DATE December 19, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: James Bennet discusses Middle East violence, upcoming
elections there and a possible US war with Iraq
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest James Bennet is the Jerusalem bureau chief of The New York Times.
Every few months we invite him to talk with us about the latest developments
in the Middle East. He went to a studio in Jerusalem this morning so that we
could discuss the upcoming Israeli elections, the recent al-Qaeda attacks
against Israelis in Kenya, the ongoing Palestinian attacks against Israelis,
and the ongoing Israeli crackdown on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
Now that most Israelis have given up on the prospect of peace in the near
future, the Israeli government is trying to physically separate Israel from
the West Bank by constructing a fence that will run at least 70 miles. I
asked James Bennet to explain the purpose of this wall.
Mr. JAMES BENNET (The New York Times): There's been a great deal of pressure
from Israelis for a long time to build some kind of barrier along the boundary
with the West Bank. The notion is that it will prevent suicide attackers,
other forms of attackers from crossing easily and carrying out the violence in
Israeli cities and towns. There's already a fence around the Gaza Strip, and
many Israelis for a long time have pointed out that so far in the conflict,
none of the suicide bombers that have attacked in places like Jerusalem and
Tel Aviv have come from Gaza. They've generally come from the West Bank.
GROSS: Could you describe what this fence is gonna look like, what it's built
out of, how tall it is? Is it barbed wire? Is it electric?
Mr. BENNET: It depends where. It's still--the precise path of the fence and
its actual composition are both still being debated inside Israel. Different
barriers are being used in different places. One place where fencing or a
wall can already be seen is along the edge of the Palestinian town of
Qalqilya. There's a large concrete barrier there, 25 or 30 feet high with
watchtowers every couple hundred feet stretching for now a couple of
kilometers. But in other places they're talking about maybe three feet of
cement barrier topped by perhaps 20 feet of electrified fencing. Electrified
so that it will provide a signal, not a shock necessarily to someone trying to
climb over it.
GROSS: How controversial is this wall among Israelis?
Mr. BENNET: The wall itself, the notion of some sort of a barrier with the
West Bank, is extremely popular among Israelis, in the center and on the left
in particular. The path of the wall, where it should actually be placed is
the subject that's caused the greatest controversy because left-wing Israelis
believe that the fence should be built right on the line, the 1967 line or the
green line, as it's known, which is the boundary that existed before the 1967
war. But right-wing Israelis are very concerned about exactly that happening.
That is, that the fence will become a de facto border. They're very anxious
in many cases to hold on to West Bank, either for security reasons or for
religious reasons, believing it's their biblical birthright. So for them, the
path of the fence is also very important. They want it built not on the '67
border and instead inside Palestinian territory, and some don't want it built
GROSS: Well, why is the center and the left so strong in their support of
Mr. BENNET: Well, it's really a sign of how attitudes have changed here after
more than two years of conflict. People are simply despairing of any kind of
solution, despairing of the notion really of reconciliation, which seemed so
reasonable just a few years ago when the Oslo process was in full swing here.
They're starting to think that maybe the best they can hope for is some kind
of separation of the two peoples and perhaps a cold peace, like exists now
with Egypt. And perhaps they think a clear division between the two
populations will give each population time to cool off, maybe come to its
senses and begin building bridges again.
GROSS: So for Israelis, this fence means the promise of some security, or the
hope of some security. What does this fence represent for Palestinians in the
Mr. BENNET: For them it just looks like a land grab. They feel like the
Israelis are creating this de facto boundary and they're doing it right
through their own olive orchards rather than doing it on what they regard as
Israeli land or doing it on the green line. So to them, it is a form of
GROSS: What does it mean for both the Israelis and the Palestinians to be
constructing this fence, this division?
Mr. BENNET: Well, I should say it's been a year, really more than a year of
fences and barriers here. I arrived in Jerusalem 15 months ago and just in
the time I've been here the transformation of the landscape has been quite
extraordinary to watch. Israeli checkpoints have become more fortified, more
formal outside Palestinian towns and cities. Ditches have been dug by Israeli
forces around those same cities. Barbed-wire fences have gone up. More and
more fencing is seen around settlements in the West Bank, although many
settlers are ideologically opposed to the idea of fencing, believing that the
army should be able to protect them and they should be able to move freely.
Despite that, more and more of the settlements have begun fencing themselves
in. So we've seen many of these smaller forms of barrier fences going up, and
now this one very large one stretching ultimately perhaps the length of the
West Bank boundary.
The point is that these fences are generally being built by Israelis, not by
Palestinians. That said, both--the two populations are moving further and
further apart. The social divide has become quite stark here. Relationships
that existed before the conflict have died either in antagonism or simply
because the parties have drifted apart over time. People who were once
friends don't really call each other anymore. All these sorts of smaller
social changes are large really in the phenomenon of this new fence that's
GROSS: Once a wall like this is built, what does it take to take it down?
Mr. BENNET: Well, that's the thing. When you actually go out and see the
construction site for this fence, it's extremely striking. It looks like now
a landing strip, sort of an endless landing strip is being built through
agricultural fields generally, through what were once olive groves or orange
orchards. There's a stretch of land maybe 50 yards wide with bulldozers
moving back and forth, dump trucks going back and forth, grating, filling the
earth. This is particularly in the northern West Bank where they're most
active now in building this barrier. And when you actually see that and
appreciate the scale of this project, it starts to seem like something
monumental and lasting.
GROSS: Right. And probably really expensive.
Mr. BENNET: Yeah, it is quite expensive, and that's part of the problem
they're having. The Israelis are already running quite a large budget
deficit. They're seeking more financial assistance now from the United
GROSS: Is this wall/fence gonna make Palestinians in the West Bank feel
imprisoned? I know the purpose theoretically is to keep Palestinians out of
Israel as opposed to keeping them prisoner within the West Bank, but will it
feel like they're being kept prisoner within the West Bank?
Mr. BENNET: Well, the problem is that--it seems likely now, the way the
situation exists now, that Israel, even once this fence is built, will
continue to restrict Palestinians within the West Bank. The reason is that
there's still more than 200,000 Israelis living in settlements in the West
Bank demanding protection from the army. So many of them, their homes will
not be encompassed by this fence. They'll be on the other side of this
boundary. And in order to protect them, the army right now seems likely to
continue maintaining the kind of curfews, as well as the fences that exist
around Palestinian cities like Bethlehem now and areas around Ramallah and
GROSS: One of your colleagues in The New York Times recently had a story
saying that a lot of Israelis, or at least some Israelis, no longer want their
husbands and sons in the military to risk their lives defending these
settlements in the West Bank, these small settlements in the West Bank, and
they think it's time for the people in the settlements to move back to Israel
proper for the security of the country. Is this a growing sentiment, would
Mr. BENNET: I wouldn't say that it's a growing sentiment, but there is
persistently a fairly strong majority in favor of bringing people back from
the settlements as part of a comprehensive settlement of the dispute, which is
a pretty big if. They want to see a solution, a genuine peace before bringing
settlers home. Now we're seeing the current Labor Party chairman, that's the
leader of the left-leaning Labor Party who's running in elections to be held
next month, is calling for a unilateral withdrawal of at least some of the
settlers from the West Bank and all of the settlers in Gaza where about 7,000
settlers live among more than a million Palestinians. It will be very
interesting to see how popular that idea proves. It hasn't really been tested
GROSS: My guest is James Bennet, Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York
Times. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is James Bennet. He is the Jerusalem bureau chief for The
New York Times.
You've been covering violence against each side in the Middle East conflict.
Let's start with something you recently covered, the violence in the Kibbutz
Metzer. This kibbutz was attacked by a Palestinian gunman. What happened in
Mr. BENNET: Well, no one really knows how this man got into the kibbutz. He
had real discipline, though. He managed to hold his fire until he got to the
very center of the kibbutz, at which point he attacked a couple out for a
stroll, killing the woman. The man escaped. He then ran to a nearby house
where a single mother was living with her two boys, five and four years old.
He tried to kick down the door. He wasn't able to do that, so he walked
around the house and climbed through an open window and he shot the mother and
the two boys at close range. Climbed out of the house again. The kibbutz
secretary--that is, the leader of the kibbutz--was rushing to the scene in a
car. The man shot and killed him, and then he simply vanished. Trackers
found his footprints outside the kibbutz fence, and then they disappeared
after about 50 yards. He was presumably picked up by a car or drove off on a
GROSS: How has this changed life on that kibbutz?
Mr. BENNET: It's really frightened people. It's quite a left-wing kibbutz
founded in 1953 mostly by Argentinean immigrants, and they prided themselves
on maintaining good relations with the Israel village next door; also with the
Palestinian village which is just a short walk away from this kibbutz, which
is right on just to the west really of the West Bank boundary, and a five-,
10-minute walk from the kibbutz and you're inside the West Bank. In fact,
this kibbutz had been fighting before this attack to try to move the route of
the wall so that it wouldn't eat up some of the Palestinian village's land,
even though that would have cost the kibbutz some of its own land. Now people
in the kibbutz generally simply want this wall built as soon as possible.
GROSS: So this has really changed a lot of members of the kibbutz
Mr. BENNET: It's changing them, I think. There's still a real yearning there
for their old beliefs and a real desire for the kind of reconciliation, the
coexistence that they envisioned. But I think there's a growing sense also
that among these people that there's simply no other way now but to separate
the two populations. Not just because they're afraid of Palestinian violence,
and they're still very careful to say that they think it's just a very small
number of Palestinians that are involved in this kind of violence, but also
because they're aware of the way attitudes have hardened among their fellow
Israelis, who they think are simply not gonna be persuaded to their point of
view, to their notion that such coexistence is really possible.
GROSS: The responsibility for this attack was taken by the Al Aqsa Martyrs
Brigade, which is the group that's affiliated with Arafat's group, Al Fatah.
But you say that this attack was actually controversial within Al Aqsa. Why?
Mr. BENNET: Well, there's been a debate for some time among Palestinians over
whether they should stop making attacks across the boundary of the West Bank.
Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 war.
Palestinians say they want to have a state in those occupied territories, just
in the West Bank and Gaza. But by attacking across the boundary and attacking
Israelis in pre-1967 Israel, particularly civilians, particularly left-wing
kibbutzniks, many Palestinians fear that they're sending a signal that they're
simply trying to destroy the state of Israel rather than that they're trying
to end occupation. So there's a debate under way now among Palestinians over
whether their side of the conflict should be restricted to attacks only
against Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. That way
they think they would send a more clear message that their only goal is to end
GROSS: Now you recently went to the Palestinian town of Khan Yunis in Gaza
and looked at attacks against Palestinians there. Five cousins who lived in
this camp were killed by Israeli military while they were trying to sneak into
Israel to get work. How were they killed?
Mr. BENNET: I was really astonished by the risks that these men were willing
to run to try to get work. They lived, as you said, in Khan Yunis, which is a
desperately poor town in the Gaza Strip now. Men I interviewed there said
they simply can't find work inside Gaza. These men attempted to climb the
fence that surrounds the Gaza Strip and reach the Israeli side where they
planned to melt into the Israeli-Arab villages and work illegally for
basically half the wages that a legal Palestinian worker might make, about $20
a day, they hoped to make in construction. So what they did was they took a
couple of ladders and they left after dark and they waited a distance from the
no-man's-land you must cross before you reach the fence, and they attempted to
time the change of Israeli patrols and make a run for it when the Israelis
weren't paying attention. Instead they were spotted crawling, the Israeli
army said, toward the fence, and the Israelis opened fire with tanks. The
Israeli army said later that they had had specific intelligence that there was
gonna be an attempted terrorist infiltration in that spot, and all five men
GROSS: You said that you were surprised at the risks that these five men took
in order to get work. How difficult is it to get work now for Palestinians in
the West Bank?
Mr. BENNET: Well, I should say, Terry, what surprised me is that other men
have done this. It actually is rare, but it is done. That is, that people
from Khan Yunis take this route periodically. One of the men who was killed
in this attack had done this twice before successfully and he'd spent up to
six months at a time working in Israel, wiring the money home before finally
coming back for a time to see his family, then last week attempting to smuggle
himself out again.
GROSS: How difficult is it to get work in Gaza?
Mr. BENNET: It's very, very hard. I mean, Gazans--the private sector in Gaza
has been cut in half over the course of the conflict. The best-paying jobs
remain the public sector jobs, which many families are dependent on. Some
also work for the UN agency that administers refugee camps in Gaza. But by
far the most lucrative jobs before the conflict began were inside Israel or
inside the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Israel has been issuing far fewer
work permits for Gazans, although that number has recently gone up again and
Israel is now issuing, I believe, about 14,000 work permits for people to work
legally inside Israel. But absent that sort of work, there's simply nothing
Children in Khan Yunis, Terry--there's a new form of employment that has
arisen. I first saw this about a year ago. There's an Israeli checkpoint on
the main north-south road as you enter Khan Yunis, and little boys wait by the
side of the road, and if a driver approaches who doesn't have a passenger in
the car, he picks up one of these boys so that the boy will ride with him past
the checkpoint, which persuades the Israeli soldier that he, the driver, is
not intending to blow himself up, so the driver can safely cross the
checkpoint. He lets the boy out on the other side and pays him a shekel, or
about 20, 22 cents.
GROSS: Is the boy supposed to look like the driver's son, or is it the
understanding that if there's any child at all in the car, that the driver
isn't gonna be blowing himself up?
Mr. BENNET: Generally if there's more than one passenger--and actually now I
know drivers who do this, even if they already have two people in the car,
simply because they want to have a full car. The notion is, the more people
you have in the car, the less likely you are to be on some kind of a suicide
GROSS: Has the Israeli military made any official statements about the
shooting of the five cousins?
Mr. BENNET: They said at the time that no guns were found on these five men,
no weapons of any kind, that only two ladders were found. The men weren't
carrying identification because they didn't want to have to produce it if they
were actually stopped by an Israeli patrol. So Israel said that if, in fact,
they were workers, then they regret what happened; that the men had done
something incredibly dangerous, because it was understood that there was
shooting along that fence to enforce that boundary, to prevent infiltrations.
GROSS: Now you've also written about what you describe as near civil war in
the Nuserat refugee camp, Fatah vs. Hamas. What's that about?
Mr. BENNET: Well, there continues to be real tension in Gaza between Yasser
Arafat's Fatah faction and Hamas. A top security official of the Palestinian
Authority--that's Mr. Arafat's governing entity--this official was killed,
assassinated really, by a Hamas gang. It was really more of a family dispute
than necessarily a political one, but it's extremely politically charged.
Fatah has demanded that Hamas turn over the men responsible for this killing,
and Hamas refused, which basically really further undermined the Palestinian
Authority's own authority in Gaza, and the situation is really unresolved.
GROSS: James Bennet is the Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times.
He'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation with James Bennet, Jerusalem
bureau chief of The New York Times. We'll talk about the upcoming Israeli
elections and how Israel is preparing for the possibility of a US war with
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Let's get back to the interview we recorded earlier today with James Bennet,
the Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times. He's joined us several
times on FRESH AIR to discuss the latest developments in the Middle East. He
spoke to us today from a studio in Jerusalem.
There were recently two al-Qaeda attacks against Israelis in Kenya. Three
suicide bombers blew themselves up outside the Paradise Hotel in Mombasa,
which is a spot that a lot of Israelis vacation in, and just a few minutes
earlier two shoulder-launched missiles were aimed at an Israeli jet with 261
passengers flying over Kenya. Al-Qaeda took credit for this. Was this the
first direct al-Qaeda attack on Israel?
Mr. BENNET: That we know of. There've been--Israel has said that it has
arrested people, caught people with al-Qaeda links in the past, but this is
the first such attack, yes.
GROSS: Now the US has been saying that it doesn't want Israel to retaliate if
it's attacked by Iraq. What about this attack from al-Qaeda? Is the US
pressuring Israel to not take any action?--'cause on the other hand, the
United States wants all the help it can get in the war against terrorism.
Mr. BENNET: Well--and the Israelis were already providing plenty of help
before this happened but very, very quietly. And the expectation is that
that's how it will continue. Israel officials here say it does not perceive
it in its own interests to be seen as taking a very, very high-profile
war--role, excuse me, in the American war on terrorism. They see that that's
actually probably one of al-Qaeda's goals; that is, to draw Israel into a more
high-profile role in this conflict and thereby rally more Muslims, they hope,
to their banner.
GROSS: Do you know what the United States is promising Israel in return for
Israel lying low if there's a war with Iraq?
Mr. BENNET: Well, they've made certain arrangements with the Israelis,
providing them access to satellite information, for example, so that they have
very quick monitoring of any action in the Western Desert of Iraq where Scuds
would be likely to originate. They've made assurances to Israel. I'm told
that they will make every effort, from the very beginning, to suppress any
kind of fire from the Western Desert.
GROSS: What's your impression of the popular opinion in Israel about the
United States' pressure on Israel to not retaliate if it's attacked by Iraq?
Mr. BENNET: People here are pretty sophisticated about their own predicament
and the position of Israel if there is a war in Iraq. I think that there will
be considerable pressure, however, on the Israeli government to respond,
particularly if there are Israeli casualties. The reason is that Israelis are
raised on the notion that their deterrent capability is the one thing that
keeps them safe; that is, the fear of their Arab neighbors or the belief of
their Arab neighbors that Israel will respond, respond forcefully if attacked.
The fear is that if they don't respond, that deterrence capability is
diminished and that that is the most dangerous thing for Israel's security in
the long term.
GROSS: Now Prime Minister Sharon has said that members of al-Qaeda are in
Gaza and Lebanon working with Hezbollah. Arafat denies this, and he recently
said about bin Laden, `I'm telling him directly not to hide behind Palestinian
cause. He never helped us. He was working in another completely different
area and against our interests.' How have Arafat's remarks been interpreted
in Israel and among the Palestinians?
Mr. BENNET: Well, they're widely understood and sympathized with, I would
say, by Palestinians who saw bin Laden's comments even in the wake of the
September 11th attack about the conflict here as essentially opportunistic,
that he was seizing on this conflict to try to bolster his own position
without ever having done anything in particular for the Palestinians for a
long time. Palestinians are slightly jaded when it comes to promises by other
Arab leaders to do something to redress their grievances and to mitigate their
circumstances. On the Israeli side, I'd say Israelis generally don't believe
anything that Yasser Arafat says anymore.
GROSS: Is it possible that, in fact, Arafat's group is not affiliated with
al-Qaeda but Hezbollah is or Islamic Jihad is? I mean, these are groups,
Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, that don't recognize Israel's right to exist
whereas Arafat's group, Al Fatah, says it does.
Mr. BENNET: It's certainly possible. In that sense, they certainly have a
common goal that is also shared by Hamas, which is quite explicitly to destroy
the state of Israel. Beyond that, though, we haven't yet seen evidence of
these sorts of links. The Israeli government recently has been talking a
great deal about these links, particularly in Gaza. The Palestinians, again,
view this as another form of opportunism; that is, an effort by the Israelis
to ride the coattails of the American war on terror to justify their own
continuing conflict here with the Palestinians.
GROSS: Where is Arafat now and what are the restrictions that Israel has on
Mr. BENNET: Arafat is still in Ramallah, the West Bank city where he's been
effectively held now really for more than a year. He got out of there for a
day or two during that time, and he is still in his compound in Ramallah
which Israeli forces have reduced to now just a couple of buildings. As I
say, though, his freedom of movement has not been tested lately; he hasn't
really tried to go anywhere. Generally for several years, he would attend the
Christmas Eve Mass in Bethlehem, which is a very short distance from Ramallah
on the other side of Jerusalem. Last year, Israel prevented him from going,
and just last weekend, the Israeli government announced again that it was not
going to permit him to go to Bethlehem this year, either.
GROSS: My guest is James Bennet, Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York
Times. We'll talk more after our break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: James Bennet is my guest, Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York
Israeli elections are coming up on January 28th and Sharon will be running
against Amram Mitzna, a former general and the new head of the Labor Party.
What is he standing for? What's his platform?
Mr. BENNET: Amram Mitzna is the mayor of Haifa. He's also a former general,
served many, many years and fought in several of Israel's wars, was badly
wounded three or four times in just one of them. So he has a record as a
fighter. Haifa has a very large Israeli-Arab population and he's built a
reputation there as being able to build some bridges between Haifa's Jewish
and Arab communities. He's running on a pledge to take immediate action to
try to end the conflict by negotiating rather than by fighting. He said he
would immediately open negotiation with whatever leaders the Palestinians
choose to put forward as their negotiators. They would also unilaterally
withdraw from the Gaza Strip, and over time, he would begin to withdraw from
the West Bank, too. If he becomes convinced, he says, that negotiations are
going nowhere and are effectively hopeless, then he will carry out a
unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank behind this new barrier
that's going up, perhaps modifying the course of that barrier somewhat, and
simply withdraw behind this line and say, `This is our state and you guys
figure out what you want to do with the territory that we're now evacuating.'
GROSS: How's public opinion dividing between Mitzna and Sharon?
Mr. BENNET: It's early going now. We're just sort of entering the intense
phase of the campaign here. Sharon is generally--he remains quite popular.
He has successfully positioned himself now as a centrist candidate. He was
attacked from the right in the Likud primaries and withstood those attacks and
was re-elected to represent his party in the campaign. The effect of that
primary, though, was to make him again look more like a moderate in the eyes
of many Israelis who are used to him after two years and trust him, and he is
definitely the favorite going into the campaign.
The Likud, though, has encountered some unexpected turbulence, which is that
it's gotten into a really--what is starting to look like a very serious
scandal involving the way other candidates for Likud spots in parliament were
chosen. There are claims--very recently, the Likud created what's known as
its list; that is, its ranked lists of people who would receive seats in the
120-seat parliament based on what proportion of votes the Likud gets in the
election which is held January 28th. In any case, there are allegations that
people accepted bribes to vote for particular candidates in this intraparty
contest. People are quite outraged about it and it seems the Likud--that is
Ariel Sharon's party--is losing a little altitude because of it.
GROSS: The second intifada was seen by many people as having been instigated
in part by Ariel Sharon's provocative actions, and I'm wondering if the
majority of people in Israel seem to see Sharon as one of the causes of the
violence now or as a solution to the violence now?
Mr. BENNET: Well, Terry, it's paradoxical. Israelis generally blame Yasser
Arafat for the conflict and hold him responsible for it. They feel that
Israel did nothing wrong and they argue that Israel, in fact, had made what
they consider a very generous peace offer right before the conflict began and
that Yasser Arafat's response was the intifada. Palestinians argue that that
offer was, in fact, miserly and a gesture of bad faith. Ariel Sharon ran on a
promise of restoring peace and security more than two years ago. Arguably,
Israelis now feel less secure after two years of his leadership than they did
before he became prime minister. Yet, he remains overwhelmingly popular. It
seems to be partly a sign of how little confidence Israelis now have that any
real partner for peace exists on the other side. It's also a sign, I think,
that Israelis see little hope of any kind of quick solution to the fighting.
That is what they need is Ariel Sharon's approach, slugging it out day by day,
patience, determination, and what they regard as a trustworthy ex-general to
lead them in this enduring conflict.
GROSS: Do you think--and I know this might just be speculation, but do you
think that Ariel Sharon has had a true change of heart on any issues
pertaining to the possibility of peace, the possibility of a Palestinian
state, a possibility of negotiating with the Palestinians?
Mr. BENNET: This is a question that journalists here, political analysts,
everybody asks almost daily. It's very hard to judge so far in the evidence.
He has certainly made at least a rhetorical commitment to the idea of a
Palestinian state and made statements like that that suggest there is a new
Ariel Sharon out there. In the past in his autobiography, Sharon argued that
there already was a Palestinian state and it's called Jordan; that is, he
didn't want to see the West Bank and Gaza and have a second Palestinian state
as he thought of it right on Israel's borders that would threaten Israel's
security. Again, whether he's really changed his thinking on that or whether
he's simply managed the relationship with the United States, managed the
Israeli politics quite brilliantly is a question that I can't answer.
GROSS: Are there Palestinian elections planned for January, too?
Mr. BENNET: There are notional Palestinian elections in January. The
likelihood of their being held is quite low now. The Palestinians themselves
say they don't expect them to happen. One reason, paradoxically, is that the
Americans have been resisting these elections after calling for democracy in
the Palestinian Authority. They don't love the idea of elections now,
particularly at the presidential level--that's the office that Yasser Arafat
now holds--because they fear that these elections would only wind up
strengthening Arafat, and the American stated goal of President Bush now is to
see Yasser Arafat sidelined and a new Palestinian leadership step forward.
It's quite an interesting moment on both sides here right now. There is a
good deal of political turmoil and a certain amount of uncertainty about how
elections will actually play out if real alternatives were presented; that is,
if Israelis are really presented with an alternative policy, negotiation, for
example, which the Labor candidate is saying he would pursue, whether they
would actually flock to that. It's an untested proposition, similarly on the
Palestinian side. If someone were really able to challenge Yasser Arafat in a
free and fair election, a monitored one internationally supervised, it'd be
interesting to see what would happen.
GROSS: Is there anybody on the Palestinian side outside of Yasser Arafat who
seems like they would be a real contender to be elected if, in fact, there was
Mr. BENNET: Well, now I'm going to contradict myself slightly. No. The
answer to that is no. There's nobody right now in the Palestinian side who
has Yasser Arafat's stature. And I think--and this is one reason the
Americans are so concerned. I also think the Palestinians feel so under fire,
so besieged right now that they would regard it as a concession to Israel and
a concession to the United States to replace Yasser Arafat, that in a sense,
they're rallying around their leader, seeing him embattled by Israel and are
likely to give him their support. There's also partly as a matter of very
careful and well-executed strategy by Yasser Arafat for many years--there
really isn't any other Palestinian leader in both the West Bank and Gaza who
has his kind of broad popular name recognition, let alone appeal.
GROSS: There's a new document being drawn up that's being described as a road
map to peace, is being drawn up by the United States, the European Union,
Russia and the UN. Is there anything new about this plan? What's in this
plan as far as you know?
Mr. BENNET: It's by far the most detailed plan the Bush administration has
yet embraced for returning the parties here to the bargaining table. And it
actually specifically envisions the creation of a Palestinian state at the end
of a process of concessions by both sides, the creation of this Palestinian
state in three years, in 2005, according to the draft version of the document.
It's still being revised and revised. It's unpopular now with both sides
here, quite a bit more unpopular with the Israelis. The Palestinians are
increasingly seizing it as a lifeline even though it requires concessions of
them that they regard as excessive. And the Palestinians feel like they're
being asked to do too many things before the Israelis are being asked to make
GROSS: This document has been put on hold until after the late January
Israeli elections. Why?
Mr. BENNET: Well, the Palestinians say it's an effort by the Bush
administration to help re-elect Ariel Sharon. The argument is--and you hear
this within Israel as well--that it would put Sharon in an extremely
uncomfortable position if this document were put forward now and he were
expected to either give it the thumbs-up or thumbs-down because it would force
him to essentially endorse, accept these very specific steps including a
settlement freeze--that is, a freeze on the expansion of Israeli settlements
in the West Bank and Gaza--which would be extremely unpopular with the base of
his support on the right and possibly could even cost him the election. The
Israelis would argue and advisers to Sharon do argue that it's simply not in
the interests of the United States and the so-called quartet, its diplomatic
allies, in pursing this road map to put forward this plan right now because
they don't want to force Ariel Sharon to make this decision. They don't want
to force--Sharon's advisers think it isn't in their interests to put the
government of Israel in this position at such a delicate moment.
GROSS: My guest is James Bennet, Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York
Times. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is James Bennet, Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York
The news in the United States outside of the Trent Lott story has been very,
very much caught up with the possibility of war with Iraq. And I'm wondering
if that possibility is getting a lot of attention in Israel and if that's a
really big concern among Israelis now.
Mr. BENNET: It's getting tremendous attention. And, in fact, the defense
minister, Shaul Mofaz, just returned from a series of meetings in Washington
with American officials, and in what I'm sure is a coincidence the newspapers
today are full--the Israeli newspapers, that is, are full of leaks of saying
that the Americans may attack as soon as January. This was the big news here
in Israel today. There's expectations that the war is going to happen.
Israelis regard it as inevitable, and they think it's going to happen quite
GROSS: Is that war supported by most of the public? Do you have a sense of
Mr. BENNET: In general, yeah, the Israelis are hoping that this war will
produce the new Middle East that the Oslo Accords never did quite generate.
The hope is that while Israelis I don't think are overly concerned about
Saddam Hussein and the threat he poses here, or at least haven't been until
war breaks out, they are quite worried about some of their other neighbors,
particularly Syria, Iran. And they regard a war in Iraq as a first step
towards really ratcheting up the pressure on those countries to if not make
peace with Israel at least cease their support for terrorist organizations and
halt some of their other belligerent ways.
GROSS: During the '91 Gulf War, Israelis were given gas masks to help protect
them in the event of chemical or biological attacks. What kind of
preparations are being made now for the possibility of such attacks?
Mr. BENNET: Well, Israelis have kept those gas masks and they're required to
keep them, and they've been required to go out and refresh them, make sure
that they're in working order. That's been going on for some months now quite
smoothly. Israelis have gone and gotten the masks checked out, gotten their
atropine prescriptions refilled as an anti-nerve agent. Those sorts of
preparations are being carried out. Israelis are required in any kind of new
house now to have some sort of a safe room; that is, a room that they can
retreat to in the event of an attack, be protected from chemical fumes or some
sort of biological agent. So this is a country that is generally on guard
against these sorts of attacks and there's quite a good deal of awareness of
what to do in the event of one.
GROSS: Do you have a sense of what the general sentiment is about a war with
Iraq in the West Bank, in Gaza?
Mr. BENNET: Yeah, I would say it's generally viewed in the West Bank and Gaza
as belligerence on the part of the United States, that is, bullying, I would
say, picking on a guy who isn't an obvious threat, trumping him up, making him
seem like a bigger threat than he actually is. And I think it's being
factoring into what is really rising resentment among Palestinians about
American policy in the region. I'm constantly asked as I do interviews in the
West Bank and Gaza, `Why does America support dictators in Saudi Arabia? Why
do you support dictators in the region? You're supposed to be for democracy.
But you only go after the dictators you don't like, guys like Saddam Hussein.
You, the Americans, are demanding democracy of us, but we don't see you
putting pressures on the Egyptians, for example, to truly democratize.'
Palestinians, like Israelis, are quite sophisticated about policy in this
region. They know the governments in the region, they know how they function
and they take a very jaundiced view, I think, of claims that Americans may be
making the region more safe for democracy.
GROSS: Is your family preparing for the possibility of chemical or biological
Mr. BENNET: Well, my wife today is down in Tel Aviv doing a daylong course in
what you do in the event of a chemical or biological attack. Again, there's
only so much preparation you can actually do. A lot of families will--expat,
generally, families, I think, will leave in the event of war. It's just a
question of how much warning we're going to have.
GROSS: I hope you don't mind my bringing this up, but I know you have a new
baby. Are you spooked by all of this?
Mr. BENNET: Well, yeah. We're all--I think everybody with children here and
everybody with family and everybody period is a little bit spooked about the
possibility something like this could happen. In general, the betting here is
that Jerusalem in particular is safe because it has such a large Muslim and
Arab population; and also, that, if anything, Saddam Hussein is in far less of
a position to send any Scuds toward Israel in general this time around than he
was 10 years ago because the Americans are already in control of the airspace
there. There's already no-fly zones, and he is believed to have been able to
make less preparations in the Western Desert that would be the launching site
for those sorts of attacks. So people generally are talking themselves
into--and I certainly am also--talking myself into believing that it won't be
such a problem here. But it's something we think about. And for babies here,
they issue you a small box--because you can't put a gas mask on a baby, they
issue a sort of a box that you're supposed to put the baby in to protect him
or her in the event of an attack like this.
GROSS: What does the box look like?
Mr. BENNET: I don't have one yet.
GROSS: Bethlehem, where Christ was born, is in the West Bank. Christmas is
coming up. What does Bethlehem look like right now, and what do you think
Christmas is going to look like in Bethlehem?
Mr. BENNET: Well, I spent the morning today in Bethlehem, which is just
outside of Jerusalem. It's under curfew again today. There's very few
Palestinians moving in the streets; some Israeli armored vehicles moving in
the streets. Israel moved back into Bethlehem. The Israel army took a big
position again in Bethlehem in late November after a suicide bombing here in
Jerusalem on a bus. The bomber came from Bethlehem, which is just outside the
city limits. Bethlehem is in bad shape. This is the big tourism time of
year. A couple of tourist buses have been admitted inside.
I was in Manger Square, which is the area right in front of the Church of the
Nativity which Christians believe marks the spot where Jesus was born. There
was one tourist bus there. There are a lot of very desperate vendors trying
to sell kaffiyehs, you know, the ornamental Arab headdress, to journalists
who had arrived to see what was happening in Bethlehem in the advance of
Christmas. The streets are quite torn up by tank treads and such. It's quite
a change. Two years ago, Bethlehem 2000 was supposed to be a major event, and
a lot of money was invested in Bethlehem to prepare for a huge onslaught of
tourists that simply hasn't materialized.
GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. BENNET: OK. Thanks, Terry.
GROSS: And I wish you and your family the best. Thank you.
Mr. BENNET: Thanks. All the best to you.
GROSS: James Bennet is the Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times.
Our interview was recorded earlier today. He spoke to us from Jerusalem.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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