The war Israel isn’t winning (part 2)

At the April leadership conference of the Jewish National Fund, conference president Dr. Alexander Mashkevitch announced his intention to establish a pro-Israeli TV channel along the lines of international news channels such as Al-Jazeera and the BBC.

Mashkevitch, a Kazakh-born, Israeli-Russian billionaire, said that in the first stage, the channel will broadcast in English, French, Arabic and Spanish and will concentrate on news only. “I don’t plan to launch a propaganda channel but rather a channel that will simply tell the truth,” said Mashkevitch in an article on Y-NET, the popular Israeli website.

Absolutely nothing has come of Mashkevitch’s well-publicized statement except to put him in the temporary limelight.

Mashkevitch and numerous other Jewish oligarchs have given lip service to how crucial such a channel is to Israel’s fight against de-legitimization but have not actually gotten behind such a project.

Israel must establish a permanent international global media presence. It’s a matter of survival. The minimal cost to launch and operate a dedicated Israeli-oriented, 24-hour global news channel comparable to CNN, BBC and France 24, is at least $20 to $25 million per year. The established channels have budgets that far exceed this amount. The revenue from such a channel does not offset the expenses. Our Jewish billionaire patrons are businessmen who have not gotten to where they are by throwing money into what they somewhat unjustly perceive as a bottomless pit. If they are interested in tzedakah, contributions to a charity are tax-exempt.

A project of this magnitude must have government backing. All of the existing 24-hour global news channels are government-sponsored with the exception of genre-creator CNN, which is privately owned. For England, Russia, France and China, the cost to operate global news channels is peanuts. For Israel – with a far smaller budget, huge defense costs and a middle class restless over an unfair tax burden – this sum is vastly more significant. But a review of the national budget shows it is possible. Of the $95 billion in the 2012 national budget, $15 billion of which goes to defense, $25 million is not an overwhelming sum for a project of crucial national importance. Since this project should be the central component of Israel’s answer on the new battlefield for public image, the lion’s share of this sum could come from the defense budget. Veteran Knesset member Zvulun Orlev of the right-wing National Alliance, which never advocates for a reduction of the defense budget, recently said the importance of establishing such a channel should come at the expense of buying one less fighter jet because it is perhaps even more crucial to the survival of
the country.

The need for action is clear. Heavily funded Arab satellite news channels continue to strengthen anti-Israel perception. Al-Jazeera, inspired by the CNN model, has been emulated by other Arab platforms that package anti-Israel propaganda in sophisticated and high-quality English, French, Spanish and Russian channels.

Western channels, which pride themselves as objective, have fallen victim to two phenomena that cause them to be far from objective about Israel. An Israel-based senior producer of an international news channel recently explained the first phenomenon to me: “In conflict zones like Baghdad or the Gaza Strip, journalists depend on local ‘fixers’ and local ‘journalists’ to get their stories. These ‘fixers’ are actually players in the conflict, and they feed the journalist their propaganda. The Western journalists are not experts or experienced in the history and subtleties of the conflict and therefore cannot always be discerning. The ‘fixers’ also control access through their presence within news agencies such as Reuters, AP. …  It is here where the distortion of the narrative begins. Every media outlet from the New York Times to all of the 24-hour news channels depends heavily on news agencies. … Everyone assumes that if it is on Reuters or AP it has been properly checked and sourced.”

The second problem is that Western channels increasingly are dependent on the significant advertising revenue from the oil-rich Gulf states as advertising revenue from traditional Western sources drops. This not only funds commercials, but also programming with a subtle but pronounced bias commissioned by the Qatar Foundation, the Saudi Royal Family or the Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank and similar entities.

As I pointed out last month in part 1 of this column, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu is probably the current world leader with the best understanding of how the international media operates. From his well-planned sound bites on the international stage (“If Iran walks and talks like a duck, then it must be a nuclear duck”) to his YouTube channel, he brilliantly cultivates his global image as proven by the recent Time magazine cover story.

The need is existential, the funding feasible and the prime minister understands the need. Israel has talented and creative media professionals who could create a dynamic and attractive multi-media platform across television, internet and mobile.

So why is this not happening? Why does Israel neglect such an important issue that contributes to our growing isolation and continued de-legitimization?

The answer lies in Henry Kissinger’s famous statement that “In Israel, there is no foreign policy, only domestic politics.” In other words, the short-term needs of Israeli politicians to use the budget to influence domestic opinion and appease various groups means that a project like this is not a priority. In addition, Israeli politicians have traditionally been afraid of the media and reluctant to support any outlet that they cannot control.

Perhaps the government is waiting for a private initiative. But wealthy individual Jews are not going to undertake such a cash-intensive venture without some kind of safety net. A government safety net could be the solution. Anyone who has driven around Israel has likely traversed the north-south superhighway 6. It allows rapid access up and down the country. The tollway was built mostly by private investment with the promise that shortfalls would be made up by the government and that the government would buy it within 25 years.

This model could be emulated to incentivize private individuals to launch a high-quality global, 24-hour pro-Israel media platform. There is a precedent. There is a need. The resources exist. Can the myopic political considerations of Israel’s politicians be put aside for the sake of our future? I wish I could say I am optimistic. I have hope, but as we watch the Unity Government unravel, I can only think of the following saying from “Pirkei Avot,” (The Sayings of the Fathers): “Believe in miracles but don’t rely on them.”

Mylan Tanzer is a Portland native who moved to Israel in 1981. He was the founding CEO of the first Israeli cable and satellite sports channel. Since 2005, he has launched, managed and consulted for channels and companies in Israel and Europe. Tanzer lives in Tel Aviv with his wife and five children. He can be reached at mylantanz@gmail.com.

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