WEB EXCLUSIVE: NPR personality addresses students at MPA building

National Public Radio foreign correspondent Linda Gradstein recounted her experiences reporting from Israel and the West Bank and expressed pessimism about the current situation Wednesday night in GW’s Media and Public Affairs building.

“I don’t see a peace agreement in the near future, but I hope I’m proven wrong,” Gradstein said to about 60 GW students and professors.

Gradstein, an 11-year NPR veteran, spoke about the origin of the most recent explosion in violence in the area. The Al-Aqsa Intifada, as it has become known, began in September after a breakdown of the Camp David peace talks, she said.

Gradstein cited the assertion of a “right of return” by Palestinian refugees as the major stumbling block of negotiations. Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat said Palestinian refugees all over the world – who left or were forced out after the 1948 Israeli War of Independence – should have a right to return to the homes they lived in before the conflict.

But Israeli negotiators said allowing all of the estimated 3.6 million refugees to enter Israel is unpractical, and proposed a plan that would allow up to 100,000 refugees to return to modern Israel, Gradstein said. The plan would then permit the rest of the refugees to be absorbed into the West Bank and Gaza territories, which would make up a future Palestinian state, she said.

“It’s a very difficult situation, they are trying to negotiate a divorce,” Gradstein said. “In order for negotiations to continue, there has to be a mutual trust, and there is none right now.”

Gradstein said the landscape for peacemaking changes with the elections of new Prime Minister of Israel Ariel Sharon and U.S. President George W. Bush. She said the Bush administration takes a more laid back approach to the conflict than former President Bill Clinton did. Bush will allow the two sides to solve the current conflict bilaterally until final status negotiations restart, she said.

“It’s also too early to tell what the Sharon government will do and (whether) his national unity government can be very effective, it depends which approach he takes,” she said.

From her “front row seat to history,” Gradstein said she tries to describe events in a balanced way and allow people to form their own opinions. She said she receives daily e-mails and complaints from both Jews and Arabs who claim that her reporting leans toward one side or the other.

“People feel very passionately about the issues and we need to provide context,” she said. “We (journalists) act as a microphone and allow listeners to hear both sides . and for the most part we are successful,” she said.

Describing her “back door” entrance into journalism, Gradstein, a Georgetown University graduate, began work in the Middle East as a Hebrew and Arabic translator for foreign reporters and eventually began writing. She encouraged students to go into journalism and said she was “privileged to watch history unfold.”

The event was sponsored by Hamagshimim, the GW Zionist organization and the School of Media and Public Affairs. Officials in Hamagshimim said they were pleased with the student turnout and the diversity of students that attended.

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