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Fareed Zakaria GPS

Interview with Ehud Olmert about the Israel-Hamas War; Interview with Billy Joel and Freddy Wexler about Music and AI. Aired 10-11a ET

Aired March 03, 2024 - 10:00   ET



FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN ANCHOR: This is GPS, the GLOBAL PUBLIC SQUARE. Welcome to all of you in the United States and around the world. I'm Fareed Zakaria.


ZAKARIA (voice-over): Today on the program, the war in Gaza and its aftermath. Former prime minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, says Netanyahu's goal is to bring about nothing less than Armageddon in Gaza and beyond. I'll talk to him about the current state of the war and what will happen when it's over.

And switching gears, Billy Joel hasn't put out a pop album in some 30 years.

BILLY JOEL, MUSICIAN: I was hell-bent and determined not to let anyone talk me into going back into songwriting.

ZAKARIA: But he recently stunned fans by releasing a brand-new song. And using artificial intelligence to make a video for it. I talked to him and his collaborator Freddy Wexler about how it all happened.


ZAKARIA: But first, here's "My Take." When Hamas launched its gruesome terror attack on Israel on October 7th of last year, President Biden made a decision based on conviction and calculation. He announced his complete solidarity with the country. Biden must have calculated that the only way to have any influence on Israel would be the hug it close, show real empathy, send in the arms it needed, and thus earn Israel's trust to shape its response.

It was a thought-through strategy, but it has failed almost completely. From the start the administration urged the Israelis to consider proportionality in their response to Hamas. Israel heard it and went ahead with one of the most extensive bombing campaigns in this century against a population of about 2.2 million people that by Israel's own estimates contained about 30,000 Hamas militants. By one January estimate, more than half of buildings across Gaza have been damaged or destroyed. The administration counseled Israel against a large ground invasion of

Gaza, advising it to take a narrower, targeted approach aimed at eliminating Hamas militants and infrastructure. The Israeli government had lots of long meetings with U.S. officials and then again went ahead with a ground invasion. The Biden team urged a humanitarian pause, but only got a brief one when it was able to get the government of Qatar to broker a hostage exchange.

After initial operations wound up, American officials told Israeli officials that what was done in the north of Gaza could not be done to the south. Yet after telling people to move to the south to get out of harm's way Israel then proceeded to bomb the south in a manner that President Biden himself admitted is indiscriminate.

The U.S. has repeatedly pressured Israel to make greater efforts to protect innocent civilians, but to little avail. Now it has been counseling against an invasion of Rafah, the city nestled close to Egypt, where over a million Palestinians have huddled together. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised to invade Rafah whether another hostage deal is made or not. Washington has warned that after the war, there should be no Israeli seizure of land in Gaza and no new Israeli occupation of the territory. The Israeli government's plans are to do both.

The result is that American policy on the Gaza war now appears hapless, ineffective and immoral. The image of U.S. officials wringing their hands about civilian casualties while providing ever more weapons is grotesque. The image of a president of the United States mumbling words like indiscriminate and over the top to describe Israel's bombings suggests weakness and passivity.

Part of the problem is that in trusting the Israeli government, Biden is trusting Bibi Netanyahu, an exceptionally clever politician who knows how to handle American presidents expertly and has done so for decades.


This time, Bibi has outsmarted, outmaneuvered and outplayed Biden. But the problem goes beyond Bibi. Israel is in trauma. The October 7th attacks shook the country to the core. The sense of safety that Israel was supposed to confer on its people has been shattered. As a result, many Israelis are sanctioning policies that they will regret deeply.

President Biden, as a true friend of Israel, has the credibility to tell them the truth publicly and directly. Perhaps in an address to the Israeli Knesset as foreign policy expert Richard Haass has suggested.

About 30,000 people have now died in Gaza, a large portion of them children. About one in four people are on the brink of famine and almost all are dependent on food aid. As of late December, the water supply is 7 percent of what it was before the war. Most of its hospitals no longer function.

A visiting Oxford-based surgeon, Dr. Nick Maynard, described the condition at a hospital in Gaza, one of the few that are partially functioning, quote, "We saw mainly a lot of children coming in with the most appalling injuries, many of whom you knew were going to die, and you couldn't give them pain relief. There was often no morphine. There was nowhere for them to die in dignity. So often they were just literally left lying on the floor of the corner of the emergency department to die."

Israel says its goal is to totally destroy Hamas. You can kill Hamas militants. You can uproot its infrastructure. But you cannot destroy Hamas totally because it is really an idea. The idea that armed resistance is the only way Palestinians will get their rights. To defeat this idea, you need a better one. A way to show that nonviolent action and cooperation would lead to better lives for Palestinians and lasting security for both peoples.

President Biden should go to Israel and show the country has love for it by speaking these hard truths. He would also show America and the world that he still has the energy, moral clarity, and wisdom to lead.

Go to for a link to my "Washington Post" column this week. And let's get started.

I cannot think of a better person to ask about Israel, the war, and the post-war than the last Israeli prime minister to get meaningfully close to a two-state solution, Ehud Olmert. In 2008 he and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas almost reached an agreement. President Bush invited each separately to the White House to try to aid the negotiations.

But it was not to be and Olmert left office in 2009. Benjamin Netanyahu replaced him and the spectrum in Israel today has moved much further right than it was in Olmert's time.

Joining me now is the former prime minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert.

Prime Minister Olmert, welcome and thank you for joining us. You wrote a very powerful piece in "Haaretz," which I think we are not as aware of. Some of the facts you laid out there. Tell us what we need to know about the current coalition that is behind Bibi Netanyahu that is running this war and governing Israel?

EHUD OLMERT, FORMER ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: Hi, Fareed. I think that they're not behind him. They are ahead of him. They are in front of him. They are a group of Messianic Jews, Israelis, who believe in the greater Israel or the greatest Israel. They believe that the West Bank has to be part of the state of Israel, not just practically, but officially, it has to be integrated. They have inspired the youth -- Hilltop Youth, which are very aggressive and violent group of young people that are trying to force the new different life conditions to the residents of the West Bank, the Palestinians.

They are terrorists in the territories, no doubt about it, and almost every day there is a terrorist actions against Israelis by Palestinians. And this is something that has to be coped using the most forceful manner by us.


But the majority of the Palestinians living in the territories are not terrorists but they are attacked by many amongst the Jewish residents there. And those who attack the innocent, not involved Palestinians, and burn their properties and are trying to lynch them sometimes, they are supported directly, explicitly and publicly by the Minister of National Security of the government of Israel and by the minister who is a finance minister also in charge of the territories by the government.

So this is not behind Netanyahu. This has been in front of him, ahead of him, supported by him, authorized by him from the beginning of this government. And I think that this is a very serious danger to the moral foundations of the state of Israel. I am absolutely, absolutely, without any doubt in favor of fighting terrorists and if necessary neutralizing them, killing them when they are trying to kill me.

But I'm against the vicious, brutal, aggressive attitude to the majority of the Palestinians living in the territories. They have to have their own state, they have to exercise their right for self- determination, and the sooner the better.

ZAKARIA: Next on GPS, I'll ask Prime Minister Olmert what would happen if Joe Biden went straight to the Knesset and pushed for a two-state solution, when we come back.



ZAKARIA: And we are back with the former prime minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert.

Prime Minister Olmert, you've heard, you know, Richard Haass, myself, a number of people are urging President Biden to make the case to the Israeli people that the war needs to be conducted in a very different way. There needs to be some kind of a ceasefire. There needs to be a plan for the post-war in a sense to make the case that Prime Minister Netanyahu is leading them down a bad path. What do you think the effect of that would be in your opinion?

OLMERT: Number one, I think that if President Biden will come and speak in the Knesset, it will be a great day for the state of Israel, for the people of Israel, for our nation. We respect the president. I think that he is a great president and a great friend. I know him personally for many years. I've worked with him in different capacities, obviously, and I never doubted his complete, deep commitment for the state of Israel, for its security, for its future, and for the well-being of our people.

So if he comes and speaks, it will be a great day. But I want to take it one step further. I think that on top of making these direct appeal to the Israeli people in the Knesset, he should sit in a closed room with Netanyahu and he should explain to Netanyahu what needs to be explained so that Netanyahu will understand. And I know, I know for sure that if Biden will make this direct appeal

to the Israeli people and will take it one step further, either private talk with the prime minister and explaining what needs to be explained so that he will understand, he will not lose one Jewish vote, one bit of support of the Jewish people in America, on the country. He will gain more. And he will also gain all those who doubt about how important his position is to the American interests, including all the liberals of his party.

So it's a win-win move. And I certainly am very happy that people of such impact and significance advise him to do it.

ZAKARIA: Tell me about the eventual settlement. You tried very hard and you're a right-wing Israeli to broker a deal. Right now polls say the Israeli public is not for it. There are groups within the government and the coalition who are totally opposed to it. What is -- I mean, I think a lot of people from the outset wonder, so what is the plan for -- that Israel has? What does it plan to do with these five million, six million, seven million Palestinians?

OLMERT: There is no plan. This is the problem. The Israeli government has no plan. And this is what I think is very important. One day we will annihilate Hamas, OK? We will destroy their military capacity completely.


There will be no Hamas anymore, OK. But there will still be five million, six million, seven million Palestinians in Gaza and in the West Bank. What do we want to do? Do we want to continue the occupation, to deny them the right for self-determination? To limit their freedom of movement and freedom of speech, voting rights?

I think that at the present time, as you have indicated, probably the majority of the Israelis can't even think about the creation of a Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel following the terrible experience we have been through, looking at pictures of the thousand, 1500 Israeli civilians that were massacred and butchered and slaughtered and beheaded and raped, children and their parents and their grandparents.

I mean, this is a terrible experience and it is very hard for many Israelis to overcome this devastation, and to think about a Palestinian state. But it will take some times and we'll have to then answer to ourselves, what's next? What are we up for? What do we want? To continue these wars forever, or to make sure that we have the strengths, the military power, the ability to defend ourselves, but at the same time that we are prepared to allow the Palestinians to live alongside the state of Israel and to try and build together with many of them who are moderate and anxious to have peace and are anxious to live the same kind of good lives that we want for ourselves? That we will work with them to build a rapport between the two nations that will lead us away from where we were for such a long time.

ZAKARIA: Prime Minister Olmert, real pleasure to have you on, sir. Thank you. OLMERT: Thank you very much, Fareed.

ZAKARIA: Next on GPS, we move to something completely different. After 30 years of silence in the sense of no new pop songs, Billy Joel has released a terrific new ballad and an astounding video powered by AI that accompanies it. I will talk to the piano man and his collaborator on the project when we come back.



ZAKARIA: "Famous Last Words."


ZAKARIA: That is the name of the last song on the last pop album Billy Joel released in 1993, more than three decades ago. When I interviewed him a few years ago I asked him what everybody wanted to know. Why did he stop after such an extraordinary string of hit music.


JOEL: I recognize I'm not a prophet. I'm not a philosopher. I'm just a dumb piano player. So it's time for me to shut up.


ZAKARIA: Well, thankfully for all of us, the highly modest and self- deprecating musical genius has reversed himself and written again. "Turn the Lights Back On" was released a month ago and it is a wonderful classic Billy Joel ballad.


ZAKARIA: To talk about the song and its groundbreaking music video, I am thrilled to welcome Billy Joel to GPS along with his collaborator, Freddy Wexler, a Grammy-nominated songwriter and all-round creative mind in the entertainment sphere.

So, Billy, what changed? What made you finally pick up the pen again?

BILLY JOEL, MUSICIAN, SINGER AND CO-WRITER, "TURN THE LIGHTS BACK ON": I met Freddy Wexler and that changed a lot of things. I was hell-bent and determined not to let anyone talk me into going back into harness again with songwriting and I met this guy through a mutual friend, and we talked and I didn't realize how much he knew about songwriting and producing and records and all of that. And I was impressed with this guy. He was very kind of relentless about trying to get me to think about writing, recording, singing.

So after about a year and a half of bouncing around ideas I heard an idea that he had called "Turn the Lights Back On," which was very reflective of my own life at the time. It addressed my issues with my muse, with my songwriting. So I added a few notes here and there, and I modified a few things, but I recognize this song as being something I could have written on my own.

ZAKARIA: Now, you've always told me that for you the music almost always comes first. The notes in, you know, a kind of sitting in your head.

JOEL: That's true.

ZAKARIA: In this case, was it the lyrics? Was it that idea of turn the lights back on that drew you to the song?

JOEL: The first thing that drew me to the song was the melody. I'm a piano player. And for me the primary language actually is music even before there are lyrics.


I'm hearing something being felt and expressed just with the notes. So, I thought it was a pretty good musical composition when I first heard it, and then the lyrics struck home. Yes.

ZAKARIA: So, Freddy, for you what was this experience like? This guy is your childhood idol, you told me.

FREDDY WEXLER, CO-WRITER AND PRODUCER, "TURN THE LIGHTS BACK ON": It's hard to put into words. Yes. He's -- he's, you know, one of my childhood heroes. I used to close my eyes, listen to -- listen to his music and imagine it was me on my high school stage performing them. You know, Olivia Rodrigo said at Grammy rehearsals, when it comes to songwriting, Billy Joel is the blueprint. So, it's surreal.

The truth is, when I -- when I met Billy, I really just selfishly wanted another song as a fan. The fact that I became part of it, and that we've developed this friendship and relationship, is just icing on the cake.

ZAKARIA: And do you think something about the song that also you said it's -- it captures a moment in your life that's -- that's very -- that's meaningful.

JOEL: Yes. Well, it had a couple of meanings. One is about a relationship between a man and a woman. And the other meaning is about my own muse, my own songwriting, my own career. Almost asking, do I get a second chance to do this? Because I said I wasn't going to do it anymore.

So, I'm questioning myself. But I question myself all the time. And the lyric really expressed that very well.

ZAKARIA: So, Billy, now that you've done this, can we say the dam has broken? That we are going to see a series of new Billy Joel songs?

JOEL: I don't know, Fareed. I really don't know. This is all kind of new to me. Again, just even going to the Grammys was a whole new experience for me because I've been there 30 years ago when I was a nominee. And this time, I just -- was just another singer at the Grammys. But I met all these new artists who I was very impressed to meet. I was very happy to see all these people. And I really enjoyed it, which I hadn't going back in the past. I wasn't comfortable with competition between musicians.

Who is number one? Who is number two? Who is going to win the Grammy? It was kind of uncomfortable.

This time, I enjoyed it. It was a new experience for me. So, this is all kind of new again. Everything that was old is new again.

ZAKARIA: All right. Stay with us. When we come back in a moment, I want to talk to you about the remarkable music video that Billy and Freddy released for this song, and its stunning use of the technology that fascinates us all now, artificial intelligence, when we come back.



ZAKARIA: Billy Joel didn't just turn the lights back on with his first new pop song in decades, he accompanied it with a groundbreaking music video. It uses artificial intelligence to show us Billy Joel over the many decades of his career playing this brand-new song. It is stunning.

Billy Joel joins me again with the man who conceived of and co- directed the video and co-wrote the song, Freddy Wexler.

Billy, I remember you telling me once you don't like music videos in the first place. You want people to let their imaginations run wild when they hear a song, right?

JOEL: Yes. Well, I always think of myself as someone who should be heard and not seen. I didn't sign in on this -- I didn't sign on to be an actor. I didn't sign on to be a movie star. I'm a piano player.

And sometimes, I think, oh, people must be disappointed when they see me, you know, because they may have heard me first. Even when I'm playing live, sometimes I tell the audience, don't look at me, just listen.

Music videos are a way to convey the music that someone has written and someone has recorded. So, I understand the purpose of it which is why I made music videos. And Freddy came up to me with this idea of artificial intelligence. And I didn't really know what he was talking about, but I did the recording, the video, and when I saw it, it was kind of an out-of-body experience. I saw myself going through time. It was very moving.

ZAKARIA: So, Freddy, this is really your brain child. What made you imagine this? What was the impulse here?

WEXLER: The idea for it actually came to me in a dream where I imagined a young, you know, 25-year-old Billy singing the opening of the song. Please open the door and it was Billy as just a kid. And it was arresting. And he was in an empty venue.

And when I woke up, I knew this had to be the video. You know, an empty venue for Billy Joel and seamlessly transitioning between them. Each one picking up the song where the other one left off. The question was, how in the world do you do that? And the answer, A.I.


ZAKARIA: Answer that question, how did you do it? How do -- are those people we are seeing completely A.I. generated? What's going on?

WEXLER: OK. So, A.I. broad-strokes has a couple principles. The main ones are deep learning and machine learning. OK? Deep learning is something that uses these neural networks that are -- that are layered. That's why it's called deep. And what it does is it has the ability to analyze. It uses these deep learning algorithms to analyze. In this case, still images and video frames. OK? Recognizes patterns in them. So, it starts to be able to understand how Billy ages through time and then it's able to start creating images. It's much more complicated than that.

But generative A.I., which is this term we constantly hear, is the part that's actually creating the new image. So, think of this whole thing almost as an oven. OK? You -- these algorithms -- deep learning algorithms learn all this information and start to create a model. The model goes in an oven.

And machine learning means it learns through experience. The more it sort of bakes the model the better it becomes. Once you have those models the idea is you have an actor or somebody who essentially triggers the model. OK? Now --

ZAKARIA: So, those -- those three people who are not Billy as he is now were actors.


ZAKARIA: So, you hired actors and then the A.I. presumably is doing effectively the mouth so that it lip sync exactly the words coming out.

WEXLER: So, I don't want to speak to like the proprietary tech of Deep Voodoo who is our tech partner. But public information would suggest that, yes, they are -- the actors underneath, certainly, are triggering the A.I. in the models.

So, now the A.I. performances -- so, like for instance, I'm -- I play 70s Billy, which is the first one you see.

ZAKARIA: So, you're the actor in that case?

WEXLER: In that one. You have to study Billy because if you don't do the expressions that he would it doesn't look like him.

ZAKARIA: So, Billy, when you -- experiencing watching all of this like -- what is your thought about technology and art and this technology detract from the art? Because you've generally been fairly -- you don't have a lot of tech wizardry in here. I mean, you basically -- the focus has always been on the music. But here you're taking this enormous technological leap. How did you feel about that?

JOEL: I was comfortable because historically, I'm camera shy. I don't like making videos. I don't like having a camera on me and having to present myself visually. I've never been comfortable with that.

And when I'm watching this video that Freddy directed, it was hard for me to believe that it wasn't me. It was like the young me singing and I'm thinking, I don't remember doing this. I don't know this song back then. How did they do this?

But in a way I was kind of hiding behind those characters. So, I didn't have to do the whole labor of the video making. I wasn't feeling like a movie star. I got to look good on the camera or anything because I'm very self-conscious about that. And this was kind of a way to present this idea with a couple of layers in it.

ZAKARIA: You know, what strikes me about it, Freddy, is you hire all these actors. You've got, obviously, the technicians. There's a kind of happy story here about A.I. that you ended up -- you know, if I look at the list of credits, there are -- there are a lot of people working on this.

So, the A.I. did not replace jobs. It actually meant that it was a much bigger production.

WEXLER: Absolutely. Look, advances in technology can be scary. A.I., I won't lie, I think there will be a lot of bad with A.I. But the truth is, it's here, the technology is here.

So, we had an opportunity to use it and our goal was to use it positively, to show how it can be used not to replace people but to actually help realize an artistic vision that would have previously been impossible to realize.

By the way, you know, I would never have been able to get this done without my amazing co-director Warren Fu, who's brilliant, who created an animatic for this entire video. So, every shot was planned out and with -- and Deep Voodoo, the tech -- the tech partners.

But you're right, when you look at the credits, we have way more people on this thing than a video without A.I. So, it's not so binary, right? These technologies, there's good, there's bad. And my feeling is as long as they are here let's learn them and understand them and try to, you know, create awe and positive impact if we use it. And I -- and I feel that we were able to do that.


ZAKARIA: Billy, could you imagine using A.I. to jump start the music again? To use the A.I. to come up with tune, come up with lyrics, come up with a story line.

JOEL: Possibly. You never know where a motivation is going to come from. I hadn't counted on it meeting someone like Freddy who would motivate me to consider writing again or recording again. So, it's possible. Yes, absolutely.

ZAKARIA: So, in a sense, would it be fair to say this whole experience of meeting Freddy and it being exposed to the technology, it has kind of rejuvenated you? Like you were talking about being at the Grammys and kind of enjoying the hustle bustle that you thought you had left behind.

JOEL: Yes. I was -- you know, like I said, hell bent and determined not to go back into the studio, not to sing, not to record, not to write, because it will become torturous for me. And it was unpleasant. And this was actually a fun experience. I hadn't expected any of it to happen and it was all rather serendipitous.

And I -- you know, I didn't hate the process. I wasn't frustrated with it. I wasn't aggravated about it, which is a new thing for me because I'm a pretty hard on myself. I know I've had -- I've had criticism in my life, believe me. But nobody is hatching it to me more than myself. This time I enjoyed it.

ZAKARIA: Well, on that note, I think, every fan of Billy Joel is going to be hoping that this is the -- this is the start of a beautiful new phase of your life. Freddy Wexler, thank you. And, Billy Joel, thank you.

JOEL: Thank you, Fareed.

ZAKARIA: Next on GPS, a global good news story about one country's turnaround from sick to healthy, very healthy, when we come back



ZAKARIA: And now for the last look. For much of the last 15 years, the country of Greece brought to mind a basket case economy seeking bail- outs from an irate European Union. Today, Greece's economy is looking very different. According to IMF estimates it has grown faster than the European Union for several years in a row and will do so again in 2024.

By the end of last year, ratings agencies had upgraded Greece's debt from junk to investment grade. That was a symbolic victory for a country that defaulted in 2015. And also, a financial victory because it means more foreign investment.

And then last month, Greece legalized same-sex marriage. That may make it sound like Greece is just catching up to the West but in the eastern half of Europe it makes the country a leader. It also makes Greece the first Orthodox Christian nation to take that progressive step.

Greece has always occupied a strange position in the West. It lies in the east of Europe. And although it had the world's oldest democracy, it's modern democracy didn't emerge until the 1970s. But it joined NATO early in 1952 and was a founding member of the European Union.

More recently, the Greek debt crisis, beginning in 2009, seem to create endless headaches for the E.U. and nearly derailed the European project. Greece's currently roaring economy comes at the end of a long and winding road. During its debt crisis, the E.U. and the IMF bailed Greece out but impose conditions to make its finances more sustainable.

The resulting austerity measures were unpopular in Greece. And in 2015, voters turn to the left-wing populist, Alexis Tsipras, to undo them. Greece soon defaulted on a debt payment and it looked like Greece might have to get off the euro. The very idea of the eurozone, a shared currency among countries with separate tax and spending policies, seem to be teetering on the edge.

But within weeks as Greece faced economic collapse, Tsipras saw the light. He accepted a deal that he had essentially campaigned against, another bailout in exchange for fiscal responsibility including raising taxes and cutting pensions. Though he soon resigned, voters endorsed his new moderate approach by immediately returning him to power.

During the same period, Greece also floated with right-wing populism. In 2015, the neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn, became the third largest party in parliament. But it eventually collapsed over its criminal activities and the far-right in Greece has now splintered.

In 2019, the country elected a new prime minister, the center right, Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Mitsotakis took the recovery Tsipras began and supercharged it. He cut taxes, work to streamline government services, and embraced market reforms. This helped the country achieve remarkable growth and paydown billions in debt ahead of schedule.

Voters rewarded him handsomely, reelecting him in a landslide last year. Mitsotakis has had help along the way from the E.U. with generous COVID relief funds and low interest loans dating back to the crisis years.


Gay marriage may be a case of Greece returning to its past. Among the many contributions of ancient Greece to western civilization, philosophy, mathematics, democracy. One might add the acceptance of homosexuality, which was practiced there.

Today, it is certainly one more sign of Greece's return to the European fold. The country that had once threatened to sink the European project has now become a poster child for its success. As that messy process played out, Greeks ultimately saw reason, rejected populism, and embrace sensible economic policies. The nation that was once the sick man of Europe has been cured.

Thanks to all of you for being part of my program this week. I will see you next week.