Interview with Danny Rubinstein

The Israeli NGO Keshev (which I confess is new to me) interviews Haaretz writer (and Palestine specialist) Danny Rubinstein. There are some interesting reflections on the Israeli media's branding of Palestinian leaders and the political impact that can have:

Keshev: You mentioned Arafat. Keshev published a report on the Israeli media's coverage of Arafat. How do you view the Israeli media's treatment of him?
DR: Both during his lifetime and after his death, Arafat has been regarded as the devil. I once wrote that the problem is that when he was alive, he was called a terrorist. Today Abu Mazen is called weak. In either case, there is no one to talk with. But what is interesting is that they do not want to talk. Clearly, talking means making concessions. Otherwise, what is there to talk about? About annexing territory? Building settlements? You have to talk about making concessions.
Keshev: Clearly, there are political interests. But what is the media's role?
DR: Overall, in these aspects the media serves the establishment almost entirely. Today, I am concerned that the massive campaign portraying Abu Mazen as weak has a purpose. When you write something that coincides with the administration's position, it immediately gains new momentum, like the portrayal of Arafat as a terrorist. It's hard to say how this trend began. Part of it is the quality of the Israeli intelligence agencies. At one time I was a kind of source, providing information about what happens there. Today, there has been a huge change in the balance of powers between journalists and the Israeli intelligence agencies. The Israeli intelligence system that deals with the territories employs thousands of people. Electronic means enable them to hear, see and bomb. How can I, by talking with someone and reading the papers, compete with these people?
Keshev: But we have also seen disagreement and contradictory theories within the security establishment.
DR: Correct. I believe they are drowning in a sea of information that is difficult to manage, that's true. And that's why my ability to make judgments is still valid.
Keshev: What about the structural issue – the journalist's role and interests vs. those of the military man, the military perspective vs. a more civilian perspective – in your view, are they on the same level?
DR: In my view, every person, whether intelligence agent, soldier or journalist – must first of all be a decent human being, faithful to the basic values of human dignity. I am less inclined to view it as a function of interests. I have broader considerations on all these issues.
Keshev: Nonetheless, when Chief of Intelligence Ze'ev Farkash estimated for the government that "Arafat will either live or die", the ministers were astonished by this lack of knowledge. Until then, in all of the years of the second intifada, government ministers and the media never publicly doubted the capabilities of Israeli Intelligence. Amos Gilad's approach, which maintained that we know that Arafat planned everything, controlled everything and was responsible for all the events, predominated.
DR: Correct. And the media collaborated with that.
Keshev: So from your point of view, is the security/political establishment's narrative compatible with the media's narrative? Has the media been able to present its own independent premise?
DR: No. In most cases, after all is said and done, the media follows the establishment. You mentioned the Arafat example. In my personal estimation, based on several findings and testimonies, we poisoned Arafat. Writing that today seems like an exercise in futility: 'those Arabs, with their imagination, and their conspiracy theories, etc.'. It is so opposed to our narrative and so identified with theirs, that I can't put that in. I think that's true for today's media in general: it's careful not to target sacred cows. In the end, all the systems adopt an approach held by part or most of the establishment.
That certainly does not only apply to the Israeli media.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.