A Song Contest That Has Little to Do With Music

It's politics that sets the tone in the Eurovision, as was shown once again in Saturday night's voting across Europe for the year's best song.

Yitzhak Sonnenschein, head of the Israeli delegation to the Eurovision Song Contest, has demanded that the European Broadcasting Union's chief co-ordinator of the contest, Christine Marchal-Ortiz, look into allegations that local television presenters in Sweden and Belgium called on their viewers not to vote for the Israeli song. "If this is true, as claimed by viewers in these countries, then the European Broadcasting Union has some serious stock-taking to do," Sonnenschein said.

Israel was represented in the contest by popular singer Sarit Hadad. Her song "Light a Candle" came in 12th, out of 24 songs.

The Israeli delegation had warned all along that the current anti-Israeli political atmosphere in Europe would work against Hadad's song in the polling process, in which viewers in each country called in their preferences, to determine each country's vote.

According to Sonnenschein, this year's Eurovision contest proved yet again to the European Broadcasting Union that its rules need to be changed. "Under the current situation, country blocs simply vote for each other. There is thus no chance of the contest moving out of the Eastern bloc in the next few years, and this is what the EBU is trying to change," Sonnenschein explained.

The winner of Saturday night's contest - held in Tallinn, Estonia - was the Latvian entry, sending next year's contest to Riga.

According to Yoav Ginai, who wrote the lyrics for the Israeli song, "there is a deep feeling of bitterness in Britain, Germany and France. These countries fund the contest every year, because their broadcasting unions are in the best financial situation. But their representatives have come to realize that in the current situation, with clusters of closely-affiliated countries, they have no chance of winning."

Speaking of Hadad's performance, Ginai said: "We are very pleased. It was a difficult week, in which we suffered unpleasant remarks from all directions. Sarit gave the best possible performance." According to Ginai, when France gave Israel 10 points (the second highest score), the Israeli delegation was booed in the backstage Green Room, where all the performers sat during the voting. Ginai added that the delegation had also been subject to unpleasant remarks all week in the dining room and during rehearsals.

Ginai confirmed reports that presenters in Sweden and Belgium called on their viewers not to vote for the Israeli song. Despite this, and apparently as a result of a concerted effort by European Jewish communities, which voted en masse by telephone, the Israeli song managed to come in 12th. This is considered a fairly respectable result, higher than last year's effort by Tal Sondak, or by the band Ping Pong that represented Israel the year before - neither of which were faced with quite such a difficult period, when every news program across Europe reports about the situation in the territories.

Sarit Hadad turned out to be the best choice for the contest, and it is perhaps a shame that she represented Israel in such a difficult year. It has been many years since an Israeli performer stood on the Eurovision stage and performed a song so accurately, without the look of terror we have become accustomed to see on the faces of the Israeli representatives. Had Hadad represented Israel in a more optimistic year, and with a less melancholy song, she might very well have won.

According to Ginai, many of the other singers came up to Hadad after the contest and congratulated her on a good performance. The harsh questions and remarks came mainly from the journalists covering the contest - despite the press kits handed out, which included video cassettes describing Hadad's career and stressing that she also sings in Arabic.

Uri Ayalon adds: More than 1 million Israelis watched the Eurovision song contest, which was broadcast on channels One and 33 Saturday night. According to data by the Israel Ratings' Committee, the show was viewed by 36.9 percent of the population, a very high viewer share, especially for Channel One. The highest rating was recorded during Sarit Hadad's performance.