Q&A with NBC correspondent, author Martin Fletcher

Martin Fletcher

By: Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Martin Fletcher, the multiple Emmy Award-winning NBC News foreign correspondent, returns to the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival to discuss his latest book, “Walking Israel: A Personal Search for the Soul of a Nation” (St Martin’s Press, $25.99). Fletcher was a popular attraction at the 2008 festival when he discussed “Breaking News,” his book based on his more than 30 years as an acclaimed reporter. In it, he chronicled reporting from some of the most dangerous places in the world, including Gaza under Hamas, Iran during the hostage crisis and many of the wars and terrorism incidents in Israel and the Middle East.

What inspired you to write “Walking Israel,” and how does its perspective and narrative differ from “Breaking News’?

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I want people to understand that Israel gets a raw deal – that Israel is a much nicer place than the country they hear about. True, it has terrible problems that it must urgently solve, but the reason I wrote the book (“Walking Israel”) is that I believe the view of Israel in the media is too narrow.

So many people phoned me to ask whether it was safe to visit Israel. Then a week after arriving they’d call me and say, ‘Wow, this is such a great place, I had no idea.’ That’s what I wanted to write about: that great place about which people have no idea. And I hope that leads to a greater, truer understanding of the country, which will in turn lead to support for a more realistic solution.

What, after reporting from Israel for 30 years, inspired you to walk the whole coast of Israel?

I love to walk and see things slowly, and fully. In my day job as NBC News foreign correspondent, it’s the opposite – an insane rush. After all, this is the most interesting hundred miles of coast in the world. Think of the events of the Bible, Alexander the Great, the Romans, the Crusaders, Saladin, the Turks, Napoleon and today’s Israel. It is crazy how much goes on here when you think Israel’s coast is only the length of Long Island. I wanted time to reflect and see if I could come up with a fuller understanding of Israel that I miss as a news reporter.

What did you discover that is different?

Look, almost every book about Israel today is either about Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and the peace process or ‘following in the footsteps of Jesus.’ This book is different – it’s a very personal, anecdotal look at Israel from an entirely different perspective. Most news coverage and books about Israel concern events to the east of the Green Line, Israel’s border with the West Bank – the fighting, the settlers, the occupation, east Jerusalem. The only time you hear about the coast is when there’s a bomb or rockets. Yet 70 percent of Israel’s population, Arabs and Jews, live peacefully in the coastal plain. You rarely hear about them. So by walking along the coast, meeting the people, strolling through the towns, you get a completely fresh view of Israelis, a much more accurate one. It’s like a different country from the one we always hear about. I still write about the conflict, and the book is far from a whitewash; but I hope it’s a much truer portrait than is usually shown. Certainly all the stories are new, based on the people I met along the way.

You relate stories of young Israelis, not all, but a good number, not wanting to commit to their time required in the Israeli armed forces. And you talk of the changing kibbutz. Is there a sense that the Israeli society that we’ve come to appreciate here is changing if not outright fading away?

Yes. That wonderful image of young men and women dancing the hora in banana groves with short shorts, silly hats and guns has given way to the same young people as anywhere else in the world – sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. Of course, the question arises whether these young people can defend and build the country as well as their parents and grandparents. But although I have a couple of chapters on these new Israelis, one fact stands out: they’re as proud as their parents of being Israeli. And although it’s true many are less committed to fighting, it’s also true that their modern army needs fewer soldiers. But it’s a major concern: is the modern Israel capable of standing in the face of constant hostility. And I’m not so sure.

You met many Israeli Arabs with very contradictory feelings towards Israel. What was that like for you hearing those type of stories and feelings from Israeli Arabs and which one(s) stood out?

What stood out for me was that even those Israeli Arabs who feel close to Israel share one thought with others more hostile: something will happen. One day, something will happen, and Israel will cease to exist. Almost to a person that’s what they said to me. Frankly that was the single biggest surprise of my walk. It is simply not true to believe that by raising the general standard of living, reaching a so-called ‘economic peace,’ matters will truly change. They won’t. Even many Israeli Arabs with a relatively high standard of living want the Jews out. So any solution must provide for total security for everyone in the region.

Having met and talked with so many people of differing backgrounds, what seemed to be the common or overriding hope-as well as fear-of those you met?

Nobody talks straightaway about war and peace. Their concerns are about their own lives and families – things everyone shares – hopes for their children’s future, their family’s security, their own ambitions and dreams – but all this while knowing that their entire lives are overshadowed by the conflict with the other side. Arabs dream of independence, even those who are loyal Israeli citizens. And Jews dream for peace of mind and security in their homes. That’s where their hopes and fears coincide – everything depends on resolving the conflict. And unfortunately, even given the current peace talks, that is a long way away.

Is there any hope at all that a true solution can take place?

Not for a very long time and we must get used to that. It’s good to pursue peace, because in the absence of hope, there is war. They’ve had a war a decade. But realistically, neither side is anywhere close to making the compromises necessary for peace. And as both countries become more extreme, partly due to the high birthrate among extremist elements of the populations, the chances for a negotiated peace are receding, not growing. This raises the question whether a peace imposed from outside is more likely. But the world has a lousy record when it comes to imposing agreements on reluctant parties.

What was the biggest surprise you received along your walk?

I didn’t realize how hard I would find it to begin conversations with strangers. But when I did I was surprised to see how many people talk about their lives with candor, and how grateful most are to hear a friendly voice. Since the walk, I talk much more readily to strangers, and in general, I see the world as a friendlier place. That may seem a strange lesson to learn in Israel – but the point of the book is to show what a limited understanding of the country we have, and I was pleased to see that the lessons of my walk bore out the premise.

Martin Fletcher

WHO: Author of “Walking Israel: A Personal Search for the Soul of a Nation”

WHEN: 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 18