I Stole the Show'

After newsman Haim Yavin's provocative films about the settlers were screened on Channel 2 - and people demanded his resignation - his contract has been renewed by Channel 1. `I have no thoughts of leaving,' says the new leftist.

"It isn't possible to spend time in the territories and reach conclusions different from those I reached, unless you're lying to yourself." This insight was shared by Haim Yavin, the veteran broadcaster whose documentary series "Land of the Settlers" was aired in recent weeks by Channel 2 franchisee Telad, and caused a big uproar. Among other things, in the wake of the broadcast, the settlers - including the chairman of the Yesha Council (representing settlements in the West Bank and Gaza), Benzi Lieberman - demanded that "that left-winger Haim Yavin has to be fired from `Mabat.'"

Not only was the veteran, 72-year-old talking head - who has been reading the news on Channel 1's nightly "Mabat" program almost continuously since 1968 - not fired, but reports surfaced this week ("rumors and speculations," he claims) that the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) has signed a contract with him for another year. (At NIS 70,000 a month? "More speculation," he says.) In addition, Channel 1 broadcast a special program on the disengagement this week that he moderated ("It was a statement, a show of faith in me by the authority"). Given the success of Yavin's series on the commercial channel, which yielded a 14.2-percent viewer rating among the entire population, Channel 1 has decided to rebroadcast two films that Yavin made about the Oslo Accords.

Lieberman's camp was not the only front that opened against Yavin. It was also alleged the journalist was doing the left a disservice and that it was untenable that only now he "came out of the closet" with his viewpoints. Now, on a hot summer day about a month before the disengagement, at a cafe in Ramat Aviv, Yavin says: "I believe the settler establishment favors a controlled opposition, but it is a snowball and no one knows where it will roll. I don't think there will be a civil war, but the clashes between the settlers and the police and soldiers, and the big march, is worrisome."

An Israeli Cronkite?

Yavin was surprised by some of the reactions to the series. Especially by those people who argued that its significance had less to do with its content and more to do with the fact that the content was delivered by a nationally recognized, public figure such as Yavin. "It all started when Tom Segev from Haaretz said that I depicted the settlers as a sect of zealots," he explains. "That was then picked up by The New York Times, which in turn generated a wave of articles and interviews about the series in the foreign media, such as BBC, NBC, Sky News and ZDF [German news]."

Some of these articles made the comparison between Yavin and legendary American news anchor Walter Cronkite, who once produced a series about America being mired in mud of Vietnam. This view was shared by some observers in Israel. On the other hand, some Israeli media figures wondered if it is Yavin's job to express such strident opinions. Others asked: If he has always felt this way, then why did it take him so long to make his opinions known?

"It is now becoming acceptable to include personal opinions in the evening news. It verges on veritable editorials," says Yavin. "I'm against it. After all, everyone agrees there is no objectivity in news coverage; but there is an aspiration toward objectivity, and therefore when presenting the news there is no justification for taking a personal stand. I compare myself to a night editor who also writes editorials. In my opinion, it is legitimate to carry on a personal campaign that is subjective and balanced, and is written in the first person."

Yavin has written no fewer than 80 such "editorials" - i.e., documentary films. He decided to make the five-part series about the settlers, he says, after the straw that broke the camel's back: "During the intifada, I found myself in a state of despair. I felt that we can't go on this way, and I broadcasted out of a place of loathsomeness. I was fed up with all of the manifestos about maintaining our security and all of the cliches of all the camps. This diplomatic dilly-dallying somehow sent me spiraling into a crisis, traces of which may be found in the series. The change that took place in me was not in the principle, but in the dosage."

Yavin's agreement with the IBA gives it first right of refusal. The authority invoked this right when he proposed the series. At the time, he did not yet know exactly how it would look, he recalls. In his opinion, if he had prepared the series for Channel 1, his tone might have been a little less personal, a little different, but the content would have been identical. He cannot say how the channel's executives would have acted if representatives of the right had exerted political pressure on them. He has only the nicest things to say about Telad and Ilan Tobiyahu, who headed Telad at the time and who rebuffed every attempt to keep the series off the air. Yavin did not receive any personal threats.

Leftist and liberal

Haim Yavin is bothered by the fact that "the entire weight of how people are dealing with the series has been placed on me, Mister Yavin, Mister Television and all that jazz," he says, although he agrees this is what caused the "shakeup," and adds: "I stole the show."

The claim that he broke no new ground in the series infuriates him. "I say that there were things in the series not seen before, or that were seen but not in this context or with this intensity. For example, the report about the quiet transfer of 20,000 Palestinians from the Israeli part of Hebron to the Palestinian part of the city; the symbiotic relationship between the Israel Defense Forces and the settlers - like the story of Boaz Malt, according to whom it was the army and not the state that sent them to the hills and supplied them with a generator; the footage inside the Tomb of the Patriarchs in which Baruch Goldstein committed the massacre; [Ehud] Barak's `file' in the settlements; even the footage from Itamar, which showed just how large the settlement is."

Yavin also asserts that the outlook expressed by the series was unique. "These are subjects usually written about from a ready-made, worn-out and boring narrative. My observation was `fresh,' entirely personal and first-hand."

He dispassionately reminds those who are taken aback by his positions that he has "a long history of struggling for freedom of speech." He recalls: "When I was chosen as news director there was a political upheaval and the Likud came to clean out the stables. Tommy [Yosef] Lapid was the head of the IBA. There was an attempt to restrict our coverage of the territories and we did not agree to it. The matter went to the High Court of Justice and we won, the (Amnon) Zichroni verdict was issued, about conducting interviews with the mayors in the territories. To this day, I insist that this be the case on `Mabat.'"

In Yavin's opinion, the media is by definition "leftist or liberal, which is the same thing," because this is integral to the profession. "The press seeks out the irregularities and the distortions in the establishment. It is by definition anti-establishment." As for the claim that the media in Israel, and particularly the electronic media, are in fact very supportive of the establishment and the official position of the State of Israel, he comments: "We are not a broadcasting authority of the UN. We will not cover the Israeli-Arab dispute through `objective' eyes. We have the Israeli point of view. It is impossible to compare our coverage to that of Al-Jazeera or the BBC.

"Nevertheless, from having swum in our own pool so much, we don't see what is happening over at the neighbors'. The public does not want to see the Palestinians up close and personal. It's easier for us to see everything through the security prism. But you have to understand the roots of the conflict, even if there is no forgiveness or absolution for terror."

`Media boom'

Yavin, who was born in the German city of Oberschlesien in 1932, came to Israel when he was a year old and went on to become one of the founders of Israeli television, and one of its top executives. He has an inside track on many developments in the local media - including with regard to all his competitors over the years. "There has been a media boom, but we're hanging in there. Even during [Yosef] Barel's tenure we never crossed any red lines," he notes. "We maintained two things ostensibly at odds with one another: a high level of credibility and reasonable ratings, despite the various flaws.

"We are now in an interim period in which a new director general has to be selected. There are dozens of positions that remain unfilled. People have to get into their jobs. I believe there will be an improvement, but there cannot be any dramatic improvement without a change in legislation. Legislation is needed, for which the system must be depoliticized, that would change a few things in the Broadcasting Authority Law. The law was passed in 1965 and had been intended for radio."

And what about him? He's been in his job for decades, is past retirement age, and it does not seem anyone in the future generation has been prepared to replace him. Yavin: "Actually, such a generation exists, but I won't name names. And I have no thoughts of retirement. All sorts of things are in the planning stage right now, and I'm certain that a documentary series will come out of it."

What does he think of the imitation of him by Tal Friedman on the satirical "Wonderful Country" program? "Very good," he comments, "but I didn't understand the sketch in which he imitates me with a crate of ice."