Although there are over 200 television channels - among them American and European channels - available for viewing in the Middle East region, the Voice of Israel is not among them. Israel's official reason for this is a 'lack of budget' - maintaining that a special Israeli station to broadcast in Arabic entails expenses that are beyond Israel's reach.
However, Amira Oron - Director of the Arabic Press Department in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a former diplomat posted in Egypt - claims that the real reason lies in the Israeli authority's arrogant view of the Arab media. "In the eyes of Israeli decision-makers, the Arabic press is primitive and propagandist," says Oron. "The common thought here is 'why invest in a hostile audience' or 'why should we bother explaining our views to people who perceive us as enemies'."
In this interview, Amira Oron explains why Israel remains 'mute' in the Arab world, and why it must speak.
Q. Why should the Israeli media reach out to Arab countries?
A. We are living in an era of images; the images that flash on Arab citizens' television screens also influence their leaders. If Israel wishes for peace with - or at least to co-exist with - its Arab neighbors, we must start a dialogue with them. I believe the media is the best agent for such a dialogue, because it speaks to people in their own language. Currently, the Israeli TV channel broadcasts only four hours of Arabic programs in a day, between 4 and 8 pm. This schedule does not take into account the fact that - because the days are so hot - life starts only at night in Arab countries. Naturally, almost no one watches these broadcasts.
Q. But would the Arab world even listen to an Israeli broadcast?
A. It is possible, of course, that - in view of the prevailing political situation - the average person in an Arab country will automatically surf away from an Israeli channel because s/he may presume that the message will be biased. But we must not forget the dramatic changes in the Arabic press over the past five years, with the media becoming more liberal and democratic. This trend is gradually influencing the audience, making them more open to different interpretations of news stories and - it follows - to news originating from Israeli stations as well.
Even now, there is a definite thirst for information from Israel in the Arab world. Unfortunately, there is no proper supply. The result is that Israel is an enigma to the typical Arab. And, since we don't have diplomatic ties with most Arab States, the average Arab citizen perceives Israel through the lens of historical memories from the 1970s and the 1960s - as a militant enemy. I believe that an Israeli station in Arabic could change this mistaken perception and help introduce other aspects of Israeli life - culture, economy or technology, for instance - to the people there. Ignoring the necessity for this is a failure on the part of most Israeli governments so far.
Q. It is odd that in an age when even wars are televised, Israel has no voice in the Arab world...
A. Yes. I think it is unfortunate that Israeli decision-makers still fail to understand how much the Arab press has changed. Besides, there is the historical perception of the Arab world as the 'enemy'. But Nzair Magali, a journalist who writes for several Syrian dailies, told me once that anti-Semitic statements in the Arab media are confined only to a noisy minority. "The masses in the Arab countries are moderate - so whenever you speak in the Arab press, direct your words to this population. This huge group is longing to hear the voice of Israel and receive cues that you are not seeking wars." I think this is a very good suggestion. The Arab world might not love Israel; but it craves for our voice. So, a clear Israeli voice explaining our point of view could be the most effective way to create a change and, eventually, peace in the Middle East.
Q. So what do you see as a plausible course of action?
A. This should be taken up as a strategic national-level strategy to broadcast the Israeli point of view. To ensure this, Israeli TV and radio stations should set up Arabic broadcasts, train spokespersons and commentators in Arabic, and shift the hours of Arabic broadcasts to the night hours.