Erlanger, NYT Jerusalem Bureau Chief, to Leave Post Steven Erlanger, Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times, discusses what's next for him after he leaves Israel. During his tenure in Jerusalem, Erlanger has covered Yasser Arafat's death, Ariel Sharon's debilitating stroke, Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, and the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections.
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Erlanger, NYT Jerusalem Bureau Chief, to Leave Post

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LYNN NEARY, host:

In 2004, reporter Steven Erlanger moved to Israel to begin his tenure as Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times. His first piece from there on August 12th, 2004, was about a suicide bombing in northern Jerusalem. Two Palestinians were killed, 20 were wounded. Since then, Yasser Arafat died; Ariel Sharon suffered a debilitating stroke. Israel withdrew from Gaza, and Hamas won Palestinian elections. Just last month, President Bush visited Jerusalem where he remained optimistic about a two-state solution.

In two weeks, Erlanger will take up a new post as Paris bureau chief of The New York Times. We thought we'd check in with him before he leaves. If you have a question for Steven Erlanger, give us a call. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

Steven joins us now from Jerusalem Capital Studios in Israel.

It's so good to have you with us. Thanks so much.

Mr. STEVEN ERLANGER (Jerusalem Bureau Chief, The New York Times; Soon-to-be Paris Bureau Chief, The New York Times): Thank you.

NEARY: Let's start with that perennial question - what are the chances of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians? President Bush has had some rather high hopes recently.

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, which generation do you want to talk about? I mean, I don't think they're very good right now and even if President Bush pushed very hard, which I don't feel him doing, what we're talking about is from the Israeli side, a kind of declaration of principles about a final peace, not a peace treaty itself. The Palestinians would like a final peace treaty but even if there is one, both sides agree it would be put on a shelf for a few years while the first stage of what was called the Roadmap is implemented. In other words, Israel wants the world to help the Palestinians build up the institutions of a state and get a hold of their security situation before Israel begins to pull back. So I think there's a long way to go. I mean, the Bush push and the Condi Rice push is concentrating the minds and the minds have been very sloppy for quite a long time now. But peace is not coming soon, I promise.

NEARY: You have been writing recently about how Gaza remains such a huge problem with no solution in sight. Israel wants Hamas out but how?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, Gaza is fascinating(ph), it is something, I think, new in the world. It's a semi-state and it's semi-occupied and it's in control of a group that the United States and the European Union and Israel consider a terrorist group, which is at least officially committed to the destruction of Israel which is the very state that supposed to provide Gaza its food, electricity, water.

And Israel doesn't really know what to do. It can't quite treat it like an enemy state because legally Gaza is occupied. Israel is being hit by rockets out of Gaza, in some ways, terrorist weapons because they're just aimed at a city not at army people. It can't stop the rockets without invading Gaza. It doesn't want to invade Gaza because it doesn't know how to get out. It doesn't want to reoccupy Gaza. It doesn't want to rule again over 1.5 million Palestinians.

And the Gazans are in the meantime, kind of locked into a cage with Israel trying to pressure them somehow to get Hamas to stop the rockets by denying them parts of their electricity and water. It's a very bizarre situation, morally very ambiguous, I feel. And I have some empathy for the Israeli difficulty in knowing how to deal with Gaza.

In a funny way, the world gets upset when Israel denies some electricity to Gaza but it says nothing when Israeli troops go in and spend months or rocket people in Gaza because in that case, they're going after so-called militants and not after the population. It's a very complicated thing and yet Gaza seems to be being pulled apart from the West Bank, so it's making the idea of the future Palestinian state which George Bush favors seem more divided farther away.

NEARY: Steven Erlanger is the Jerusalem bureau chief of The New York Times, and you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Steven, the Palestinians in Gaza, their attitude toward - what is their attitude toward Hamas?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, it's hard to know because to some degree, they're intimated. Hamas after all was elected as you said in legislative elections in January of 2006 but they took over complete power in Gaza in a kind of civil war last June. And you know, many of the people who voted for them in early 2006 are disaffected but it almost doesn't matter now. Hamas really is in control of Gaza. People are feeling isolated and neglected and forgotten. That's really how they're feeling. They're angry; they feel the world has neglected them. They feel their own president Mahmoud Abbas has forgotten them. They feel the west no longer cares about them, that somehow, because Hamas has taken control of Gaza that the restrictions that the west wouldn't tolerate about Gaza before June somehow now is okay because is Ramallah, in the West Bank, after all, President Abbas is there with his appointed prime minister, Salam Fayyad who's a nice guy, an independent guy, a prime minister, an economist, but who has no real political backing. So even in the West Bank, you have a government that rules by decree that is appointed. You have nearly half the legislature in Israeli jails because they belong to Hamas, and yet these are our allies because they are not Hamas. It's not a great picture of democracy either in the West Bank or in Gaza, I'm afraid to say.

NEARY: Yeah. Steven, we're going to try and take one call. Let's go to Nicholas(ph) in Virginia.

Hi Nicholas.

Nicholas, are you there?

NICHOLAS (Caller): (Unintelligible)…

NEARY: Can't…

NICHOLAS: (Unintelligible)…

NEARY: Sorry. I'm afraid we can't understand you because you're on a cell phone but I think the gist of the question, as I understand, that Nicholas was going to ask is, have things changed much in the Middle East, politically, since you've been there?

Mr. ERLANGER: Oh, yeah, quite a lot because what has really happened is you have an Arab consensus, basically a moderate Arab consensus which is terrified about the rising power of Iran and its allies has Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, which is very worried about Iran going nuclear, which has decided that, you know, if they can get a deal with the Israelis that they would be willing to accept Israel in return for a two-state solution on 67 lines, this is the so-called Arab League initiative which has been restored and revived.

So in some sense, there's been a sea change; a lot of Arab countries nervous about their own fragility in the face of a Shia radical Islamic challenge are now willing to accept Israel if it gets rid of or solve this suppurating problem of the long occupation in the Palestinian state. That's one big change.

The other big change, of course, is the aftermath of Iraq with the damage done to American interest and American allies all over the region. And Israel for many radicals has been put very much in the same boat as the United States and vice versa. So it's in some ways a more positive picture among Sunni Arab nations but it's a much more fragile and sometimes frightening picture among Shia radical Islamic revolutionaries.

NEARY: Just one last - kind of personal question. I always wonder given how difficult the prospect of peace in the Middle East is, I always wonder - is it depressing to be a - to report from there?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, it's also enthralling - I have to say - because I like reporting from place where there are real problems, you know, not just whether you have a latte or something. People live at an edge and, you know, the Palestinians have enormous problems and yet they're willing to talk to, they're hospitable, the Israelis have real enemies in the region but they're very talkative and eager. It's a fascinating story. It's just not one that's going to end very quickly.

What depresses me sometimes is feeling that when it's not really going anywhere that I'm just kind of cataloging useless death. That is depressing.

NEARY: Steven Erlanger, thanks so much for joining us today.

Steven Erlanger is the Jerusalem bureau chief of The New York Times and soon-to-be the Paris bureau chief. He joined us from the studios of Jerusalem Capital Studios in Jerusalem.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.

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