In his first book, “Breaking News,” veteran NBC correspondent Martin Fletcher detailed how his parents’ history, as refugees from the Nazis, shaped his career covering the misery of the downtrodden in some of the world’s most deadly war zones.
In his second work, out this week, the London-born Fletcher, 63, stays closer to home, hiking the 110 miles of coastline in Israel, where he has lived on and off since 1973, to show a side of the Jewish state rarely seen. While the world’s focus is on Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, Fletcher argues that the overlooked coastal communities between the Lebanese border and Gaza offer a better glimpse of what makes Israel tick. The result is “Walking Israel: A Personal Search for the Soul of a Nation.”
Q: In your writing you have plenty of criticism of Israel’s government, but also a strong respect for its place as a Jewish haven. Are you concerned those sentiments could undermine your objectivity?
A: I felt for a long time I couldn’t tip my hat, although I don’t think it affected my role. I did try to be fair to everyone, and I think I succeeded. I never hid at any time that my wife is from Israel and my kids are all born there and I’m Jewish … The difference is now that I have left NBC [full time] and retired as of Dec. 31, now I feel I can say exactly what I think and feel. I didn’t introduce my political solution — I don’t have one. But I did say, ‘Guess what, I live in Israel and I like it very much and it’s been good to me, it’s given me my family, and I wanted to do [this book] in a way to pay it back.’
You candidly recount how you stole an artifact from a museum at Achziv, where an Israeli man, without initial government approval, created an archaeological park on the site of an Arab town whose residents fled during the 1948 war. Are you worried about the consequences?
I was wondering if I would get sued. A few people have taken me to task for stealing it. It’s just a bloody inkpot. I did it, so I wrote about it, for better or worse. But the reason I included it was more that it helped make a point that everything there is stolen in a way. I thought it reflected the bigger story of what was on that piece of land and how this guy settled there and as time went on it became the status quo ante.
How long did the journey take?
The actual walk took about two weeks, and then I went back later on over the course of a year doing research on the people I met and the issues I wanted to explore.
Were you surprised at the physical toll the walk took on you?
Yes. When you’re walking on sand, it’s hard. I meant to do it in the spring but ended up leaving on the hottest day of the year. I began every day before dawn and stopped before midday. You can’t always walk straight on the beach; you have to walk around military installations and such. They say only about 40 percent of the coast is open to the public.
I definitely left a couple of decades too late, that’s for sure.
How are you spending your retirement?
Aside from writing — I just completed a novel — I still work for NBC as what they call a special correspondent.
Of the places you visited, where would you return for your own pleasure?
The place that I dissed most was Ashkelon, but the place I’d go back to is Roger’s café in Ashkelon. [He spent time there covering the impact inside Israel of the Operation Cast Lead Gaza war in late 2008-early 2009]. I spent every day [of the conflict] there, and it was such an interesting place with mostly Jews from Arab countries and their take on the war was just hilarious and real. I would certainly like to go there and see those guys again.
Also, the Dor [HaBonim] nature reserve is one of the most beautiful parts of the coast. I’ve been living in Israel for 26 years and had never heard of it.