WASHINGTON, D.C. - The good news is that Israel is no longer in the news. And the bad news is that Israel is no longer in the news. For the past month, at least, Israel - indeed, the entire Middle East - has been knocked out of the newspapers and from television screens in the United States, the victim of a one-two media punch. First came the financial crisis, widely described as the worst since the Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, and then the presidential election, the conclusion to one of the most colorful and controversial campaigns in American political memory. Consequently, Israeli events that once would have made the headlines in America - Kadima's unsuccessful attempts to form a government, for example, or the last round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations - are now relegated to the back pages, if not left unreported altogether. Fixated on domestic issues such as health care and abortion, and frantic about their livelihoods, Americans have scant energy - or even interest - for events occurring in a tiny state halfway around the world, in a region most of them prefer to forget.
This is good news for those Israelis who have always felt that they receive too much attention in the American press, that the Jewish state is unfairly placed under a media microscope intent on magnifying its faults. From this perspective, the current situation presents an unprecedented opportunity for censure-free action by Israel to clamp down on Palestinian terror and accelerate construction in the territories. Like the proverbial tree that falls silently in the uninhabited forest, they would argue, Israel can strike at virtually any target in the region or expand any settlement with almost total impunity, for Americans, preoccupied elsewhere, will hear neither the shots nor the hammering.
But the absence of media interest in Israel is bad news for those eager to see America more vigorously engaged in securing a settlement freeze and advancing the peace process. Though not as powerful as the Israeli press, which effectively dictates national priorities and dominates decision-making in its country, the media in the United States does influence the political agenda. In spite of Barack Obama's pledge to personally and vigorously pursue an Arab-Israel accord, the president-elect is likely to lack both the time and financial resources to take on a time-consuming and potentially expensive peace initiative. Nor will he, with domestic newspapers crammed with stories of layoffs and foreclosures, be under immediate pressure to embark for the distant Middle East.
For those of us involved professionally in interpreting Israel for the media, who in the past were frequent contributors to the op-ed pages in the United States and regular guests on CNN and Fox, the falloff of coverage has been neither good nor bad, but rather disorienting. Though we, too, sometimes complained about the disproportionate scrutiny to which Israel was subjected by the press in this country, we nevertheless basked in the certainty that Israel would always top the news and that our views would be aired and listened to. Now, entire weeks pass without a single press inquiry or an invitation to an interview. Indeed, about the only question that Americans seemed to have any interest in asking us once-consulted pundits over the past few months was, "Who do the Israelis prefer to see as president, McCain or Obama?"
Whether one regards it as good news or bad, the falloff of coverage of Israel in the United States is almost certain to be temporary. Fighting on the border with Gaza or Lebanon, the achievement of an Israeli-Syrian accord, an Israeli airstrike on Iran - some momentous event will restore the Jewish state to the headlines and its explicators to the studios. Perhaps we should relish this period of American press indifference. Someday, and probably soon, we will miss it.
Michael B. Oren, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and a visiting professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, is the author of "Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present."