Editor’s Notes: Mr. Television’s farewell

By David Horovitz September 28, 2007

What was Haim Yavin thinking, as he presented the news all these years?

Ageing gradually before our very eyes, Haim Yavin has been presenting the news in Israel for, staggeringly, two-thirds of the entire life span of the state. And for most of that period, he really was Israel’s ‘Mr. TV News’ – the main presenter, most nights of the week, of the main TV news program, on the nation’s only television station.

Born Heinz Kluger in what was then Oberschlesien, Germany, (and is now Upper Silesia, Poland), Yavin was one of the founders of Israel Television, after a reluctant David Ben-Gurion had become persuaded that it would be a force for good. He has presided over the nightly Mabat almost continuously from the word go, soon after the Six Day War. And he it was, of course, on that nation-changing night in May 1977, who announced the Likud’s ascent to power after three decades of Labor rule with the historic one-word confirmation: ‘Mahapach!’

Except that the term for which he is known more than any other – which he translates mildly into English as ‘Turnover’ – is not the one he really wanted to use. He wanted, he says 30 years later, to declare ‘Mahpecha!’ – a full-blown ‘Revolution!’ But he shrank back, he says, because the overtones would have been too dramatic. The implication, left unsaid, is that he was concerned that for the liberal Ashkenazi TV stronghold to describe the Likud’s victory in the language of revolution would have been perceived as an immediate attempt to delegitimize the new masters.

In an easy-going conversation that lasted more than an hour-and-a-half, however, Yavin’s ‘Mahpecha!’ disclosure was one of the few revelations from the person behind the anchorman. And that’s because ‘Mr. TV News’ has long been ‘Mr. TV Documentary Maker,’ as well – the proud author of dozens of what he calls TV’s equivalent of newspaper editorials, opinion pieces with his personal byline emphatically attached.

The interview was fascinating, nonetheless, veering between a discussion of TV’s depiction of our reality and Yavin’s professional and political narrative. He detailed the battles with government inherent in working at a state-run broadcaster in a region and era of conflict and immense political complexity, laid bare his own world view, and revealed a somewhat ambivalent attitude to the box-turned-flat screen. It was the medium that was going to change the world, he recalls, the medium for whose integrity he says he fought constantly, the medium that he now says has become deplorably trivialized even as it remains the ‘oxygen line’ of Israeli society.

Yavin’s familiar tones give immediate authority to everything he says. This is sometimes misleading since, unscripted, he can be less than definitive – as when dismissing TV as ‘porridge’ and an entertainment tool to titillate but also defending TV news coverage, or when expounding on some of his political thinking.

But his overall thinking and orientation has long been overt, as detailed in those ‘editorial’ projects. His next such venture is a series on Israel’s Arab minority, and it was in discussing their status that Yavin became most animated. The show may prove controversial, given his assertion that the second-class status of the community ‘creates talk of apartheid.’ But nothing he says or does now would be likely to match the outcry engendered by his The Land of the Settlers series two years ago, which led to frenzied calls from the political Right for his removal from Mabat. (‘Since 1967, we have been brutal conquerors, occupiers, suppressing another people,’ was the line seized upon by Britain’s Guardian daily.)

Speaking good-naturedly in a small office at his sea-front home north of Tel Aviv, surrounded by shelves loaded with award certificates, statuettes, videotapes, books, CDs and family snapshots, Yavin seems thoroughly unruffled by this or the countless other run-ins with Israel Broadcasting Authority bosses and other critics he’s seen off down the decades. ‘I never agreed to dictates and I worked according to my conscience,’ is how he sums up a lifetime in the TV eye of the storm.

But now, his glorious starring role is drawing to a close. He’s just turned 75 and makes plain he’s more than happy to rise from the Mabat hot seat. ‘I don’t have the same enthusiasm for traveling to Jerusalem four nights a week,’ he cheerfully acknowledges. In fact, he would have been gone a while ago if the bosses, long-resolved to follow the one-man anchor with a male-female twosome, had found the male partner for Geula Even.

So when will we last see him wrinkle that forehead, gesture with that pen and stare quizzically at us half through and half over those spectacles? ‘They’re talking now about December,’ he says, then adds lightly. ‘The question is: which December?’

Take us back to the first days of Israeli television – the expectations, the challenges.

We had the idea that TV would change the world.

Remember, Ben-Gurion had been opposed to introducing television. He thought it would exacerbate the divide between rich and poor, and bring more Americanization. He was won over to the educational potential after catching a show on the lives of bees at the Paris home of the French ambassador. [Prime Minister] Eshkol ultimately gave the green light.

There was a sense that now TV was here, there’d be no more wars, no more illiteracy, no more hunger in China – that’s what a BBC film predicted. The anticipation was that TV would be a tool to educate, to bring modernization.

And what was the expectation, specifically, for TV in Israel?

It was just after the Six Day War, before the Yom Kippur War.

We thought we would be able to show the world and the Arabs how nice we are. That winter [of 1967], the government decided it had to get this TV going. In South Africa it took three years. Here it took three months. There was an idea to bring Jews [with TV expertise] from around the world to help us do it. But, no, we had the hubris. No one was going to tell us what to do.

And how did it turn out?

We didn’t quite succeed. After 1973, Israel TV became a battlefield for the argument between Right and Left, Likud versus Labor: Begin, Sharon and the settlements against the Old Guard. ‘Old Israel’ and the Ashkenazim went with Labor and almost all the TV employees came from that satisfied Ashkenazi world – people from youth movements and kibbutzim, from white collar families, university graduates. On the other side, the Likud was the so-called ‘second Israel.’

Then, in 1977, the Likud, the Right, the capitalist list, took control of Israel and became responsible for the IBA. We were being attacked as a leftist mafia. We were accused of being the spearhead of the Left.
The Mahapach of 1977 can’t be underestimated. It was as though Barack Obama had become the prime minister of Israel. I coined the phrase Mahapach! – Turnover! – rather than Mahpecha! – Revolution! – because I was hesitant to say revolution. But that’s what it was.

We always sent a camera crew to cover the establishment of each new settlement. We were caught between Peace Now and Gush Emunim. There was an internal battle after 1977 and a lot of people were kicked out in a ‘purification.’ But with time, the Left softened a bit, the Right softened, the Palestinians seemed more legitimate. The IBA was a microcosm of what was happening outside.

Give us a specific example of how the internal battles played out.

Well, at first we weren’t allowed to interview PLO people. We couldn’t formally set up an interview, but we could speak to someone if they chanced to pass by.

I was head of TV news in the late 1970s. One day, Bassam Shaka, the mayor of Nablus, had a press conference and we were told we couldn’t broadcast it. We went to the barricades over this. We had filmed it and we weren’t allowed to broadcast it. So we blacked out the screen for 2 1/2 minutes. [Then-IBA director-general] Tommy Lapid’s argument was that we weren’t to give a platform to Jew-haters. Shaka had legitimized [Fatah’s 1978] Coastal Road terror attack.

But Lapid wasn’t the antichrist. After [the 1982 massacre of Palestinians by Christian Phalange gunmen at Beirut’s] Sabra and Shatila, he gave us the green light to push with all force for a commission of inquiry [the Kahan Commission]. Begin was furious.

The struggle reached its peak in 1982 when the IBA’s governing board said we still couldn’t interview PLO guys. We went to the High Court of Justice and beat the board. Now, the idea of not talking to the PLO is unthinkable. If you’d said then that Ehud Olmert would talk to the head of the PLO… Nobody spoke about the idea of a Palestinian state. We’ve come so far.

We insisted on reporting the [first] intifada. I never agreed to dictates and I worked according to my conscience, what I thought was right, to report faithfully.

The government always fights against the wheels of history. They were trying to stop things that couldn’t be stopped. They thought if they ignored the PLO, it would disappear, but that didn’t work.

Lots of the public closed its eyes. It doesn’t want to see. But TV is ahead of its time because the cameras are out in the field.

And what is the reality it shows you now?

Now, there’s a new reality. I believe in the end there is no solution other than two states for two peoples. Only that way can we make peace with the Palestinians and achieve coexistence with Israeli Arabs. The Palestinians also have to compromise, of course, on the right of return. Compromise is the key, there’s no escaping it.

Two years ago, I did the Land of the Settlers series, which annoyed them a lot, in just showing reality as it is. I don’t see myself as a prophet nor a historian. I report as is. In my blood, I’m a Zionist.

And now I see that in the Israeli Arab sector you can’t avoid equal rights. I’m doing a series on the Israeli Arabs to be broadcast next summer, The Migzar, ‘The Sector.’ There’s a tendency not to see the Arabs. Taibe – where’s that? People tell me they don’t drive through Wadi Ara.

The suspicion is mutual. The Israeli Arabs are ready for a Jewish state, not a Zionist state. They are a fifth of the country. There is deprivation. There is an absence of equal rights. [But] they are generally accepting of our existence. Most of them want a living, education, equal rights, to be part of the Israeli community, Aroma, a mall, good food and not to be discriminated against.

The issues of politics, Palestinian statehood, those are secondary for them. Would they move to a Palestinian state? No. There’s nothing like Israel for democracy.

But there is a second stream, which could prevail in a time of crisis, that says ‘enough of democracy’ and works for Islamification.

And intellectuals and politicians pull in a different direction. They say that Israel can’t be Jewish and democratic; it must be a state of all its people. It’s a game of semantics, but it’s also about solidarity: I, an Arab from Umm el-Fahm, can be an Israeli only if Israel gives me my real equality.

Israel doesn’t see the picture properly. Give them equality in education, hi-tech. There are no Arabs in hi-tech. I don’t say give them all the land [they seek], but compromise. In Sakhnin, for instance, they had 70,000 dunams [17,500 acres]. Now we’re offering them 6,000 dunams. Give them industrial zones. Deal with unemployment: A guy finishes university, wants to be a professor of Arabic language and he’s working in Supersol. It causes bitterness, second-class citizenship and creates talk of apartheid.

Zionism needs redefining. What is the State of Israel? It can’t ignore Israeli Arabs. We have a partner.
I’m not saying to give up on the Zionist state, but to find a fairer compromise for allocation of this land and its resources. And if not, things like the October 2000 riots will reemerge, but far worse. There are lots of angry people in the Arab sector. There’s ferment in the Druse sector: We die for this country and get nothing.

We’ve opened our eyes as regards the Palestinians but we are still looking at Israeli Arabs from the security perspective.

The Israeli Arab story is a story of fear. Mind you, it’s understandable: When I hear Ahmadinejad, I [want to] go into the bunker.

From those early great expectations, how do you think TV has turned out?

Now TV is a jacuzzi, an entertainment tool to titillate the viewers. One great porridge. People can’t separate what matters from what doesn’t. People want to be amused, to put their feet up and channel hop.

Still, almost 80 percent of viewers here are watching the news, and the connection to TV is a kind of a lifeline, an oxygen line that connects you to Israeli society.

If TV failed, why didn’t you, the man at the center, correct it?

It’s a global phenomenon. The medium has changed. With digital, electronic development, anyone can sell a feature to TV. The medium has become trivialized. It’s all ratings. It’s a competition for viewers. Multi-channels meant the end of the period of serious television. News today on Channels 2, 10 and 1 are ratings structured. Coverage isn’t catastrophic, but there are whole shows, discussion shows, that are just shouting in the studio. They trivialize the debate.

But this reflects a crisis that is not necessarily centered on television. Everything seems cheap and easy. Life got easier and more comfortable. So why make an effort?

In our hostile region, can we afford not to be informed and to be so complacent?

Maybe affluence is the solution. Maybe so long as life is better for people, they’ll be less drawn to conflict and war. If lives get better. If parents know that their kids’ lives will get better.

But I was in [the Negev Beduin town of] Rahat last week. It’s a shantytown. Unbelievable in 2007. Boiling hot, in houses with no running water. That gap between rich and poor [has to close].

Religion is the refuge of the desperate, for those with nothing to lose, for the hungry. A talented leader promises them the world and Islam gets more and more extreme. It’s a case of capitalism versus Islam. This jihad, the promise of 72 virgins [for carrying out a suicide bombing], feed on the soil of inequality.

To revisit an old dispute, isn’t there a problem with an anchorman doing a highly political series on the settlers?

I have a contract that gives me that right. Channel 1 passed on the series. Channel 2 said yes, please. In the context of the second intifada, I was so angry and desperate, partly because of the news. Bombs were going off every day. I’ve been here for many years and I really worried about where we were heading. [I felt that we were] a meter away from bombing civilians. I decided it was not enough for me to sit in the studio. I had done lots of shows, all regarded as ‘Left.’ I’m a leftist? I’m center.

Superficially you’re correct. An anchorman should sit [and read the news]. There’s no such thing as objectivity, but there is fairness. And you can seek to be objective. As an anchorman I always sought to be objective, but I’ve never hidden [in my documentary films] that this is my personal travelogue, in my name. This is what I think.

I don’t know if they’ll pull down the settlements. But if they don’t pull them down, there won’t be peace.

All of them?

Olmert is doing [meaningless] firework displays, but Israel hasn’t yet realized that we have to talk. They’re not even taking down the outposts.

Do you recognize the need for security settlements?

We have to try and reach an agreement with the Palestinians. Israel should not give up on what it feels is integral to its existence, come hell or high water. We have no other country. There are red lines.

But those apart, we have a lot of opportunity to be flexible and we haven’t taken a step…

There’s this thinking that one day they’ll give up and go away. It’s not going to happen.

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