In 2015, Avi Issacharoff set out on a routine work trip to the Shoafat Refugee Camp in northeastern Jerusalem. Issacharoff, who was working as a journalist and Arab affairs analyst at the Walla news website, was gathering materials for a report accompanied by a young local. As they turned downhill, towards the flowing streams of sewage, Issacharoff struck up a conversation. A few months earlier the hit TV series “Fauda,” which he had written together with Lior Raz, had premiered and been well-received. Issacharoff wanted to know if they were aware of the show in the camp.
“I just asked him in Arabic: Do you watch ‘Fauda?’... What do you think? He replied, ‘quality stuff.’ I said to him, ‘Did you know that I wrote it? He stopped, ‘you!’ he exclaimed and called out to a lot of guys and pointed at me: ‘Guys! He’s the one who wrote “Fauda!”’ And that wasn’t here in Tel Aviv or in Jerusalem. This was a group of guys from a refugee camp… You don’t expect that.”
'There’s something we understood pretty quickly. We are two Neanderthals, Jerusalemite men who grew up in an elite unit, and we have a masculine viewpoint, very masculine'
From the moment it came on the air, “Fauda” has been Israeli television’s most successful export. Following phenomenal success in Israel, the series was picked up by the streaming giant Netflix and became an international hit. The New York Times included it in their list of the best television series of 2017; The New Yorker devoted a comprehensive article to the series and the questions it raised, and Netflix defined it as an “international phenomenon.” It was ranked as the most viewed serial in Lebanon and number four in India. People like Stephen King and Eric Idle of “Monty Python” proclaimed their fandom, never mind the Palestinian politicians who would call Issacharoff from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank to ask for his help streaming episodes.
Issacharoff didn’t expect that the show’s success would change his life, nor did he expect to trade in his tours of Shoafat for trans-Atlantic flights. But after three seasons (the fourth season is slated to begin filming in the fall), the creators have been catapulted to the top ranks of international stardom. Now, while his personal assistant handles his crowded schedule from his “fresh out of the box” apartment, his new production company, Faraway Road Productions (established with Raz), is up and running, Issacharoff is anticipating the release of the duo’s next project.
With an estimated $60 million budget, their new international Netflix series, “Hit & Run” premieres this week. While the show is entirely different from “Fauda,” it does feature a half-Israeli storyline and a cast of familiar faces for Israeli audiences: Moran Rosenblatt, Gal Toren, Lior Ashkenazi, Sanaa Lathan, Kaelen Ohm, Gregg Henry, and, of course, Raz himself. The new series takes more inspiration from Tom Clancy, John Grisham, Harlan Coben and the like than S. Yizhar’s Khirbet Khiza. Think “Clear and Present Danger,” or “Patriot Games” – stories about espionage and counter-espionage, conspiracies and bumping off the small fry in a corrupt system that is concealing huge secrets – and a departure from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the occupation. It’s a gamble for two people whose new career was forged out of their experiences in an elite IDF unit.
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“To this day, I can’t come up with a good explanation for ‘Fauda’’s success. We were two idiots one evening on reserve duty. We didn’t even know what it would be – a series, a book, a film – it just happened. ‘Hit & Run’ – I’m glad you feel it’s different, we were afraid they would say it’s similar and start comparing. It has a whiff of ‘foreign product’ about it, it’s not the rough-edged Israeli brand of television, for better or worse. It’s foreign, and filmed foreign and even Tel Aviv comes out very beautiful. It’s our career now, not just based on a true story, an incident with a Palestinian. In ‘Hit & Run’ we ran with our imaginations, Netflix got excited, and we went into development. It’s something different.”
‘We are two Neanderthals’
Segev Azulay, the protagonist of “Hit & Run,” is a tour guide who left a sketchy security past behind and crossed the ocean for a fresh start in Israel. Married for the second time to a dancer named Danielle, he is raising a daughter from his first marriage. His life is turned upside down when Danielle is killed in a strange hit-and-run accident, moments before boarding a flight for the United States. Israeli viewers will recall when Lee Zeitouni was run over and killed, and the assailants fled to France and disappeared, apparently not by chance.
'I have had the opportunity, over the years, to get to know quite a number of people in the West Bank and Gaza. Some have been killed, some have left and some have cut off contact'
When Segev heads to New York to investigate what Danielle had been planning to do there, he opens a can of worms that ties together past and present, a slew of secrets and the security services of both Israel and the United States. At times, the rough, Israeli edges chafe against the American polish, but the story recalls diving into Stephen King’s early thrillers and Tel Aviv, filmed only from flattering angles, has never looked so good. ‘Hit & Run,’ in short, is indeed a work of a totally different genre.
Issacharoff and Raz brought the frame story to the table and shared the work of writing with two American screenwriters, Dawn Prestwich and Nicole Yorkin, known for their work of “The Killing” and more.
“It was,” says Issacharoff, “a clash of civilizations. Two men from the Middle East and two ladies from the West Coast with more than 30 years of experience in American television. But what a clash! It made you open your mind. There was a lot of ‘No, it has to be this way’ and ‘Not gonna happen, it has to be that way.’ In the end something different emerged.”
“The truth is, that even before I met the two American screenwriters, I imagined a female presence there, because the series has elements that depict women’s experiences. For example, a man, an American in this case, who goes crazy over his wife’s job and tries to make decisions for her and limit how far she can go.”
“There’s something we understood pretty quickly. We are two Neanderthals, Jerusalemite men who grew up in an elite unit, and we have a masculine viewpoint, very masculine. We really are not capable of seeing what’s around us. You learn very quickly that you need partners who will widen your view and make you think about other angles. We saw men and women for this project. We didn’t decide in advance that we would work with women. But from the moment the two of them came into the room, there was creativity and the work was very pleasant, less ego on the table. It wasn’t about control, but rather four people who shared a desire to create and make the best series possible. I also think we learned a lesson. We have another project that I can’t expand on at the moment, but we realized that we need a female writer on it. The main characters are women, and you have to have those points of view.”
'When a television critic writes: How can ‘Fauda’ show Palestinians entering and leaving the West Bank so freely, I feel like telling him: Where are you living?'
One of the few criticisms of “Fauda” was that it really is a very male series. Are you working with women in response to that, as an understanding of those claims?
“To say we had those intentions or a moral reckoning is to imagine us on a path we’ve never walked. We’re two dudes who don’t have that level of thought or pretension in our repertoire. It comes from necessity and the understanding that it’s the right thing. Bridget Wiley” – the former head of content at CBS – “is the content director at the company we set up in Los Angeles. Not because she’s a woman, but because she’s smart and talented. In hindsight, she also showed us our blind spots, just like the two ladies we worked with on ‘Hit & Run’ did.”
“On the other hand, attributing the masculinity of the approach to Lior and myself isn’t correct. There was a team behind ‘Fauda’ from day one. In the first season we had a female script editor, Leora Kamenetzky, and both male and female writers. From the second season until now, as we head into filming the fourth season, the script editor is Sari Turgeman, blood of our blood. Michal Aviram has been with us since the first season. Liat Benasuly, our producer, is the queen mother and what she says goes. You can only say it’s a ‘masculine project’ if you just look at the two of us, but there is heavy female involvement there, even if it’s behind the scenes. The problem is reality, and nothing can be done about that. It’s a series about an undercover unit of Israeli soldiers disguised as Arabs, and there’s just one woman on the team. I can give you a scoop and say that in the fourth season a second woman will join the team.”
Be that as it may, “Hit & Run” and the fourth season of “Fauda” are only two of the projects Issacharoff and Raz are juggling. In the pipeline, there are also a feature film dealing with a closure on Bethlehem that will be directed by Antoine Fuqua (the director of “Training Day” and other films), as well as a docudrama project based on a real incident and characters, an action drama series in which an A-list actress is slated to star and much more.
Are you worried that if this series doesn’t succeed in the same way “Fauda” did, your impressive second career will go up in smoke? It’s a wonderful and terrifying situation, lots of potential for anxiety.
'‘Fauda’ hadn’t even aired, I couldn’t even imagine Netflix, and the pay I got for the first season was half the minimum wage relative to the work that was invested'
“No. Anxiety, in my world, is being shot at – when someone is trying to kill you. Wondering whether the series will be more successful, or less successful? Okay. I had work before ‘Fauda.’ And even if this whole thing gets wiped out I’ll find something to do with myself. ‘Fauda’ went great. I got lucky. Anyone who has known Lior and me over these past few years, knows we can tell a story. It’s all okay. Among the Palestinians, there’s something basic. If you ask a Gazan how he is, after they’ve destroyed his house with some F-16 and he has nowhere to house his seven children, no job, he has nothing, but he answers: “Hamdulillah, mabsut” – Thank God, I’m fine. I’m not there, but you know what I mean. It went well with ‘Fauda,’ we’ll see if it goes well with this. I don’t know what people will say about the series, but I’m pleased. It’s an international product, an American series, even though there are very Israeli elements in it, in the friendships between the male characters, for example. We wanted to keep something Israeli, yet to think about how to keep it as realistic as possible.”
No way out
Issacharoff’s grounded approach to success can be partially chalked up to the fact that he is a mature individual who had an entire career before his breakout into stardom. The 48-year-old was born and grew up in Jerusalem. He served in the elite Duvdevan undercover counter-terrorism unit, with all that entails. In the early 1990s, for example, he took part in the arrest of a wanted man in Hebron. The man barricaded himself in his home, leading to what professionals call a “pressure cooker” situation, with soldiers besieging the building in an attempt to catch or kill him. Issacharoff was shot in the exchange of fire. He was treated by none other than Dr. Baruch Goldstein, who would go on to carry out the 1994 massacre at the Tomb of the Prophets. Goldstein was killed after murdering 29 Palestinian worshippers, becoming a martyr for the settler cause. A few weeks after Issacharoff was shot, he returned to duty as if nothing had happened.
“Fauda” grew out of your experiences in the army and a moment ago you spoke about your friends in the West Bank and Gaza. That’s not to be taken for granted.
“My military past is not a topic of discussion between us, and by the same token, I don’t ask them what they did at age 19. It’s not something we talk about, each of us for our own reasons. But I have had the opportunity, over the years, to get to know quite a number of people in the West Bank and Gaza. Some have been killed, some have left and some have cut off contact – I know, in some cases, it was due to pressure from Hamas. It’s sad. A personal friend of mine was killed by a Hamas lynch mob in Gaza during the revolt against Fatah. I keep in touch with my friends there by telephone. In the West Bank, too, there are people who were killed, who cut off ties intentionally and some who still talk to me. We send greetings on holidays, New Year. With some of them, I still meet when possible.”
His military service, in any case, was a foundation for his subsequent career: He completed a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies and wrote his thesis on the second Lebanon war, focusing on Hezbollah. Meanwhile, he nurtured a career in journalism.
The many years of experience and the regular and frequent visits in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip made Issacharoff nearly immune to the scattered criticism of “Fauda.”
Nonetheless, there were critics. Journalist and author Sayed Kashua, for example, wrote in the journal Foreign Policy, “It shows no settlements, no Jewish extremists who abuse Palestinians and seize their land with either passive or active help from the government. The show includes no shots of the separation barrier that blocks farmers from their crops or of the checkpoints that restrict Palestinians’ daily movements. There are no home demolitions, no land expropriations, and no expulsions. In ‘Fauda,’ the unit never arrests underage boys and girls. Soldiers don’t barge into Palestinian homes in the dead of night. No Israeli snipers celebrate after shooting unarmed Palestinians. Viewers never see the West Bank roads earmarked exclusively for Jewish drivers. Nor do they see Palestinians who have been deprived of their civil rights. depicts no poverty and no refugee camps. On the contrary: Its Palestinians for the most part live in luxurious homes. ‘Fauda’ treats the occupation as a given, a divinely created reality. It offers no history, no context, and no hint of a possible solution.”
Kashua adds that according to “Fauda” the Palestinians are motivated by the impulse to revenge, a strong Arab impulse that explains the murderousness of the main characters. Revenge in a personal context, and that’s it. After all, the Palestinians have no other reason to rise up against the Israelis. To tell the truth, their lives, as reflected in the series, are pretty good.
Sayed Kashua, a former colleague of yours at Haaretz, whose books are on your shelf, came out very strongly against “Fauda.”
Issacharoff smiles: “Sayed Kashua kicked the shit out of the series after he watched one episode of the second season. He came out with this: ‘Allow us not to love “Fauda.”’ Did anyone say you had to love it? I’m a great admirer of Sayed Kashua the author, I’m not sure he needs to be a television critic, certainly if he hasn’t seen more than one episode. I am sure that 90 percent of our critics in the Israeli sector and among the Palestinian citizens of Israel haven’t seen what I’ve seen in my career as a journalist. I saw Gaza up close, for many years, and the huge breaches in the West Bank. What can you do if I know my stuff? It gives me confidence that I know the material. I have authority.”
“When a television critic writes: How can ‘Fauda’ show Palestinians entering and leaving the West Bank so freely, I feel like telling him: Where are you living? They don’t know how many Palestinians are entering Israel every day illegally and how. If Ohad Hemo or Sleiman al-Shafa’i” – broadcast journalists – “write ‘that’s not how it is in Gaza,’ I would shut up and tip my hat to them. But when someone writes things like that and has no idea that 40 to 50 thousand Palestinians enter Israel every day, I have to say: Give it a rest. My career lets me tell people who clamour on about ‘pro-Israel writing, they know nothing about what happens on the Palestinian side’ – give it a rest.”
Nevertheless, Israel’s political situation and the point-of-view your work is written from are connected. That influences the world relates to you. I saw a video interview conducted at a conference in the U.S., and the interviewer asked you and Lior about then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Do questions like that create tension, or a need to explain yourself?
“No. There were calls from the BDS movement, back in the day, not to broadcast ‘Fauda,’ but it wasn’t a serious phenomenon.”
In that same interview, Raz muttered “Let’s not talk about Netanyahu,” but in the home arena Issacharoff is more than ready to talk. The topic – it can’t be helped – is in his blood. And in general, the situation on the Palestinian side is perhaps the only topic that manages to crack something in Issacharoff’s smiling calm. “From 2009 to 2021, it’s like Israeli policy was taken straight from a textbook on what not to do – and they did it,” he says sharply.
“The aim was to eradicate the two-state solution and do the impossible. Thanks to a concentrated, intense effort it is impossible to talk about two states anymore. For more than a decade, the State of Israel has erased a Palestinian partner for peace and has chosen to weaken Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority and strengthen Hamas. As an Israeli citizen, a commentator on Arab affairs, forget it. As Avi, you grab your head in your hands and just can’t understand. They are strengthening and building up Hamas and proving to it that force works. They are allowing Israel to become a state that pays protection money, because they fire rockets if we don’t pay every month. This policy has become something sacred because of one person. It’s impossible to evacuate half a million settlers today. Even if Israel keeps the main settlement blocs, it’s impossible to evacuate the third of them who live outside the blocs. It’s not realistic and we are in a mess. Stuck in a situation with no way out.”
Do you think anything will change with the new government?
“The problem isn’t Netanyahu. We are stuck in a much more difficult situation. I’m not blaming only Netanyahu and only Israel. The Palestinian side has an equal part in destroying possibilities. Hamas is a terror organization that is making a mockery of the international arena and the latest war in Gaza proved the blindness of international public opinion. There was an attacking side and an attacked side, Israel was attacked and Hamas attacked, and in the international mind Israel came out as the aggressor. Hamas in Gaza is a dictatorship, it’s cruelty for its own sake towards the Palestinians who don’t have human rights, who are being abused and starved. I don’t buy this myth called the blockade on Gaza. The situation could be ended in a second, but Hamas doesn’t want that.”
World like a cucumber
Issacharoff recounts that he came to the job at Walla after he was fired from Haaretz. “I came from the temple of journalism and journalistic freedom, where I was fired over a salary dispute, over a gap of a few thousand shekels. I felt like I was thrown under the bus to save a bit of cash. Today, I can say thank you, because I moved over to Walla and had more time to spend on all kinds of things on the side. I wrote ‘Fauda.’ I really don’t know if that would have happened if I had stayed at Haaretz.”
He laughs. “You get it? I was trying to survive; I needed the money. ‘Fauda’ hadn’t even aired, I couldn’t even imagine Netflix, and the pay I got for the first season was half the minimum wage relative to the work that was invested.”
The obvious question is what you are getting paid now.
“More than the minimum wage,” he laughs. “A bit. In Arabic, forgive the crudeness, there’s a saying… The world is like a cucumber: one day it’s in your hand and one day it’s in your ass. That’s my motto in life. Today we are successful, there are eight projects in the air, but the bad will also arrive, and it is necessary to accept the ‘no’ with love. In the past four years we’ve encountered many rejections, and we have to accept that too. The project doesn’t suit the considerations of some executives. We had a project I thought no one could reject. Forget about us, idiots from the Middle East, but we came to him with Alex Gansa and Howard Gordan, the creators of a little show called ‘Homeland’ – and they said no to that? You have to know how to pick yourself up, to accept no a thousand times and one yes without giving up.”