Disengaged: A Letter from Tel Aviv

Columbia Journalism Review | September/October 2005

Jews don’t live in Gaza anymore.

For the first time since the Six Day War, the Jewish state has voluntarily picked up and left part of the territory that the Palestinians claim as their homeland — ending, de facto, a fraction of the occupation. Gaza, this grossly overpopulated, twenty-five-mile-long splinter of Mediterranean coastland (with an area twice the size of Washington, D.C., and a population of one-and-a-half million, only eight thousand of whom were Jews), is out of Israeli hands. Soldiers have dismantled army bases. Bulldozers have flattened houses. Settlers, either on their own two feet or dragged out by soldiers, have vacated their villas, left the giant greenhouses where they grew cucumbers and peppers, abandoned the cemeteries were they buried their dead.

With the exception, perhaps, of those who expected the Messiah to intervene, few doubted that the withdrawal would take place. The only variable, it seems, was how long and with what violence the settlers would cling to the land and, in the end, the sound and the fury lasted less than a week. The truth is that from the moment Ariel Sharon announced his intentions in December 2003, bestowing upon the plan the deceptively anodyne name, “disengagement,” it seemed totally unstoppable. This was not simply because it was Sharon, the former “father of the settlements,” with his bulldozing willpower, who initiated and carried it out. From the moment the plan was articulated, Sharon had a powerful ally: the Israeli press.

Despite a year and a half of fierce opposition from the determined and media-savvy pro-settler movement and from a few influential heavies of the right-wing political establishment, Israel’s three major dailies — Haaretz, Yedioth Ahronoth, and Maariv — provided almost unequivocal support for Sharon’s plan, both in their editorials and through their coverage. They prepared the public for it and helped to insure the steady 60 percent of support it garnered. Ultimately, the press made sure that Sharon’s move could unfold in one way and one way only — without negotiation, without written agreements, without any sustainable mechanism for dealing with the dilemma of two peoples trying to coexist on one miniscule patch of land.

The disengagement had too many trip wires not to have suffered the scrutiny of a skeptical media. Yet by avoiding certain troubling questions, by not looking too far into the future, by never really dissecting Sharon’s deeper motives or long-range strategy, Israel’s press helped turn a poorly articulated national undertaking into an inevitability.

Israelis are news-obsessed. One study, from 1998, had 82 percent of the public reading a newspaper more than twice a week, 86 percent watching TV news regularly. On Friday afternoons (Israel’s Sunday morning), you can stand out in the street and almost hear people flipping the pages of the fat weekend editions. Hourly high-decibel beeps bounce into the humid air from cars, buses, and open apartment windows, signaling the start of the radio news broadcast.

Because the news is never trivial here. And in the tense weeks leading up to the pullout, Israelis were eager for any bit of information, any hint, about what awaited them come August.

The society’s seams showed in those weeks. The deep divisions — between religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, working class and elite — were visible in the brightly colored ribbons fluttering from nearly every car antenna in the country: orange for the settlers, blue for the pro-disengagement crowd. Teenagers clustered at all hours on major street corners, darting into traffic to tie on these bits of fabric. The country seemed broken into two teams. One day I saw a man in a truck with an orange ribbon wrapped around his rearview mirror stop at a red light, pull half his body out the window, and yell down at a stranger in a blue-ribboned sedan, “Don’t you realize? There will never be peace. No peace! No peace!” The papers all printed countdown boxes that ticked off the days to disengagement. Israel was in a strangely suspended state, holding its breath, with the black-coated Hasidic Jews praying furiously for God to stay Sharon’s hand, and the secular elite faithful to the idea that any end to the occupation, no matter how it is carried out, would prove positive.

Where the press stood was clear. Every act of anti-disengagement violence was given prominent and negative coverage. The papers were full of photos and articles about rampaging, wild-bearded men in sandals and knitted yarmulkes and skinny girls in long black skirts who lay protesting in the streets. When, in late June, a group of anti-disengagement marauders threw stones at the head of an unconscious Palestinian boy from about four feet away, the press amplified the incident. Broadcasters aired footage of the attack repeatedly, and not only did the group of reporters who ended up saving the boy all write scathing firsthand stories the next day, but all three papers used the word “lynch” to describe what had happened. Support for the withdrawal jumped by almost 10 percent in that week’s polls.

Israel’s press has always had a hard time rendering the settlers. Traditionally, editors and journalists here come from the secular, liberal, upper middle class of Israeli society. They live in the white Bauhaus-style apartment buildings of Tel Aviv’s sprawling suburbs and drink their coffee on Dizengoff Street, a few blocks from the Mediterranean. The settler ideology is alien to them. When thousands attempted to march illegally into Gaza and disrupt the disengagement — an action the settlers considered akin to Martin Luther King Jr.’s march from Selma — the press depicted them as a genuine threat to the state.

But the negative portrayal of settlers was only a small part of how the press helped prop up the disengagement. In the year and a half of preparations and discussion about the pullout, the media failed to ask the kind of questions that are becoming increasingly obvious, now that we are in what Israeli’s had taken to calling “The Day After.” What was really behind Sharon’s proposal? Was he trying to put the peace process back on track or, as Dov Weisglass, Sharon’s chief adviser, said in a controversial interview, to place it in “formaldehyde” by shaking off Western pressure and solidifying Israel’s hold on the West Bank? And why the insistence on unilateral action, withdrawing without negotiating with the Palestinians? Shouldn’t the November 2004 death of Yasir Arafat — always portrayed as the main obstacle to negotiation — have provoked a shift in policy? And where did the Palestinians stand? In the buildup to August 15, Israel’s press made little attempt to understand how they viewed the withdrawal. In Palestinian eyes, was Israel running away, succumbing to the relentless terror campaign, or, as Israel framed it, leaving as an expression of its own strong will? And where would the withdrawal leave the Palestinian Authority? Would it be able to assert control over Gaza in the face of the popular extremist group Hamas? And, importantly, would the unilateral move strengthen Hamas and undermine Abbas, who has always claimed that negotiation was the only way to end the occupation? Would the withdrawal help to a establish a Palestinian state or doom it?

Such questions might have altered the way this piece of history unfolded. Instead, throughout the spring and into the summer, hardly anyone was doing the asking. The press fell short of its journalistic responsibility to scrutinize the policy, to explore its many implications. Five years of incessant violence had had a paralyzing effect. Reporters and editors, like most Israelis, were willing to ignore the complexities of this quick fix, if only for the hope that it might break the unbearable status quo.

QUIET! WE’RE DISENGAGING
Two large paintings, both depicting newsprint, greet you in the lobby of the Haaretz building on Schocken Street, which runs through a gritty, working-class neighborhood in southern Tel Aviv. One is full of giant black-bordered death notices (“To our beloved father”), the other, in yellow, is of sex ads (“Two sisters looking . . .”). It’s a joke, I’m sure. You’ll get it if you go to any newsstand in Israel. There sits Haaretz, Israel’s self-proclaimed paper of record, a sober, demure-looking broadsheet, next to its two competitors, Maariv and Yedioth Ahronoth, both tabloids with much larger circulations, where every day is a good day for four-inch, blood-red headlines.

Despite its lower circulation — about eighty thousand daily compared to six hundred thousand for Yedioth Ahronoth and four hundred thousand for MaarivHaaretz’s news and editorial pages have serious impact. No one in the power elite can afford to ignore its daily, unsigned editorial. Like The New York Times, Le Monde, and The Guardian, it sees itself as a player, one with a distinct perspective on the country’s often existential dilemmas.

But there is an irony to Haaretz’s influence. Though its reporting staff is the most professional in Israel and its analysis the deepest, it also remains, editorially, one of the last redoubts of an increasingly marginalized and embattled political position: the Left. More than a few of Haaretz’s readers have a love-hate relationship with the paper, incensed at times by its editorial positions but incapable of abandoning it.

To understand how far outside the Israeli consensus Haaretz has come to reside, one need look no further than Amos Schocken, the paper’s publisher, heir of the German-Jewish family that has owned and run the newspaper since 1935. Schocken manages to upset about 95 percent of Israelis every time he opens his mouth. I saw him this summer, a tall, elegant man with cropped white hair and small rimless glasses, at a conference in Jerusalem on the media. He brusquely cut off a woman settler giving an emotional account of the then-imminent uprooting of Jewish Gazans from their homes. In a chilly voice, he told her, “Excuse me, but let’s please put things in their proper proportions. This whole country was founded by people chased and uprooted from other homes in conditions a thousand times worse. This is an evacuation that is being carried out in absolute luxury conditions . . . .” Even though he was preaching mostly to the converted, his tone, his sangfroid, seemed to replicate exactly the superciliousness of which his paper is often accused.

The second intifada, which began as an armed uprising in late 2000 and devolved into a brutal terror campaign that turned symbols of civilized life — buses and cafés — into bloodbaths, presented the Israeli media with a dilemma. How to capture the national feeling of existential threat, the fear and anguish, and at the same time not be overwhelmed by it and keep some measure of critical distance? Television and the tabloids were soon flooded with highly emotional images — screaming, mournful parents holding photos of their smiling children killed in suicide bombings; scenes of blood-splattered and burned-out malls; religious men in long beards searching the asphalt for the tiniest shard of human remains. The killing of nineteen teenagers at the Dolphanarium nightclub in June 2001. The massacre of twenty-nine Jews during a Passover meal in March 2002.

Haaretz had a special problem during all of this. Its forte — extensive reporting on Palestinian life under occupation — now seemed obscene, even to those Israelis on the Left.

They especially didn’t want to hear from Gideon Levy and Amira Hass, two Haaretz reporters who, alone among Israeli journalists, cover the Palestinian condition as their beat. Hass is the only Israeli journalist who lives in the territories, and has resided in Ramallah and Gaza for the past decade. When I told Israeli friends that I would speak with these two, they reacted as if I’d said I intended to pay my respects at Arafat’s grave in Ramallah. Even many moderate Israelis revile them. Especially Levy. Most journalists (even some at Levy’s own paper) see him as a tearjerker who plays cheaply on Israeli guilt and seriously trespasses into naïve advocacy. A sampling of his articles from this spring, in a weekly feature called the “Twilight Zone,” seemed innocuous enough — a visit to an employment office for Gazans looking unsuccessfully for work in Israel, a sit-down chat with frustrated high school students in the West Bank, and a profile of the Palestinian lifeguard at the Gaza beach. But these were written in a time of relative quiet. His critics accuse him of being too obsequious when interviewing Palestinians with Israeli blood on their hands, of not asking tough questions — charges of which he seems guilty.

In April 2002, near the height of the intifada, a popular Israeli writer, Irit Linor, publicized an open letter to Haaretz upon the cancellation of her subscription. She wrote that Haaretz’s reporting on the intifada constituted “anti-Zionism.” “I think that they are wrong and boring,” she complained, “and that their working assumption is dishonest and estranged from the reality and the place where they live.” The huffy tone seemed to strike a chord, and what some called a deluge of cancellations followed. Haaretz won’t confirm how many, which may support the notion that the number was significant. People inside the paper also regurgitated, with some relish, a famous line uttered by Gershom Schocken, Amos’s father and the legendary editor-in-chief of the paper from 1939 to 1990. When subscribers canceled for political reasons, old Schocken would answer testily: “You don’t deserve to read my newspaper. You aren’t worthy of it.”

This line I also heard from David Landau, the current editor-in-chief. It’s part of the paper’s aura, what it likes to believe about itself — an island of enlightenment and evenhandedness in a sea of turbulent emotionalism. But listening to Landau, it became clear to me that Haaretz’s politics had not remained frozen these past five years. They, too, had been melted and reshaped by the suicide bombs. The biggest sign was the paper’s gushing and uncritical support for the disengagement plan.

If you could expect any editorial page to be skeptical of the one-sidedness of the disengagement and of its unlikely initiator, Ariel Sharon, it was going to be Haaretz’s. Not only had the paper always advocated a negotiated settlement of land for peace, but Sharon had for decades been depicted in its pages as public enemy number one, a cross between Al Capone and Mussolini. Yet as soon as the plan was announced in late 2003, the daily editorials in Haaretz began sounding as if Sharon’s speechwriters had written them. The disengagement was “the life-saving medicine for a fast-moving disease hungry for victims,” the editorial board wrote on October 26, 2004. The government vote on the plan this past February was described as “one of the most important and maybe most decisive . . . since the decision to found the state of Israel.”

Landau, originally from London, was a yeshiva boy before becoming a journalist, an unusual path to the profession. And he is still something of an anomaly among the smooth-cheeked secularism of Haaretz’s staff. When I went to talk with him, I was immediately struck by the fact that he was one of the only men in the newsroom wearing a yarmulke. This, along with his trim black beard, made him look almost rabbinic. For decades he worked at the English-language Jerusalem Post, another bastion of the Left until it was bought by the conservative Hollinger group in 1989. Less than a year later, unhappy with the new editorial line, Landau led a mass resignation of thirty senior reporters and editors. He’s been editor-in-chief at Haaretz now for a year and half, and still talks with the cautious starts and stops of someone uncomfortable representing an institution.

“We rode to a fall with Ehud Barak,” Landau told me in his British-accented English. And this sentence alone, simple though it sounds, constituted a tectonic shift away from Haaretz’s traditional political stance.

Landau was referring to the former prime minister who, in July 2000, made what most Israelis believed was a very generous territorial offer at the Camp David peace talks. When Arafat rejected his proposal, and Palestinian violence quickly erupted, Barak and his advisers began selling a certain narrative of the conflict to a confused and bewildered people. This narrative, this communal understanding, has tenaciously persisted. Barak said that the Palestinian rebuff at Camp David and the start of the uprising two months later had revealed once and for all that the Palestinian leader and his people had never really been interested in peace. Armed conflict had always been their intention. All the Oslo-period handshakes and expressions of good faith had been ploys. The true intention of the Palestinian people was to kill, to annihilate, and to destroy Israel. A true “partner for peace,” it seemed, would only emerge after a generation, maybe two.

Most Israelis quickly internalized this. No one stopped to ask what Barak’s role in the failure of negotiations might have been. No one examined what part Israel played in perpetuating the bloodshed. No one even questioned Barak’s contention that the Palestinian violence was organized, rather than a spontaneous reaction born of frustration.

Not even Haaretz.

“Even though we continue to abhor and deprecate the occupation and the practices of the Israeli army and the Shin Bet [Israel’s security service], and we proudly run Gideon Levy, nevertheless we rode to a fall with Ehud Barak in 1999-2000, and all our hopes and aspirations were shattered like his,” Landau said. “We continued to put most of the blame on the other side, on Yasir Arafat. That has shaped our evolving outlook on the whole period of the intifada and, now, on Sharon’s transformation.”

This was surprising. But what he told me next was even more so. In the months leading up to the withdrawal, a common refrain from the Right has been that the media, in their zeal for disengagement, were turning a blind eye to the various corruption charges facing Sharon, the accusations of illegal campaign financing and bribe-taking. Landau rubbed his beard and basically confirmed that this was true.

He recounted a recent conversation with an opponent of disengagement who asked how Haaretz, “the bastion of liberalism, the crusader against corruption in this country for decades” had given Sharon “almost carte blanche” on his legal and ethical problems.

Landau said he had asked himself that question in the mirror every morning, and eventually concluded that any examination of what he called Sharon’s “peccadilloes” had to “go by the board when compared to what moral and ethical benefits we can achieve with disengagement.” He added, “You’re right — I subjugate, consciously — it’s not that I’m doing it in an unconscious or careless way — I consciously have subjugated those values to the overriding advantage I see for Israel’s democracy.”

‘THESE PALESTINIANS ARE ANIMALS’
To keep the disengagement on track, the media had a responsibility to protect the prime minister. This surrender of journalistic responsibility was expressed openly, and without shame, in the weeks leading up to the withdrawal. Amnon Abramovitz, a senior commentator on the influential Channel 2, went so far as to compare Sharon to a sacred religious icon, who must be kept in “a sealed box, padded with sponge, cotton, and cellophane, at least until the completion of the disengagement.”

This was something new.

The Israeli media have been vigorous watchdogs for at least thirty years. Their Watergate came in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War when they exposed the government’s unpreparedness for the surprise attack, and provoked the resignation of Prime Minister Golda Meir. Sharon himself has been an evergreen target and was sharply attacked during the 1982 Lebanon war, when the press refused to be silenced by what is often called the “Quiet! We’re Shooting” rule, eventually revealing how Sharon, then the defense minister, had grossly overstepped his mandate, widening the scope of the war until it reached Beirut.

Only a media that truly believed in disengagement could grant it the blind support it was getting. The press had adopted not only Sharon’s plan, but Sharon’s name for the plan, hitnatkut, which in Hebrew means to detach, to unplug, to tune out. The media, along with so many Israelis, have embraced and never let go of Barak’s narrative. In order to back a process that ignores Palestinians, one had to first come to the conclusion that the Palestinians had forsaken the idea of peaceful coexistence.

To understand the force of this narrative, it is important to look at October 2000, the month the second intifada began and the month in which this story line was born. Within the first two weeks of that October, the Palestinians and Israelis each had a media event that seemed to confirm for them the utter depravity of the other side — two short pieces of footage, rebroadcast thousands of times. First came the shooting of Muhammed al-Durrah, a twelve-year-old Palestinian boy, who was caught with his father in a crossfire at a Gaza checkpoint. The image of his small body cowering and shaking, and then slumped over, dead, was extremely potent throughout the Arab world. Then, on October 12, came the killing of two Israeli soldiers in a Ramallah police station, and the image of a man standing on the station balcony, his hands dripping blood.

If the boy’s death was a turning point for the Arab world, the killing of the soldiers was equally seminal for Jews. Yet as Daniel Dor, a professor of media studies at Tel Aviv University and a former newspaper editor, has written in his book, Intifada Hits the Headlines, “The lynch was not the only terrible act of violence committed during those days. It was part of a total reality — a violent, tragic, complex, and thoroughly paradoxical reality. The tabloids, however, turned it into an event of mythical significance, disconnected in time and space, that revealed once and for all the ‘murderous nature’ of each and every Palestinian. And it was as such that the Lynch was engraved in the Israeli collective memory throughout the Intifada.”

The headlines the next day told the story. THESE PALESTINIANS ARE ANIMALS, NOT HUMAN, in Yedioth Ahronoth, and HUMAN BEASTS, in Maariv.

Dor points out that the tone of the commentary and news reports began to reflect what was considered the new reality. On October 13, Nachum Barnea of Yedioth Ahronoth wrote, “‘No more tears, no more bloodshed,’ said Itzhak Rabin, over seven years ago, on the White House lawn. ‘It is time for peace.’ But it now turns out that Rabin was wrong. We were all wrong. Between the sea and the Jordan River there is still great hunger for blood and tears, and there are those who are willing to provide the goods.”

By October 27, Ari Shavit, in a much-read interview with Barak in Haaretz headlined BARAK’S COPERNICAN REVOLUTION, was writing about a conceptual sea change that had taken place in thinking about the Palestinians. “Now the masquerade is over. The makeup has been removed, the costumes have been shed,” Shavit wrote. “And now we can all see the actors’ true images. Now we all look this cruel reality — revealed by Barak and personified by Arafat — in the eye.”

What happened so abruptly that October, Dor notes, set a pattern for the coverage of the conflict in the next five years: an emotional amplification of the Israeli story and an erasure of the Palestinian story. Palestinian deaths and casualties began to recede further and further into the papers. On October 2, all three papers mentioned Palestinian fatalities at the violent protest. A day later, coverage of Palestinian deaths began to diminish until eventually, they moved to the back pages, where they stayed. This accounting of the first month of intifada in the November 1 Yedioth Ahronoth is telling: “ONE MONTH OF INTIFADA: SUMMARY IN FIGURES. 600 shooting incidents; 1397 firebombs; 26 explosive charges; 184 Israelis injured; 12 Israeli dead; some 10,000 soldiers in the territories.” That’s all. As Dor puts it: “The 130 Palestinian dead and the thousands injured did not count.”

The effect of this coverage on Israelis was immediately clear. In a survey published in Maariv on November 10, 38 percent responded that Israelis suffered more than Palestinians in the first five weeks of the intifada — something that the death and casualty numbers just didn’t support.

Dor continues to work now with media watch groups that track how the narrative that crystallized that month has shaped and framed the news over the last few years. And he has come to an interesting conclusion: It is not so much the reporting that has been affected by the narrative. Reporting has stayed, for the most part, dispassionate, evenhanded, and professional. Rather, it is in the framing of that reporting, in the photos and headlines and story placement — the work of editors — that he identifies an oversimplification of the conflict. An article that weighs both sides of a story is undermined by a headline that only points to one. A story written in an unemotional tone is placed next to an ominous photo. An account of a dissenting opinion is shoved to the back of the paper. This is true, Dor says, even of Haaretz, and even with Levy and Hass. They are given space to represent the Palestinian view, but their stories are never presented on the front page.

These trends — a relentless focus on Israeli victims of terror, the invisibility of Palestinians, and a refusal to see the conflict in anything but emotional terms — only worsened as the violence intensified.

When I visited Nachum Barnea, widely considered Israel’s most influential and authoritative columnist at Yedioth Ahronoth, he told me he agreed with Dor’s basic premise. He also thought that the headlines and photos and placement did a disservice to the complexity of the conflict, contributing to Israelis’ sense that the conflict was intractable. But he added the dark insight that the motives of the editors were more financially driven than ideological.

“The media, in most cases, did its best to strengthen the hype, the hysteria, which was, in my opinion, very unfortunate,” Barnea told me. “Blood was spread over the screen. Over the front pages. It was not a period which we can be proud of. At the same time, it makes no sense to hide the bloodshed. This is what interests the public. And it’s very, very difficult to cover it. After a while it becomes routine. It happened almost daily and people were tired of it. So how can you raise their interest? By making it even bigger than it was. Our responsibility is to inform the public and educate it. But still the way you market yourself, the way you achieve ratings is by hype. And we did a lot of it.”

Barnea said it got so that without a terrorist attack, journalists felt as if there was nothing interesting enough to offer the public. “A political crisis, a minister in the government resigns, a rift between the U.S. and Israel — who cares?” he said. “Once you start dealing with this kind of heroin, you don’t go back to grass.”

THE NARROW PRISM
Chaim Yavin’s authoritative, pleasant face and perfectly enunciated voice are what Israelis have turned to during the last forty years in the hours following terror attacks, wars, and elections. He is Israel’s Rather, Jennings, and Brokaw. So it’s no surprise that when Yavin, now seventy-two and still delivering the news nightly on government-run Channel 1, decided to break from the media consensus and expose what he saw as the ills of the occupation, people would end up focusing more on him than the reality he was trying to uncover.

“Land of the Settlers” was a five-part series produced by Yavin and aired last spring, not on his own Channel 1, which refused to fund it, but by Channel 2, the independent station. Weeks before the first episode aired, the series was provoking impassioned discussion and people were already reaching conclusions about it. When it finally did run, it was hailed in some quarters as a groundbreaking documentary — one academic I spoke to described it as “Israel’s Pentagon Papers” — while others, on the Right, harshly dismissed it as cheap propaganda and called for Yavin’s resignation

The series was shot almost entirely by Yavin himself, and it has a very personal, confessional feel to it. Throughout Yavin appears in a long, black trenchcoat, headphones on, and holding a small digital video camera. His voice — shocked, troubled, bewildered — narrates every scene: a father and his sick daughter trying to cross a military checkpoint, Palestinian farmers being chased out of their fields by settlers with machine guns, a settler in Gaza caressing her daughter’s gravestone. And Yavin seems to be grappling, in real time, with what he is seeing. At one point, sitting in the living room of a family of settlers, drinking tea and arguing with them, Yavin yells out, “What we’re doing here is not Jewish.” At the end of the first episode, having just interviewed a grieving Palestinian family whose son had been caught in a crossfire, he sums up what he has come to see as the moral of the story: “The pain is the same pain. But on the evening news, they are always the killers and we are the victims.”

Yavin’s series was intended to show Israelis what they seldom see — what life under occupation has meant for the Palestinians and, also, a darker side of the settlers. But, in the end, what was even more shocking than crazy settlers and suffering Palestinians was that Yavin presented it all as if he were Columbus discovering a new world in his own backyard. A political cartoon the day after the first episode captured this perfectly. Above the words, “Breaking News,” an anxious looking Yavin, sweat dripping down his forehead, is holding a microphone and saying, “The West Bank and Gaza are filled with settlers!!!”

Yavin’s surprise raises the question: If this is all new to the man who has been in intimate contact with the news for so many decades, then what about the other six million Israelis?

Before the intifada, Israelis were at least in contact with real Palestinians, albeit as their dishwashers and construction workers. But for a few years now, with Palestinians denied entry, it has been through the media alone that Israelis have come to know them. And the face they see in the media is usually hidden behind a black hood; it belongs to an angry young man reading his last testament before heading into Israel to blow himself up.

The person who perhaps mourns this situation most, who tries daily to mitigate it, is Gideon Levy. What Yavin presents as a scandalous revelation in his documentary is Levy’s bread and butter. Sad, dark circles ring his eyes. Within ten minutes of my meeting him, he confessed to loneliness. And it’s no surprise. He’s a one-man band trying to present the Palestinian perspective in a way that absolutely no one (other than his colleague Hass) does. To him, the Israeli media’s neglect is “criminal.”

“If an Israeli soldier is just scratched by a stone, he will be front-page news. If fifteen Palestinians are killed by one bomb, it will be on page sixteen, very small,” Levy said. “What is the message? The message is that fifteen Palestinians are not a big deal. They are not human beings like us. So their lives are like, you know, like fifteen dogs killed.”

He believes that a process of “dehumanization and demonization” has taken place. Maybe not consciously, maybe for commercial reasons. But the end result, he thinks, has been the reduction of the image of the Palestinian people to a lunatic mob.

“This serves everybody’s purpose,” he said. “We have a very rare coalition. The readers who don’t want to read. The writers who don’t want to write. The publishers who don’t want to publish because it doesn’t sell. And the government who is not interested in anybody seeing it.”

Levy’s main contention — that the Palestinian experience is rarely reported — is undeniably true. But it’s also true that there have been certain improvements in the years since the Oslo process began in 1993. Even the darkest days of this second intifada don’t compare to the first one, when every interview with a Palestinian had to be approved by the director of the broadcasting authority, and journalists were asked not to use the word “person” when referring to Palestinian leaders, a word that in Hebrew conveys importance and respect. These days, dozens of phone calls go back and forth weekly between Israeli journalists and Palestinian sources. Leaders of the Palestinian Authority (people like Hannan Ashrawi and Muhammed Dahlan and Saeb Erekat) are now household names in Israel, their caricatures depicted in political cartoons without any need to explain who they are.

And if there is one place where the Israeli media have improved, it is in their willingness to be watchdogs of the nation’s own soldiers. Many articles in the last few years have told of abuses at checkpoints and unethical treatment of Palestinian prisoners. Just this June, Maariv, considered the most right-leaning of the major dailies, broke the story of a 2002 “eye for an eye” revenge mission, in which Israeli soldiers indiscriminately killed fifteen Palestinian policemen to avenge the deaths of six Israeli soldiers killed earlier that day.

What is still missing, though, is any reporting on what the Palestinians are thinking. Consider, for example, how Palestinian reaction to the approaching Gaza disengagement was covered in Israel. Any sense of how they perceive the pullout — a critical question — was gained principally through the assumptions, presumptions, and conjectures of the Israeli military establishment. And not from anyone in the field.

In June, Israel’s former army chief of staff, Moshe “Boogie” Yaalon, and the former head of its security services, Avi Dichter, both retired and gave interviews to all three papers. Yaalon said that after the disengagement, “terrorism will return in all its forms — shooting attacks, car bombs, suicide attacks, mortars, and Qassam rockets.” A week later, Dichter, responding to Yaalon’s remarks, said that the “apocalyptic forecast is not supported by any intelligence.” His assessment was that all the Palestinian groups, including the radical Hamas, would keep the peace after the disengagement.

These schizophrenic interpretations of the Palestinian mood are fine as one source of information. The problem is that such sources are nearly the only prism through which Israelis are able to explore the mindset of the Palestinians.

THE PENDULUM SWINGS
The Maariv offices have the look of a comic book newsroom — maybe Clark Kent’s Daily Planet — fitting for Israel’s most tabloidy tabloid. The doors are all paneled in shiny mahogany and the air is filled with smoke from the thin brown cigarettes smoked by two secretaries who sit outside the office of the editor-in-chief, Amnon Dankner. Dankner himself sits behind a giant desk drinking a giant glass of hot tea. He has the shoulders of a linebacker and the voice of an incessant smoker (about half a pack of Winstons in the hour and a half I sat with him).

The first thing Dankner wanted me to understand is what it means to be an Israeli. “What I would expect anyone who has criticism about Israel to think about is how he would react had he lived in a very rough neighborhood that he couldn’t get out of and all his neighbors were constantly trying to molest his children, rape his wife, and kill him. After two weeks of such an existence, would he have behaved more aggressively than we behave now?”

Dankner fully accepts that Israel’s press coverage has not been balanced these past few years and makes no apologies for it. “No. I don’t give equal time to them,” he said, referring to the Palestinians. “When you are in a society that is fighting for its life, a newspaper has to seriously adjust the proportions in order not to overemphasize the importance of your enemies’ wounds and ignore your own people’s wounds.”

What I have been calling a narrative, Dankner accepts as irrefutable fact, as religious doctrine. Palestinian society is sick, he believes, and the immorality of the intifada (which he prefers to call a “war of terror”) must be repeated again and again.

Yet Dankner considers himself a man of the moderate Left. As a student in 1967, he said, he started the first organization against the occupation. During our talk, he said Israel had done “stupid, harmful, and inhuman things to the Arabs,” and talked about his total opposition to the settlement movement. But he felt the effects of 2000 in a big way. When he began to preach the truth about the Palestinians, as he came to see it, he was lambasted for it. Haaretz plastered him on the front of its weekend magazine with the headline, THE NEW DANKNER, and accused him, as Dankner describes it, of “carrying the readership toward a nationalistic, jingoistic, chauvinistic atmosphere.” But he correctly points out that by 2002, “even the editorials in Haaretz wrote the same things that I had written two years before.”

For him the story is one of disenchantment and goes back further than this intifada. In the mid-1990s, the Israeli press went along with the Oslo peace process. The press began depicting the Palestinians as viable partners and future neighbors. But when Arafat rejected Barak’s offer at Camp David, when the second intifada began, when the lynching of the soldiers took place, it seemed clear to Dankner that the Palestinians had turned their back on peace. And it would not be hyperbolic to say his heart was broken.

He now thinks that he was too naïve during the Oslo period, too blinded by hopefulness — something that I heard from many journalists who have since turned hawkish.

“I didn’t want to know the truth,” says Yossi Klein Halevi, The New Republic’s Israel correspondent. “And that’s what most of us did in those early years. We subconsciously suppressed the bad news because we so much wanted to believe the Oslo lie.

“Peace. We all went for the peace. And when we did that, we all left our journalism credentials at the door. Most of us did it. I can give you the names of that handful of Israeli journalists who from the beginning of the Oslo process acted like journalists, and unfortunately I’m not one of them.”

But he would not be duped again. This was the essence of Dankner’s message, too. Never again would he let himself be persuaded to trust the Palestinians.

He even confessed that this sense of total disillusionment had probably skewed the coverage of the conflict these past few years. “I wasn’t right in what I did by misleading the public on the Oslo process. Now we have to rectify it,” Dankner said. “So that’s what we are doing. And, maybe, like a pendulum swinging, you tend to exaggerate to the other side. The disappointment was so severe, the crushed hopes were so hurting, that maybe we tended to exaggerate to the other side.”

And Maariv, of the three papers, most exemplified the kind of emotional reaction to the terror. It was the newspaper that most gave vent to the feelings of threat, anger, and siege. Does Dankner think that the way the conflict was covered helped pave the way for the unilateral disengagement? “Definitely,” he said. “We were for it from day one. I think we helped in preparing the public opinion for it.”

Sharon’s genius was in coming up with a plan that the press could never reject. One that did not ask most Israelis to think differently about the conflict. One that did not ask them to think differently about the Palestinians. They would not have to learn a new story, just continue repeating the same old one to themselves. That’s why it was so popular, just a natural extension of what most Israelis had already come to accept, the hopelessness of achieving peace.