Interview: James Bennet Discusses the Current State of Affairs Between Israel and Palestine and the Impact War Would Have on the Region
Fresh Air: March 12, 2003
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 effort.
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 postwar Iraq.
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 impending war.
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 reporting, yes?
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.
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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 as ideological.
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 unclear.
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.
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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.
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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 about it.
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 prime minister?
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 control.
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 long term.
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 process here.
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 them.
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.
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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 resolution.
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. It's possible.
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.
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