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Reporting On Hope, Despair In The Middle East


The Middle East is a region that inspires hope and despair. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro has been there to witness and report on a great many of those moments in recent years. She's about to leave Israel and come home to the United States, and she joins us now to talk about impressions she's collected during her time in the field, memories she'll carry with her. She joins us from Tel Aviv. Lulu, thank so much for being with us.


SIMON: You know, you've spent so many hours researching, explaining, looking for progress or lack thereof in what we used to call the Middle East peace process. Is it a process at all? Is there an anecdote that sums it up for you?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, you know, when I arrived here in 2009, the situation was so different. If you'll cast your mind back, you had a recently elected Bibi Netanyahu, a recently elected President Obama and a sense that perhaps things could change here and move forward. And I remember talking to people on all sides of the conflict and there was a sense that things could change. We knew that under the previous Prime Minister Olmert negotiations had been serious.

They had been close to a deal and so the moderate voices on both sides felt they may have some traction. But it's not three and a half years later and I can tell you none of that optimism remains. Every reporter has people they check in on from time to time, as I'm sure you'll know, in any region that they cover. You sort of use them as a barometer of what's happening, are their lives better, what are they thinking now.

And I can tell you categorically the situation has slipped on the Palestinian side to a general despair, and on the Israeli side to a kind of studied indifference. People here say that the two-state solution is no longer possible, they fear. It's gone too far. There are too many Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the Palestinians say. The international community is unwilling, uninterested or unable to pressure both sides, say the Israelis.

So essentially things really have taken a turn for the worst in the short time that I've been here.

SIMON: Has Israel begun to look less at the Palestinian question and more at what they perceive as the threat from Iran?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Absolutely. There's no question about that. Benjamin Netanyahu came into office and made Iran his number one priority. His critics and his supporters both say that he did a masterful job of galvanizing the international community to look at the Iranian nuclear issue, to put sanctions on Iran. His critics, though, will say that that has been at the expense of almost everything else. The peace process is frozen. There has been no progress there. We're seeing a Palestinian authority now that is politically and economically isolated. It's fragile and they blame Israel for that, and they blame the government of Netanyahu for that, for basically putting all the emphasis on Iran and not on things closer to his doorstep, like the Palestinians.

SIMON: You reported the Iraq war right through to the Arab Spring and with the advantage of at least a few minutes hindsight, because it's a situation that's obviously still developing, were there patterns? Were there commonalities between countries? Was there a reason this all seemed to happen in the same 18-month period or was there more spontaneity than maybe we'd realized at the time?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think the Arab Spring or the Arab Awakening really took everyone by surprise. I think even the actors in it didn't realize what was taking place and unfolding underneath their very noses. All the veteran Middle East correspondents, they sort of flocked to Egypt and it sort of unfolded in this wave. Then it became a sort of domino effect and we saw the entire region basically take this on board and it's repercussions are still being felt.

This is a region that is so incredibly in flux. We've seen this part of the world stagnate for so long. The main criticism for so many years had been its run by dictators, the people are passive, nothing changes there, and now what we're seeing in an incredible moment of change. You know, there is so much to worry about, about what's happening here, but there's a lot to be hopeful for as well.

You know, the Middle East is extremely complex. In a single interview, you can find yourself exasperated, exhilarated, depressed, hopeful. You know, I've seen immense courage. I remember a women's rights activist who underwent female circumcision when she was a child, and she became an activist against the practice, then ran for office in Egypt. Did she win? No. But she's there and she's fighting for what she believes in.

And so, you know, I really do believe that in the United States, we can't shut the door. We need to listen to all the voices coming out of the Middle East, not just the shrill ones.

SIMON: What are you going to miss most, do you think?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh. I think the fact that history is made here on a daily basis. You know, what happens here is so vital and as a reporter, you have enormous responsibility. As you know, we face a lot of pressures here. Journalists are now not only targeted in conflicts, and I've lost many friends in the conflicts here over the years, but we're part of a wider war over perception and information and disinformation and telling the story honestly.

Even when one side or the other might not like it, even when your government berates you, even when you have to hide from the authorities that would silence you, it feels like I think the highest journalistic calling there is.

SIMON: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, thanks very much. Good travels to you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.