Ted Koppel Comes to Jerusalem, but Israelis Are Unimpressed

Ted Koppel, host of ABC’s “Nightline” program, came to Israel last week with a television summit in mind. What he got instead was Israelis and Palestinians facing his cameras in what turned out to be less than a dialogue. In fact, they didn’t even shake hands.

If the five-part “Nightline” received good ratings at home while becoming a news item itself, it didn’t generate much interest among ordinary Israelis.

“Frankly. I don’t know who that Koppel is, and I don’t give a damn,” said Sammy, owner of a toy stand and presumably speaking for the Israeli “man-in-the-street.”

Negotiations fell through to have “Night-line” appear on Israeli television. Yair Stern, head of Israel Television’s news division, told the Jerusalem Post on Monday that the program did not have the same interest for Israelis as it did for American audiences.

“We have Shamir and Peres and the Palestinians on television all the time. For us, they are no novelty,” he said, referring to Premier Yitzhak Shamir and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

Koppel apparently tried to follow in the footsteps of the dean of American TV newsmen, Walter Cronkite, whose interviews more than a decade ago generated the public momentum for Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem.

Koppel envisioned a TV show that would bring together Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s current president, King Hussein of Jordan and Israeli Foreign Minister Peres.

NO SUCCESS FOR ‘NIGHTLINE’

ABC found out quickly that even Koppel could not succeed where Secretary of State George Shultz had so recently failed.

The highlight of the week’s programming was the three-hour “Nightline” program beamed live from Jerusalem last Wednesday, featuring a debate between Palestinians and Israelis.

At the end, the Palestinian participants rushed to leave the stage, lest they be forced to shake hands with their Israeli counterparts.

Dedi Zucker, of the dovish Citizens Rights Movement, and Haim Ramon did in fact extend their hands to Dr. Haidar Abd A-Shafi of Gaza and Dr. Hanan Mikail-Mashrani of Ramallah. But they were ignored.

About 600 Israelis and Palestinians filled a Jerusalem theater early Wednesday to air their differences in front of American television cameras. The Palestinians repeatedly made the point, however, that they were not there for a dialogue but only to express their personal opinions to the American public.

At their insistence, a three-foot divider was erected on the stage, symbolically separating the Palestinians from the Israelis and emphasizing their rift.

The wall revived a memory of Hugh Orgel, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s Tel Aviv correspondent:

“I remember that in 1956 or 1957, when I was press attache at the Washington Embassy (of Israel), I arranged a Sunday talk-show interview for the then ambassador, Abba Eban with the Syrian — I believe — ambassador, who demanded a wall be built because he could not recognize an Israeli ambassador existed.

“A six-foot-high wall was built, and Eban referred sarcastically to the ‘disembodied voice of my colleague, who cannot stand the proof that I exist, coming over this makeshift partition.’”

Koppel’s show made an excellent documentary on the refusal of two peoples even to talk to each other. Among the Palestinians, only moderates showed up.

The Israeli panel was politically more diverse. In addition to Zucker and Ramon, it included Likud Knesset members Ehud Olmert and Eliahu Ben-Elissar, who was Israel’s first ambassador to Egypt.

The Palestinian side included Mashrani, dean of the faculty of arts at Bir Zeit University, and Dr. Saeb Erakat, a professor of political science at Najah University in Nablus. Both universities are presently closed on orders of the Israel Defense Force.

Another Palestinian, Dr. Mamduh Al-Akar, a Nablus physician, cancelled at the last moment because he had the flu.

Koppel admitted it was extremely difficult to get the Palestinians to appear. Although he did not say so, it was clear that some who might have shown up were subject to pressure from within the Palestinian political community.

EVEN-HANDED COVERAGE

“Nightline” was brought to Israel at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars — some said $1 million — largely because of Israeli complaints that it was not getting a fair deal at the hands of the American electronic media. The Israelis have charged that coverage of the unrest in the administered territories was biased and tarnished Israel’s image abroad.

Once Koppel and his team arrived here, he received maximum cooperation from the military authorities. The IDF arranged visits throughout the territories and a helicopter tour over the West Bank to point out the area’s strategic importance.

The Israeli authorities appreciated the opportunity to present “the other Israel” to the American public, after four-and-a-half months watching the Palestinians in combat with Israeli soldiers.

One senior IDF officer said the Koppel undertaking was a worthwhile investment. He said the treatment, by and large, was balanced, and gave Israelis an opportunity to explain their views at somewhat greater depth than the usual 40 seconds allowed a regular TV news item.

The Israeli public did not share in the excitement. Israelis are as divided over the importance of a “good press” as they are on most other issues. Hawks are less sensitive about Israel’s image overseas than doves.

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