David Remnick examines the role of Haaretz newspaper in Israel:
Amos Schocken, the paper’s patrician publisher and owner, is apt to tell disgruntled readers, “It seems that Haaretz is just not for you.” Photograph by Michal Chelbin.
In the early days of the uprising in Egypt, the Web site of the journal Foreign Policy published a list of the ten world leaders “who are freaking out the most.” Coming in first, ahead of all the nerve-racked autocrats who had reason to fear that the democratic fervor would spread their way from Tahrir Square, was the popularly elected Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu. Since 1979, Israel has based its national-security strategy on a peace treaty with Egypt, a treaty that drastically reduced the prospect of regional war in the Middle East.
Rattled by the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, Netanyahu sent a cable to Israel’s embassies abroad, telling diplomats to advertise the constancy of Hosni Mubarak and caution against the alternatives. Shimon Peres, the Israeli President, gave a speech warning against a future Egypt with the Muslim Brotherhood in power. And nearly all the country’s main media outlets—including Channel 2, the biggest commercial-television station, and the mass-circulation tabloids—described the news from Egypt in terms fraught with alarm.
The outlet that conveyed the greatest sense of equipoise, even optimism, was Haaretz (“The Land”), a broadsheet daily that is easily the most liberal newspaper in Israel and arguably the most important liberal institution in a country that has moved inexorably to the right in the past decade. The Schocken family, which has owned the paper since 1935, is not commandingly wealthy, yet it invests lavishly in the quality of a paper that is authoritative in its news columns, left-wing in its ideology, and insistently oppositional in its temper. Golda Meir once said that the only government that Haaretz ever supported was the British Mandate, before the birth of the state.
Dov Alfon, Haaretz’s editor-in-chief, tried to keep the tone of the paper’s Egyptian coverage cool, analytical, observant. “This country was submerged in paranoia, as if Iran were invading Egypt, as if the demonstrators in Cairo were Hezbollah,” Alfon, who was born in Tunisia and grew up in Paris, said. “Suddenly, on Sunday morning all the Israeli newspapers were running headlines like ‘A NEW MIDDLE EAST’ and ‘THE END OF MUBARAK.’ I was much more cautious. I was influenced by my childhood in Paris. I remember the posters in May, 1968, claiming revolution, claiming the end of de Gaulle, and parents at school claiming the end. A few weeks later, it was exactly the opposite.”The Egyptian uprising posed a reporting challenge to Haaretz, as it did to all Israeli media. There are no Israeli news bureaus in Egypt, or anywhere else in the Arab world. Israeli reporters can get into Cairo quickly only if they carry a second passport. (Haaretz had a reporter in Cairo briefly in the late eighties, but he was thrown out of the country.) So when, in late January, Alfon watched the first street demonstration taking shape, he mobilized Anshel Pfeffer, a defense reporter in his late thirties who was born in Manchester and carries a British passport. Pfeffer has played a fireman’s role for the paper, covering the Mumbai terror attacks, the Russian-Georgian war, and swine flu in Mexico. He had just returned from the uprising in Tunisia, and now Alfon was asking him to bolt a vacation and go to Egypt.
Pfeffer was the first Israeli reporter to reach Cairo. He checked in at the Ramses Hilton, a five-minute walk from Tahrir Square, and, for the first few days, he spoke with as many demonstrators, soldiers, and other ordinary Egyptians as he could, taking in a spectacle that he compared to “a curtain going up on a secret world.” His first articles were straight reporting pieces. Because the regime had shut down access to the Internet, he filed “in the ancient manner”—by fax or by dictating his pieces to an operator in the newsroom in Tel Aviv. Egyptian secret police were in the hotel, but the staff members who sent and received his faxes, and heard him dictating in Hebrew, remained friendly. Pfeffer speaks some Arabic, but he felt that he was more effective on the street coming across “as an English twit.”
As a defense reporter, Pfeffer understood why a threat to the peace treaty with Egypt would cause high anxiety in the military command in Israel, yet he also saw that what was being broadcast and published at home did not reflect the reality in Tahrir Square. “The more tabloid populist side of the Israeli media was intent on searching for anti-Israeli, anti-Jewish manifestations,” he said. “Out of the ten thousand signs on the square, there were maybe two with a Star of David written across Mubarak’s face—and that was what was shown.”Pfeffer wanted to make sure his readers understood that the demonstrations were in fact not anti-Israeli, and he wrote a column headlined “WHY SHOULD ISRAEL BE THE ONLY DEMOCRACY IN THE MIDEAST?” “The late Arab-American scholar Edward Said appears to have been right,” he wrote. “We’re all suffering from Orientalism, not to say racism, if the sight of an entire people throwing off the yoke of tyranny and courageously demanding free elections fills us with fear rather than uplifting us, just because they’re Arabs. . . . Doesn’t Egypt deserve democracy, too?”
The editorial pages, meanwhile, represented a wide range of views. Both the editor of the section, Aluf Benn, and the columnist Ari Shavit attacked Barack Obama for failing to support a crucial ally. Benn wrote, “Barack Obama will be remembered as the president who ‘lost’ Turkey, Lebanon, and Egypt, and during whose tenure America’s alliances in the Middle East crumbled.” Shavit, a liberal-centrist who has long been arguing for a reckoning with Iran, was Spenglerian in his gloom, writing that Obama’s failure to support a “moderate” like Mubarak, coupled with his failure to speak up for the democratic movement in Tehran, signalled nothing less than the decline of the West.