Veteran Reporter Tempers Hope for Mideast Peace
President George Bush has said he wants a Middle East peace deal before he leaves office. Veteran NBC reporter Martin Fletcher, author of the new book Breaking News, says lessons he's learned covering conflict for three decades argue against the possibility of success.
The familiar news is that a Palestinian or Israeli head of state — in this case President Mahmoud Abbas — is considering boycotting peace talks. The move comes after the Israeli army responded to rocket fire from the Gaza Strip by mobilizing troops. More than 100 people have been killed, and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been dispatched to salvage the reconciliation effort.
Fletcher, who has covered every event of consequence in the Middle East and Africa over the last 30 years, is proud of the fact that he's never interviewed heads of states like Abbas. To his eye, it's not people like the Palestinian leader or Rice who tell the important story.
"What I care about," he says, "are people that pay the price."
He says he learned that lesson through an Israeli woman whose daughter was killed. When then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called to express condolences, she wouldn't speak to him, even though he was a childhood friend.
"[Netanyahu's] one of the guys that made this happen, by not being willing to compromise," the woman told Fletcher. In the years since, Fletcher has concluded that it's not about the positions or the policies. "It's just about people, and what they want."
And the possibility of peace, even with a visit from Rice?
"It ain't gonna happen," Fletcher says.
Fletcher's hard view of world events didn't come without poignant moments. He recalled one of the only times he's put down the camera, in Rwanda. A nurse was walking at dawn through a field strewn with bodies. One figure — not dead — reached up, and the nurse looked down. At that moment, Fletcher says he sensed an extraordinary connection with the Jewish Holocaust. "I thought, 'Oh my God, this is what it was like for my family. For millions of people.'" He told the cameramen to stop filming.
But there was an equally poignant time when Fletcher decided to roll tape. He says during a time of famine in Africa, NBC's Tom Brokaw challenged him to film what it was like to die of starvation. Instead of finding a doctor, he and the cameraman actually found a young woman who was dying. They started filming her and days later captured her last dying breath. The last thing she ever saw was a camera on a tripod and a sound man complaining that the room was too hot. In the wake of the footage's airing on TV, donations poured in to relief agencies.
"I hope [the footage] helped more people than it hurt," Fletcher says.
Fletcher was asked to name the one story he wished he'd been there for. Without hesitation he says: the Holocaust.
"I always wonder," Fletcher says, "had there been cameras at the Holocaust, would it have been different?...What would that have done for history?"
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