Thursday, May 06, 2010

Aluf Benn: "I really can't understand" Obama not coming to Israel.

Last night, I had the opportunity to attend a StandWithUs organised panel at the Hebrew University on the challenges of reporting in Israel.. Chaired by Michael Dickson of Stand With Us, foreign reporters Daphne Algom (a former CNN producer), Reena Ninan (FOX News) and Daniella Brick (EFE Spain) were joined Aluf Benn, editor-at-large of Ha'aretz.

Because I worked as an intern for the Jerusalem Post last summer, I was interested to see if anything particularly news-worthy would come from the panel. Although I’ve left, I have since written a couple of articles, and decided that if I found any gold, I would file a report and let the editors review it. I realised that I had a good opportunity to ask Mr. Benn a question or two and see if he had anything controversial to say. To this end, I got in touch with a friend/contact of mine, prominent Jewish blogger "Carl in Jerusalem" from the Israel Matzav blog.

I was originally thinking of asking Benn about Ha'retz's actions and overall policy with regards the recent Anat Kamm scandal. My friend suggested, however, that I ask a different question. Instead of focusing on a relatively transient issue, he chose a more far-reaching one. I adapted the question slightly, but it is essentially his suggestion:

"Aluf, you wrote an op-ed in the New York Times on July 27th last year. I imagine that a sizeable number of the people present haven't read it; so to summarise, you called on Barrack Obama for greater communication between the US and Israel. (Unless you'd like to correct me there...)

"After what's close to a year and a half in his term, it would seem that the problem is not one of communication, but one of policy. In your words, if "Israel is part of the problem, it's also part of the solution." But Obama doesn't appear to see things that way; he is still yet to make a visit to Israel as the president and chooses to focus on issues that are not immediately concerning. How are we to respond and regard such relations? How can we effectively deal when in such a position, and how may we defend our position when our greatest ally doesn't seem to want to hear?

"Seeing as you're talking to a number of potential foreign reporters... How can we, as potential foreign reporters, sell this side of the story when it's not something people are overly concerned about?"

Aluf Benn's response: “It’s great that you mentioned the date. It’s been 9 months, but I could still print it today or tomorrow. He [Obama] missed one point. Israel. He went all around the world, speaking to different leaders, but not here. Yes, I stand by it.

"I was sitting in Tel Aviv one Saturday morning in coffee shop a couple of weeks ago. I was surrounded by secular Israelis, the most open-minded types. But when the conversation turns to him, they say "We can't trust him." Even the most secular. In Tel Aviv. If he can't gain their support, how is he to gain the Israeli public's support? I really can't understand it."

Later on, Benn mentioned how he’d met with an ambassador from a European country recently. The ambassador reportedly told Benn that "If the people of my country could experience what I experience living here, they would have a completely different image... I expected it to be far more conservative - far more religious than it is." Benn’s point was that people are not out to get Israel; they just don’t know what life here is like. Then again, they don’t really care.

What intrigued me was that over the course of the panel's question and answer session, all present said that they believed that there was no deliberate bias against Israel by the international media and that though Israel finds it hard to sell its side of the story, people are willing to listen. But this stands in stark contrast to Obama's unwillingness to travel to the Jewish state. If after a year and a half in office he doesn't want to come here and work with us, it would seem that Israel will have not merely a hard sell, but a nearly impossible sell to make.

While we should remain optimistic, I’m concerned that we are remaining steadfast in our positive approach, even though the facts betray the truth that we don’t have real friends in Washington. I can’t say that Benn studiously avoided this issue, but he didn’t seem to want to consider it too seriously. He preferred to say that he “couldn’t understand it”.

Although I've only posted entry this after midday on Thursday, I sent my notes on the panel to the IsraelMatzav blog last night. In the blog entry on Benn’s comments there, I read that "a prominent Jewish leader cautioned Obama against going to Israel, because the trip would be a disaster and he would be walking into the lions' den." But wouldn't that be foolish? If Obama is even half-serious about bringing peace to the region, why on earth would he avoid the issue? For as long as he postpones this inconvenient visit, Israelis will become increasingly disgruntled at being shunned. It's a vicious cycle that has to be broken before peace spirals out of reach during his presidency. And I'm not convinced that Obama is a strong enough man for that.

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