JERUSALEM — Eitan Arusy, the Israeli military’s point man in dealing with the Arab media, earned his paycheck May 19.
That day, millions of Arab viewers watching the evening news on Al Jazeera were treated to footage from an Israeli army drone. The 10-second clip depicted a missile strike on a group of Hamas members as they cowered from an overhead threat, which ended with a burst of flames. The attack left one Hamas member dead.
Back in the days before Arusy assumed his newly created post, that would have been the end of the story for Arab viewers: an unprovoked Israeli attack on Palestinians. But Arusy angrily called the popular satellite network and demanded that they show the first 40 seconds of the tape, which showed that the skirmish started when the Hamas militants took up positions in a cemetery and fired mortar rounds at the Gush Katif settlements in Gaza.
The network obliged. The full video was aired seven times, along with a voice-over explaining that Israel was firing in response to Hamas mortars.
This media spin-cycle victory and others like it are the fruits of an almost yearlong effort by the Israeli military to establish better working relations with Al Jazeera and some 40 other Arab media outlets. As director of the Arab Desk of the Israeli army spokesman’s office, Arusy stands at the head of this new initiative.
Arusy, who speaks Arabic with his grandparents and spent a fair share of his time in uniform as a listener in military intelligence (“Don’t ask me to whom”), was set to leave the army when he received an offer from the former chief spokeswoman Ruth Yaron to run the new Arab Desk. She charged him with winning “the war of the narratives.” That battle will reach a peak in the coming months.
The upcoming withdrawal from Gaza can be seen through two markedly different lenses, Arusy explains: as a capitulation to terrorism and a clapping re-enforcement of Israel’s inherent weakness, or, as he would like it portrayed, as an act of a strong country making a huge sacrifice for peace. “We need to take pains to show them how difficult, tragic and formative this is,” he said, “because many in the Arab media market don’t really get that excited about a government moving 7,000 people from their homes. They’ve seen that before and a lot worse.”
They are seeing some new images from the Israeli army, though. In recent months, the Saudi-owned Middle East Broadcasting channel and the American-owned satellite channel Al-Hurra have shown interviews with the commander of an F-16 squadron and with the chief of military intelligence, Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash. Last week, London-based, Saudi-owned Asharq Al- Awsat, the dean of international Arabic dailies, ran a full-page interview with the outgoing chief of staff on his last day in uniform.
The Asharq Al-Awsat article didn’t pull any punches, but it did paint a rather positive picture of the man who heads an often-demonized institution. He was seen as courteous, compassionate and reluctant in most matters concerning warfare. The first two paragraphs of the interview have the Israeli commander, Moshe Ya’alon, greeting the interviewer with a blessing in Arabic and admitting that he cries on occasion. Later on, Ya’alon acknowledges that the Palestinians have suffered far more than the Israelis during the current intifada — Ya’alon calls it a war — and concedes a willingness to leave the Golan Heights under certain conditions. He is asked, but refuses to comment, about the death of Khalil al-Wazir, alias Abu Jihad, the number-two man in the Fatah organization. Al-Wazir was killed in Tunis in 1988. Rumor has it, a bullet in the head — from Ya’alon himself — caused his death. It is said that Ya’alon, who at the time was commander of the Sayeret Matkal, entered the house after the initial break-in and confirmed the killing, putting a final bullet in al-Wazir’s head. At the close of the interview Ya’alon describes himself in terms that would have tickled George Washington: “I, as you know, am a farmer. I wanted to stay a farmer and, out of a sense of dedication to my fields, I left the army. But in the October War of 1973 I was called to the flag. If I had my way, I would never have been an army man… I hope there will be peace soon. Israel holds its hand out in peace.”
The paper was besieged by complaints. But its Israel correspondent, Nazir Mgalli, an Israeli Arab who speaks fluent Hebrew, received only praise from his London editors, who called to congratulate him. Mgalli, who hails from the Galilee city of Nazareth, says that Arusy and his desk have transformed his ability to report from Israel in a fair and balanced way. “Some people think the Arab press is still wholly patriarchal and inherently biased, but that is far from the truth,” Mgalli told the Forward. “What we want is information.” According to Mgalli, before the existence of Arusy’s office the channels of communication between the Arab media and the Israeli army were “nonexistent.”
Other correspondents say that self-interest was at the forefront of the army initiative. “They didn’t bring Arusy to help us,” said Walid Omari, Al-Jazeera’s bureau chief in Israel. “They brought him to help them.”
Hammoudi Boqai, a correspondent for the Al-Arabiya satellite channel, explains that Arousy’s role can involve both propaganda and the dissemination of legitimate views. “If there’s unrest in the north they sometimes send Arusy to tell Hezbollah, on the air, that they’ll attack if further provoked,” he said. Boqai saw that as a “risk” to the integrity of his channel. But, Boqai is quick to note, there is an upside to the new cooperation. If Arousy had been in place three years ago, “Jenin wouldn’t have happened,” he said, referring to the worldwide reports of an Israeli massacre in the West Bank town in April 2002, which were later proved to be fabrications.
Arusy himself believes that he would have been able to stop the frenzied coverage of the still controversial death of Muhammad al-Dura, the 12-year-old Palestinian boy shot in Gaza in September 2000. Though the boy turned into the poster child of the intifada, he might not actually have been killed by Israeli fire.
Either way, Boqai thinks that simply seeing Israeli military officials on television and in the papers is changing the face of the conflict. “Not every Jew is an enemy anymore,” he says. “And I attribute that to their media relations.”