Nasrallah and me
Zvi Yehezkeli, who dominates on Channel 10's broadcasts during these days of fighting in the north, tries to dig himself as deep as possible into the Arab world.
Last Wednesday, at 8:30 P.M., they were handing out snacks on plastic plates at Channel 10's news desk. It is a regular daily habit of Hezi Siman Tov, one of the news monitors. At around this time in the news broadcast, he explains, they celebrate their qualitative edge over their competitors. Perhaps, or it could be that this is a habit Siman Tov has yet to give up from his days manning an army canteen.
Should anyone imagine that this is hospitality that the news desk staff learned from the Arab world they cover, Zvi Yehezkeli, the Channel 10 Arab affairs correspondent and the head of the desk, will immediately protest this stereotype: he tries mightily to avoid clinging to the image of the warm hospitality of the Arabs, as it was always the common way to cover Arab society.
Not all of the news desk staff took the usual route of Arabic studies in high school, army service in an intelligence unit and a position in the security services, and not Yehezkeli. "My Arabic is not security-oriented Arabic," he says.
Yehezkeli, who dominates on the station's broadcasts during these days of fighting in the north, first studied Arabic at university, when he was 26. As someone who grew up in Jerusalem, he knew a few words, "to speak in the Old City - "Adish hada?' (How much is it?)," he says dismissively.
I knew I didn't know
He was born in 1970. His father emigrated as a one-year-old from Iraq; his mother was born en route from Kurdistan to Israel. He says he was not the greatest student. In the army he served in an infantry unit and after his discharge he traveled abroad for six years and worked as a security guard at embassies. Upon his return, he felt an urge to take up Middle East studies. He did his undergraduate degree in that subject and in communications. His master's thesis was based on trips to the territories "with a backpack on my back, just like I did abroad." After that he was Army Radio's Palestinian affairs correspondent, worked for a while at Channel 1's "Yoman" and from there arrived at Channel 10.
On the show, "London and Kirschenbaum" he has a daily spot that is also broadcast during these days of fighting and covers the Arab world from diverse angles. "From the gyms in Dubai to the ringtones in mosques in Damascus and single women in Saudi Arabia," he says and quickly explains: "It's just as important to show the faces behind Assad or Mubarak. I say, 'these are people just like you. Let's take a look at them.' We have prompted a revolution in this regard."
This type of coverage was spearheaded by two factors. Firstly, the technological advances. "An 80-cm satellite dish changed the Arab world," says Yehezkeli. "In the last five years, this whole change reached the media." And, secondly, his personal interest; what moved him to study this subject was a discomfort with his lack of knowledge or as he says, "I knew I didn't know."
The place where the reports flow into is the Arab affairs desk, a narrow room with one wall, like in a control room, full of many screens airing Al-Manar, Al Jazeera, LBC, Arab Sat and many other stations. On the opposite wall are shelves with cassettes and a corkboard with photos of Yehezkeli talking with masked people (two of them are no longer alive, he says), meeting with a guy who eliminates collaborators and chatting with Arafat. The room is also decorated with kaffiyehs and newspaper clippings. The atmosphere is dynamic, like in a typical newsroom.
"It's an Arab space," say the monitors, who also edit and translate material for Yehezkeli's reports (and some of them appear on the air themselves at other times of the day and on the radio). Is that why there are no women to be seen here, they are asked, which prompts a few jokes. "There is also a woman on the desk, Neta Marmur. And we force her to wear a hijab," they say.
Between listening to Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's remarks and monitoring reports on Al Jazeera in the hours before the main news broadcast, Eran Navot relates that "the Dubai news channel's budget is equal to the State of Israel's defense budget." They make do with first names when referring to anchors and reporters on the other stations. "Here's Hamoudi," says Shai Haddad and everyone is glad to see him.
Not only do they know the Arab anchors but it's mutual. Last week, Hezbollah's Al Manar station showed a picture of Yehezkeli broadcasting in real time. It was an unreal moment, he says, like standing between two mirrors and seeing your reflection multiplying repeatedly: he saw himself on the screen on the screen on the screen. Rafi Reshef, who aired the Hezbollah broadcast showing Yehezkeli, asked the Arab affairs correspondent to turn toward the Lebanese anchor and so he did. "Listen for a minute," he told them in Arabic, "perhaps you know when Nasrallah will appear?" The anchor heard Yehezkeli addressing him and reacted to the question - "the Zionists are watching us" - but did not answer the question.
Without sources in military intelligence
"Don't focus only on the fact that he's a sex symbol," Guy Zohar stings his news desk colleague on the evening of the meeting at the station. Sex symbol or not, the black-haired Yehezkeli stands out in contrast to the generation of commentators with white hair who broadcast on the other channels, such as Ehud Ya'ari of Channel 2 and Oded Granot of Channel 1.
"I explain the Arabs differently," he says. "They are always treated as political entities. For me, there are more colors, scents and sounds. Two days before the attack in Beirut I spoke about a play showing there, 'Women's Dialogue,' a sort of Lebanese version of 'The Vagina Monologues.' We did a report on a cell of wanted terrorists in the West Bank. How they have shirts with logos. Someone who has a Nike logo, that says something about him, doesn't it?" Another report he did covered sex change operations in Iran. "They do seven times more of them in Iran than anywhere else in the Western world," he says. 'Khomeini once said "if you have an obstacle in life, find a way around it.' That is how they cope with homosexuality. Obviously I'll also include the most recent dispute among the different sects in Iraq. I'll always deal with politics. But I have no sources in Military Intelligence. I don't need them to tell me what Arabs are thinking. I live there."
More or less. He lives in Beit Nekofa, a moshav near Jerusalem, very close to Abu Ghosh. These days he doesn't get there; work is around the clock - nowadays that is not just a phrase - and means he has to stay near the offices in Givatayim.
"Politicians and others are constantly asking me 'what do they want, your friends?' I feel that I know. When I say, 'to understand the rationale,' I don't mean giving four kisses on the cheek. You'll understand their rationale when you drop your rationale." When he gives an example of misunderstanding, he focuses on matters of honor and masculinity. "Once I saw the Bethlehem brigade commander yelling at the head of the Bethlehem police while his wife stood beside him. That sort of thing is not done.
"I sit with them in their living rooms," he continues. "They know that Abu Ala [Ahmed Qureia] is selling cement to build the separation fence, that the Palestinian Authority stole, that its senior officials are corrupt. You ask yourself why don't they revolt? But they won't give you the pleasure of a civil war."
Even when he interviews leaders he asks them questions about cultural affairs, and not just about politics, because he says that teaches something about their worldview. "In my opinion, it's interesting that Arafat told me that he watches 'Tom and Jerry' cartoons and eats only pureed food." Incidentally, he spoke a lot with Arafat toward the end of his life - "the last six interviews he gave in his life were to me," he says.
We're like them
During his three years on the job he managed to sneak into the Jericho prison to interview the murderers of Rehavam Ze'evi. He had exclusive interviews with the wanted man Zakaria Zubeidi and with Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] and Arafat.
Of course, presenting the residents of Arab countries, including those that are hostile to Israel, with all their human diversity, is an ideological matter. Yehezkeli shows how similar they are to the audience here ("how much we're like them," he corrects himself)
Yehezkeli did not vote in the last elections. "I didn't find any party that would represent me. All of them are short-sighted when it comes to Arab affairs," he says. "The political division between left and right is stupid. I also want to pull the rug out from under that."