started withdrawing from
Palestinian-controlled territory in three West Bank towns, moving under
American pressure toward meeting Palestinian conditions for cease-fire talks.
Bennett's report also covers Vice President Dick Cheney's visit to Israel,
where he met with President Ariel Sharon and reaffirmed the Bush
administration's commitment to helping end the violence. Cheney said that he
would consider meeting with Arafat if Arafat does his part to achieve a
The main goal of Cheney's trip to the region is to mobilize support in Arab
countries for US plans to attack Iraq. This morning, I spoke to James
Bennett, who's in Jerusalem, and asked if he thought that Cheney brought both
sides any closer to the negotiating table.
Mr. JAMES BENNETT (The New York Times): It wasn't really part of his mission
here, and I don't think in the end it's something he accomplished. He hadn't
even scheduled an arriving here. He hadn't scheduled any meetings with any
Palestinian officials, which caused something of a flap with the Palestinian
leadership. By the time he got here, Cheney's people were saying, `Well, he's
left some room on his schedule for a possible meeting.' The Palestinians at
that point were quite miffed, and they said, `He'll meet with Yasser Arafat or
he won't meet with any Palestinian officials.' Vice President Cheney wasn't
about to meet with Yasser Arafat. George Bush has categorically refused to
meet with him so far, and that would be regarded as simply too great a
concession. So that didn't happen, and there were some bruised feelings on
In an effort to repair that, today the vice president said, well, he will meet
with Yasser Arafat as soon as the Palestinians agree to enter a formal
cease-fire arrangement with the Israelis.
GROSS: So what kind of reaction was Dick Cheney getting in the Middle East to
the American plan to possibly attack Iraq?
Mr. BENNETT: He kept trying to talk about that subject; in return, he kept
hearing from Arab states that the US had to first address the conflict here.
There was not, as you would expect, great enthusiasm for the idea of another
war on Iraq. He encountered a lot of resistance to that idea in the Arab
states. The Israelis are more enthusiastic about the idea; in fact,
foursquare behind it. But over and over again, he kept hearing the same
thing, which is that Arab states expect him to do something about the problem
here. They want to see Yasser Arafat freed from the West Bank and, in
particular, the city of Ramallah, where Israel has effectively been holding
him a captive for the last three months. They want him to be able to attend
the summit meeting next week of Arab states in Beirut March 27th and March
The Israeli press has reported that Dick Cheney was privately pressing Ariel
Sharon to let Arafat go next week to Beirut, but Mr. Sharon said today that
he would permit Yasser Arafat to go if he meets certain conditions. And then
he said, well, he might not let him come back if he gives a bad speech while
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about how tactics have changed on each side.
Let's start with the Israelis. What are the Israelis doing now that they
perhaps didn't do in previous high points of the conflict with the
Mr. BENNETT: Well, the last two weeks brought basically the largest Israeli
military operation in 20 years, and their largest operation in the West Bank
and Gaza since they first conquered those territories in 1967. There had been
a number of pretty devastating suicide attacks in Israel. There's growing
political frustration here among Israelis that the government had failed to
address their security concerns. Ariel Sharon was elected on a promise of
peace and security, and violence, if anything, had only grown after a year in
office. And so in late February they launched this sweeping operation to raid
Palestinian refugee camps, which they'd never attacked before. And we had
soldiers essentially going into these camps, taking them over and going house
to house searching for militants, searching for weapons. And in many cases
these invasions produced firefights that left dozens of Palestinians dead
GROSS: What is your understanding of what the Israeli mission is in entering
the refugee camps?
Mr. BENNETT: Well, the Israelis said they were simply left no option, that
they had to do something about what they called a `rising tide of terrorism,'
and they had to attack it at its source; that Palestinians were treating these
refugee camps as havens, believing the Israelis would never enter them; that
they were using them as bomb-making factories, and that many of the most
wanted militants were hiding out in them. In fact, the Israelis weren't able
to round up many of those people, the people they regard as the truly bad
guys, because they simply melted away from the camps and vanished into the
civilian population elsewhere. But Israel claimed success for it partly
because they said that they also just managed to kill a large number of
Now from the Palestinian perspective, these raids into the camps were an
attempt by Israel to reoccupy territory that is supposed to, by treaty, be
Palestinian controlled. And they view it as part of a master plan by Mr.
Sharon to eventually reoccupy the whole West Bank and Gaza Strip, something
that Sharon denies, of course.
GROSS: You recently reported from the largest refugee camp in the West Bank,
Balata. Would you describe what the camp looks like and what life is like
Mr. BENNETT: Well, this, like other refugee camps, was established in 1948
after the Israeli-Arab war, and the people that are living there have been
there now for half a century. They've had children, they've had
grandchildren. The place was originally a collection of tents. It's now a
tightly packed warren of cinder block houses, one after the other, pressed up
against each other. People have thrown up extra floors willy-nilly. And in
all these refugee camps, 50 percent of the population is under 18. There are
vast number of children milling in the streets with nothing to do. The United
Nations runs actually fairly good schools in a lot of these camps, but the
people there still live in great poverty.
Many of them still have their deeds to their homes in the land that is now
Israel. They dream still of returning there. Some even still have the keys
to their houses, and when you ask them where they're from, even the second or
third generation that lives there, they don't tell you Balata refugee camp.
They tell you Jaffa or Haifa, Israeli cities, and they still expect to return
home to those cities someday, and as a result, their claims have created one
of the most difficult political problems between Israelis and Palestinians.
GROSS: The right of return.
Mr. BENNETT: Exactly. The right of return.
GROSS: You've described in your writing how a lot of younger Palestinians
have every intention to returning to a home that doesn't necessarily even
exist any more. They have keys to houses that don't exist any more in
communities that have totally changed since 1948, when their families left,
and these are places that the younger people have never even seen.
Mr. BENNETT: That's right. In some cases, they have gone home. Their
parents took them back. I interviewed recently a leader of the Islamic group
Hamas in a refugee camp in northern Gaza called Jabaliya, and he would, when
Gaza was still open and you could travel more freely, he would take his family
to picnic on the ruins of their old house, a place he had never lived himself,
by the way. He was born in Jabaliya. Even if they've never been there, the
children have been raised on Edenic images of what life was like in their
home, and they carry visions of paradise lost with them, and compare to the
circumstances in which they now find themselves, often of extreme poverty, in
camps where the sewage is not too great, where unemployment, particularly
during the conflict, has climbed to probably well over 50 percent, and the
poverty rate is also about that high, people living on less than $3 a day.
Compared to that, the visions that they carry with them, they really treasure.
GROSS: So we'll talk about the right of return and how that figures into the
peace equation a little bit later, but I want to get back to how tactics on
each side have changed. You've said that the Israelis have, you know, in the
past few weeks, sent tanks into some of the refugee camps. How have
Palestinian tactics changed in this second intifada?
Mr. BENNETT: Well, there's been a really important shift in the just the
last couple of months. Up until the beginning of this year, most of the
really devastating attacks, particularly the suicide attacks within pre-1967
Israel, that is, not in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, most of those attacks
were carried out by Hamas, which is an Islamic extremist group. Since
mid-January, we've seen militants from Yasser Arafat's own Fatah faction,
which is a more mainstream, somewhat more secular organization, those
Palestinians have been conducting the lion's share of attacks. They've been
carrying out suicide attacks in Israel.
They've also stepped up, very importantly, have stepped up their attacks on
Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They think
that there's more international sympathy for those types of attacks than for
suicide attacks in Jerusalem. Extremism is so rife now, really on both sides,
but on the Palestinian side, that this stepped-up violence by Fatah militants
has helped restore Fatah's popularity and Yasser Arafat's popularity.
GROSS: Now you spoke with Arafat's top Fatah lieutenant, Marwan Barghouthi,
and you asked him to talk about these attacks of Israelis in the settlements
in the West Bank and Gaza, and he defended those attacks. What was his
Mr. BENNETT: Well, his view and the view of most Palestinians is that the
Israelis are occupiers of the West Bank and Gaza, that it's land that should
be returned to the Palestinians, that settlers are a form of illegal
occupation and essentially equivalent to the soldiers at the checkpoints. So
they regard them as legitimate targets. Marwan Barghouthi and other
Palestinians are now saying there can be no cease-fire until Israel entirely
leaves those territories. He says he still believes in a two-state solution,
that once Israel is out of the West Bank and Gaza that that will pave the way
for real peace and real reconciliation, but that as long as Israel is still
there, that's de facto a violation of a cease-fire, that it is, in effect, an
act of violence and an assault on the Palestinian people, so that there can be
no truce as long as there are still soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and
GROSS: My guest is James Bennett, the Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York
Times. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is James Bennett. He's The New
York Times' Jerusalem bureau chief, and he's speaking to us from Jerusalem.
Now Israeli officials have said that it's impossible to negotiate with Arafat
because Arafat hasn't held Palestinians accountable for suicide bombings, he
hasn't tried to stop them, that they hold Arafat accountable for a lot of the
Palestinian violence, although Arafat says, you know, that he's done his best.
If it is Fatah, which is part of the same group that Arafat belongs to--if it
is Fatah that is behind some of the attacks in the West Bank and Gaza against
Israelis, what does that say about Arafat and his willingness to stop attacks
Mr. BENNETT: That that willingness has declined dramatically in the last few
months, and--Yasser Arafat declared a cease-fire on December 16th under
enormous American pressure and other international pressure. That cease-fire
essentially unraveled after about three weeks. Both sides hold the other side
responsible for the collapse of the cease-fire.
From the Palestinian perspective, Israel destroyed the cease-fire by killing a
very popular Fatah militant leader in the West Bank city of Tulkarem, a guy
named Raed Karmi. That was a pivotal event, at least from the Palestinian
perspective. Since then, from that killing is when we can really date this
enormous rise in Fatah attacks and their increasing use of suicide as a
tactic, which is not something they had embraced earlier.
Since then, the violence has really risen almost out of control here. The
Bush administration had said over and over again that it wasn't really
prepared to engage here until both parties were prepared to embrace the
cease-fire, that Yasser Arafat really needed to do more to crack down on
violence before he could expect much help from the United States. In fact,
what's happened in the end is that the United States has re-engaged precisely
because the violence had gotten so bad, and so from a Palestinian perspective,
it looks like violence works. It looks like the only thing that Israelis and
the Bush administration understand and respond to is force.
GROSS: One other question in terms of how tactics are changing on both sides
in the Middle East conflict now. Israel has been holding Yasser Arafat
basically under house arrest for several weeks. Has Israel ever done anything
like that before?
Mr. BENNETT: Well, arguably this whole experience is a replay of what
happened in Lebanon 20 years ago, when Ariel Sharon was defense minister and
Yasser Arafat was in Beirut. Israel invaded Lebanon, supposedly just to clear
away its northern border, but the troops wound up going right up to Beirut and
besieging Beirut, where Yasser Arafat was effectively besieged as he has been
besieged recently in Ramallah. Both men, Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat, are
accused here of essentially replaying that drama now in the territory, the
West Bank and Gaza, and Israel itself that lies at the core of their dispute.
GROSS: How is holding Arafat under house arrest seen by each side? How do
the Israelis see it? How do the Palestinians see it?
Mr. BENNETT: Well, I should say first that Israel is now slowly letting
Arafat out of his captivity, now that he is free to move in the West Bank,
although as soon as they announced that, they attacked Ramallah and made it
impossible for him to move again. And they say they may even let him go to
Beirut next week if he meets certain conditions for the Arab summit there.
But in general Israelis have been overwhelmingly approving of this effort.
And, in fact, they favor the idea now of expelling Arafat from the territories
altogether. Yasser Arafat is a very unpopular man in Israel and many people
have given up on the notion of him as a peace partner.
On the Palestinian side, this whole effort by Israel has backfired. It's made
Yasser Arafat more popular. People have thought that he's effectively now
more a symbol of their plight than ever. They're familiar with Israeli
checkpoints, virtual blockades of Palestinian cities, not being free to move
around. Now they see their leader in the same predicament, and they feel a
greater identification with him. We've seen in polls that Yasser Arafat's
popularity has climbed since he's been under house arrest.
GROSS: You recently pointed out what I thought was a very interesting
statistic, which is that during the first intifada almost 15 years ago,
roughly one Israeli died for every 25 Palestinians that were killed. And that
ratio has narrowed now. It's about one Israeli for about every three
Palestinians killed. What accounts for that narrowing and how is that kind of
affecting how this conflict is playing out?
Mr. BENNETT: The first conflict was much more of a sort of spontaneous
uprising. Children with stones flinging them at Israeli soldiers. This is
much more like a combination of guerrilla war and, in some cases, terrorist
enterprise. Armed gunmen vs. soldiers. Israel still retains overwhelming
force of arms. Israel's a nuclear power. It has tanks. It has armored
vehicles. But the Palestinians have become much more sophisticated in their
tactics, in the way they attack Israeli soldiers in particular. They've now
resorted to--they've now managed to destroy two Israeli tanks since early last
month. In 18 years of occupation by Israel in south Lebanon, the militant
group Hezbollah never managed to destroy an Israeli tank.
The relative increase of Israeli deaths is having a real profound political
effect on Israel. Sharon campaigned on this promise of peace and security,
and, in fact, Israel is losing more of its citizens than it has in any such
previous conflict. And there's a lot of pressure on him now to do something
about it, one way or another. On the one hand, you're seeing increasing calls
for drastic measures. Forty-six percent of the Jewish population of Israel
now favors what's known as transfer, somehow moving the Palestinians away from
Gaza Strip and West Bank. On the other hand, you're seeing left-wingers
wanting to build a fence and unilaterally withdraw behind it and simply leave
the Palestinian territories. Neither option is terribly realistic.
GROSS: What's the most optimistic move toward peace talks that you see
Mr. BENNETT: Well, last week the Bush administration returned General Anthony
Zinni, its special envoy, to the region. He'd been here twice before, failed
both times to get any kind of cease-fire. The administration had been very
reluctant to send him back here until there was some sign that both sides were
willing to--and particularly the Palestinian side, was willing to retreat from
the use of violence. But there was no sign that that was going to happen.
There's actually been two relatively quiet days here, though the violence has
continued. But General Zinni has succeeded in getting security chiefs from
both sides to meet again. The Israelis have now withdrawn from Bethlehem and
Beit Jala and some areas of the Gaza Strip, Palestinian-controlled territory
that they had recently invaded. Palestinian leadership says that's still not
enough. They want to see more Israeli withdrawals from other areas that, by
treaty, is supposed to be under Palestinian control.
But there is some sign that both sides want to pull back from the brink.
Whether this is more than a temporary lull, it's hard to say right now. The
dynamic is certainly all in the other direction; that is, working against
General Zinni's effort.
GROSS: James Bennett, recorded earlier today from Jerusalem. He's the
Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times. We'll continue the interview
in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation with The New York Times
Jerusalem bureau chief, James Bennett. And Geoff Nunberg considers Bernard
Goldberg's charge that the news media have a liberal bias.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview
with James Bennett, the Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times. He's
been covering both sides of the Middle East conflict. He was in Jerusalem
when we recorded our interview this morning.
Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has a plan that he's proposed, which is
that Israel withdraw to its boundaries from before the 1967 War, which would
basically mean getting all the settlements out of the West Bank and Gaza, and
in return Arab countries would normalize relations with Israel. Anything else
you want to flesh out about that plan before we talk about its implications?
Mr. BENNETT: Well, they're still wrestling with the actual shape of the plan,
which is expected to be the major topic of conversation at the Arab summit
next week in Beirut. There's been some debate over how specific they want to
get about various issues, such as the right of return that Palestinians
demand. The thinking now seems to be to leave it as vague as possible,
because the more specific it gets, the more there is, essentially, to shoot at
in the document. And they want to keep it, I think--at the moment anyway,
from what I've been told by Palestinian officials, they want to keep it more of
even a slogan, or a vision, for what could happen if there were an Israeli
GROSS: What would it mean for Israel to return to 1967 borders?
Mr. BENNETT: It'd be excruciating, excruciatingly difficult to return to the
precise 1967 borders. Many Israelis regard the West Bank, particularly, but
also the Gaza Strip, as part of their biblical birthright. There are more
than 200,000 settlers that live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in houses
built since 1967 by Israel; heavily fortified communities now. Israel's built
a network of roads to those settlements. Many of these people refuse to
leave, and when I interview some of them, they talk about resisting by force
if Israel actually tried to pull them out. They talk about how much
ammunition they've stored up, how many guns they have. And while they say
it's the last resort, that they wouldn't want to have to take up weapons
against fellow Israelis and fellow Jews, that they would do it if they were
pushed to the wall.
GROSS: On the other hand, what does it mean for a Palestinian state if there
are many Israeli settlements within the Palestinian state? And this assumes
that the Palestinian state would be the West Bank and Gaza.
Mr. BENNETT: Well, it's very, very difficult to have a contiguous state as
long as these settlements are here, because they've effectively broken up the
West Bank into cantons, in a sense, and the protected roads that the Israelis
use to reach these settlements divide up the Palestinian territory. It's very
hard for a Palestinian to literally cross from one side of this road to the
other. So they function almost as de facto barriers throughout the West Bank.
And Palestinians regard them simply as a daily affront to their dignity, their
own rights, that that was the land on which their father, their grandfather,
their grandfather's grandfather grew olives or oranges, and they want it back.
Now under the last round of serious peace negotiations between the two sides
more than a year ago, there was an effort to swap land, to trade some land
elsewhere in Israel for the land that the settlements now occupy so that
Israel wouldn't have to uproot all the settlements, that it could retain some
of the major ones by compensating the Palestinians with land elsewhere. And
in the end, there may be sort of formula like that reached that wouldn't force
Israel to give up some of the major, major settlements where now tens of
thousands of Israelis live.
GROSS: You know, the Saudi peace plan is something that's being talked about,
but the Bush administration is pushing the Tenet peace plan, which is the
peace plan that was created by the head of the CIA. What's that plan about,
and what's the temperature on each side on that plan?
Mr. BENNETT: Well, like so much here, it's extremely arcane and hard to
understand, but critically important. It was a plan negotiated a month
ago--months ago, excuse me--by George Tenet to try to create enough of a peace
to bring the parties to another plan called the Mitchell Plan, which would
then take them back to serious negotiations. So, Terry, in a sense we've had
a series of kind of receding prefaces. We had negotiations, then there was a
plan created, the Mitchell Plan, to get us through the negotiations. Then
there was a new plan, the Tenet plan, to get us to the Mitchell Plan to get us
to negotiations. And now the Bush administration is trying to get both
parties back to the Tenet plan.
The problem is that even though both sides effectively agreed to this plan,
they're still arguing over exactly what it would involve and what the timing
would be. General Zinni's entire goal right now is to get the parties to
engage and to start this so-called Tenet plan, which essentially involves a
serious crackdown by the Palestinians on violence, including the very
difficult step of actually collecting illegal weapons, and putting more and
more of these militants in jail. On the Israeli side, it would require a
pullback from all Palestinian territory that they've occupied since the
beginning of this uprising--they date it to September 28th, 2000, that Israeli
forces would essentially return to where they were on that date. And it would
return the parties back, supposedly, to where they were then, and then enable
them to go forward with this Mitchell Plan.
The problem is neither side agrees on when they would do the particular steps.
Should the Palestinian steps all come first, and then the Israeli withdrawal?
Should they happen at once? Should the whole thing take 10 days, which is
what the Palestinians say, or should it take two to four weeks, which is what
the Israelis say? The devil is in the details here. And while they did agree
on these agreements, they never agreed on what the agreements mean.
GROSS: One of the big sticking points in the Middle East peace talks has been
the Palestinians' right of return. For Israel, if Palestinians return to
Israel, that would kind of end the Jewish state. What does the right of
return mean to Palestinians?
Mr. BENNETT: For Palestinian refugees, it means the opportunity to go--quite
literally, for some, it means the opportunity to move back into the house that
they once had in what are now Israeli cities like Haifa and Jaffa, Ashkelon.
For others it's a little less specific than that. They want to be able to
move into Israel, to return to their home cities. They realize that their
houses themselves are now destroyed or gone. But it's a very, very powerful
dream that's been nurtured over the generations, to go home again. They say
that Israelis essentially are invoking their own right of return. That is, by
coming to the West Bank, Jews say that they're returning to land held by Jews
2,000 years ago. Palestinians say, `Well, if that's reasonable, why isn't it
reasonable for me to go back to a place where my family lived only 50 years
GROSS: Is there any room for compromise on this one? It's such a major issue
on both sides, because for Israel it means, you know, if Palestinians return
they will have a majority and the Jewish state would be over. For
Palestinians, it's one of the most important things on their agenda to have
the right to return. Neither side wants to compromise on this, although there
are some Palestinians, such as Sari Nesebey(ph), who say, `Just give up on the
right of return. It's never going to happen. Israel's never going to agree
to that, so give up on it and move on.'
Mr. BENNETT: That's right. It's very tough, though. I mean, even Israeli
left-wingers, most left-wing Israelis, are still opposed to the right of
return because they regard it as, essentially, an attempt by the Palestinians
to do through demography what they can't do through force of arms and
overwhelm Israel and change its Jewish character. For the Palestinians, this
issue has been alive for so long. It's been used, in some cases, cynically by
Palestinian leaders. That is the refugee population has essentially been
maintained, not just by the Palestinians, but the Arab states generally as
kind of a running sore, an unaddressed political issue. There hasn't been
much of a effort to assimilate the refugees into other populations and help
them, in effect, go on with their lives.
There's been some effort--again during the last round of negotiations there
was an effort to develop some sort of menu of options, if you will, for
Palestinian refugees, by which some would be encouraged to settle in other
countries. They would receive a cash compensation. And a limited number of
them--that would somehow be governed so it wouldn't grow large enough to alarm
the Israelis--a limited number would be allowed to return so that there would
be some symbolic recognition, therefore, by Israel of a right of return.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is James Bennett. He's the
Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times. Let's take a short break here,
and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is James Bennett. He's the Jerusalem bureau chief for The
New York Times, and he's joining us from Jerusalem.
I've heard a lot of people say that they think that there's no way there will
be any real progress toward peace in the Middle East as long as Arafat and
Sharon are the representatives at the table, because they're so old-school and
they're so caught up in the antagonisms of the past that they just can't see
into the future, they can't let anything go. Is that sentiment shared, do you
think, on both sides of the conflict now?
Mr. BENNETT: Yeah, it's quite widespread. Certainly Israelis believe there
won't be peace as long as Arafat's there, and Palestinians believe there won't
be peace as long as Sharon is there. And some people believe on both sides
that both men have to go. And to some extent, people here feel captive of a
personal rivalry. The rivalry is both emblematic of the larger conflict
between the two sides, and also something very specific between these two men
who hate each other. Sharon said recently that he wished Israel had killed
Arafat when it had the chance 20 years ago in Beirut. Arafat asked him about
that the other day, and he said that he thought Sharon was still living in the
past and stuck in 1982. But Arafat himself considers himself the only Arab
general to ever have beaten Sharon.
So there is this real sense that these two men, both in their 70s, both of
whom have been fighting this conflict one way or another their entire lives,
are so locked in their own dispute and their own contest of wills that neither
is really capable of making the total change of mind-set, really, and taking
the enormous political risk it would require to achieve real peace.
GROSS: The Israeli head of state changes fairly frequently with elections.
Arafat has been the leader of the Palestinians for decades. Is there anyone
waiting in the wings who would replace him if Arafat stepped down or if he
was, you know, forced out by his own people?
Mr. BENNETT: There's certainly a lot of people waiting in the wings who would
like to replace him, although they publicly insist on their loyalty right now.
There is a formal process for the two essentially overarching Palestinian
organizations, the PLO and the Palestinian Authority. There is a process for
Yasser Arafat to be replaced in each of the leadership positions he holds in
those two organizations. But the men that are likely to take those positions,
known popularly as Abu Ala and Abu Mazen, are regarded by many Palestinians
as--sad to say it, but they're seen as too compromising, too willing to make
peace, not militant enough at this point. Neither side would expect them to
be able to hold on to power very long should Yasser Arafat be replaced.
Then the question passes to who would take over. The many possible scenarios
have been played out here on both sides. There's some thinking that there
would be a period of chaos and cantons, individual warlords in different
Palestinian areas who'd become very popular during the course of this conflict
in places like Jenin in the northern West Bank, places like the Rafah refugee
camp in southern Gaza Strip, that those people would essentially become local
I think it's an Israeli hope in some quarters on the right that they would
then be able to essentially divide and rule, cutting separate deals with each
of these cantons. Palestinians say that they already have a state
infrastructure. They have an apparatus. They would find a way to replace
Arafat with another national leader capable of unifying the Palestinian areas.
But exactly who that would be, it's not clear.
GROSS: I think it's very, very difficult to cover the Middle East without one
side, or both sides, accusing you of bias. Has that been an issue for you?
Mr. BENNETT: Oh, yeah. Any journalist here is constantly criticized by
people on both sides for coverage that they regard as biased. Sometimes it's
really, really vitriolic and personal and offensive, and sometimes it's very
thoughtful. And in the second case it's obviously more disturbing than in the
first, which is more easily dismissed. It's easy to say, if you're criticized
by both sides, then you must be doing the right thing, but that's not
necessarily the case. So I think we all try to take the criticism seriously
and evaluate the concerns.
But passions are just so great on this subject, and people are so sensitive to
even the tiniest detail, the word choice, the choice of story, what it is you
decide to cover, what it is you decide you don't. And they often assume
conspiracy when, in fact, it's a lot less thought through than that and a lot
more chaotic. We're all doing our best to cover this conflict daily. And
there's a lot of incoming news. And sometimes people understandably feel that
their particular angle wasn't given enough play.
GROSS: What are some of the things that you do to check yourself to make sure
that according to your own standards that you are bias-free?
Mr. BENNETT: Well, each story I obviously read very, very carefully myself.
And as I'm thinking it through and putting it together I'm very careful to
make sure that claims from one side are checked against the other side, that
when Palestinians say X number of people died and this is how, I call the
Israeli army, I call the police, I call whoever is in a position to know
whether that's accurate or not, and run it by them and check it. And the same
is true on the other side.
One of the frustrations in the job here is that the constant effort to achieve
balance, to make sure we're not unfairly ruffling sensibilities on the one
side or the other, could lead a reporter to overcompensate in the other
direction, to create balance where balance does not exist and, in essence, to
fail to call things accurately. Some days there are days when Palestinians
suffer much more than Israelis, days when Israelis suffer much more than
Palestinians. It's really our job, I think, to retain the kind of empathy for
both sides in this conflict, for both the pain that they're experiencing and
the fears that they have and their legitimate political views. We have to
retain this kind of ability to understand each side's perspective that too
often the people who are locked in the conflict itself lose, and that's really
the greatest challenge in the job.
GROSS: Just one last question. In your gut, do you feel like the violence is
beginning to slow down a little bit and the direction is heading a little more
toward, you know, the peace table, or do you feel not?
Mr. BENNETT: It's a mistake to venture any predictions here. It's one thing
I've learned in the time I've been here. But I think at the moment everybody
is taking a deep breath here. There is, I think, going to be something of a
period of relative calm. There won't be a halt to all attacks, I don't think.
But with the Bush administration as re-engaged as it is now, I don't think
either side wants to humiliate the envoy here. And I think there's going to
be some--it looks like we're headed towards at least some sort of short-term
cease-fire agreement. In the long term, though, I'm not optimistic.
GROSS: James Bennett, thank you so much.
Mr. BENNETT: Thank you.
GROSS: James Bennett is the Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times.
He spoke to us from Jerusalem. Our interview was recorded earlier today.
Coming up, Geoff Nunberg considers the charge in Bernard Goldberg's best
seller that the news media have a liberal bias. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Analysis: Researching claims of media bias
TERRY GROSS, host:
The former CBS News producer Bernard Goldberg has renewed an old controversy
about liberal bias in the media. His book, "Bias," has climbed to the top of
The New York Times Best-Seller List. Among other things, Goldberg claims that
the media's bias is reflected in the unequal way they use political labels
like conservative and liberal. Our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, is always
interested in claims about language, and he decided to check this one out.
GEOFFREY NUNBERG reporting:
For the most part, Bernard Goldberg's charges of media bias are based on
anecdotes, hearsay and unsupported generalizations. But at one point he
strays into territory that can actually be put to a test. That's when he
claims that the media pointedly identify conservative politicians as
conservatives but rarely use the word `liberal' to describe liberals.
As Goldberg explains the difference, in the world of the Jennings and Brokaws
and Rathers, conservatives are out of the mainstream and have to be
identified. Liberals, on the other hand, are the mainstream and don't have to
be identified. That basic premise is sound enough, that the media mentions
things that they see as being out of the mainstream more often than they
mention things that they see as in it. If a major company names a
seven-foot-tall Hare Krishna from Tonga as its CEO, those attributes are more
likely to show up in the story than if the new chief is a 5'10" Methodist from
But does that difference really show up in the way the media deal with
liberals and conservatives, too? TV newscasts aren't easy to check, and
Goldberg doesn't offer any research to back up his claim. But Goldberg and
the other critics of media bias also make their charges about the language of
the press, which is available online. So I went to a big online database and
did a search on the articles from about 30 major newspapers, including The New
York Times, the LA Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, the Miami
Herald and the San Francisco Chronicle.
For purposes of comparison, I took the names of 10 well-known politicians,
five liberals and five conservatives. On the liberal side were senators
Boxer, Wellstone, Harkin and Kennedy, and Representative Barney Frank. On the
conservative side were senators Lott and Helms, John Ashcroft, and
representatives Dick Armey and Tom DeLay. Then I looked to see how often each
of those names occurred within five words of liberal or conservative,
whichever was appropriate.
Of course, some of those hits involved extraneous noise, say, when the word
liberal just happened to find itself near Barbara Boxer's name with no real
connection between the two. But when I checked a sample of the results by
hand, it turned out that more than 85 percent of them did, in fact, involve
the assignment of a political point of view, with phrases like `Paul
Wellstone, the liberal senator' or `Senate conservatives like Jesse Helms.'
And with a sample of more than a hundred thousand references to the names, the
results were statistically sound.
And I did find a big disparity in the way the press labels liberals and
conservatives, but not in the direction that Goldberg claims. In fact, the
average liberal legislator has a 30 percent greater likelihood of being
identified with a partisan label than the average conservative does. The
press describes Barney Frank as a liberal two and a half times as frequently
as it describes Dick Armey as a conservative. It gives Barbara Boxer a
partisan label almost twice as often as it gives one to Trent Lott. And while
it isn't surprising that the press applies the label `conservative' to Jesse
Helms more than to any of the other Republicans in the group, it describes
Paul Wellstone as a liberal 20 percent more frequently than that.
At first I wondered whether I'd inadvertently included a bunch of conservative
newspapers in my sample, so I did the same search in just three papers that
are routinely accused of having a liberal bias: The New York Times, The
Washington Post and the LA Times. But in those papers, too, liberals get
partisan labels 30 percent more often than conservatives do, the same
proportion as in the press at large.
The tendency isn't limited to politicians, either. For example, Goldberg
writes that, `It's not unusual to identify certain actors, like Tom Selleck or
Bruce Willis, as conservatives. But Barbra Streisand or Rob Reiner are just
Barbra Streisand and Rob Reiner.' But actually that's dead wrong, too. The
press gives partisan labels to Streisand and Reiner almost five times as
frequently as it does to Selleck and Willis. For that matter, Warren Beatty
gets a partisan label twice as often as Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Norman
Lear gets one more frequently than Charlton Heston does.
It's the same with other figures. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens is
identified as a liberal more often than justices Rehnquist, Scalia or Thomas
are identified as conservatives. And the columnist Michael Kinsley gets a
partisan label more often than George Will does.
I found the results surprising, not because I assumed that the press had a
liberal bias, but because `liberal' has become such a problematic word that
nobody seems to want to use it. Since the Reagan era, the right has gone
after it as the L-word to the point where a lot of politicians are nervous
about owning up to being liberals. And people on the left have always been
suspicious of the term, which is why a lot of them prefer to think of
themselves as progressives. But nobody ever talks about the C-word, and
people on the right are always happy to call themselves conservatives.
I'd have figured that all that would make the press a bit reluctant to use the
liberal label, too. But it turns out that newspapers label liberals much more
readily than they do conservatives. Of course, it's possible that things work
differently on TV newscasts, but that's pretty unlikely, unless you're willing
to assume that the language we hear on CBS and ABC has a much more liberal
slant than what we get in The Washington Post and The New York Times. If
there is a bias here, in fact, the data suggests that it goes the other way,
that the media consider liberals to be farther from the mainstream than
conservatives are. Or maybe sometimes it's just a case of the press bending
over backwards to avoid the charge of bias. The one thing that's certain is
that there's another bias operating here as well, the one that leads media
critics to hear what they want to hear.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a senior researcher at Stanford Center for the Study
of Language and Information, and he's the author of "The Way We Talk Now."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with Frank Sinatra singing "In the Wee
Small Hours of the Morning." The composer who wrote the song, David Mann,
died earlier this month at the age of 85. He also wrote, "There! I've Said
It Again," and was President Harry Truman's official White House pianist for
(Soundbite of "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning")
Mr. FRANK SINATRA (Singer): (Singing) In the wee, small hours of the
morning, while the whole wide world is fast asleep, you lie awake and think
about the girl and never, ever think of counting sheep. When your lonely
heart has learned its lesson you'd be hers if only she would call. In the
wee, small hours of the morning, that's the time you miss her most of all.
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