DATE March 12, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: James Bennet discusses the current state of affairs
between Israel and Palestine and the impact war would have on
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Planning for war with Iraq has put a lot of things on hold, including a peace
plan for the Middle East. The Bush administration has decided to wait until
after the crisis in Iraq is resolved. Before releasing the so-called Middle
East road map, a peace plan that would, among other things, lead to the
creation of a Palestinian state. The plan has been drawn up by the US, the
UN, the European Union and Russia. Meanwhile, Israel is preparing for the
possibility of an Iraqi attack if the US invades Iraq. To find out more about
how war plans are affecting the Middle East, we've asked James Bennet to join
us. He's Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times.
You recently wrote, `It may seem paradoxical that the country most vulnerable
to Iraqi attack in case of war is most eager for that war to begin.' Why is
Israel eager for war with Iraq to begin?
Mr. JAMES BENNET (Jerusalem Bureau Chief, The New York Times): After the
previous Iraq war, Israel engaged in the Oslo process with the Palestinians,
and many Israelis came to believe that that process would result in a new
Middle East in which Israel would be fully welcome, their economies would
bloom, there'd be all sorts of joint commercial ventures. There were some
signs of that, but it never quite happened, and obviously now they've taken a
giant step backward here. Now they're vesting their hopes in this war, the
similar hopes, that it's going to remake the region. They're not so much
worried about Iraq, per se; they're more focused on threats from Iran and
Syria and elsewhere. And they're hoping that this war will, in the end, open
the door to improved relations or real relationships in the region for the
state of Israel.
GROSS: How divided is Israel about the war?
Mr. BENNET: Not terribly. I mean, there's narrow-majority support for it.
It goes up here, as elsewhere, if it's a UN-backed war. But the government is
foursquare behind it. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was very careful a couple
of days ago to try to split apart any Israeli support for the war--or the
Israeli support for the war from the notion that Israel is somehow involved in
this war. At the top of this government, the officials have been watching
with great concern reports from overseas that anti-war demonstrators and
critics of the war effort in the United States and Europe are increasingly
linking Israel to the war and seeing Israel as a prime instigator of the war.
Ariel Sharon has been insisting, `No, no, no. We're not trying to push this
war forward, nor are we trying to delay it. Obviously, we're very interested
in the outcome, but we're not responsible for it or involved in it.' That's
what the official government position is.
GROSS: Is there an anti-war movement within Israel?
Mr. BENNET: Not a very strong one. There was a demonstration a couple of
weeks back in Tel Aviv that attracted a couple of thousand people, but there
has not been a strong anti-war movement.
There has been some criticism of the war in the press and some concern that
the rosy predictions for its outcome for Israel's future might be a little bit
too optimistic and that there could be some backlash against Israel,
particularly if the war goes badly.
GROSS: Well, you know, I've been hearing two completely different points of
view of what war with Iraq might mean for Israel. President Bush has put the
Middle East road map on hold until after Iraq is resolved, and he says that
resolution in Iraq will be good for peace in the Middle East. Some European
countries are saying, `No, no, no. What we have to do is accomplish peace in
the Middle East first, because that's the biggest threat to security.' And
some political watchers think that war with Iraq will help peace in the Middle
East; others think that it will hurt it. Can you explain both sides of that
position, like what each of those positions are?
Mr. BENNET: Well, there are two sets of issues that you're raising there.
There's one sort of tactical consideration and then the longer-term, more, I
guess, strategic question, you could call it. By tactical, I mean even the
Bush administration's allies, most notably Britain, have been pushing for some
progress here in advance of the war, the argument being that if there is
progress here, it will enhance America's standing going into this war,
generate more support for the war in the Arab world, because the United States
would then be seen, according to this argument, as a more sincere actor here;
that is, a country interested in doing something to resolve this conflict,
perhaps, and to help the Palestinians in their aspirations of statehood.
That's something that was, in other words, seen as a building block in the war
There's also the argument that in the longer term--and you hear this from
European diplomats here--that the moment is right now to act in this conflict
here. The war might ultimately only complicate the effort to achieve peace
here, and that the longer you wait the bigger problem it is if your goal is
actually to resolve this conflict, particularly since, as we go forward, the
conflict might also become, to some extent, hostage now to a presidential
campaign cycle in the United States. It's going to be that much harder for
the administration to concentrate on an additional foreign policy concern in
this region when it's trying to wrestle with the issues involved in managing
GROSS: What does the Palestinian leadership think about how its position will
be regarded after war with Iraq vs. before war with Iraq?
Mr. BENNET: Well, you're seeing some intense maneuvering on both sides here
in advance of any war in hopes it'll enhance the position of either party in
the long term. One reason you've seen Yasser Arafat move towards appointing a
prime minister, I think, is that he hopes that that will enhance his own
credibility and the Palestinians' position in anticipation of the Americans
turning their attention here after the war.
GROSS: So President Bush has put the Middle East peace road map on hold until
after Iraq is resolved. What is this road map?
Mr. BENNET: The road map was drafted by the so-called quartet, a diplomatic
alliance of four nations--four entities, rather--I'm sorry--the United States,
the United Nations, the European Union and Russia. They've been acting in
concert here to try to return the parties to the bargaining table.
The road map is a seven-page document, as drafted now. It's never been
formally announced. It calls for immediate concessions on both sides; an end
to all violence here, an eventual retreat by Israeli forces to the positions
they held before the conflict began, a renunciation of violence, etc.
The United States has repeatedly postponed the announcement of this draft. It
was prepared back in December. And the Americans' allies say that at that
time President Bush signed off on it. But then the Bush administration
postponed its announcements until after Israeli elections, then until after
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon formed a new government, and now they've postponed
it until after any war in Iraq.
GROSS: Is it just President Bush that is calling for all these postponements
or are the other three entities in agreement?
Mr. BENNET: No, the other three are very anxious to move ahead with it as
soon as possible, and have been very frustrated with the American position.
GROSS: I've been reading conflicting reports about how vulnerable Israel is
to attack from Iraq if the United States attacks Iraq. Newsweek this week
reports that Israeli officials say that the chance of a successful attack by
Saddam Hussein are negligible, that Saddam Hussein has only a handful of
missile launchers and about 20 Scuds, all of them in decrepit condition, and
that's according to Israeli intelligence, says Newsweek. But then in
mid-February the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in the United
States told a Senate intelligence committee that Saddam Hussein would likely
launch missiles and terrorist attacks against Israel if there is war with
Iraq. What kind of reports have you been hearing within Israel about how
vulnerable it is?
Mr. BENNET: Well, I can say what I hear here is very consistent with the
Newsweek report rather than what was said in Washington; that is, the Israeli
military intelligence has concluded he has extremely limited capacity to
strike Israel this time around compared to during the first Gulf War. People
are concerned about it, obviously, but there's no hysteria here about the
The Israeli belief is that if Saddam Hussein feels truly cornered and--as a
last-gasp effort at that point he might try to strike at Israel, but they
believe that at that point he simply won't be able to. Also, because they
think the Americans have a better strategy this time around, as the United
States has described it to the Israelis, the Israelis are confident that the
Americans intend to control the western desert as part of the early stages of
the operation. That's the area that in the past Saddam Hussein used as the
launching ground for the Scuds at Israel.
GROSS: If Israel thinks that Saddam Hussein's military isn't strong enough
and that its weapons aren't powerful enough to attack Israel now, what does
that say about the military threat and the threat of weapons of mass
destruction that Iraq poses for the rest of the world?
Mr. BENNET: Well, exactly. I mean, this is sort of a basic question about
the war effort. Again, the way the Bush administration talks about the war is
it's not so much predicated on the threat that Saddam Hussein immediately
poses, but the threat he may pose in a few years if he continues to develop
some sort of nuclear capability.
But, no, the Israelis are much more concerned about other actors in the region
than they are about Iraq. They worry more about Syria, which Israeli military
intelligence says has quite large stockpiles of chemical weapons--VX gas--and
concerned about Iran. And the defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, said the other
day that the Americans have to start thinking that after an Iraq war the
disappearance of Iraq as a threatening regional player might actually embolden
Iran. So he was calling for the Americans to begin thinking about the need to
put diplomatic economic pressure on Iran in the aftermath of a war.
GROSS: You've been traveling through Gaza and the West Bank for your
Mr. BENNET: Mm-hmm. Yes.
GROSS: What kind of discussions do you hear among the Palestinian leadership
and the people of those regions?
Mr. BENNET: There's a great deal of anger about the war among the people, the
Palestinians. As an American traveling in those areas, I often get confronted
about American policy, obviously in the region generally, now specifically
about the war, asked to explain, asked to justify. I'm placed in the position
of trying to explain it. I don't see that as my role.
Both in the West Bank and Gaza, people are quite upset about it, partly
because they view it as hypocrisy on America's part, that there are other
leaders in the region that are autocratic, that mistreat their people, that
haven't come under this sort of pressure from the United States. I wouldn't
say it's because there's a great deal of love, necessarily, for Saddam
Hussein--some people are supportive of him--but there is a great deal of
concern for the people of Iraq and for the notion that America is behaving
like a hegemonic power. You often hear people refer to President Bush's use
of the word `crusade' shortly after the September 11th attack.
GROSS: He did kind of withdraw that word afterwards.
Mr. BENNET: Yeah. But the word continues to reverberate here.
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: If you're just joining us, my guest is James Bennet. He's the
Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times.
Israel killed a leader of Hamas and his three bodyguards in Gaza City just a
few days ago. It's not the first leader of Hamas that Israel has recently
killed. What impact is this having on Hamas?
Mr. BENNET: Well, Hamas has repeatedly vowed revenge for numerous Israeli
incursions and raids into Gaza recently. Israeli's really stepped up its
campaign against Hamas since the middle of February, when Hamas blew up an
Israel tank in the Gaza Strip near a settlement there, killing four soldiers.
Since then, we've seen armored raid after armored raid into Gaza.
This particular Hamas leader that was killed on Saturday in an Israeli
helicopter missile strike was named Ibrahim Makadmeh. Israel said he was
directly implicated in planning, in carrying out terrorist attacks.
Palestinians--other Hamas leaders describe him as more of a political leader.
They say that he had been involved in violence years ago, but had lately
become more involved on an ideological level for Hamas. He obviously didn't
feel targeted--he was on his way to his dental clinic at the time--although he
did move around with bodyguards. But he does not seem to have made any effort
to conceal his movements from the Israelis.
So there's some question as whether the Israelis are beginning now to broaden
their campaign against Hamas to encompass also leaders who describe themselves
GROSS: Is it having an effect on the power of Hamas?
Mr. BENNET: It's very hard to judge now whether it's having an effect.
There's been a great deal of pressure on Hamas. They've had far less success
recently in carrying out suicide bombings against Israelis. There was one
devastating bombing last week in Haifa. The 17th victim of that bombing died
just yesterday. But that was the first suicide bombing, lethal suicide
bombing against Israelis in two months.
Hamas has been launching sort of a crude rocket that they make, known as the
Qassam-2, from Gaza at Israeli targets. And Israel describes its increasing
movement into the Gaza Strip as an effort to suppress that rocket fire. So
far, the Israelis haven't been successful in stopping it. Even after the
Israelis seized positions in northern Gaza for the first time and held them
late last week, the rocket fire continued.
The Israelis have actually withdrawn now from some of the positions they took,
and there seems to have been some sort of deal struck with Palestinian
security forces there, because since the Israelis left, we haven't seen that
rocket fire yet.
GROSS: While we're on the subject of Hamas, the spiritual leader of Hamas
told Muslims around the world that they should retaliate against Western
interests if the US goes to war with Iraq, and he said that Muslims should
threaten Western interests and strike them everywhere. What's the feeling
there now in the Middle East? Do you think it's likely that Hamas would start
to see the West as a target if we attack Iraq?
Mr. BENNET: Hamas has always been very, very careful. Leaders I talk to and
that are quoted elsewhere in the media are always very careful to say that
they're not targeting Americans. But that statement by the spiritual leader,
Sheikh Yassin, seemed to edge in that direction. There have been other
statements recently like it. I honestly don't know which way they're going to
go. They say that their fight is entirely focused on Israel rather than some
sort of a broader anti-Western movement. But whether they're going to
increasingly ally with other forces in the Muslim world against, you know,
so-called Western targets or particularly against the United States remains
GROSS: You've been writing a lot about the latest tit-for-tat murders; you
know, bombings against Israelis, military assassinations of Hamas leaders.
I'm just wondering what kind of issues it poses for you as a reporter to have
to write so much about these deaths, you know, to have to report so much on
the deaths, to have to talk to the families on both sides who have lost loved
ones and who are, you know, totally bereft.
Mr. BENNET: It's a very sad time. I mean, it's been a very sad time here for
quite some time. I was down in Gaza last week interviewing the family of a
woman who was killed during the course of a separate Israeli raid to arrest a
different Hamas leader. They demolished a couple of homes. And in one case,
the wall of one of the houses they demolished fell onto this family's
apartment, knocked the wall down in the room where the family had taken
shelter, and the mother was killed. She was in her ninth month of pregnancy.
She had eight other children from the ages of two up to the early teen-age
years that were now motherless. Two days later was this Haifa bombing by
Hamas that killed 17 people, including a large number of high-school students,
middle-school students, you know, in a very nice neighborhood on a very quiet
day--the city bus, Arabs, Jews, a real mixed population, and this guy just
blew himself up in the back of the bus.
I guess what you're constantly reminded is that it is possible here to have
compassion for people on both sides of the conflict.
GROSS: When you are required to report on these tit-for-tat killings, what is
your approach to writing about it? I mean, 'cause on the one hand, like,
every death is so important; and on the other hand, the story becomes almost
redundant and predictable; yeah, you know, this leader is killed and then the
suicide bomber goes to Israel and blows up a lot of civilians and then there's
a retaliation by Israel and a retaliation by Hamas, and it goes on and on and
on. So when you try to figure out how to cover something like that, what are
the things that you think about?
Mr. BENNET: I can say, and I know as a reader of stories from here also, that
they can seem awfully redundant out there, but I can tell you, as someone
who's covered a lot of suicide bombings now--more than I would care to by
quite a stretch--and a lot of other sorts of violence here, that it never
feels redundant when you get to the scene. The horror of these sorts of
attacks strikes you with renewed force every time you go to one of these
things. They always have different characteristics that make them
particularly horrible--particular details, the experiences of the survivors
and the wounded. There is a degree of sameness to it, obviously, in that we
all, I think, as reporters here, feel sick to our stomachs. And there's a
terrible feeling when you're on your way to cover one of these things.
There is a certain rote quality to it, too. I mean, you go to the scene, you
got to the hospital, you interview as many people as you can who saw
it--bystanders, witnesses--you talk to the police. In the course of, say, a
raid into Gaza, it's eerily symmetrical in some ways in that you're, again,
going to the scene, going to the hospital, talking to witnesses. There are
certain things that as a reporter you simply know how to do, but in every case
the details are different and the victims are different and they all have
their own stories.
The Haifa bombing--there were, as I said, a number of children on that bus.
You know, one father was talking to his son on his cellular phone at the time
of the explosion. Those sorts of things stay with you.
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.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation with James Bennet, Jerusalem
bureau chief for The New York Times.
Also, Ken Tucker reviews new CDs from members of the '70s punk bands the
Buzzcocks and The Jam.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with James Bennet, Jerusalem
bureau chief for The New York Times. We invited him to talk with us about how
plans for war with Iraq are affecting the Middle East and what the latest
developments are in the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Yasser Arafat has nominated Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, to a new
position of prime minister. And as we record this Wednesday morning, you
know, his nomination hasn't been confirmed yet, but it's likely to be. Who is
Mahmoud Abbas? What's his history in the Palestinian movement, and where does
he stand politically now?
Mr. BENNET: Well, he has strong credentials within the Palestinian movement.
He is himself a Palestinian refugee of the Israeli-Arab war of 1948. He is
from a town originally that's now in northern Israel. It's called Safed. He
was one of the founders of Fatah, which is the largely secular mainstream
nationalist Palestinian faction of which Yasser Arafat is the leader. Abu
Mazen founded it along with Arafat and three others.
But he's known among Palestinians as a critic of the current armed uprising.
He's considered a moderate by many Palestinians. He doesn't have a very
strong following in the street; partly as a consequence of that, also partly
as a consequence of his style which is to be rather cerebral, retiring, not a
big public speech maker.
By the same token, he's built strong relationships over the years with
American and Israeli negotiators, other European peace negotiators. He's been
across the table from them now for many years as one of the principal
negotiators for the PLO. The people who negotiate with him don't describe him
necessarily as a moderate, but as a pragmatist and a man who's very anxious to
solve this conflict.
GROSS: So where does he stand on a solution for Middle East peace?
Mr. BENNET: Actually, Terry, the truth is we don't really know precisely
where he stands on a lot of these issues because he's said so little publicly
Mr. BENNET: He was very much part of the Oslo peace process, very much
engaged in it and has, by all accounts, watched with dismay what's happened
over the last couple of years regarding the armed struggle of the Palestinians
as a tremendous setback to the national movement. So he's seen as a critic of
the armed uprising.
Where he would be on the so-called final status issues--the partitioning of
Jerusalem, if it comes to that, particularly the issue of the right of return
of refugees, which is a right the Palestinians cling to, their right to return
to their homes that they lost or ran from during the 1948 Arab-Israeli
war--where he stands on those issue we can't be quite sure. Palestinians
refugees regard him with suspicion on that, believing that he's willing to
give up or at least sacrifice part of that right of return.
GROSS: Does it look like Arafat is willing to actually share power with a new
Mr. BENNET: It depends what you mean by `willing.' No. I mean, the general
expectation on both sides here, in all quarters here, diplomatic as well, is
that Yasser Arafat will continue to try to safeguard his powers, to hold onto
them. And the way the legislature define the powers of this new prime
minister, at least on paper, it leaves Yasser Arafat very much still in
So the pressure is really going to be on Mr. Abbas to try to somehow make
something out of this job. To do that, he has different people working for
him and working against him; that is different groups will want him to succeed
and will want him to fail in all quarters, among Palestinians and abroad.
Palestinian politics is quite complicated, quite turbulent despite Yasser
Arafat's endurance in the pre-eminent role. He's followed a strategy for
years, decades really, of retaining that control partly by keeping people
under him divided among themselves. And there are some other Palestinian
leaders, including some reform-minded Palestinians, who might not necessarily
want to see Mr. Abbas succeed because his success will automatically put him
in line to be the next Palestinian leader, and others would also want that
position. So he's got that issue to contend with on the home front. Then
there's the question of how Israel is going to receive him.
The diplomats that have been pushing for the appointment of this prime
minister--have really pushed very hard for Yasser Arafat to finally agree to
it--are hoping that Israel will very quickly move to assist Abu Mazen in the
Palestinian street by making some sort of concessions or lifting some closures
on Palestinians areas, perhaps halting the policy of directed killings, these
targeted killings of Palestinian militants, as something that would show a
tangible gain to the Palestinians from Abu Mazen's leadership. If that
happens, according to this theory, his position will be strengthened. He'll
be able to build something of a power base, and that that will then enhance
his position against Yasser Arafat and reduce Yasser Arafat's authority in the
GROSS: Did Arafat create this new position of prime minister and nominate Abu
Mazen to it because of outside pressure?
Mr. BENNET: Inside and outside pressure. Palestinians are also pushing for
this. There are many Palestinians who either are dissatisfied with Yasser
Arafat's day-to-day leadership or simply would like to see a more democratic,
less-corrupt system of governance then are there. So there has been internal
pressure for this, as well. It's not all coming from the outside.
That said, there's been tremendous pressure from the outside, as well. Israel
has refused to talk to the Palestinians as long as Yasser Arafat remains their
leader. The Bush administration has essentially endorsed that position. And
the Europeans and the United Nations also began pushing for the creation of
this prime minister, I think, recognizing that without that the Bush
administration simply was not going to become really engaged in the peace
GROSS: Is Arafat still confined to his compound?
Mr. BENNET: Essentially. It hasn't really been tested in quite some time,
but he doesn't stir from it, I think partly now in the fear he won't be able
to get back in if he leaves.
GROSS: I wonder what it...
Mr. BENNET: I mean, even if he leaves to go elsewhere in Ramallah, I should
add, Terry, that the Israelis could come in and close the compound down and
he'd essentially lose his base of operations.
GROSS: Is there any way of knowing exactly how it's affecting his mental
health to have been confined to such a small area for so long?
Mr. BENNET: He doesn't look well. He looks quite pale. He doesn't get a lot
of sun. He doesn't get a lot of exercise anymore. He has periodically been
examined. We don't really know what his health is. My understanding is he's
as active in the leadership as he's ever been. He's on the phone constantly;
people come in to see him. The Americans refuse to meet with him, but he
still does see diplomats from other nations, and he keeps a busy schedule.
GROSS: Is the living conditions of Palestinians within the West Bank and Gaza
changing as the restrictions on them wear on and on over a longer period of
time? Is there less food, more poverty, that kind of thing?
Mr. BENNET: There certainly is more poverty. The World Bank recently
estimated that most of the Palestinians in the West Bank are now living
beneath the poverty level, defined as $2 a day. Most are receiving some sort
of food aid. The economic situation is quite desperate, and you're seeing
some changes as a result in the society. People are moving back to some
degree to an agrarian way of life. You're seeing bumper crops, actually, in
some areas of the West Bank because there's simply more people to work the
land now. But they're then not able to get a lot of those crops to market,
according to a recent United Nations study here. So while they're getting the
crops, they can't get them across Israeli lines necessarily to be able to sell
You're seeing an interesting process, also, of some movement of Palestinians
from the large cities to the villages, where they still retain a little more
freedom of movement, which reverses, by the way, a historic tend, which has
been away from the village and toward the city.
GROSS: One of your recent articles was about a zoo in the West Bank that has
been very directly affected by the fighting in the Middle East. What effects
has the fighting had on the animals in the zoo?
Mr. BENNET: This is a zoo in Kalkilya, which is in the sort of central West
Bank. It's exactly within--you can see the skyscrapers of Tel Aviv quite
easily from Kalkilya. It's also a place where the Israelis have repeatedly
gone in, particularly in the last year, and they've actually now fenced most
of Kalkilya. They're going to fence all of it so that the town itself, which
is a town of about 40,000 people, is essentially now completely enclosed,
accessible only through one Israeli checkpoint.
This zoo is inside the city. It's the most extensive Palestinian zoo in the
West Bank and Gaza. I was actually quite astonished to find a hippopotamus
there and all sorts of baboons and wolves and bears. But over the course of
the conflict, the animals have been dying. Some have died of old age. Some,
the zookeepers say, died of tear gas. All the zebras died, they said, because
their pen was against one wall, a tear-gas grenade fell in the pen--actually,
a zookeeper showed it to me--and the animals succumbed to the gas. A giraffe
died, they said, because during a gunfight it started running around in a
panic, fell down and evidently had a heart attack. The zookeepers believe
that the female giraffe then had a miscarriage because--out of profound
sadness for the loss of her mate. I have to say she seems like quite a
forlorn figure as she moves around her pen by herself now.
I would add, Terry, you can imagine the kind of e-mail I got after this story
for writing about the predicament of these animals when people are suffering
here to the degree that they are. But to me, it gave some kind of a different
sort of index, really, to the suffering caused by this conflict.
GROSS: What made you think about doing a piece on this zoo?
Mr. BENNET: I was just interested in it, and it seemed like a different--I'd
heard about it for quite some time, actually, during Operation Defensive
Shield, a very large Israeli military offensive last spring. I heard that
they were having difficulty feeding the lion in Kalkilya. And ever since
then, I wanted to get to this zoo. And I hadn't had the opportunity to do it,
or made the opportunity to do it. And I was just very curious to see it.
It's a unique place here.
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: If you're just joining us, my guest is James Bennet, Jerusalem bureau
chief for The New York Times.
Let's look briefly at the Sharon government. What is his coalition like now?
Mr. BENNET: During the last elections, his own party, the Likud Party, gained
substantially in parliament to become, by far, the strongest force in the
120-seat legislature. That party, at least in its leadership ranks, is quite
hawkish. Many leaders are opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state. In
that sense, Ariel Sharon can be seen as being slightly to the left, believe it
or not, of his own party on some of those issues.
The Likud joined with Shinui, which is a sort of upstart party that identifies
itself as centrist on security issues, but is much more concerned with
internal Israeli issues, particularly in trying to decrease the role of
religion in public life here. That's really what Shinui's preoccupation is.
Beyond that, the Sharon government also consists of two very right-wing
parties associated with the settler movement here that are already jealously
guarding the settler prerogatives and seeking to expand settlements in the
West Bank and Gaza.
And how this coalition hangs together in the event that the Bush
administration does become aggressive about the policy here and begin pushing
this road map is unclear. Because among the other provisions that the road
map calls for is, as part of the first stage, the immediate dismantlement of
all settler outposts that have been built in about the last two years,
something that these settler parties would aggressively oppose.
GROSS: And Sharon himself has been very active in building the settlements.
Mr. BENNET: Exactly.
GROSS: Well, Sharon was at the point in his career--he's an older man, and
he's at the point where he's probably wondering what does he want his legacy
to be. And I'm wondering if you have any insights into that, and if you think
that he might surprise people and actually work toward some peaceful
Mr. BENNET: This is something that's been said about Ariel Sharon for three
years now, that he is the one guy in the sort of Nixon-to-China scenario who'd
be strong enough to take on the settlers and actually do something about the
settlement movement in the West Bank and Gaza as part of an end to this
conflict. And people cite as evidence of that the fact that it was Ariel
Sharon who dismantled Israeli settlements in the Sinai as part of the peace
agreement with Egypt. And he himself has said that he would like to achieve
some kind of peace with the Palestinians, that he would like that to be his
legacy. And I think some Israeli voters I talked to from the left, or from
the Labor Party, who drifted into Sharon's camp, did so in the belief that
this was his hidden agenda, that he really would be the peacemaker in the end.
But it's also true that Ariel Sharon has been quite clear about the kind of
Palestinian state he envisions, and whether that would be remotely acceptable
to any Palestinian leader is very much in doubt. I mean, Ariel Sharon has
described a Palestinian state in less than half of the West Bank and Gaza
Strip that would not have a capital in Jerusalem, which he calls Israel's
eternal and indivisible capital and would be demilitarized, that would not
have control of its airspace, all these sorts of things. And obviously, he's
totally, like all Israelis, opposed to the notion of any right of return of
Palestinians to Israel itself. So whether he has this desire or not--he says
he does--whether he'd actually be able to implement the desire is, you know,
far from certain.
GROSS: In the meantime, the road map for peace in the Middle East has been
put on hold till after the Bush administration tries to deal with Iraq. So do
you expect that while things are officially on hold like that that we're going
to just see continuing tit-for-tat murders?
Mr. BENNET: I hope not. There's some belief here on both sides--at least on
the Israeli side, there's a belief that the Palestinian leadership actually
would like to see things calm down a bit now in the same way that they think
the Syrians would like to see things a little calmer now for fear that Israel
will take dramatic action if there is any Palestinian violence, particularly
while the world's attention is focused elsewhere.
Palestinians are quite afraid that that is what's going to happen. They're
constantly expressing the fear that Israel will do something terrible in the
West Bank and in Gaza while people are focused on Iraq, that they'll use that
as cover even to begin transferring the population. Israeli officials totally
reject that. They say they have no such intention, and that it also wouldn't
even be in their interest to take any dramatic action now because it would
undermine the war effort in Iraq, which they support.
GROSS: What's the kind of fear and anxiety level like now in Jerusalem where
you live, both about, you know, what's happening in the Middle East, about
possible attacks from Palestinians, but also fear of war with Iraq and
possible Iraqi retaliations against Israel?
Mr. BENNET: Terry, one always hesitates to say this sort of thing out loud,
but despite this devastating suicide bombing last week in Haifa, for Israelis,
things have been relatively quiet for the last couple of months. They've been
far from quiet for Palestinians. But for Israelis, they've been a little
quieter because, Israelis believe, of the military actions that the army is
now freely taking in the West Bank and Gaza. As a result, you're seeing more
people out in the evening now at restaurants, on street corners, moving around
in Jerusalem. In that sense, there's maybe a little less anxiety right now
than there was a couple of months back. Again, it changes rapidly. We have
periods when there are very strong warnings of a possible terrorist attack;
people behave differently. And it's certainly not as though people are happy
to be riding the buses again or feeling safe, but that sort of severe level of
anxiety, I think, has slightly decreased.
As far as Iraq goes, people are putting their safe rooms together. The
government has distributed gas masks and atropine kits to protect people from
nerve agents. People have been sealing their rooms with plastic. But others
are either fatalistic about it or simply feel that Iraq doesn't represent a
threat this time around, and they aren't bothering to take any of these
measures. Particularly young people I've talked to, even in the Tel Aviv
area--and Tel Aviv was really Saddam Hussein's target last time around--say,
`Well, you know, everything we've heard from the defense establishment this
time makes us feel like he's not really a menace to us.'
GROSS: Yeah. Can I ask if you have your safe room?
Mr. BENNET: In deference to the sensibilities of my family back in the
States, I'd rather not get into details of, you know, precautions we've taken,
but we've taken more than adequate precautions to make sure we'll be safe.
GROSS: OK. Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us. And I
wish you safety. And thank you.
Mr. BENNET: Thanks, Terry. Thank you very much.
GROSS: James Bennet is the Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews new CDs from members of the '70s punk
bands The Buzzcocks and The Jam. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: New CDs from The Buzzcocks and Paul Weller
TERRY GROSS, host:
The Buzzcocks and The Jam were two British bands inspired by '70s punk rock,
some of whose members continue making music. The Buzzcocks, without
co-founder Howard Devoto but with its other leader, Pete Shelley, have just
released a new CD called simply "Buzzcocks." The Jam's front man Paul Weller
has a new solo album called "Illumination." Rock critic Ken Tucker has a
review of both.
(Soundbite of song; music)
THE BUZZCOCKS: (Singing) Well, isn't it truly like so many things? This is
the time for your wake-up call. ..(Unintelligible) sin. This is the time for
your wake-up call.
KEN TUCKER reporting:
In 1977, The Buzzcocks issued precisely what the title of that song says, `a
wake-up call,' in the form of a ferocious single called "Orgasm Addict"; as
propulsive a piece of punk as The Sex Pistols, The Clash or anyone else at
that point had released. Group leaders Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley broke
up the band by the early '80s, and Shelley had a solo career that peaked with
his first hit single, the considerably smoother, but no-less-intense "Homo
Sapien." In the '90s, having regrouped with the other crucial Buzzcocks
guitar/singer Steve Diggle, the band put out a few albums, but none of them
have the melodic bluntness of this one.
(Soundbite of song)
THE BUZZCOCKS: (Singing) When you don't know who you are and you're walking
with a scar in the places that are breaking down your mind. It's a
complicated day, busy people on their way, mirrored buildings reflecting in
your eyes. ...(Unintelligible) city sometimes. ...(Unintelligible) in your
eyes. ...(Unintelligible) city sometimes. ...(Unintelligible) in your eyes.
Threw the paper in the trash...
TUCKER: Unlike The Buzzcocks, Paul Weller and The Jam were always more
amenable to a sound that was softer around the edges. Weller was a Mod surely
as The Who's Pete Townshend once was. As such, he was open to letting
American soul music rhythms enter his music. After The Jam disbanded, Weller
explored this melodic side as leader of the group Style Council, and his solo
career, as is clear on this new disk, "Illumination," is marked by a crisp
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. PAUL WELLER: (Singing) It's written in the wind that we're two; carved
out in the sand that we're real. It's lit up in the stars that we're true;
we're destined in the sky to be glad.
We're hopelessly ...(unintelligible) that will mend. We're conscious of the
fact that we're supposed to be. So sure, and we are. We're driven by the
TUCKER: Neither The Buzzcocks nor Paul Weller's various incarnations has had
great mass success in America. They're classic British rockers in the sense
of being profoundly influenced by American pop music, which they view as they
a continuum. Dusty Springfield is as vital as Siouxsie & the Banshees who are
as vital as Eminem. Weller's "Illumination" has been a big hit in his
homeland with such class-conscious, yet pop-ahistorical songs as this one, "A
Bullet For Everyone."
(Soundbite of "A Bullet For Everyone")
Mr. WELLER: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible) place all night. Everybody's
lovin' it, watchin' the big fight. ...(Unintelligible) handshake. Life's a
(unintelligible). With everybody killin' it, killin' off ...(unintelligible).
There are ...(unintelligible) between the haves and who have-nots. There's a
bonfire in the city that it don't know where to stop. And they say there's
provisions. There's not enough to go around. But when it comes to the gun,
there's a bullet for everyone. Yeah, yeah.
TUCKER: To my ears, The Buzzcocks make the more exciting music. I find
Weller's songs over the course of an entire album to bog down in fussiness and
undue self-regard, whereas The Buzzcocks just get right to the point. Which
was always the point of punk rock in the first place, wasn't it?
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
two new CDs: "Buzzcocks" by The Buzzcocks and Paul Weller's "Illumination."
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of music)
THE BUZZCOCKS: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible) parents have been working very
hard and you know ...(unintelligible) come down. ...(Unintelligible) is
really touch ...(unintelligible) truth. ...(Unintelligible)
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