Only the Good News

Basel Ghattas founded and runs the only financial publication that caters to the Israeli-Arab community. Business leaders are starting to take note.

Dr. Basel Ghattas, a Christian from the Galilee village of Rama, holds a doctorate in environmental engineering from the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, and by most objective standards, he would be considered a success story. As he looks at it, though, his success is the exception that proves the rule about Israel's Arab community.

Three years ago, Ghattas established Malakom ("Your Money," in Arabic ), Israel's only business magazine to target the Arab community. "For a long time, I was troubled by the fact that such an important subject, economics, did not exist in our discourse," he recalls. "I started looking into it and got two answers that kept repeating themselves."

Hagai Fried

For one, entrepreneurs told him that Arabs aren't big readers, and that such an initiative was bound to fail. The second response Ghattas received, often from the same people, has been heard in the Jewish community as well: "Who cares about economics?"

As he notes: "They said people only want to read about singers and famous people."

Ghattas refused to take no for an answer. "There are businesses and businessmen in the Arab community, there are exports and imports and an educated and developing middle class eager to get itself acquainted with the new language running the world today. The Arab community cannot lag behind."

At the end of 2007, after Ghattas and his three partners - Nabil Armaly and two silent partners - had raised NIS 500,000, Malakom the magazine made its debut. They chose to make it a monthly because, he says, "we thought that a monthly would survive longer. It's a format that allows for long and comprehensive articles that do not have to compete with the speed of Internet news and that you may not want to read sitting in front of a computer."

The first challenge they faced was finding journalists who could write about economics. In the end, however, "we concluded it was easier to teach an economist to be a journalist than to teach a journalist to be an economist." he says. Indeed, they teamed up economists with journalists, who helped them with the presentation of their material.

Malakom is not directed exclusively at analysts, Ghattas maintains. "We do not want to scare off audiences who are not professionals," as he puts it. Indeed, Malakom's technology section recently ran a piece about a new smart phone, and the writer who covers the automobile industry recently checked out a new executive sedan. The news pages in the last issue, he notes, featured the recent acquisition of Babcom Centers, an Arab-Israeli outsourcing business services provider, by Matrix, Israel's largest computer services company, as well as a story on the National Insurance Institute's annual report on poverty.

Each issue also features an interview with a successful local businessman. "At first they did not want to be interviewed," says Ghattas. "In our community, people prefer to work behind the scenes, and it was very difficult to convince business leaders, like tourism and real estate magnate Ahmed Afifi, to talk to us. Today it's much easier. Suddenly, members of the Arab business community are also becoming celebrities, and economics has become a subject that can be discussed in parlors."

Which issue makes you especially proud?

"Our last issue ran a cover story about Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer. As far as I'm concerned, that's a real coup. For two years he refused to be interviewed. When he finally spoke to us, it turned out that the central bank is hardly aware of the Arab economy. Or, as Fischer put it: 'It is important to deepen the analysis of this sector because it has the potential of making a big contribution to Israel's economy.'"

Unlike most other journals covering economics and news, Malakom publishes only positive stories. "We will not expose corruption, and we will not pursue big corporations because at the moment we are talking about the 'pre-seed' to a new era," says Ghattas. "Economic writing [in Arabic] is still in its infancy, and it is important to introduce it to the public with care. We prefer to do so by focusing on content with a positive message."

Real journalism cannot be only positive, certainly not economic journalism.

"True, but even in this we are 20 years behind the times. Of course I dream of exposing the disgusting network that brings women and children from the West Bank to the road junctions to beg for charity. I very much want to know who these people are, but for that we need sources and researchers and an ability to withstand pressures that could reach the courts. At the moment, we cannot bear the burden. On second thought, if someone would do the research for me, we would publish it."

Every Friday that a new issue comes out, Malakom's editorial board gathers for a meeting that is, in essence, a celebration. "Even though we've published more than 40 issues, we still get very excited," says Ghattas. "Each time, it's like giving birth."

The entire staff - four reporters, the graphic artists, the editor in chief, the publisher (Ghattas ) and the technical and business personnel - meet in the offices in Shfaram. Altogether, 10 people. A meal is served, and the conversation begins. The staff dissect the issue's contents and graphics. They exchange views and impressions, relay reactions from the street and knock around ideas for the upcoming issue. Then assignments are handed out, and the team gets to work.

Ghattas and editor in chief Nabil Armaly would like to hire some full-time staff, but the magazine's cash flow does not yet allow for that. Malakom's revenue comes from its 3,000 subscribers, who pay only NIS 150 a year, and from advertisements, which comprise a third of the 64- to 80-page magazine. Malakom's journalists work part-time and are paid per article. The editor in chief is also employed on a part-time basis and earns about NIS 6,000 a month. "It's starvation wages," acknowledges Ghattas. "Even so, they're doing a wonderful job."

An activist from the start

Long before he became a publisher, Ghattas was a well-known political personality. Even in his early days, in high school, signs of his future career path were evident. With his cousin Azmi Bishara, he established the national committee of Arab high school students. In the 1970s, while they were pursuing their academic studies, the two established Arab student groups at Israeli universities.

At the age of 22, after completing his studies and opening an engineering office in his village, Ghattas was elected deputy head of Rama's town council and served as a representative of the Communist party, Rakah. "I was active in the party from a young age but always went against the current," he recalls. "I was the one who gave the leaders many headaches."

In the early 1980s a group of students, including Ghattas, challenged the party's extreme pro-Soviet stance, saying that while it spoke loftily about equality, it never mentioned human rights violations that were taking place in the name of ideology. In 1990, they were thrown out of the party.

Since then he has considered himself a socialist. "I believe in the great values of social socialism, in the respect for human rights, in equality of the sexes, of the nations, and of everyone before the law, in social justice, in fair distribution and in solidarity. Communism has failed but its values remain strong and important, and they are shared by a big group of people in Israel and in the world."

Immediately after their ousting from the party, Ghattas became one of the founders of Brit Shivyon (Equality Alliance ), a short-lived Jewish-Arab movement based on the concept that Israel should be a "state of all its citizens." In 1995 Ghattas became one of the founders of Balad, an Arab party that from the very start defined itself and the community it represented as part of the Palestinian world. His cousin Azmi Bishara was its chairman, but Ghattas chose not to run for Knesset. " A member of parliament can work on legislation," he says, "but most of his work involves speech making and I am a man who does things. My DNA requires seeing things that grow, and you do not see that in the Knesset."

After being suspected of providing Hezbollah with intelligence during the Second Lebanon War, but never officially charged, Bishara left Israel and tendered his resignation from the Knesset to the Israeli consul in Cairo. He lives today with his wife in Qatar, where he recently established a socio-political research center.

While his friends were busy advancing their political careers, Ghattas turned in another direction. After completing his doctorate at the Technion, he joined the Galilee Society, an NGO devoted to health and environmental issues in the Arab community. Under Ghattas' management, it took off and branched out into many diverse areas. His critics say that over the years the organization also lost sight of its original mission.

"The association was a platform upon which dreams were made to come true," he says. "For example, it helped establish the first regional development center in the Arab community with little help from the Ministry of Science and Technology. We also established a research department. A mobile home in Eilabun was turned into a laboratory and three Arab researchers, young and ambitious doctoral students, submitted requests and obtained research budgets totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"We in the Arab community have to establish our own research centers, just as the Jews established the Weizmann Institute and the Technion before the state was established."

Like other organizations of its kind, the Galilee Society suffered from a lack of funding. The solution chosen was to commercialize its know-how. In 1997 they opened Enzymotec, a biotechnology company headed by researcher Subhi Basheer. The company, which was subsequently sold to the Galam Group and Ofer Brothers, helped the organization pull off a nice exit of more than $2 million. More companies were eventually established out of the same incubator.

Suddenly, Ghattas was not heading a small organization, another voluntary nonprofit, but rather an empire with many outlets that also served as an incubator for other organizations with a broader reach. The list includes Ittijah, an umbrella organization of Arab community-based associations, a support organization for thalassemia patients, Citizens for the Environment, as well as Adalah, the legal center for Arab minority rights. In 2007, Ghattas decided he had to move on. He jumped into the deep waters of the media and after 40-plus issues is dreaming of expansion. He now talks about establishing business magazines in Ramallah and Amman.

Ghattas appreciates the influence that publishing a magazine gives him, but acknowledges that it's not yet a way to make a living. "That's why I also established an economic consulting company with 10 partners," he says, "including economists and accountants. At the magazine, we don't talk about profits: We're happy when, operationally, we break even."

Wherever you have the opportunity, you've been known to say that economics can bring peoples together.

"I am a great believer in the concept of people to people. When people know one another through direct contact, they overcome preconceived notions and can engage in dialogue. The sickness of the Israeli left is that it thinks it's doing us a favor when it comes to eat hummus in Nazareth, and was 'disappointed' with us during the events of 2000 [when violent Arab demonstrations in the north led to the shooting of 13 Arab civilians by police]. That is arrogance. When does this link work? When an Arab doctor operates on a Jew. That creates a personal experience and brings people together. Or initiatives like the high-tech firm Galil Software, which employs Jews and Arabs and creates real ties among them. I do not believe in economic peace, but I do believe very much in commerce and joint work that comes from below and is based on the real and equal needs of both sides. That is the only way to create the kind of cooperation that makes it clear that we all are human beings and helps us live together."

As a political person, are you optimistic?

"There is no alternative to being optimistic. Despite the uncomfortable reality and despite the fact that the issue will be resolved only when the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is settled, we must not sit idly by until then. Arab society needs to think constantly about how to move forward, how to get its people educated. It should not keep its distance from the economic discourse, but rather, it should insist on participating in it. This can be done through partnerships that promote the interests of both sides. Any partnership that would advance me by even one centimeter would be welcome."