DATE July 17, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Steven Erlanger, The New York Times Jerusalem bureau
chief, discusses the current conflict between Israel and Hezbollah
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Steven Erlanger, is the Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York
Times. Several of his front page stories over the past few days have been
co-written with Times reporters in Beirut. This morning he went to his studio
in Jerusalem to record an interview with us about the crisis in the Middle
East. Erlanger has been covering the Middle East since 2004. Before that he
was the Times bureau chief in Berlin, Central Europe in the Balkans, and
Steven Erlanger, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Do you have any sense of where
this conflict is heading?
Mr. STEVEN ERLANGER: I think I have a sense of where people want it to head.
Israel wants it to head to a place where the UN and the international
community will actually implement UN Security Council Resolution 1559 of 2004,
which calls for the Lebanese government to establish sovereignty over its
entire territory and push Hezbollah off the border with Israel and dismantle
Hezbollah. That's where Israel wants it to go.
The Gaza problem's completely different. You've got an Israeli soldier
kidnapped there. Perhaps we'll have some kind of package deal that involves
the release of all three kidnapped soldiers--abducted, captured soldiers,
whichever you'd prefer--and have some form of release of Palestinian prisoners
at a time to come later. But that's down the road. I think the Lebanon issue
in some ways, though fiercer, is clearer than the Gaza issue.
GROSS: How much concern is there in Israel that this will end up a regional
war with Syria and/or Iran getting involved?
Mr. ERLANGER: Well, there is a lot of concern. I mean, the Israeli
government has tried in many ways to be explicit in saying it will not on its
own broaden the war. But at the same time all of its rhetoric has been that
the problem's regional and the real masters of Hezbollah and Hamas are outside
Lebanon and Gaza, that they rest in Syria and Iran and they point a lot of
fingers at Iran as a state that sponsors terrorism and is trying to get a
nuclear program illicitly and which sponsored Islamic jihad and which wants
Israel wiped off the map and which has no interest at all in any kind of
accommodation between the Palestinians and the Israelis, let alone between the
Israelis and the rest of the Arab Muslim world.
GROSS: How much popular support is there in Israel now for this war?
Mr. ERLANGER: Quite a lot. Israel pulled out of Lebanon six years
and--after a very difficult and long Vietnam-like experience in Lebanon, and
they thought that was the end of it. And they let the UN come and draw a
border, and they said, `Fine, that's enough.' So, when they watched and the
army watched Hezbollah equipping itself with between 10 and 12,000 rockets
capable of reaching Israel and Israel actually had chosen not to do anything
about it, some people criticized that. So now most Israelis see this as
actually a sort of given opportunity, which Israel did not initiate, to really
clobber Hezbollah which is something the Israeli military's been wanting to do
for some time, and the new Israeli government Olmert and particularly with a
new defense minister, Amir Peretz. who has very little defense experience,
sees this as a test of Israel's will, of this new generation's will, and its
ability to defend its own interests. I mean, you've got the problem of the
usual Mideast force equations which is compromise is usually seen as a
weakness and restraint is considered cowardice and, rightly or wrongly,
sometimes wrongly I believe, Israel responds with significant force when its
interests are at stake.
GROSS: One thing I've read is that this was almost a test for Olmert's
defense minister who was a union organizer. Olmert himself was a lawyer.
They're not military guys in the way that Sharon was. Do you think that
there's any truth in that, that this was almost a test to see whether these
nonmilitary guys would have a military response?
Mr. ERLANGER: To some degree yes, and it's a test actually the Israelis
themselves are putting to this new government. And Ehud Olmert has been a
politician for a very, very long time, and he is a very experienced one, and
he's been at the center of power for a very long time, so it's not like he's
inexperienced with questions of security or defense. But he's not been a
general. He's not an Ariel Sharon or a Yitzhak Rabin or Ehud Barak. I mean,
he's not one of these Israeli leaders that first made his reputation, you
know, killing the enemies of Israel, most of whom, let's face it, have been
Arab. He has been a lawyer and a politician and a tactician, very close to
powerful people and a powerful person himself, but not Mr. Security. And
Amir Peretz, the defense minister, as you yourself have just said, was the
head of the Labor Party and rose up through the main trade union in Israel,
and he served in the army and actually got hurt in the 1973 war. He's--has
none of the experience that even Olmert has with the military, let alone
running it. So there is a test. It's a test of a new government, and it's a
new government which was elected to pull as many as 70 to 80,000 Israelis out
of the West Bank, and it understands that, as long as it is perceived to be
weak or perceived to be unable to defend Israelis, they won't be able to carry
out what they feel they've been elected to do, which is to do another
withdrawal, simply because Israelis will say, `You've mismanaged Gaza. We're
being hit by rockets from Gaza. If we pull out of the West Bank, there'll be
rockets at--inside Tel Aviv.' And so part of what the new government also has
to do is to create a new set of understanding so it can go about the business
it was entitled or elected to do.
GROSS: My guest is Steven Erlanger. He's joining us from Jerusalem. He's
the Jerusalem bureau chief of The New York Times.
What is the logic behind the military strategy that the Israeli army is using?
They know there are going to be a lot of civilians who are killed and injured.
There's already been many killed and injured. Part of the Lebanon
infrastructure is being destroyed, particularly in Beirut. How does Israel
explain and justify that?
Mr. ERLANGER: Let's talk about Lebanon and Gaza differently. Lebanon first.
The way they explain it is, `We need to insure that Hezbollah can't do to us
anymore what it's just done to us. We need to drive them back from the
border, we need to deplete their--and destroy their huge supply of rockets,
and we need to ensure that their suppliers of all this stuff, mainly Iran and
Syria, can't re-supply them.' So Israel says that it is obviously bombing
areas where Hezbollah is strong. It's bombing headquarters and television
stations and so on. It's also bombing rocket stores, rocket launching
facilities. They say that Hezbollah stores many of these rockets in private
homes and garages and apartment buildings. Its strength is in southern
Beirut. It's hitting all those places. Israel also has taken out, for the
moment, Beirut's airport. It hasn't destroyed the terminal, but it's holed
the runways and the main roads from Syria, which it says it's doing to ensure
once it depletes Hezbollah, Hezbollah can get resupplied right away. So
that's what it's--that's the Israeli rationale.
In Gaza it's more complicated and we can get into that, but, you know, Israel
pulled out its settlers and troops from Gaza last summer, 9,000 of them, and
said, you know, to the Palestinians, `It's not perfect, but it's yours. Make
of it what you can. We're not interested any more.' And the Palestinians, in
general, I think, took to this, but the Palestinian militants kept responding
to what Israel was doing in the West Bank, which it completely occupies, by
firing crude rockets into Israel, into sovereign Israeli territory, and Israel
wasn't, you know, hitting back terribly hard but was hitting back. And then,
of course, what happened is that some Palestinian militants, in a very
carefully done plan, tunneled underneath Israeli lines into Israel itself and
attacked an Israeli outpost in a tank and captured a soldier and dragged the
soldier back into Gaza. So that was the kind of proximate cause for all this,
and Israel has tried to respond by saying, `We now militarily want to get our
soldier back, and if you give him back, we will leave, but we're not going to
negotiate for him. And we want--secondly we want to stop the rockets from
falling.' So they've go into the north of Gaza. But they've had, you know,
vague aims to some degree. I mean, they've been wanting to undermine or
destroy the Hamas government of the Palestinian authority. They've been
bombing things like the Palestinian foreign ministry that have connections to
Hamas ministers but don't have direct connections to either the rockets or to
the captured soldier. And they did certain things like take out the power,
the power station in Gaza, and they've been criticized for collective
punishment. They've been trying, they say, to create public pressure on Hamas
to bend and to release this soldier but, to me, the policy has not been
GROSS: My guest is Steven Erlanger, The New York Times Jerusalem bureau
chief. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Steven Erlanger. He's joining
us from Jerusalem. He's The New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief.
Hezbollah's attack against the Israeli soldiers came right after Hamas had
seized an Israeli soldier. Is there any evidence the attacks were
Mr. ERLANGER: I've not seen any evidence that you would bring to court, no.
There is, I guess, what the lawyers would call circumstantial evidence which
isn't--doesn't make you guilty. First of all, Hezbollah, when it did it, said
it did the act in solidarity with the Palestinians of Gaza and the
Palestinians in the West Bank, too. And the Palestinians responded initially
with a great deal of joy and gratitude saying, you know, `We have an ally.
The Arabs are doing nothing, but look at Hezbollah, which is taking action on
our behalf.' So that's one--you know, Hezbollah admitted the two things were
connected. Some in Israel like to speculate--I'm not sure how they could
prove it; they've certainly never given me phone intercepts--that Iran pushed
Hezbollah to make this raid into Israel to capture two more soldiers as a way
of opening up a second front, and it's certainly done that but, in general,
Israel had been responding under Ariel Sharon to such attacks in the north
with a great deal of restraint, and the new government, Mr. Olmert decided,
no, this was an act of war and has responded in the ways that we've been
GROSS: Hezbollah and Hamas are both Islamist groups; they both want Islamic
states. But Hezbollah is a Shiite group and Hamas is a Sunni group. Are
these groups allies or rival?
Mr. ERLANGER: They are largely allies in their main interest, which is, they
both agree that Israel has no business being in the Middle East. They
recognize Israel is there, but they don't recognize that Israel has a right to
be there. Hamas is much more complicated and interesting because it is the
Palestinian branch of the Muslim brotherhood, which is based in Egypt. And it
is very much a homegrown Palestinian group, and it has had great success with
its clinics and schools, and it has also been a very well-organized, militant,
stroke-resistance group against the Israelis. It's done a lot of damage to
the Israelis, including a lot of suicide bombings and rocket attacks. But it
made the choice to turn to politics, and it won the election for the
Palestinian Authority legislature on January 25. So Hamas is really, you
know, it gets help from outside without question. The problem with Hamas is
that its military wing is very secretive and seems to be more responsive to
Hamas leaders in exile, in particular Khaled Meshaal, who lives in Damascus
and who gets most of his funding from Iran. So that's really the Hamas issue.
Hezbollah is in some ways much simpler. It was set up with the help of Iran.
It is Shia in southern Lebanon. It was set up in 1982 to help fight Israel.
It--and it did that pretty effectively. It controls southern Lebanon. It's
kind of a state within a state, and it is very much opposed to peace of any
kind between Israel and the Palestinians, but it is much more directly a sort
of cat's paw of Iran, though clearly it has local interests too.
GROSS: Do the leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah communicate much, do you know?
Mr. ERLANGER: I don't know that for sure. I do know that Hamas has had some
training at camps, in the past, in southern Lebanon. I do know that Hamas has
learned lessons from the way Hezbollah has acted and fought Israel in southern
Lebanon. And certainly the relationships through Damascus and Iran mean that
there are ways to talk and connections, but Hamas doesn't really take its
orders from Hezbollah in any fashion, and I don't believe the connections
among the leadership is very strong.
GROSS: Is there any way of knowing how much the Hezbollah and Hamas capture
of Israeli soldiers was influenced by or initiated by Iran?
Mr. ERLANGER: I don't think there's a way of knowing it. There's a kind of
logic to it. It's--some people in Israel suggest that Iran, which has been
very nervous about its nuclear file coming up to the G8 meeting and to the UN
Security Council once again, has been looking for a diversion and there's no
diversion in the Middle East like a good Israeli-Palestinian, Israeli-Lebanese
war, so some people suggest that it's logical for Iran to have tried to keep
the pot boiling. It's--you know, this is in the realm of analysis rather than
GROSS: I'm interested in hearing your reaction on the response of Arab
governments to the Israeli bombing of Lebanon. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt
and several Persian Gulf countries have basically blamed Hezbollah for its
incursion into--across the Israeli border and its attack on Israeli soldiers.
And it's very unusual, isn't it, for Arab government heads to be blaming an
Islamist group as opposed to putting all the blame on Israel? What does that
say to you?
Mr. ERLANGER: It's fascinating. I think it says something about the growing
maturity and--of the Arab world, but also its panic. And what is it panicked
about? It's panicked about the rise of radical Islam. It's panicked about
the growing influence of Iran in the region. It's panicked about the idea
that Iran might add, to all its other advantages, a nuclear weapon. It is
very, very troubled by the inability of the Israelis and the Palestinians to
get their act together. And one of the reasons they can't is because of
Iranian- and Syrian-sponsored groups like Hezbollah. So I was very, very
struck by the Saudis essentially saying to Sheikh Nasrallah, the head of
Hezbollah, `You started it, you didn't ask us what we thought, you bear the
consequences.' And that's essentially what the Saudis said. So, to some
degree, this is evidence for the view that part of the struggle we're seeing
in this region is really between secular Arab governments and Islamic
governments. Not all of them Arab, obviously, given Iran. But there's a
fight inside the Muslim world going on, and, to some degree, it's a battle for
influence over the Palestinians, it's a battle over various proxy groups. It
will ripple far beyond this particular conflict. So there really is this
problem. I mean, Egypt had an election, and the Muslim brotherhood did very,
very well, and the Egyptians have been trying to repress the Muslim
brotherhood for quite a long time. I mean, the problem is much of the
opposition in these secular Arab governments, because they're so good at
repressing normal opposition, is organized by more secretive and Islamic
groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. And that is the great danger for these
governments, and they're watching everywhere.
GROSS: Steven Erlanger is The New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief. Our
interview was recorded this morning. We'll hear more from Erlanger in the
second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview
I recorded this morning with Steven Erlanger, The New York Times Jerusalem
bureau chief. He's covering Israel's conflicts with Hezbollah in Lebanon and
Hamas in Gaza.
Let's talk about what's going on in Gaza now. What's the state of the Israeli
offensive there now?
Mr. ERLANGER: Well, it's been stop and go. Maybe that's the best way of
putting it. The Israelis, once their soldier was captured, decided to go in
militarily into Gaza for the first time in nearly a year when they'd pulled
out. They had been over-flying Gaza and they had been trying to kill groups
of militants who had--who were readying rockets to fire into Israel or
particularly what Israel considered high value military targets, and sometimes
they've ended up killing civilians while doing that. But there were no troops
on the ground, so Israel did go in to the north of Gaza to push back rocket
shooters and to have some fighting with Palestinians militants, and they came
in in the south near the airport near Egypt to create a presence and a staging
position. They believe their soldier is being held somewhere in southern
Gaza. And at different moments they've come in through central Gaza and
pulled out again, but each time they've come in, they--there's been some
fighting and they've pulled out again. Their intention, they say, is to
create pressure on the people of Gaza and on the Hamas government to
understand the costs of not giving this soldier back. They've also bombed, as
I said, they bombed a power plant, they've bombed the foreign ministry,
they've bombed the interior ministry. They have gone after Hamas military
leaders where they could find them. It's been a fairly serious military
campaign but not a sustained one, because the Israelis do not want to be on
the ground in Gaza, and they don't want to stay on the ground in Gaza. So
they seem to be picking their moments, and then having some battles and, after
a couple days pulling out again, and going somewhere else.
GROSS: You know, reading your articles, in mid-June it looked maybe like
there was almost going to be a civil war between Fatah and Hamas. The former
leadership--the former political leadership is Fatah, and the current
political leadership is Hamas. And there were Fatah leaders who were actually
storming government buildings in mid-June. How close did things come to some
sort of civil war between those two Palestinian groups?
Mr. ERLANGER: Civil strife, certainly. I mean, civil war seems to be one of
these great anathema words among the Palestinians, but there is a struggle for
power in Gaza. It's been, you know, overshadowed or subsumed by what's been
happening lately. But it's going to come back. I'm very struck. When I was
in Gaza, you know, lots of people died, and so you had lots of funerals. You
had lots of militants coming to the funerals, and, you know, these funerals
are very emotional, wild events. And you saw extraordinary scenes of
militants shooting guns up in the air with their flags. The very, you know,
green of Hamas and the black of Islamic jihad and the yellow of Fatah and the
red of the popular front of the liberation of Palestine. But you almost never
saw a Palestinian flag, and that seems to be very telling.
GROSS: What does that say to you?
Mr. ERLANGER: It says that, at the moment, the content of Palestinian
authority, of a Palestinian state seems much less important to the people of
Gaza than this celebration of their resistance against Israel. I think you
know, trying to be cold about everybody, I do think the Palestinians have to
decide what it is they want. They either want to build a nation or they want
to fight Israel. I think, you know, it's hard to do both at the same time.
And you know, part of the problem with the election of Hamas and the defeat of
Fatah and the efforts that haven't worked very well to come up with a unified
political platform is it's very difficult for the world to give the
Palestinians what they want if the Palestinians aren't quite sure what that
GROSS: My guest is Steven Erlanger, The New York Times bureau chief. We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest, Steven Erlanger, is joining us from Jerusalem, where he's
The New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief.
You've been spending time in Gaza as well as in Israel. What are living
conditions like there now?
Mr. ERLANGER: Miserable. Gaza is a very, very poor place to begin with and
overcrowded. It has almost 1.4 million people, 70 percent of whom are
refugees and their descendents who live in very poor housing. It has not much
of an economy. Israel controls its outlets and all the crossings. Israel
controls basically its water supply and its electricity supply and its energy
supply, and Israel often, citing security concerns, which I presume are real,
shuts those off. And Gazans can't travel very easily. If you're a Gazan male
under 35, it's almost impossible to travel to the West Bank. It's a very
difficult life, and then you add on top of that the Hamas victory which
brought an international economic boycott of Hamas and a severe cut in
international aid. And the inability of Hamas to pay salaries to the
employees of the Palestinian Authority, who are 40 percent of the wage earners
in Gaza, and so for five months these people, these wage earners for large
families have been paid next to nothing. And you add on top of that this
latest conflict which has meant a cut of half of Gaza's electricity, so that
you have people who get, you know, city electricity for six hours a day. It's
very hot. It's very dusty. They need power to pump their water. They need
power for sanitation. It's a very, very, very difficult life in Gaza.
GROSS: You were saying earlier that you think the moral equation for Israel
is different in Gaza than it is in the attacks on Hezbollah and the bombing of
Lebanon. In what way?
Mr. ERLANGER: Well, Gaza's very complicated because it's part of this great,
you know, nexus of history and difficulty and hatred and struggle between the
Israelis and the Palestinians. And Gaza is still, at least formally, legally
occupied, though Israel has pulled out of it. It's very much, you know, an
issue of the West Bank and what the final borders are going to be, and will
there be a two-state solution, and if so, where? And you know, how many
settlers will still remain, and all these incredibly difficult problems that
have been bedeviling the world since partition, really, in 1948. With Lebanon
it's much simpler. I mean, Israel pulled out six years ago. The UN drew the
border. Kofi Annan gave it his personal stamp of, you know, this is OK. If
there--there are two sovereign states, one across from the other. Israel has
no settlers in Lebanon, it has no troops in Lebanon, it has no interest in
Lebanon, and it was attacked from Lebanon. So it's a much simpler moral case.
GROSS: But, in terms of like the moral issues that Israel faces, are the
Israeli people questioning the morality of killing civilians in Beirut and
destroying the Beirut infrastructure, destroying a city that only recently was
revived after years of civil war.
Mr. ERLANGER: Yes, of course. I mean, it's a free and democratic society,
and there are lots of points of view. And there was a march in Tel Aviv on
Sunday, you know, of people calling for peace and a quick cease-fire. But, in
general--and here I am trying to analyze Israeli views--the view is, `We were
attacked. Hezbollah attacked us. We need to go after Hezbollah. Hezbollah
controls southern Lebanon. It controls southern Beirut. It has television
stations. It brings in missiles through the Beirut airport from Iran and
Syria that Israel has every right to take down Hezbollah as much as it can.'
There is a belief certainly among Israelis, which I think has justification,
that Israel does not set out to hit civilians. It certainly kills them, and
the number of civilian dead is--the proportion of the dead in Lebanon is much
higher than it has been in Gaza. This is the nature of air war, and I don't
think the Israelis feel especially guilty about it.
GROSS: Earlier you said, "looking at this coldly," and you were analyzing, I
think, a response in Gaza when you were saying that. Have you been trying to
do that now, trying, in covering the Middle East, trying to look at all sides
Mr. ERLANGER: I do try to do that. I mean, I'm not a partisan here. I'm an
American journalist, and Israel's ties to America are very strong. And I get,
as you might imagine, an awful lot of e-mail from a lot of very upset people
on all sides of the fence and many of them sensible, some of them out of their
minds, and some of it incredibly vituperative and extraordinarily so. And, I
believe, you know, it's my job to be as cold and analytical as possible. One
thing has been quite clear to me in my career is being a victim is a great
tragedy but it doesn't necessarily make you right. And you can be empathetic
with what happens to people, and that's part of your job, and you try to write
as well as you can to bring home the reality of what happens to people to, you
know, readers who have different lives and their own problems. I mean, just
think of suicide bombings. I mean, given what's been going on in Baghdad
nearly every day, it's almost denatured the horror of what a suicide bombing
is. So it's an extraordinary journalistic challenge, but it's also, I think,
particularly in the Middle East, it's very important that a journalist try
to--I can think of no other word, but to be cold about the people she or he is
covering because you--it's not your fight and you can't get wrapped up into it
and you cannot take sides.
GROSS: You know, you mentioned Baghdad and the suicide bombings there. Right
before the United States invaded Baghdad, there were many supporters of the
war who were envisioning this scenario, `We bring democracy to Baghdad,
democracy spreads, and spreads to the Middle East.' And right now we're seeing
war in the Middle East. I'm wondering if you're thinking a lot about those
predictions about how the invasion of Baghdad was going to bring, you know,
democracy to the whole region, including the Middle East.
Mr. ERLANGER: Well, I've thought a lot about it. I mean, you know, I think
democracy is a fine thing, but it needs preparation. Usually it works best
when it's founded on a state of law, when it has real police and real
judiciary, you know, where people have protections from the state. Otherwise,
you end up risking the election of a group of people who actually don't live
by democratic values. We've seen that again and again. So it's really not
easy, and I don't think democracy's a panacea, but I think, you know,
certainly one can ask the question of of whether the elections that brought
Hamas to power, and the Palestinian Authority, certainly from an Israeli point
of view, whether that should have taken place. Even from Fatah's point of
view. I mean, under Oslo there was an agreement with the Palestinians that no
political party should run that didn't disavow violence, and yet the Americans
insisted that this election go ahead and then seemed surprised that Hamas won,
and then set out in my view, to undermine it, along with the Israelis, as fast
as they possibly could with the intention, to be sure, of trying to change
Hamas. But trying to change Hamas in ways that Hamas, I think, at least, you
know, for quite a while, will be unable to go. So these things are very
difficult. I mean, it's a kind of hubris. I mean, we can't remake the world.
I don't think any country can remake the world. And the people we try to
reshape don't always appreciate it. And life is--well, put it this way,
Mikhail Gorbachev used to have this wonderful phrase. He said, `Life will
show us comrades.' And I think that's pretty true.
GROSS: In trying to disarm Hezbollah and trying to push back on them, what
is--what options does Israel have to try to limit the civilian casualties?
Mr. ERLANGER: Well, it says it's trying. I mean, one of the things it's
done, it leafleted, for instance, the suburbs of southern Beirut where
Hezbollah is headquartered and urged people to leave their homes and said that
Israel was going to attack it, and it's done that in southern Lebanon also.
And many people have, in fact, left their homes to escape what was coming.
Sometimes they've been hit anyway, and Israel is using very largely accurate
munitions, and they've certainly done that--tried to do that in Gaza, too.
But, you know, the problem with air war is you can't be completely accurate,
and the problem with groups like Hezbollah is they are part of the civilian
population, and they put their weaponry in the middle of civilian populations,
and they put their rockets into villages, and they hide their launchers. And
it all makes perfect sense from Hezbollah point of view, but if you're trying
to defeat them and you don't want to go in on the ground, which Israel hasn't
yet decided to do, then once you leaflet and then you go hit places where your
intelligence tells you equipment and munitions are, inevitably you're going to
hit people. And, you know, the question of proportionality is a very
important one, and it's very hard to gauge from Jerusalem. I mean, I think it
is an issue for the international community. It is one reason that I think
many people would like this to go from the military to the diplomatic front as
quickly as possible because, you know, most of Lebanon has very little to do
with Hezbollah and resents the--what Hezbollah has brought down upon them.
And the more Israel brings down upon them in response, the more they're going
to hate Israel, too.
GROSS: Well, that's an interesting point you just raised, and that could be
an incredibly, you know, paradoxical consequence of all this for Israel.
They're trying to, you know, disarm and dismember an Islamist group that's an
enemy of Israel, but the way Israel's going about it is making a lot of
Muslims and Arabs very, very angry at Israel. It was Israel's invasion of
Lebanon in 1982 that created Hezbollah. I mean, what I mean, is Hezbollah was
created in a response to that. And when a group is ideologically driven, it's
hard to kill the ideology. And certainly, you know, bombing Beirut isn't
going to kill the ideology that spawned Hezbollah. So even if they disarm
Hezbollah or even wipe out Hezbollah, doesn't Israel risk that the action, the
military action it's taking now is going to spawn three more Hezbollah-type
Mr. ERLANGER: Well, I suppose it does risk that. I mean, and I'm not, you
know, a member of the Israeli government and I couldn't possibly speak for
them. I mean, they believe that a group that is dedicated to the elimination
of Israel on its border with 12,000 missiles supplied by Syria and Iran was a
clear and present danger, and they did nothing about it until they were
attacked. So I think from the Israeli point of view, at the moment, they
think it's more important to take down, basically, one of the big poster boys
of Iranian influence in the region than worrying too much about what happens
three years from now. And I think there are, as we discussed, you know, some
secular Arab countries that quietly would be very happy to see Israel do it.
GROSS: Steven Erlanger, thank you so much.
Mr. ERLANGER: Thank you.
GROSS: Steven Erlanger is The New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief. He
spoke to us from Jerusalem. Our interview was recorded this morning.
Coming up, a new biography called "The Most Famous Man in America." Maureen
Corrigan has a review. This is FRESH AIR.
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Revew: Maureen Corrigan reviews Debby Applegate's book "The Most
Famous Man in America"
TERRY GROSS, host:
OK, who was the most famous man in 19th-century America? Well, according to
historian Debby Applegate, whoever you just thought of is probably not the
correct answer. She's written a new biography called "The Most Famous Man in
America," and book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
Ms. MAUREEN CORRIGAN: In April of 1865, the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher set
sail from New York City to Fort Sumter, South Carolina, on a military
steamship packed with dignitaries. His mission was to preach a sermon of
reconciliation to mark the raising of the Stars and Stripes over the fort,
which had just been recaptured by the Union army. President Lincoln himself
requested that Beecher give this historic oration. The charismatic Beecher
presided over the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. With some 3,000 members, it
was the largest congregation in the nation and reputed to be a stop on the
Underground Railroad. For decades Beecher had been delivering rousing sermons
which were credited with making the anti-slavery movement palatable to white
Americans with lingering doubts. In 1863 Beecher even embarked on a
courageous lecture tour across England that helped sway Great Britain away
from an expected alliance with the Confederacy. No wonder Lincoln invited
Beecher to speak at Fort Sumter, saying, "We had better send Beecher down to
deliver the address on the occasion of the raising of the flag because, if it
had not been for Beecher, there would have been no flag to raise."
By the time the steamship raced back to New York a few days later, America had
been utterly changed. Lee had surrendered to Grant, Lincoln had been
assassinated. As Beecher said, "It was the uttermost of joy and the uttermost
of sorrow, noon and midnight without a space between." That dramatic anecdote
is how historian Debby Applegate begins her account of the life of Henry Ward
Beecher and simultaneously justifies the swaggering title of her book, which
is called "The Most Famous Man in America." If you start off reading this
superb biography because Beecher's name seems hazily familiar, chiefly because
of his sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," you end
it humbled anew by the recognition of just how fleeting fame can be and how
astounding it is that a life such as Beecher's hasn't been thoroughly
excavated by scholars already. In Beecher, Applegate finds a human tornado of
a subject, a man who litters his correspondence and speeches with memorable
quotes, stirs up outsized controversies, and has a knack for touching down at
the crucial times and places of 19th-century America.
Because Beecher was arguably "the most famous man in America" during a
lifetime that spanned 1813 to 1886, Applegate dazzlingly provides the social
and cultural background of this time, everything from the rise of the novel,
the railroad and the department store to the everyday horror of high infant
mortality rates to debates over evolution and the tortured connection between
Christianity and the peculiar institution of slavery.
So what exactly made Beecher the signal man of his age? As Applegate details,
Beecher ushered in a new era of reckless optimism in America by replacing the
wrathful god worshipped by the Puritans and by his own famous preacher father,
Lyman Beecher, with a sunshiny god of love, who, as Beecher said, "never
domineers over me but always makes me happy so that happiness makes me good."
Well, perhaps not all that good. In 1874 Beecher was publicly accused of
criminal conversation with his best friend's wife. Gossip about Beecher's
intense relationships with female members of his flock had, in fact, been
circulating for some time. His enemies sneered that Beecher preached to 40 of
his mistresses every Sunday. A civil case brought against Beecher by a
supposedly cuckolded husband in 1875 spurred a sensational trial, by some
counts garnering more headlines than the entire Civil War. The trial ended in
a no verdict. That sex scandal dimmed Beecher's star, but his fame, Applegate
shrewdly argues, was paradoxically eclipse by his great success. Beecher
first anticipated and then embodied the transformation of the United States
from a culture that championed self-discipline, work and fearful worship of
the Almighty to one that gradually gave way to self-fulfillment, leisure and
the more amiable view that God is your friend and confidant as you stroll
through life. Certainly, in Applegate's captivating biography, Beecher
ultimately comes across as less the contemporary of Abraham Lincoln than a
soul mate of Bill Clinton.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "The Most Famous Man in America," by Debby Applegate.
I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with the quintessential saloon song, a 1958
recording featuring Frank Sinatra and his pianist, Bill Miller. They worked
together for nearly 50 years. We learned yesterday that Miller died last week
at the age of 91.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. FRANK SINATRA: (singing) "It's quarter to three, there's no one in the
place except you and me. So set 'em up, Joe, I got a little story you ought
to know. We're drinking, my friend, to the end of a brief episode. Make it
one for my baby and one more for the road.
I got the routine. Put another nickel in the machine. Feeling so bad, can't
you make the music easy and sad? I could tell you a lot, but you've gotta be
true to your code. Make it one for my baby and one more for the road.
(End of soundbite)
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