What happens if you hold a symposium in Jerusalem and ask foreign journalists how they view the upcoming Israeli elections? Their initial reaction will be to tell you what their editors are interested in hearing about.
At the symposium earlier tonight, CNN's Mike Hanna wouldn't discuss the "internals of the election", saying that he wanted to hear the perceptions of the audience. CNN initially decided that it wasn't much interested in the election, but ultimately is placing a lot of resources here in anticipation of the war with Iraq and is now paying somewhat more attention.
Peter Herman of the Baltimore Sun, who was until recently on the Baltimore police beat, said that "politics is not [his] thing". After describing what his editors are after, he said that the contrasts between Israeli and American politics are more interesting than the scandals affecting the Likud. Specifically notable was the ease with which politicians modified their stances - as exemplified by Mitzna's recent statement (which I had missed hearing about) that he would now insist on retaining 2 settlements in Gaza.
The editors at the UK Daily Telegraph are interested in a story about a political "clash of the titans" that will determine Israel's future, says reporter Alan Philips, but that story will happen after the election when the governing coalition is being formed. To Philips it's clear, as it is to most Israelis, that Likud will form the next government.
Gisele Dachs of Die Zeit says that her editors are interested foremost in the Iraq situation and issues affecting the Middle East economy. Rather than report on the goings-on among the various Israeli political factions, she proposed a piece that would deal with the current mood of Israeli society, which, in her view, parallels a phenomenon in Germany 10 yrs. ago that translates as "fed up with politics". People don't believe in the slogans anymore, she says, and they expect that there will be another election within a year. Dachs hopes for a Likud-Labor-Shinui coalition, but can imagine being pleasantly surprised by a "leftist blocking coalition" that could prevent Sharon from forming a government.
Chris McGreal of the UK Guardian didn't make it in the end.
In the course of the discussion it was clear that wisecracking Philips was the one who had a real grasp on Israeli society and politics, which he discusses like a game in which he doesn't take sides. Hanna thinks that politicians seek to mislead the public, but aside from a statement about the banning of Azmi Bishara by the election committee he said hardly anything that would indicate that he even reads the local daily papers. Dachs has a familiarity with the country and apparently understands some Hebrew, but her interpretations sound like some kind of "grand synthesis" and are often wrong-headed; also it's strange to me that someone who has been here for so long would put much stock in some report about momentary moderation in the Fatah leadership.
The only dramatic part of the discussion came when an Arab audience member launched into a tirade about the IDF "killing hundreds of people" in Jenin and Nablus "without anyone [in the governing coalition] saying anything". He finally asked the panel what they thought of the ban on Azmi Bishara. All were piously aghast (though I wonder
what they would think of this simple solution), which prompted an elderly British man to jump in and describe in detail Britain's outlawing of Oswald Mosely's BUF (in 1936?). Philips responded with something to the effect that "Well, that was different because Mosely was backing the Nazis who were planning to invade Britain". But much of the audience didn't see any difference.
What I'm left asking is: if the Western media invests so much effort in understanding "why do they [the Muslim world] hate us?", why are foreign reporters here so quick to announce perplexity at the reason Israelis stick with Sharon.
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