Questions and Answers / A conversation with Jeff Nesbit
Author of an inspirational thriller that sees Israel and Iran at the center of a global conflagration
Jeff Nesbit’s “Peace” (Summerside Press, 369 pages, $15, paperback) is a thriller that envisions how the world could arrive at the brink of all-out war in the wake of an exchange of fire between Israel and Iran. After one of its drones identifies a secret, normally idle Iranian uranium-enrichment site as having gone online, Israel destroys the facility, and uses the opportunity to take out a number of other sites as well. This elicits not only a series of Iranian retaliations against both Israel and the United States, but also sets off a cascade of other military and political actions, by Russia, North Korea, Venezuela, Hezbollah and others, that quickly and very convincingly lead to a situation of global economic chaos and the threat of catastrophic warfare.
The book receives added value by introducing several young characters who, though not in positions of power, are able, through a combination of idealism and innovative creativity, to appreciably affect events for the better. One of them is Nash Lee, the creator of a digital texting service similar to Twitter that enables people to get messages out to the entire world via their cell phones. When we meet him, he is in Malawi, where he’s testing out a diagnostic medical clinic for the field that is wired into a network, but can be stored in a backpack.
What Nesbit, 53, calls the “relentless positive storm” made possible by revolutionary communications technology is one of the factors that he believes has the potential to save humanity from itself.
An Indiana native, Nesbit has worked in Washington, D.C., for most of his adult life, first as a journalist and then on the other side of the aisle, as a spokesman for Vice President Dan Quayle and for the Food and Drug Administration, and in a private firm. He now serves as director of legislative and public affairs with the National Science Foundation. Nesbit is also a believing Christian, and he published “Peace” with an “inspirational” press. The book, though, does not have a clear political bias, nor does it present the threat of nuclear apocalypse as necessary or theologically ordained: “Peace” doesn’t feature a Second Coming or the Rapture. Nesbit wants to preach the need for nations of the world to communicate with each other, and for individuals faced with monumental dilemmas to follow the “still small voice” that will speak to them if they only listen. Haaretz spoke with Jeff Nesbit by telephone, from his home outside Washington, D.C.
When I contacted you to arrange this conversation, you told me to call today, because your wife and son would be away in Malawi. That’s also the home, of course, of one of your book’s most interesting characters, Nash. What’s with you and Malawi?
The family connection with Malawi began with my daughter, Elizabeth, who when she was finishing high school said she wanted to go to Africa “to help.” I started looking for someplace safe for her and my wife, who’s a physical therapist, to go. Through connections I found a rural hospital − St. Gabriel’s, 60 kilometers from Lilongwe in central Malawi − that took them both for the summer. That was five years ago. St. Gabriel’s has essentially adopted our family, and we return there as often as we can.
My oldest son, Josh, started a nonprofit called FrontlineSMS: Medic, based on a pilot project with 100 rural villages he connected to St. Gabriel’s during the summer of his junior year at Stanford. My youngest son, Daniel, right now is using his Thanksgiving break at Carnegie Mellon to launch a new project to connect mothers with disabled children in rural villages to a clinic in central Lilongwe. My wife, Casey, is helping the University of Malawi develop the first-ever physical therapy degree program in the country.
FrontlineSMS: Medic, which allows simple text messages from cell phones to create a communications network and hub, is now running projects in 12 countries. Normally, when we write each other in SMS, our messages are not saved or preserved beyond each mobile device. With this software, you can create a database to preserve and catalog the incoming text messages. This creates a communications network out of the simple SMS text message. Josh also used the same system based on text messages to coordinate an emergency response system in Haiti, which handled 100,000 emergency text messages after the earthquake there, and now he’s developing a system to help the citizens of Colombia track the location of landmines throughout the countryside. These are all SMS-based, one-to-many systems.
Was that something like the portable clinic that another character in “Peace” pioneered?
No, that was my daughter, Elizabeth. The medical clinic-in-a-backpack project that she helped create at Rice University was recognized nationally by the Clinton Global Initiative. Elizabeth will start medical school next year.
Your book defies expectations in a number of ways. Whom are you trying to reach, and what would you say is the book’s message?
A year and a half ago, I just realized that I wanted to write about the situation between Iran, the United States and Israel − to look at the underlying military, economic and religious conflicts. I tried to do the impossible: to write a book that could be read by anyone, and understood by anyone, both traditional religious audiences and secular ones, and readers on both the left and the right. As I took on each character, I was highly sympathetic to that character. When I wrote about the character I call Sa’id Nouradeen, who is a surrogate for the head of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, I tried to be sympathetic to him and view the world as he does.
In fact, you do quite a good job of helping us understand the motivations of each character and how they see things.
I’m happy that you recognized that in the book. If I could speak with Mr. Netanyahu and others, I would encourage them to find a way to speak directly to Iran’s leadership. I did a lot of research, and it became evident to me that a confrontation was inevitable between Israel and Iran. Peace is possible again between Israel and Iran − but only if they speak to each other. I believe it’s important to understand Iran’s underlying motivation, which is to be recognized as an emerging regional superpower, mostly an economic superpower. Political and economic sanctions are not likely to deter Iran from its nuclear aspirations.
There’s a lot going on in this book. What theme do you feel is most important?
At the highest level, the book is saying that leaders of nation-states speak for those nation-states and their actions are important. That’s why the conclusion of the book, whether it’s realistic or not, is that you need to reach across and speak directly to your enemy. It’s a principle I feel we might be missing. For example, today there’s a peace that is waiting to happen on the Korean peninsula. It was there at the conclusion of the Korean war. But it requires speaking directly with your enemy. That’s one aspect of the book.
A second point though − I think you see the phrase the “relentless positive storm” four times in the book. This is a phrase I use to characterize both how one person can change and remake the world, and the defining characteristic of the next generation of potential leaders currently in their 20s and 30s. There is a new generation of kids coming up who are intuitive, indirect, inquiry-based learners. They’re comfortable going all over the world to learn something, in order to bring back an answer. I’m really hopeful that they will remake our world. Older leaders haven’t yet recognized that kids who have learned in that generation are poised to make big things happen − that it’s a different generation, with different motivations. I’ve created characters that might be minor in other books, but here are fearless about stepping up with solutions.
You also talk several times about being able to listen to a “still, small voice.”
I use that for folks, of any faith, who hear God’s voice. There’s a pivotal chapter in “Peace,” in which Nash sits and listens calmly as an African pastor essentially delivers a personal sermon to him, and tells him what it means to be the “salt of the earth.” That’s a key phrase. Someone can be a world leader or can be 25 years old, and they can make a difference. In my own life, I believe that. I started talking about taking on the tobacco industry when I was in my 20s. I was that guy − the one who convinced David Kessler and the FDA to regulate cigarettes in the U.S.
The chaotic situation that develops in your book presents the opportunity for a number of big political moves, including the introduction by the Americans of a radical new peace plan to the Israelis and Palestinians. Where did that plan come from, and do you see it as having serious potential?
I was a religion major, as an undergrad at Duke University. My mentor was Carol Meyers, a professor of Old Testament. Largely because of her influence, in my thesis paper, I decided to look at what the UN promised after World War II, and Britain, and what the U.S. involvement was, and how all that happened. Ever since, I’ve been interested in this. The concept of the peace plan came out of a discussion with my daughter. She started to talk about the phrase “from Dan to Be’er Sheva,” and said − “I think there’s something there.”
Through a whole series of discussions, we went through the Old Testament, and I tied that to the original discussion about the UN plan. I recognize that it may not be realistic. But, in order for there to be − I believe − a workable two-state solution, there has to a viable, workable Palestinian state, without Jerusalem as its capital − one that isn’t based on two geographically distinct pieces of territory being connected by an underground superhighway. It would require recognition by Jordan and Egypt that Jerusalem won’t be the capital of a Palestinian state. I don’t know if that’s possible − but I do know that it’s never happened, having one city as the capital of two states. Be’er Sheva was initially the capital of Palestine [under the terms of the Partition]. People have forgotten that.
What seems unrealistic is that you’re imagining Israel getting everything north of Be’er Sheva, and the Palestinian state getting all the desert.
That’s what people said about the United States once − that if you got beyond the Appalachian Mountains, people couldn’t live. With technology, you can do all sorts of things. I’m talking about the construction of a second city in Be’er Sheva, what it might look like. And in the second book in the series, “Oil,” I’ve begun to explore David Ben-Gurion’s dream of developing southern Israel and the Negev. If Gaza and the western coastline of Israel were connected to Be’er Sheva as part of a continuous Palestinian land − and the United States helped with land development and technology − anything might be possible.