Cradle of faith, cauldron of news

Israelis say that there are more members of the international press in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv than any city in the world (except Washington). It's an exaggeration, but not by much. Patrick Cockburn, in Jerusalem, explains the correspondent's life
Click to follow
The Independent Online
When Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister in May last year, an American television journalist working in Israel commented: "Good for the news, bad for the Jews." Nobody can deny that the first half of this prediction, at least, has come true. Obscure hill towns on the West Bank like Hebron (population 120,000) get more coverage in the international media than countries like Brazil (population 150 million). When a Molotov cocktail hit a bus carrying Israeli soldiers just north of Jerusalem last week, lightly injuring 13 of them but killing nobody, it was only minutes before pictures of the wrecked vehicle were on television screens around the world.

Netanyahu has a great capacity for conjuring a crisis out of nothing - witness his astonishment that opening a tunnel into the Muslim quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem last September provoked savage rioting, or his repeat performance when he started building a Jewish settlement at Har Homa in Jerusalem last month. But this alone does not explain the intensity of reporting. There is also the fact that the prime minister is deeply conscious of how the international media reacts; at times he seems to think of nothing else. After the Hebron agreement in January he gave 16 press and TV interviews in one day, according to one count. "Does he really have time to do anything else, like meeting his cabinet or talking to his generals, after he has given these interviews?" asked one worried Israeli journalist.

But it is to the media and his ability to handle journalists that Netanyahu owes his meteoric career. In this way his rise to power resembles that of Newt Gingrich, the Republican Speaker of the US House of Representatives. Netanyahu was the marketing manager of a furniture factory - though the brother of a famous war hero - when he was sent as a diplomat to the US embassy in Washington. His perfect English, delivered in a rich baritone, went down well on television. In 1983 he first came to public notice when he wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal arguing that the Palestinians are not at the centre of the Arab-Israeli dispute. Promoted to be Israeli ambassador at the UN, his field of expertise was again media relations and it was his skill here which made him leader of the main right-wing party Likud in 1993.

Apart from the Netanyahu effect, the increase in the sheer weight of news coming out of Israel is a direct consequence of the peace process. Over the Past five years - in one of the few concrete results of the Oslo accords - Israel has become the centre for the international media in the Middle East. This was not true before. Up to the start of the Lebanese civil war in 1975 Beirut was the centre for much of foreign press in the Middle East. The war made the city difficult and dangerous to operate in; some bureaus started moving elsewhere, mostly to Cyprus, a few to Bahrain. But if war made Lebanon unhealthy it also provided news in the shape of the Israeli invasion and the hostage crisis. It was the latter development, when journalists like Terry Anderson of AP and Charles Glass of ABC were kidnapped, that ended Beirut's pre-eminent role in Middle East journalism.

Israel had always been an important news centre, but one from which it was almost impossible to travel or telephone to the rest of the region. This was eased slightly by the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. But it was the Oslo accords, when it became easy to cross into Jordan, or phone anywhere in the region, which decided so many media organisations (most of whom were trying to cut their staff in the region anyway) to move to Jerusalem. There are two main news stories in the Middle East - the Arab-Israeli dispute and the future of Iraq after the Gulf war - and Jerusalem or Tel Aviv seemed well-placed for dealing with both.

Israeli officials claim that Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are now home to more of the international press than any city in the world except Washington. This is an exaggeration. The figures are inflated because so many Israelis, with experience as journalists, have moved here and, using their foreign language skills, become stringers for foreign television, press or radio. Even so, the foreign press presence is very heavy. It is also increasingly based in Jerusalem rather than Tel Aviv. Peter Jennings, the ABC anchor, recently insisted that the ABC bureau move from the coast to Jerusalem.

Why is foreign interest in the Arab-Israeli dispute so intense? This does really appear to be so according to surveys of readers by Le Monde and the US press. Obviously there are Jewish and Palestinian diasporas across the world who are interested in what happens here. Other international disputes - above all else the Cold War - have ended. The end of the war in Bosnia has reduced international interest in the Balkans. But the confrontation between Palestinians and Israelis shows no sign of abating. The pacific rhetoric of the year when the Oslo accords were signed has been replaced by venomous denunciations.

There is another reason Jerusalem is so intensely observed by the media. If there is a religious capital to the world it is here. Jerusalem was the birthplace of three religions; Hebron, where Abraham lies buried, is as holy to Muslims as it is to Jews. Nowhere else in the world can the media expect millions of viewers or readers already to be aware of a sleepy oasis town like Jericho, population 8,000.

Given the amount of time and energy Israelis and Palestinians put into trying to influence international opinion, it is at first mystifying that they are not better at dealing with the media. Overall they are friendly enough. Press cards do get you through checkpoints. The Israelis have a well-oiled publicity machine. The Palestinians are more chaotic because they suffer from Yasser Arafat, their leader, wanting to keep everything in his own hands: his spokesmen cannot do anything on their own initiative.

But as propagandists Israelis and Palestinians suffer from too intense a sense of their own righteousness. This siege mentality means they have a deep desire to communicate their case but difficulty in perceiving themselves as others perceive them. Under the previous Israeli government their spokesmen were less one-sided. But under prime minister Netanyahu we are back to what might be called the politics of demonology. Netanyahu is most comfortable when proving that the Palestinians are trying to throw the Israelis into the sea. Palestinians for their part suspect, after Har Homa, that he wants to throw them into the desert.

In many ways the Arab-Israeli dispute is very old-fashioned, rather like the news stories of about 30 or 50 years ago. It is a story of military conquest, national resistance and attempts by the occupying power to offer home rule rather than self-determination. Much of what Israel says and does in the West Bank is merely a repeat of British actions and words in Ireland or Cyprus in an earlier era. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians may be the last such drama, but - fortunately, perhaps, for the media - there is no sign of it ending.