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Should We Talk To The Enemy?

This is a presentation prepared for the Arab Satellite Television Broadcasting conference in Cambridge, UK, in November 2002. It is presented in its preliminary form for the benefit of TBS readers, and not as finished research.

In 1940 Hitler's deputy Rudolf Hess landed in Scotland to negotiate peace with prime minister Churchill, who locked him up, vowing never to talk to the enemy before total and unconditional surrender.

In 1967, in the terrible wake of the six-day war, Arab leaders pronounced their defiance with their three "No's." No to peace with Israel. No to negotiations with Israel. And no to recognition of Israel."

In 1975 Israel extracted a policy pledge from secretary of state Henry Kissinger that the American government would not talk to the PLO until it recognized Israel's right of existence.

These three examples illustrates the importance of forbidden contact with the enemy, not to mention British and American ban on contacts for years with the IRA and Vietnamese respectively. But that was then. What about today, in the age of instant communication and satellite channels-can enemies maintain such ironclad, self-imposed isolation?

Giving access to Israeli officials and media experts on Arab satellite channels is one of the most divisive, controversial and politically sensitive issues currently facing Arab television officials and managers. Almost all Arab countries forbid Israelis to appear on their channels. In Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon the issue is not only rejected out of hand, but Lebanese presenters, for instance, working for Arab channels that permit Israeli participation will go to jail upon returning home if they conduct such interviews.

Other channels like MBC, Abu Dhabi TV, Al-Jazeera, as well as Egyptian TV have all broken the taboo, however reluctantly. They permit Israeli Foreign Ministry officials and media experts to articulate their positions, almost predictably in an antagonistic, furious, and confrontational atmosphere. Although these interviews are relatively rare in number, they are nevertheless given a high priority. Presenters, invariably, get ready for them through proper research, seek counsel of experienced colleagues, and stay alert and vigilant during the interview, anticipating what the Israeli guest might come up with unexpectedly. These interviews, inevitably, degenerate into bitter, acrimonious discourse, each side arguing his position hurriedly, fearing a slip-up, and in the most vociferous and strident manner possible, with all eyes constantly trained on the ticking clock. The jury is still out on the relative value and merit extracted from such interviews. Currently no data is available on whether they contribute positively to mutual understanding or help in bridging the gap between the two sides.

Hovering ominously like a huge cloud of fear is the sinister charge that Arab Satellite channels are consciously and deliberately behaving like a domestic fifth column, stabbing Arab resistance in the back. The horror gripping Arab satellite owners and managers is that they'll be accused of a conspiracy to undermine the Arab masses, especially the youth, and promote the Israeli version of an eventual peace settlement imposed by a powerful Israel and accepted by a weak Arab side. But based on personal observation and collected reports from all over the Arab World the result is surprising and concern is not justified. Whenever an Israeli guest is debated on Arab channels, whether during relatively calm periods or in the height of the Jenin massacre, Arab anger boils over during these interviews, never ready to listen or accept the enemy's views. Instead Arab viewers expect tough, pan-Arab nationalist presenters to thrash out Israeli guests in the most aggressive and hostile manner possible. They are thrilled when clever presenters corner the Israelis, neutralize their arguments and reduce the invincible Israeli to a common confused guest, with a pathetic argument and on the wrong side of justice. Some of us, presenters of political shows, are constantly asked by frustrated Arabs to invite Israeli guests and tear them into shreds; a request reflecting that our channels have become arenas for political and moral combat. Arab audiences feel a soothing relief, a twisted sensation, when Israeli leftists such as Latif Dore and advocates of the Peace Now movement call for the total dismantlement of West Bank settlements and withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 lines. Their hope, in a process of collective wishful thinking, is raised that this thin segment of Israeli society might triumph over the military establishment and armed settlers, unconsciously deluding themselves and forgetting that the political gap between their position, even with that of the Peace Now Movement is so wide that no one show or channel will ever be able to bridge it.

So far no poll has been conducted to show whether the Arab masses accept or reject our practice. Again, based upon personal observation, my sense is that the majority of Arab viewers prefer that we should permanently shut down this window, arguing their case as follows. "The most important and cherished political Israeli goal is to be accepted as an integral part of the region. The Arabs, in turn, should exert all their power to thwart that dream unless Israel accepts the will of the international community and gives the Palestinians their due rights. Giving Israel access to Arab satellite channels is a sign of admission of normal relations that could be utilized by Israel to show the rest of the world that all is fine between Arab and Israelis. We do not need Israeli experts to tell us what is going on around us. And the charge that Arab satellites are preaching to converts is a ludicrous ploy designed to undermine our faith and trust in our experts and media specialists."

What about interviewing Israeli prime ministers and foreign ministers? When PM Ehud Barak was trailing Ariel Sharon by a very slim margin in the last few days of the last election, winning the votes of the 1948 Palestinians was crucial to save his political career. He gave our sister channel Al Jazeera a timely interview. He appealed to the Palestinians and asked for their votes. They resoundingly rejected his plea, and decided to sit on the sideline and watch and savor his painful demise. Barak refused arrogantly to apologize for the death of 13 Arab-Israeli citizens killed by the Israeli police in a demonstration. They never forgave him for his callousness. But what if he had won? Would people have said Al Jazeera was directly responsible for his victory? That would be an illogical deduction and a gross oversimplification.

The intractable differences between Arabs and Israelis are so polarized they leave no room or common ground to share. Even those intellectual Arabs who advocated giving Israel the benefit of the doubt were flayed alive and soon withered away. The so-called Copenhagen Group argued that peace with Israel can only be achieved through dialogue, field visits, and common projects. They flourished in the late 1990s. Their leaders and spokesmen made the lecture circuits and became instant celebrities on Arab satellites. While cross-fire type program presenters invited them to articulate their agendas, mischievously they selected the wittiest Arab debaters like Abdelbari Atwan, Editor-in-Chief of al-Quds Al-'Arabi and Moustapha Al-Bakry, Editor-in-Chief of Al-Usbu', to tear them into pieces and live on air. The stakes were high and no Arab presenter was ready to loose his credibility or be subjected to the insidious charge of political naivety or of deliberately promoting a notion that runs contrary to time-honored Arab principles. When the novelty wore out, members of the group became pariahs, outcasts in their own countries and most sought forgiveness for straying far from the doctrinal Arab position. Arab satellite channels, assisted by ruthless Israeli military action in the Occupied Territories, were instrumental in snuffing out the group. They were such an oddity, their voices and images angered everyone. Today, after their meteoric rise, no one can recall their names.

So, have Arab satellite channels contributed to the so-called normalization between Israel and the Arab World. The answer is definitely no. On the contrary, as Arab frustration mounts, the rejection of Israeli views as expressed on Arab channels reaffirms itself in an undiluted hatred of Israel. Political interviews and crossfire type shows consolidate, in the Arab psyche, previous convictions and enhance old arguments through statements by Israelis, Arabs, and moderators alike.

About Jasim Al-Azzawi

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